Notes on a Global Philosophical Method (2. Convergence and Synthesis)

In my first note of this series, I discussed justification for what I’ve been calling “global synthesis” in philosophical method.  In this note, I consider a few potential problems for such a system and offer some responses.  I also consider global synthesis more broadly as something that might go beyond philosophy and help us think about constructing the norms and values that guide our lives more generally.

Part of the idea behind the “global synthesis” I have been discussing is the creation of intuitions that are representative of a wide swath of human cultural experience.  In the first entry, I spoke specifically about global synthesis in philosophy, but in this note I consider it more broadly in terms of cultural intellectual foundations.  A common refrain from those who reject the need for “diversity” in philosophy or other areas of intellectual pursuit is that diversity in methodology is ultimately counterproductive.  Such people claim that we have in modern Western science, culture, and life, the tools for attaining truth, and to admit other conceptions of the world into our worldview will just wreck this successful project.  The modern scientific project is objectively the most useful one, the objection goes, and rethinking the foundations of our intellectual projects will inevitably lead us backward.  There are a number of problems with this view, only a few of which I will discuss here.

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Notes on a Global Philosophical Method (1. Intuitions and the Need for a Global Synthesis)

This is the first of a series of notes in which I try to think through the broad outline of what I’m calling “Global Synthesis” in philosophical method.  Basically, the idea is that philosophical development requires the creation of cosmopolitan philosophical theories and positions, via exposure to and understanding of a broad variety of philosophical traditions across the world and periods of history.  Ultimately, the best philosophical explanations will preserve not local, but global intuitions–where global intuitions are understood as those informed by synthesis of a variety of outlooks, cultural standpoints, and philosophical stances.  In this first note, I briefly consider the role of intuition in philosophy and the need for constructing globally informed intuitions.

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Why Be Concerned With Intellectual Diversity in Philosophy?

Much of the focus in the recent debate surrounding Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden’s New York Times piece on the lack of intellectual diversity in philosophy departments has surrounded the question of whether Non-Western philosophies are “important” or “sufficiently philosophical.” It seems to me that what is raised by these questions, and the answer to the question of whether Non-Western philosophy or intellectual diversity is necessary at all in philosophy departments, turns on our conception of what philosophy is. I suspect there is a disconnect between parties to the debate concerning the nature of philosophy. In this post I want to make my own position clear, as well as suggest (though not robustly argue) that this position is one we ought to adopt. Continue reading

An Alternative Reading of Copan Stela A, and Tianxia (天下)

There are many interesting unanswered questions about rulership in Ancient Maya thought, and I have come to appreciate the necessity of getting down-and-dirty with archaeology and epigraphy to better understand the philosophy of the Maya of the Classic period (as well as adjacent periods).  Recently I’ve been thinking in particular about Copan, and the idea of rulership as constructed by important figures there.

The glyphs on the right side of one of the famous stelae erected by the ruler Waxaklajun U’baah Kawil of the city of Xukpi (now known as Copan, in modern day Honduras) tell us some interesting facts about Classic period Maya political organization, or at least the conception of it at work in Copan.  But what exactly do they tell us? Continue reading

Why Do Americans Find Daoism/Zhuangism So Compelling as a Way of Life (and Not Confucianism)?

I’ve been teaching East Asian Philosophy this semester, and have noticed something that I’ve seen in many semesters past.  For the most part, students dislike Confucianism, but love Daoism (especially Zhuangzi).  I’ve always found this curious.  I first noticed this as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland in my first exposure to early Chinese philosophy (a story to which I’ll return in a moment).

The first early Chinese work I ever read was the Analects (I don’t remember which translation it was, probably D.C. Lau).  Early in my undergrad years, I worked at a bookstore in my hometown, and was assigned to the Religion section, which I restocked and maintained.  One of the things I loved about working at the store was that I discovered so many new books there, and during my breaks (or slow times in the store), I had the opportunity to read the books I was stocking.  I picked up a copy of the Analects on a lunch break once, thinking it looked interesting and worth a try.  I ended up being fascinated with it, and Continue reading

Reworking the Site

Hello everyone!

It’s been a while.  I’ve been in and out of a bunch of projects, and I’ve decided to slightly repurpose this blog a bit, both to reflect my current work and to allow me to have more time to post on it.  I want to keep my new ideas that are not technically “Chinese philosophy” out there in the blogosphere.  You may notice I’ve changed the subtitle from “a Chinese philosophy blog” to “a comparative philosophy blog.”  There are a few reasons for this, and some of them have to do with the work I’ve been engaged in for the past year or so, which in part explains why I’ve been less active on the blog.

While I’ve still been as busy as ever working on Chinese philosophy, I’ve also branched out into a couple of different areas.  I’ve been doing work that can perhaps more properly be described as “comparative philosophy” in a general sense.  Often we refer to work in which one engages Chinese thought with that of the west as “comparative philosophy”–and that certainly is one kind of comparative philosophy.  But I have been engaged in a different comparative project that, while interesting, important, and (I think) necessary, is also immensely ambitious and almost (just almost) more than one person can take on.  This explains some of my busyness.

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to take the comparative philosophy conversation beyond just comparisons between China and the west, or India and the west, or non-western philosophical tradition x and the west.  In addition, I gained interest in “hidden” philosophical traditions that receive hardly any attention from philosophers.  I became particularly interested in the thought of the Ancient Maya, and have been working hard recently on learning to read the classic Mayan glyphs, and learning broadly about Maya culture, literature, and thought.  While hardly anyone has previously offered an account of Maya Philosophy, I believe there is a very sophisticated system at the heart of Maya intellectual production, and I have been working on a series of articles on the Maya conceptions of personhood, time, truth, and being.  This has been taking up an enormous amount of my time, and I plan to engage in some “blogging it out” here at the newly repurposed “Unpolished Jade.”  In addition, I have been writing more on comparative Chinese-Indian thought.  I have long been interested in the engagement between Chinese and Indian philosophy, particularly non-Buddhist Indian philosophy.  This is another one of those “hidden” areas in which not much work is done (although there does seem to be an increasing interest in the area, which is fantastic!).

In addition to these comparative projects, I have also been in the middle of a long-standing project tying the history of astronomy to philosophy.  I have long been interested in ancient conceptions of and practice of astronomy.  Although most of my knowledge in this area was of astronomy in China, India, and Europe, my first encounter with Maya thought a few years ago sparked my interest in Mesoamerican astronomy in general, especially that of the ancient Maya, who had truly magnificent astronomical skills and mathematical understanding.  I moved from this to a wider consideration of astronomy in the pre-Columbian Americas.  I discovered a treasure trove of information on a variety of amazing astronomical and cosmological systems in various cultures in the Americas.  I decided to write a book on the cultural and philosophical assumptions underlying understandings of astronomy in various ancient cultures, and also the ways in which astronomy affected the way people in these cultures thought about the world.  The writing of this book took up much of my time in the last year, and since it was only peripherally related to Chinese philosophy, my thoughts on the topic as I wrote it did not make it onto this blog.

Now that I have expanded the scope of the blog, however, I will be able to include my attempts to think through all of this stuff–the projects mentioned above, and any other projects that I might come across in the future (I’m one of those people who tends to just get randomly interested in some new thing and find a way to make a new research project out of it).  The blog will still be rooted in comparative philosophy, and much of it (just because of the nature of my area and interests) will be Chinese philosophy, but expect to also see a whole lot of Mayan philosophy and Indian philosophy as well (the new header is a classic period painting of Maya scribes, by the way), along with thoughts about astronomy, its relationship to philosophy and culture, and perhaps whatever else I find interesting along the way.

I have, in the years since I started this blog, changed my views about what philosophy is, and what the comparative philosopher ought to strive for.  Here you can expect to find much more “big picture” thinking looking at a variety of philosophical traditions and schools from around the world.  In a sense, I think of my task as solving puzzles presented by multiple texts and traditions.  How, taken together, can we make sense of some of the ways humans think about fundamental philosophical questions?  What are the fundamental questions?  Are there ways in which we can develop answers to these questions through consideration of the multitude of answers in ways we could not otherwise?  There is a bit of the “perennial philosophy” in this method, but it has much more in common, I think, with the method outlined in the Han dynasty Chinese text Huainanzi.  According to the Huainanzi, at least in the way I interpret it, truth is something that obtains not within each school, teaching, or religion (the “perennial philosophy” version of religious pluralism), but instead we converge on truth through understanding the myriad schools, teachings, religions, etc.  Perhaps there is some solution to certain outstanding problems at the core of human life that we may discover through coming to understand a variety of ways of conceiving of the questions and offering answers.  And perhaps there is a proper synthesis of these views (this was just the task Liu An set for the authors of the Huainanzi in early Han China) that will give us answers ultimately more satisfying than any of those offered by individual schools, teachings, or religions alone.

I recognize this is all still very general, unrefined, and enormously ambitious.  But hey, that’s why I call this blog “Unpolished Jade”–this is where ideas begin.  It’s the threshing floor.  And of course some of this stuff will be left on the threshing floor.  And as far as the ambition of the project–well, I’ve never been a fan of “small ball” (as they say).  The tasks are enormous, and maybe I fail miserably in a number of ways.  But I’m not afraid of failure, and the game is so much more interesting (to me at least) when the scale is larger.

So I hope to have some great conversations with you all about many issues in comparative philosophy and the intellectual project in general in days to come!

Worries About Sagely “Imagination” and Regret

I’ve been returning to Steve Angle’s fantastic book Sagehood recently, especially focusing on the parts in which he discusses the problem of moral remainder and his (Neo-Confucian) notion of sagehood.  Steve takes “imagination” to be a key solution to this problem, arguing that the sage’s imagination allows him or her to envision alternative ways a supposed dilemma might be solved so as to escape “unscathed” morally.  Alternatively, the sage is able through prior imagination to avoid (as much as possible) situations in which there are genuine and inescapable moral dilemmas that necessarily result in moral remainder.

Although I think Steve is certainly right about the Neo-Confucian view and the response that rests on the notion of imagination, I am less sure that sagely imagination will actually resolve the difficulty.  This is connected to another worry I have about the issue of sagely regret (or the lack thereof, according to Steve’s reading).  I call these ‘worries’ rather than ‘objections’ because I think that what Steve says about sagely imagination is right for the most part–I just worry about the elimination of regret from the sage’s inner life.

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9th Annual Midwest Conference on Chinese Thought–Next Week

So the MCCT is finally upon us–it will be happening next week, May 10 and 11, here at the University of Dayton and up the street in Fairborn at Wright State University.  Following is a rough schedule of events and speakers.

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Call for Papers: 9th Annual Midwest Conference on Chinese Thought



Dayton, OH

May 10-11, 2013


The Midwest Conference on Chinese Thought was created to foster dialogue and interaction between scholars and students working on Chinese thought across different disciplines and through a variety of approaches. Submissions are invited for papers on any aspect of Chinese thought, as well as papers dealing with comparative issues that engage Chinese perspectives. Possible themes for submissions include: examining how recovered texts reframe familiar issues and debates in early Chinese thought; texts, movements, and figures from neglected eras and traditions; the current renaissance of philosophy and religious studies in China.

This year’s MCCT will be held on Friday, May 10 and Saturday, May 11 at the University of Dayton and Wright State University, in Dayton, OH.

To facilitate blind review, please submit abstracts of 1-2 pages in length to Patricia Johnson at by MARCH 15th.  For further inquiries about this year’s MCCT, contact Alexus McLeod at or Judson Murray at

Some Thoughts on Convention and Ritual in Xunzi

I recently returned from the 2012 AAR Annual Meeting, at which I was involved with two excellent panels, on Confucian Ethics (I chaired a session featuring three excellent papers by Cheryl Cottine, Aaron Stalnaker, and Michael Ing), and on Comparative Chinese-Indian thought (I presented a paper on a panel including fantastic papers by Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, Laurie Patton, and David Lawrence).  I presented a paper on Xunzi and the Mimamsa Sutra, and have been thinking further about this paper in the last couple of days.

Let me throw a particular issue out there that I’ve been thinking about recently, related to part of what I cover in this paper.  I considered the question of the source of ritual in Xunzi, and whether we ought to see Xunzi as endorsing a conventionalist view or a realist view of ritual.  One of my contentions in the Continue reading