It has often struck me that philosophers studying the Chinese philosophical tradition have to rethink the “comparative” project in general, which interprets Chinese thought via a theoretical apparatus largely foreign to it, especially in pre-Buddhist thought. Often the comparative project degenerates into one of trying to justify Chinese philosophy to a contemporary western audience by filtering it through interpretive schemes borrowed from “more familiar” western philosophers. Confucius is worth studying, the argument goes, as he is advocating a similar view to that of Aristotle, or Kant, etc. Or, the way to understand Confucius is through a virtue ethical apparatus mainly borrowed from Aristotle and Aquinas. Bryan Van Norden mentions the Thomist synthesis of Christian and Aristotelian thought as inspiration for this method of doing Chinese philosophy. This is, I admit, admirable–to work on such a synthesis between Chinese and western thought—but it is a poor way of doing history of philosophy. Whatever Aquinas was doing, he certainly wasn’t trying to better understand Aristotle by interpreting him with a Christian apparatus. And it would have been a mistake to do so. Synthesis can only happen after one adequately understands the pieces to be synthesized. One can’t construct a building without wood.
The Chinese tradition, I contend, is not adequately understood on its own terms (by western philosophers) to begin synthesis with western traditions, especially for those outside the field of Chinese philosophy. We do ourselves no favors by jumping into the synthesizing project in order to move out of the “Chinese philosophy ghetto” and into the good graces of the mainstream. The move amounts to moving from the ghetto into the grave. The attitude to this move will inevitably be: “if Confucius is doing Aristotelian virtue ethics and the daoists are worrying about essentialism in metaphysics and philosophy of language, why should we worry about what they had to say—after all, our own tradition has probed and continues to probe those questions. There is nothing new the Chinese philosophers have to offer us.” Of course, this complaint would be wrong-headed, but this is where the “comparative” project as often done today leads.
It reminds me of a similar situation in mainland Chinese philosophy thirty or forty or so years ago (well before my time), when all historical research was filtered through the dominant apparatus of Marxism. The categories of Marxism held ancient Chinese philosophy hostage—every ethical teaching of Confucius had to be thought of in its terms. Of course, Confucius and his students didn’t think in terms of Marxism, and so there was something ridiculous about this project. Universal schemes of interpretation which take themselves to “sum up” the acceptable moves on the philosophical playing field inevitably fail us miserably when they confront traditions and theories which appear not to respect their boundaries, or to have different ones altogether. It is when confronted with such traditions that these universal schemes attempt to force the discovered traditions into its own categories, and thereby necessarily misunderstand the tradition. Forcing classical Chinese philosophical thought (and of course this is not monolithic either!) into contemporary western categories thus is no more fruitful for understanding the tradition than was the forcing into Marxist categories.
Thus we have to struggle within the ghetto, we have to interpret, present, and understand Chinese philosophy on its own terms. This, I contend, is the correct way out of the ghetto. Through concentrating on Chinese philosophy and its uniqueness, we can show our philosophical colleagues that indeed something different is going on in Confucius than in Aristotle and Plato and Aquinas, and thereby may come to be seen by our colleagues as deserving a place at the table. Ancient Chinese philosophy will thereby become “relevant”, as offering different alternatives, a different theoretical background through which to understand problems of philosophy. To do this is going to take some measure of “growing up” on the part of philosophers working in Chinese philosophy. Much will have to be done from the outside. For example, only in history and East Asian studies departments can one gain an adequate historical understanding of the Chinese philosophical traditions not filtered through western philosophy. Where there are specialists of Chinese philosophy in the American academy, for example, they tend to be alone, and without the backing and structure that would allow them to bring students up to speed in the Chinese philosophical tradition, language, and culture. This is not so for students of ancient Greek philosophy, modern philosophy, and even medieval European philosophy (though perhaps moreso for Islamic and Jewish Arabic medieval philosophy).
We often have to make the choice between philosophy and Chinese philosophy. My own philosophical training, for example, has made me much more qualified to write on questions of contemporary analytic metaphysics and logic than it has on ancient Chinese philosophy, even though the latter is my specialization. Most of my knowledge of the Chinese philosophical tradition, thus, was self-taught. Almost all of my knowledge of the language, and all of my knowledge of the history was thus gained. The problem, of course, with such philosophical training is that we inevitably tend to think of what we know about the Chinese tradition in terms of the philosophical training we have received, which all but ignores the Chinese tradition (at most western universities, with a few exceptions—Hawaii being a notable one).
At any rate, the philosophical situation of Chinese philosophy thus requires more concentration on the uniqueness of ancient Chinese philosophy, and we must work to point out the shortcomings of some of the “comparative” understandings of the Confucian tradition, especially those using the apparatus of (Aristotelian) virtue ethics to interpret the tradition. At the same time, we must work to build up alternative interpretations of the main strands of the Confucian ethical system, which are much different from any of the western ethical systems on offer–although there are certain places of agreement and meeting.