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October 02, 2014


A history of, to be precise, Western philosophy.

I haven't spent much time around university Departments of Philosophy, but am I correct that non-Western philosophy only gets an occasional class "for completeness"? Rather than actually being integrated into the discipline as a whole?

WJ: I think that's pretty much the case, but at the University of Hong Kong (where I taught for 18 years) the Philosophy Department, though manned primarily by Westerners teaching Western philosophy, did what it could to integrate this with Eastern (= Chinese) thought as well. With what success, I was not able to judge.

One of my majors as an undergrad at Ohio Wesleyan was philosophy (the other journalism).

If I recall correctly, there were a couple of courses offered in non-Western philosophy, but they were available in another guise across the hall in the Department of Religious Studies.

I think they were confined to Buddhism and Hinduism, though maybe they covered Islam as well, I would hope.

Of course, given the context of the time period (1969-74), eastern thought found its way into philosophy class discussions, but mostly it seemed to be considered "soft" philosophy.

Alan Watt's name would come up, perhaps in a paper on Schopenhauer, for example.

I'm sure hands were raised at various times during Plato seminar with questions that started "Yes, but in the Upanishads ...."

Maybe eastern thought was considered a gateway drug to a less rigorous discipline by some of the professors, I don't know.

Dr. Ngo, what years did you teach at HK University? One of my best friends (we lost touch long ago), an American named David Anderson who I visited a couple of times there, back in the 1970's, was pursuing some graduated work in Linguistics, though I can't remember how far it went, nor can I even recall if it was at that particular university.

I guess I want to know if two had run across each other, but it occurs to me that is like the question a young man asked me in a remote barrio in Mindanao one time, "Do you know Steve from Chicago?"

"graduated" work?

Wish you could Be Here Now?

It's not what is was before.


Opinions on Eastern thought varied. For some, it was serious ram dass, but for others it was just a sexy sadie passing through.

Steve Albini?

"it" was

My blogging dyslexia is acting up again.

Perhaps the question is mainly due to the self-contained nature of Western philosophy. It is possible to discuss Western philosophy as if it had been developing in a vacuum. The only parts of Oriental cultur you must seriously discuss are the medieval Islamic philosophy, which is an offshoot of Greek philosophy, and if yo really want to be thorough in ypour discussion of pre-Socratean thought, you might want to dwell on Chaldean and Egyptian writings.

On the other hand, Indian and Chinese idea have really had so minimal impact on Occidental philosophy that they need not be discussed before you come to post-WWII discussions.

Of course, this means that your discipline is not philosophy in general but Western philosophy, but it is a field that has independent relevance anyhow.

I did not see "The Dude" Lebowski on the diagram. An egregious oversight if you ask me.

Where would you place "The Dude"?

I'll go first.

I'd draw some lines (with unaccountable gaps) between the "You've Got To Be Kidding Me, but Wow" school of facial double take praxtisioners, probably early Heraclitus, a dollop of "Are We There Yet" Xeno, The "Shit, Man, What Are You Looking At" approach of Timon of Athens, and then a drive down Highway 1 to Wittgenstein's place for some coffee as they sit in their underpants watching Derrida surf onto the beach below.

There's a knock on the door.

It's Lucretius, just back from scoring.

International philosophy?
Again, no Asians (although some Asia Minorans there).

wj: A history of, to be precise, Western philosophy.

There's something to be said for the idea that philosophy proper is only a Western practice, until recent times. Chinese and Indian traditions hold that the most important truths cannot be communicated through words or through silence; as such they don't even try to develop the sorts of logical deduction and argument that are at the core of philosophy.

Eastern* thought encompasses a number of religious, moral, and theoretical traditions, but the word "philosophy" is perhaps not strictly applicable to them.

* My usage here lumps Islamic traditions in with the West, due mostly to a shared belief in books, and the proper interpretation of the words in them, as the best source of religious truths.

I thought I wrote this comment, but I don't see it, even in the spam folder.

wj's observation is an interesting one, and Lurker and Jay's comments are interesting responses about how it might be not be even possible to have the same sort of chart for non-Western philosophy unless we changed what we think of as 'philosophy'.

Assuming that we could, I wonder if a chart of Eastern philosophy would be just a bunch of random syllables to us. I mean, even if everyone here (other than Hartmut probably) had no idea who Nigidius Figulus (what a name!) was (if I am assuming that everyone is as ignorant as me, my apologies), they could see that they were linked to Cicero and Marcus Aurelius and at least place them.

Recently had an incident that reminded me of that and will try to write that up in due course.

I have to admit that the guy was unknown to me too despite the close connection to Cicero. But the last time I read De coniuratione Catlinae is almost 25 years ago and my new studies of Latin will start just next week (I am still jobless and now in desperation* have reimmatriculated with the distant goal of becoming a chemistry/Latin teacher).

*although not yet desperate enough to apply for a job as pharmaceutical salesperson, aka chemist's coffin nail

Well, that makes me feel a bit better. In case anyone else is interested, here is a link to a brief intro (on page 21) to this 'scholar-philosopher-scientist-magician' I think I'd like that on my tombstone.

LJ, would we really have to change our understanding of "Philosophy" all that much? Even my limited reading suggests that non-Western cultures have considered things like ethics (right behavior), aesthetics (the nature of beauty), political philosophy (government), metaphysics (the nature of reality), even logic (correct reasoning). Certainly China gave rise to a lot of related works on political philosophy, for example. And every culture has some form of religion, which is to say metaphysics.

The only thing that may be in short supply elsewhere (and I don't have the breadth of background to know) is actual schools of philosophical thought which involve multiple individual thinkers and which conflict in their views.


If we are honest, we need to group Islamic philosophy (including Arabic-writing Jews as Avicenna) as a part of Western tradition. There are ample reasons to do this, not just shared ideas about holy books.

Islamic philosophical tradition builds on the same Greek heritage as our own, and our own tradition actually is an heir to the medieval Islamic writers in many issues. First of all, most Greek philosophical works that were preserved to the early humanists were actually transmitted through Arabic world. Second, many of the ideas developed there were similarly transmitted. Third, the Islamic philosophers consciously self-identified with the Greek tradition.

Most importantly, however, we share the concept of secular philosophy. We believe that there is a field of scholarship which studies cosmology, onthology, ethics, society, language and nature in a rational manner, without resorting to myths or tradition. This work is neither an act of worship nor a function of government, but pursuit of knowledge for its inherent value. And we recognize that there are separate fields of religion and government that may interact with philosophy but occupy ultimately different, more practical spheres of life. (Here, please note, I use "philosophy" in its meaning "anything but medicine, law and theology", thus encompassing both letters and sciences.)

I am really not acquainted well enough with Oriental philosophy to claim that they lack this concept, but I am not familiar with anything that would resemble it.

Certainly Confucianism - much more a philosophy than a "religion," at least as we commonly understand the latter term - has had "schools" of thought that have contested for centuries questions as convoluted (and bitter?) as any in Western philosophy. Don't know the details, but I know that when one is, for example, talking about overseas influences thereof, it matters whether you are trying to go back to Confucius or to Neo-Confucianism, which arose more than a thousand years later, IIRC. Heavy into ethics and political philosophy, not so much into metaphysics, is my understanding, but it's nonsense to say it's not "Philosophy" just because it doesn't fit neatly in our Western chart.

I can't really answer that because I don't know enough about Eastern philosophy. However, the point that 'philosophy' as it is conceived in the West doesn't really exist in the East is something that rings true for me, if only in my gut rather than any sort of way that I can put into words. Lurker's discussion of Islamic tradition is, I think, separate (and it is probably only because we have this notion of Near East and Far East that we may think of them as being together) and I am thinking of how one gains entry into Chinese philosophy.

My impression is that in the areas you list, in the sense of deciding what is good and bad, be it actions(ethics) or things to appreciate(aesthetics), seems to be less proposing different frameworks and more interpreting basically what a few philosophers (primarily Confucius and Mencius) said. The fact that Chinese does not have a word for 'Confucianism' underlines that.

Something similar goes for political philosophy, and if you think about what is happening in Hong Kong as a question of political philosophy, there is really not, at least as I can see, any particular school of philosophy that is in opposition to the basic confucianist base that the government (both HK and Mainland) are presenting, where as if you think of political philosophy in the west, ideas of Locke, Rousseau all the way to Marx are still fighting it out in many ways. There is also a notion there that I find problematic when talking about this, in terms of historical progress, because from one point of view, one could suggest that the West is more advanced that the East because these questions have been aired out for the past couple of centuries whereas they have never been even asked. I generally reject that idea, but there are two ways to argue, one would be to point to a similar parallel structure for the East as is here for the West, but I don't know if one exists, or to argue that they approach it in a way that doesn't lend itself to a structured approach. I get a similar vibe when thinking about Native American 'philosophy' because my encounters and readings gives me the impression that you can't really separate out an evaluation of good and bad without some sort of social context. That probably sounds a bit strange, but I'll try and find some examples to make it clear.

On the other hand, I feel (absent anything more than the slightest glimmer of knowledge) there is probably some way to group Indian philosophy in a chart-like manner, but I don't get that feeling with Chinese "philosophy"

I should also add, if there is anyone who would like to post more extensively on this, send a message to the email under the kitty.

My impression - and IANAP - is that schools of thought arising from the subcontinent, whether Hinduism in its many variants or Buddhism or whatever, are more metaphysical, veering at times into the mystical, and hence closer to our (Western) concept of religion than "philosophy." But even if it were true to say they didn't have a developed philosophical tradition, they're not the whole Asian, much less non-Western, world.

I remind myself - and not in an entirely good way - of the pundit who reportedly gave a lecture on Chinese Philosophy by looking up the encyclopedia entries on "China" and "Philosophy" and then combining them . . .

But seriously, folks, Confucianism in most of its forms was heavily "secular," in that considerations of the afterlife and mystical were put aside as unknowable and therefore irrelevant, and was concerned with many of the same issues as Western philosophy. Begin with the "rectification of names," which insists that before analyzing anything you have to call it by its proper name, and that if you do so correctness (which is more or less synonymous with virtue) will ensue.

Arguably the Chinese were more "advanced" in political philosophy than most of Western civilization, which is why they came up with, e.g., the idea of merit-based civil service examinations centuries before the West. (See also laws of avoidance - mandarins above a certain grade were not allowed to serve in their own provinces, since we know human nature will otherwise lead to incorrectness = corruption).

As late as the 18th century many European philosophers were deeply impressed with China. (See "Sinophilism.") It's only really in the 19th century, when thanks to steamships and machine guns the West was able to run roughshod over the Chinese (and everyone else) that the impression arose that we were wiser and more virtuous in every respects. Because if we beat them easily - and we did - we must be better! Case closed.

Dr ngo,

I agree with you on the merits of Chinese government and 18th century Sinophilia. In fact, the whole rococo style might be called an expression of Chinese cultural influence. Chinese or Chinese-derived motifs dominate the decorative handcrafts of the period.

Yet, while Confucianism is eminently secular, I have doubts for calling it philosophy. It is so clearly entwined into actual ideology of the gorvernment that it is difficult to distinguish philosophy from politics. Almost all political treatises in Guwen Guanzhi are drawn from actual historical events. On the other hand, it might just be my ignorance. When we think about it, most Western political philosophers have been rather active in contemporary politics, too. (Hegel and Kant being great exceptions.)

Yet secularity of Confucianism might be questioned. I've visited a state-supported museum that was a former Confucian temple. It was indeed a temple for Confucius and his main disciplines. The bald guide who sat there looked pretty priestly when the locals approached him to buy incense, which they subsequently lit in front of the statues, with great veneration. Unless I had been informed that I was in a museum owned by an atheist state, I might have thought I was in an operating temple. East Asians have a large number of atheist religions. In Hanoi, I have seen shrines where incense was burning in front of Buddha, Confucius and Ho Chi Minh simultaneously. While the scholars of each school might claim they are secular, the common people hold the founders of these schools as gods.

Lurker, it sounds like we could have a fun discussion of what constitutes a religion. In order, you understand, to decide if Confusianism is a religion or not. For example, if the ignorant of later generations venerate a philosopher as a god, does that make his work theology rather than philosophy? Does it matter if he was, himself, an outspoken atheist?

See? Fun!

I want to make clear that I'm not trying to insult non-western traditions when I suggest that "philosophy" is a uniquely western tradition. I'm merely suggesting that, to my admittedly limited knowledge, Asian and Indian traditions don't rely on the signature methods of disputation and deduction that, to me, define "philosophy" as a practice.

For example, in the philosophical tradition, the emergence of a contradiction is seen as proof that the argument that produced it is flawed. Asian and Indian traditions are far more tolerant of paradox.

I assume there are other non-western traditions of which I am wholly unaware, including but not limited to aboriginal Australian, Polynesian, sub-Saharan African, and pre-Columbian American traditions, which may or may not be properly philosophical.

Ah! Some of us have been taking "philosophy" as a field of study, while others are taking it as a methodology. That would definitely make a difference on how we see non-Western traditions.

Well, I guess it is appropriate that we have to deal with a "rectification of names" in dealing with this. My thinking is that one of the features of the chart, the distinction in the top right corner, with the 'stemming from rejection' vs. 'stemming from agreement' is not really going to happen as much and to the extent that it does in the Western Philosophical tradition. Whitehead did say that Philosophy was just a series of footnotes to Plato, but my impression is that Chinese philosophy is really a bunch of footnotes to Confucius. Though I like wj's observation, which might explain it from a different angle.

I guess it is appropriate that we have to deal with a "rectification of names" in dealing with this.


My limited reading of Kong Fuzi has him more of an outliner of conventional wisdom; more of an uber-Ben-Franklin.

But I could certainly be wrong about that. Plato and Aristotle, on the other hand, were more about metaphysics. Although there was certainly some of that Ben-Franklin-esque issuing of guidelines in what I have read of both of them.

In a book catalogue (Rowman & Littlefield) I just ran into an ad for a new book: Brahman and Dao: Comparative Studies of Indian and Chinese Philosophy and Religion, ed. Ithamar Theodor & Zhihua Yao. It quotes a blurb from a review: "China and India have the richest and most influential spiritual and philosophic traditions in Asia" [but comparative studies have been rare. Essays in this volume compare] "the two traditions in the areas of metaphysics, ethics, medicine, spirituality, language and culture."

Surely the first two of these qualify as "philosophy" UNLESS one takes the position that only one's own particular preference for a-religious analytical thinking counts as philosophy. Which would mean - looking at the chart above - that all Western philosophy for about a thousand years is disqualified, since most of it was produced not just by believers, but by actual clerics, some of whom wound up as official Saints (say hi to Thomas Aquinas).

As far as I'm concerned, claiming that Asia has no "philosophy" because what they have is not the same as what we claim - by ignoring unwelcome aspects of our own tradition - we have may not be "Orientalism" per se, but it's certainly a very close relative thereof.

A couple of blogs for those interested in taking this further

a post from Warp, Weft and Way about the Umbrella Revolution and a lot more to poke around with

This post about Philosophy's western bias is also really interesting, especially the comments. One particularly interesting observation:
There are different conceptions of philosophy, different conceptions of what problems exist and are important, and different ways of thinking through them. Oral-based philosophizing, for example, challenges us to rethink text-based philosophizing. The Big Three, no less the Big One alone, has no monopoly on philosophy. As Dewey once wrote, “Seen in the long perspective of the future, the whole of western European philosophy is a provincial episode.”

The Dewey quote, I agree with 110%, but how does one frame an oral-based philosophy in a university system?

A Language Log post about the chinese xīn 心, which seems to be at the heart of some of these problems.

And this is a blog I've been poking around, unpolished jade, but I'm hampered by, as I mentioned above, a lack of context to place things in.

I think, in contrast to dr ngo, that Asia has no "philosophy" because "philosophy" is really a manifestation of the western university system. While China had an admirable system of education, I believe that, as the book title suggests, you can't really have philosophy in a Chinese context without having religion. Yet in the West, we have been able, through a number of remarkable set of mental gymnastics, to completely separate philosophy from religion. I don't think this speaks poorly of Chinese or other philosophies, but it does say something about the construct of 'philosophy' in the Western world.

Perhaps the solution is to make philosophy more encompassing and more open and practice some verbal hygiene. This comment from the second link hones in on that.

Could you imagine an Art History department without non-Western art? A Religion department without non-Western religion? Even an English department without literature from beyond the U.K. and U.S.?

That's a telling point, but I wonder if there is a music department that has their students learn the basics of Indic and Sinic music and Philosophy strikes me a lot more like music than any other major, with the possible exception of linguistics. (Linguistics is pretty bizarre because you can have two departments labeled Linguistic departments and, depending on their orientation, can not even communicate to each other) Instead, bits of those traditions are snuck into the Western tradition, similar to Schopenhauer being inspired by Buddhism or Nietzsche speaking in aphorisms. (which always struck me as ripping off Confucius, but I don't get the ironic vibe from Confucius that I get from Nietzsche) And while I can find a book entitled 'The Philosophy of Jesus', I can't really imagine getting that as my textbook for Western Philosophy 101.

(Though I wonder if a similar poster for music would say 'History of Western Music' and if it would have jazz and rock and roll)

Again, observing that Asian (or other) philosophies do not have the kind of infrastructure of critical translations and a decent knowledge of the context they arose from should not be taken as a knock on them, but rather a view of how they are different than what we think of when we think of philosophy. So it's not claiming that Asia has no philosophy, it is just noting that it seems to be packaged in a different way from what we are used to.

Anyway, those are some random thoughts and I'm certainly not set in stone on this.

Thanks for your intervention, LJ. I feel I may have been a bit intemperate in some of my comments, and would like to back off or rephrase them, especially the imputation of "Orientalism."

Half a century ago, when I took my only formal philosophy course (101 or whatever it was) I was taught by a charismatic prof who was strongly in the camp of the language analysts (I think they're "Ordinary Language" in the chart above). One of their maxims, IIRC, was that the goal of philosophy was/should be "the elimination of metaphysics." (!) Now I was, and am, sympathetic to this approach, but I also recognize it as profoundly ahistorical, in that it attempted to excommunicate not only non-Western philosophy but much - perhaps most? - of Western philosophy as well.

It was, if you will, an act of linguistic imperialism, akin to the "No True Scotsman" argument we know from various other threads: it isn't PHILOSOPHY unless it's our kind, accept no substitutes, any so-called "philosopher" preaching (or practicing?) "ethics" isn't really a philosopher at all, but some kind of metaphysical mystic.

This perspective (to which, as I suggested, I am personally sympathetic) may well be, as LJ and others have stated or implied, unique to Western philosophy. But if we're going to take it, then let us be clear about it - clear that by "philosophy" we mean not just "as practiced in the West," but "as practiced by certain approved philosophers in the West," omitting practitioners of the intellectual equivalents of jazz and rock & roll, which includes in this case about half of our ancestors on this chart. Thomas Aquinas as well as Confucius - into the Dustbin of Philosophy!

As always, YMMV.

No worries dr ngo, it is often good to put the case strongly because Orientalism can be so pernicious.

This pdf about the state of Chinese Philosophy in US universities may be of interest. It's from 2008, and Brian Leiter, whose Philsophical Gourmet Report is the site around which a lot of the discussion centers, has had his own challenges, so you may wish to bear that in mind.

I don't think it makes sense to define "philosophy" by its subjects, because it's essentially a remainder bin of intellectual areas where inquiry has not yet yielded undisputed results. Ethics, metaphysics, epistemology and the rest of the traditional philosophical subjects aren't related in any other obvious way.

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