Why Study Chinese Philosophy?

Plato, Confucius and Aristotle. Ancient Greek philosophy is widely taught in American universities, but classes in Chinese philosophy are few and far between. Public domain

By Dr. Bryan W. Van Norden / 07.19.2017
Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor of Philosophy
Yale-NUS College

Part of what U.S. diplomats and informed citizens need to know is the basic historical background to contemporary China. However, as a scholar of Chinese philosophy, I believe it’s at least as important to understand how China thinks.

Unfortunately, very few universities in the United States teach traditional Chinese philosophies such as Confucianism or Daoism. Why not? And why should we care?

Why study Chinese philosophy?

There are at least three reasons that the lack of Chinese philosophy instruction in U.S. universities is problematic.

First, China is an increasingly important world power, both economically and geopolitically – and traditional philosophy is of continuing relevance in China. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly praised Confucius, the influential Chinese philosopher who lived around 500 B.C.

Like the Buddha, Jesus and Socrates, Confucius has been variously interpreted – sometimes idolized and other times demonized. At the beginning of the 20th century, some Chinese modernizers claimed that Confucianism was authoritarian and dogmatic at its core. Other thinkers have suggested that Confucianism provides a meritocratic alternative that is arguably superior to Western liberal democracy.

Second, Chinese philosophy has much to offer simply as philosophy. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia expressed a common misconception about Chinese philosophy, dismissing it as the “mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.” In reality, Chinese philosophy is rich in persuasive argumentation and careful analysis.

For example, Georgetown professor Erin Cline has shown how Confucian ethics can provide a deeper understanding of ethical issues regarding the family and can even inform policy recommendations. Confucians emphasize both the role of parents in nurturing children and the responsibility of government to create environments in which families can flourish. Cline demonstrates that practical initiatives like the Nurse-Family Partnership help to realize both goals.

Chinese philosophers like Confucius have much to teach us. So why are they being ignored in many American universities? Bridget Coila

The third reason that it’s important to add Chinese philosophy to the curriculum has to do with the need for cultural diversity. As two philosophers pointed out in a Los Angeles Times op-ed:

…academic philosophy in the United States has a diversity problem. …Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents receiving philosophy Ph.D.‘s in this country, 86 percent are non-Hispanic white.

Both my own experience and that of many of my colleagues suggest that part of the reason for this is that students of color are confronted with a curriculum that appears to be a temple to the achievements of white men. We need to expand the philosophical curriculum to include not only Chinese philosophy, but also the other less commonly taught philosophies, including Africana, feminist, indigenous American, Islamic, Latin American and South Asian philosophies.

Just how bad is the situation?

Most philosophy departments seem unwilling to admit there’s philosophy outside of the European tradition that’s worth studying.

Among the top 50 philosophy departments in the U.S. that grant a Ph.D., only six (by my reckoning) have a member of their regular faculty who teaches Chinese philosophy: CUNY Graduate CenterDuke UniversityUniversity of California at BerkeleyUniversity of California at RiversideUniversity of Connecticut and University of Michigan.

Parmenides (center) and Heraclitus (right) are relatively obscure Greek philosophers, but their disagreement on the changing nature of the universe is still widely taught in the U.S. Raphael via Steven Zuker

In contrast, every one of the top 50 schools has at least one regular member of the philosophy department who can lecture competently on Parmenides, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. His only surviving work is a poem filled with cryptic utterances like: “for not to be said and not to be thought / is it that it is not.” Is this really more profound than the sum total of Chinese philosophy?

I was recently part of a panel at a major academic conference that was specifically advertised as an opportunity for nonspecialists to learn about Chinese philosophy. While other sessions at the conference had packed rooms, we lectured to an audience of fewer than a dozen people.

Empty room at the start of an American Philosophical Association panel on Chinese philosophy on Jan. 6, 2016. Bryan W. Van Norden

In contrast, at Chinese universities, both Western and traditional Chinese philosophy are routinely taught. China is also heavily investing in higher education, while the Trump administration hopes to slash funding for education. I expect that China understands the U.S. better than we understand it.

What does the future hold?

At the beginning of this article, I cited some reasons that China is increasingly important on the world stage. Here’s one more: China is currently starting upon one of the most ambitious building projects in all of human history, the One Belt, One Road initiative. A modern version of the ancient Silk Road, it will expand and solidify Chinese economic and political power across all of Eurasia.

Can the U.S. really afford not to understand this country? As Confucius said,

“Do not worry that others fail to understand you; worry that you fail to understand others.”