The Dangers of and the Promise of "Comparative Philosophy"

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.

2 responses to “The Dangers of and the Promise of "Comparative Philosophy"

  1. Alex,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog! I’ve lurked on your before. Funny that I developed such an interest in Confucianism since _leaving_ UConn — given Joel’s interests in it. Actually, not that surprising. At the time, he taught nothing on Chinese philosophy. I didn’t even realize until my last year that he had any interests in it! My interest in Confucianism was spurred by a UConn talk by Chengyang Li (an old Joel student, no?) who writes on Confucianism and Feminist Care Ethics.

    On your post — I must admit, I’m one of the above mentioned folks! Much of my current research work is focused on understanding Confucianism as a virtue ethical system. A few points about this, though:

    1. I don’t think that Confucianism needs to be pulled from any gutter and mainstreamed (I appreciate the concern about this — Chad Hansen has written forcefully on this on theme, but specifically with respect to trying to “mainstream” Confucianism within the subject of human rights).

    This may be the motives of some (I suspect that you are right), but they aren’t mine. I just see it as virtue ethical — if anything, I am amazed at some of the similarities of ancient systems, regardless of where on the globe they emerged. I think that just as much as we need to be careful about trying to force Confucius through the Western meat grinder, we also should be careful about trying hard to assure that he remains entirely _different_ from the Western canon as well.

    2. I don’t think VE is necessarily Aristotelian in form. This is an argument I’ve had recently with Rosemont and Ames. They graciously allowed me to recently read a draft of a manuscript they were working on (upcoming book) which discussed this, and I criticized them on this claim, namely that (a) Confucianism is not a VE (they call it a “role ethic”), and (b) that VE is necessarily Aristotelian (in the midst of an article on this at the moment). If anything, I’d argue that Confucius “owns” the theory — so Aristotelians should be figuring out whether what _they_ are doing is virtue ethical in character, given its basic roots in Confucianism. Basically, I see VE as much wider than A, and so A’s version is just one type of VE, where C’s version is another.

    See you in the virtual world!

    P.S. Aren’t you guys holding an ‘invite only’ conference on Chinese thought? Chong told me about this over the summer when we were in China.

  2. Hi Chris–
    thanks for your comments!

    I concede the point on similarities between Confucianism and virtue ethics. There are certainly similarities even between Confucius and Aristotle which are noteworthy. I think some interpreters, however (mainly Van Norden and Ivanhoe) overstate the case about the similarity. At the same time, I think the project of virtue ethicizing Confucianism has its merits, just not as a historical program. I should probably explain–my own interpretation takes Confucius as something like a communitarian and consequentialist, after the thriving society, which I take to be close to ren (humanity). I read Confucius as having a notion of the community rather than the individual as the bearer of moral value–persons, as such, cannot be appraised in the same way as the community, but only derivatively insofar as they play certain roles in the thriving (or broken) community.

    Much (though not all) of the Confucian ethical terminology, thus, I take to be “irreducibly social”, a term Ames and Rosemont also use. My view is fairly close to theirs on this.

    I agree with you however that they go too far in their claims of the drastic separability of the Chinese tradition in general from the western philosophical tradition.

    I also think you’re right that the Aristotelian strain of VE is not the only kind of VE. However, it seems to me that many of the contemporary theories that take themselves to be championing a kind of virtue ethics are heavily influenced by and often use the terminology of Aristotelian ethics (although perhaps they don’t all read Aristotle correctly nor are they all necessarily concerned with correctly interpreting Aristotle). Maybe we could create a Confucian strain of virtue ethics, but this would (on my interpretation of Confucius, at least) would look different enough from the Aristotelian strain as to make it odd that the two should be thought of as strains of the the broad ethical theory. Van Norden talks about “virtue” as a thin concept which can accomodate both Confucian and Aristotelian versions, but I think to connect the two would require a concept of virtue so thin that it would lose any possible meaning. ‘Virtue’ in this sense would be far too thin to do any work. Of course, this again turns on my interpretation of Confucius as a communitarian and (something like) a consequentialist. Of course, Joel just pointed out the other day that there are a couple of interpretations of Aristotle that take him to be a consequentialist, which may make the connection closer even on my own interpretation.

    I realize that I bear the brunt of the burden of proof, however, since my own view is fairly different from many of the western interpretations. Interestingly enough, however, my own interpretation, although unorthodox among western interpreters, seems to enjoy more support in Chinese sources. Of course, this does not constitute an argument for it, given that the modern Chinese context does not give one any more priveleged access to the thought of Confucius than the western sinologist or philosopher’s context. It just shows at least I’m not completely alone.

    Also–yes–we’re working hard on getting a conference organized. It’s tough, as everyone is into their own projects (I think we’re all working on dissertations), but it’s coming together slowly, I think. We’re aiming for Spring ’09. I’m not even sure if I’ll still be around then.

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