Chinese Philosophy

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April 30, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

Philosophy professors in the United States have all heard of Confucius and the Daoist Laozi. Many have also heard of their approximate contemporaries in ancient China: the later Confucians Mencius and Xunzi; the easygoing skeptic Zhuangzi; Mozi, the advocate of impartial concern for everyone; and Han Feizi, the authoritarian legalist. But most of us have not read their works.

As a result, most U.S. university students are not exposed to Chinese thinkers in their philosophy classes. Looking at the course catalogs of three major universities in Los Angeles — UCLA, USC and Cal State L.A. — I find 23 philosophy department course listings that mention ancient Greek philosophy or specific ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle. Four such classes are on the fall 2015 course schedule. In contrast, neither USC nor Cal State L.A. has a single philosophy catalog listing that mentions ancient China or a specific ancient Chinese philosopher. UCLA has one listing — for a class that was last taught in 2009.

In the United States, there are about 100 doctorate-granting programs in philosophy. By my count, only seven have a permanent member of the philosophy faculty who specializes in Chinese philosophy. Ancient Chinese philosophers are more commonly taught in departments of history, religious studies, Asian studies and comparative literature than in departments of philosophy. The same is true — even more so — for Indian and other non-Western philosophers.

Our neglect of ancient Chinese philosophers in U.S. philosophy departments is partly a remnant of our European colonial past. But is it justifiable on academic grounds?

One might argue that Confucius, Laozi and others are not really philosophers; they are literary or religious figures, and their relegation to other departments is therefore appropriate.

Of course, there is no universally accepted way to distinguish philosophers from other thinkers. A narrow view — too narrow — might be this: Philosophers write carefully argued essays on topics generally considered to be philosophical, such as ethics and epistemology, and are seemingly guided less by aesthetic standards than by an interest in discovering the truth.

Even applying this restrictive standard, however, Mozi and Xunzi clearly fit the bill. They are both responsible for long, argumentative works of ethics and political philosophy. Han Feizi’s writings are similar in structure though more narrowly focused, like Machiavelli’s, on advice for achieving political power.

Although Mencius and Zhuangzi did not write in what we now think of as standard philosophical essay format, both offer persuasive arguments for positions in ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of mind and epistemology. Unconventional format should no more disqualify Mencius and Zhuangzi from counting as philosophers than it disqualifies Nietzsche and Wittgenstein in the Western tradition. Confucius and Laozi are more fragmentary and less argumentative, but many ancient Greek philosophers are even more fragmentary than Confucius and Laozi.

Nor do these philosophers rely on any narrowly religious dogma. Rather, they start from considerations that are for the most part intuitive and widely acceptable, even in the contemporary West. Mencius, for instance, builds a picture of moral emotions from observations about our sympathetic reactions to children in danger and our hatred of being treated disrespectfully.

And despite the fact that their works are more often taught in religious studies than in philosophy departments, their religious commitments are less obtrusive and dogmatic than the religious commitments of many European philosophers. Descartes, for one, famously relies on a Christian-influenced proof of God to establish that his senses are trustworthy and that the external world exists.

Someone intent on justifying the exclusion of these ancient Chinese philosophers might, alternatively, argue that they’re insufficiently important to warrant broader attention — that their philosophical work simply isn’t very good or very influential.

That’s not right either. Mencius’ and Xunzi’s views of moral psychology are as interesting as any in the Western philosophical tradition, and their debate about whether human nature is good or bad is considerably more sophisticated than the famous corresponding debate between Hobbes and Rousseau. For example, Hobbes and Rousseau appear to infer our “nature” from dubious thought experiments about what people would be like absent any social structures, while Mencius and Xunzi are more psychologically realistic.

Considered globally, moreover, Confucius, Laozi and, to a lesser extent, the other major ancient Chinese philosophers have been enormously influential — probably more influential in East Asia than Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have been in the West. Even in the United States, among the general population, Confucius and Laozi are better known and more broadly discussed than any but a handful of European philosophers.

Still, one might suggest that the proper measure of historical importance is those philosophers’ influence on philosophy as an academic discipline in the U.S. True enough, that influence is slight. To endorse that line of reasoning, however, requires defending historical accident.

Because the dominant academic culture in the U.S. traces back to Europe, the ancient Chinese philosophers were not taught to, and thus not read by, the succeeding generations. Ignorance thus apparently justifies ignorance: Because we don’t know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy. Because they have little impact on our philosophy, we believe we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.

In our diverse, globally influenced country, such narrow-mindedness shouldn’t fly.

Adapted from latimes.

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This was an article on Philosophy.

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Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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25 Comments


  1. MIP: Chinese philosophers = influential + more well known; colonial past –> limit exposure + we remain ignorant

    Reply

  2. Chinese philosophers are not well studied/ignored in US due to our European past. The justification for not including them is not valid. They are indeed influential and should be taught.

    Reply

  3. Chinese works not read, Chinese philosophers ignored, studied in other departments, Chinese philosophers influential

    Reply

  4. MI: Author argue former recognition of Chinese philosophers, US philosophy education neglects Chinese philosophers

    Reply

  5. The author states that Chinese philosophy and importantly the Chinese philosophers that contributed to history are continually neglected and disregarded in American Universities. In a broader sense, Western and European influence on American knowledge and teaching in universities is of comparable intellect and importance to culture to learn in universities today.

    Reply

  6. students /=/ exposed to Chinese Philosophy, Western Philosophy = Narrow, Chinese Phil = influential and Author sees that Chinese Phil = important and we are ignorant to it’s influence.

    Reply

  7. MIP: Chinese philosophy neglected in recent study/education

    Reply

  8. U.S academy = neglect Chinese Philosophy due to European colonial past = wrong. Chinese Philosophy = influential

    Reply

  9. Chinese phil= understudied/ not read in US= ignorance (AU) + taught more in humanities>philosophy classes

    Reply

  10. CP=not read +lacks faculty + not dependent on religion

    (i.e. not acknowledges even tho they should be)

    Reply

  11. MI: we remain ingnorant of CP in US for poor reasons=should study CP
    tone: + for CP

    Reply

  12. MI1: we ignore chinese philosophers
    MI2: chinese philosophers have produced good work

    Reply

    1. M2 isn’t encompassing enough. You need to tie it in with the fact that they deserve more recognition in Academia. It was sort of the premise in the first part of the article.

      Reply

  13. СР=ignored in US education. CH=worth to be studied at US universities.

    Reply

  14. Chinese philosophy is ignorantly omitted from U.S. education because of its European descended system. The most renowned Chinese philosophers have had a profound impact on Asia compared to the impact that ancient Greek philosophers have had on the West. In light of this, there is no fair argument why philosophers from China such as Confucius, Lao, etc… are not included in the department of philosophy curriculum of universities in the United States. Only ignorance, supporting ignorance.

    Reply

  15. The author is commenting on how the US education system has failed to include Ancient Chinese Philosophers into their philosophy departments and education. He understands that we come from European roots, but in today’s age we should be more knowledgable in these philosophies, and understand the great impact they have made in the world, even more if an impact than Western Philosophy.

    Reply

  16. MIP: chinese philosophy not studied + should be; tone = neutral

    Reply

  17. American philosophy should include Chinese philosophers but does not incorporate them d/t pre-existing European content

    Reply

  18. Chinese Philosophers deserve recognition like Western Philosophers because they offer the same benefits and learning opportunities as WP. Doing otherwise puts u in a positive feed back loop of justified ignorance.

    Reply

  19. Chinese philosophers are legitimate and influential, but due to our European roots and ignorance we don’t study or give credit

    Reply

  20. The works of European philosophers are more popular in the States as compared to Chinese philosophers
    Asian philosophy is more common in history and religious studies but is neglected in philosophical studies due to America’s European colonial past
    However, some Asian philosophers do meet the argumentative and ethics criteria for their work to be considered philosophical
    The works of these Asian philosophers are less obtrusive and dogmatic yet their works are taught in religious studies alongside European philosophers who are religiously dogmatic
    Author believes that the dominant academic culture should not be dictated by the country’s European colonial past and given that the US is globally influenced and culturally diverse, the people should strive to understand the works of other philosophers and not remain narrow-minded

    Reply

  21. This passage questions why chinese philosophers are not incorporated into US curricula when they clearly are great philosophers and potentially even better than European philosophers. The author mentions specific arguments on why chinese philosophers are great and seems to believe that the ignorance of chinese philosophy since the begininng of European academics seems to explain why we continue to be ignorant of chinese philosophy, because we just don’t know about it.

    Reply

  22. There are very little emphasis on the Chinese philosophy in college. This is because we have been focusing mostly on greek and European studies. Although, traditional academics haven’t focused much on Chinese philosophy, this doesn’t mean we should continuously ignore it. Chinese philosophy had greater influence on East Asia when compared to impacts of philosophy in European culture. Author thinks more should study chinease philosophy.

    Reply

  23. Bc of European colonial influence on U.S.’s culture, Chinese philosophy not well read in U.S. Must change this (AU)

    Reply

  24. Chinese philosophy=belong to philosophy+good+ignored.
    Ignore Chinese philosophy=narrow-mindedness=wrong

    Reply

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