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!

2 responses to “Reworking the Site

  1. Very interesting indeed! I’m looking forward to hearing more about this. Right now I’m intrigued by the statement that you’ve changed your view of what philosophy is. I’d love to hear what you now think it is.

    All best,

  2. Hi Bill-

    I think my conception of philosophy has changed mainly in the ways I conceive of philosophical development, which has been strongly influenced by the Huainanzi (and maybe the Zhuangzi, but more HNZ). I’m much more interested now in the project of *synthesis* (if possible) of different systems and schools than that of discovering the “right” answer to particular philosophical questions through argument or conceptual analysis. I still think all of this is important and useful, but I’m more inclined to leave competing positions beside one another as possibilities rather than squaring them off against one another. I take it this was the attempt of the Huainanzi–to make sense of the various schools as all proper ways of seeing the world from *some* perspective, and the task was then to try to make sense of this. In the case of Huainanzi, it was through the 本末 theory and the idea of the ruler’s ability to use the various teachings, texts, and scholars at the necessary time and in the necessary place. But of course this isn’t the only way one might make sense of a synthesis. Of course, I still think there are certain positions that will turn out to be simply *wrong*, and I have some work to do to completely make sense of why this should be –likely having something to do with perspective (in the Zhuangist sense). My conception of my own philosophical project, I guess, is to try to fit together the puzzle pieces of a variety of disparate schools and traditions in Europe, China, India, Mesoamerica, and elsewhere. This is part of the reason I’ve been doing less work recently on specific texts or issues in the Chinese tradition, and more widely comparative work

    This actually makes me think of the issue of comparative philosophy in general. Much of what we call “comparative philosophy” is still very specialized in a particular area–so we have scholars of Chinese philosophy engaging in comparative studies with western philosophy, for example. This is certainly an important project (I’ve engaged in it myself), but there is relatively little (as far as I can tell) of the kind of comparative philosophy that looks to draw on a multitude of traditions to offer a robust picture of some fundamental question, concept, etc. Part of the reason for that, of course, might be that it’s hard to be an expert in a multitude of different traditions, and the more one tries to learn, the greater the risk one runs of simply becoming a dilettante in each tradition. But I think it’s a risk worth taking, for a few reasons. First, the comparative project I’m conceiving of requires a different kind of expertise (in the act of synthesis, “putting together the puzzle”), and one will necessarily have to rely on the interpretations of others of particular traditions. My own understanding of Ancient Maya thought (and Aztec thought), for example, is dependent on what I’m trusting is the best available scholarship of Mayanists. Their interpretations might be wrong, but I have to rely on them because I have no expertise in the area to challenge them. But this is fine–I don’t need to do the job of the comparative philosopher (in my sense) *and* the Mayanist. We can work together. The same holds with scholars of Indian, Western, and other traditions of philosophy. Since I started as a scholar of Chinese philosophy (and still am of course–even while I work on this more ambitious comparative project, I haven’t given up Chinese philosophy scholarship), I can rely on my own interpretations of the various texts of that tradition.

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