Guest column: Philosophy departments miss out by not including Eastern thinkers

Eric Schwitzgebel Los Angeles Times

Philosophy professors in the United States have all heard of Confucius and the Daoist Laozi. Many have also heard of their approximate contemporaries in ancient China: the later Confucians Mencius and Xunzi; the easygoing skeptic Zhuangzi; Mozi, the advocate of impartial concern for everyone; and Han Feizi, the authoritarian legalist.

But most of us have not read their works.

As a result, most United States university students are not exposed to Chinese thinkers in their philosophy classes. In the U.S., there are about 100 doctorate-granting programs in philosophy. 

By my count, only seven have a permanent member of the philosophy faculty who specializes in Chinese philosophy. Ancient Chinese philosophers are more commonly taught in departments of history, religious studies, Asian studies and comparative literature than in departments of philosophy. The same is trueeven more sofor Indian and other non-Western philosophers.

Our neglect of ancient Chinese philosophers in U.S. philosophy departments is partly a remnant of our European colonial past. But is it justifiable on academic grounds?

One might argue that Confucius, Laozi and others are not really philosophers; they are literary or religious figures, and their relegation to other departments is therefore appropriate.

Although Mencius and Zhuangzi did not write in what we now think of as standard philosophical essay format, both offer persuasive arguments for positions in ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of mind and epistemology. Unconventional format should no more disqualify Mencius and Zhuangzi from counting as philosophers than it disqualifies Nietzsche and Wittgenstein in the Western tradition. Confucius and Laozi are more fragmentary and less argumentative, but many ancient Greek philosophers are even more fragmentary than Confucius and Laozi.

Nor do these philosophers rely on any narrowly religious dogma. Rather, they start from considerations that are for the most part intuitive and widely acceptable, even in the contemporary West. Mencius, for instance, builds a picture of moral emotions from observations about our sympathetic reactions to children in danger and our hatred of being treated disrespectfully.

Someone intent on justifying the exclusion of these ancient Chinese philosophers might, alternatively, argue that they’re insufficiently important to warrant broader attentionthat their philosophical work simply isn’t very good or very influential.

That’s not right either. Mencius’ and Xunzi’s views of moral psychology are as interesting as any in the Western philosophical tradition, and their debate about whether human nature is good or bad is considerably more sophisticated than the famous corresponding debate between Hobbes and Rousseau.

For example, Hobbes and Rousseau appear to infer our “nature” from dubious thought experiments about what people would be like absent any social structures, while Mencius and Xunzi are more psychologically realistic.

Because the dominant academic culture in the U.S. traces back to Europe, the ancient Chinese philosophers were not taught to, and thus not read by, the succeeding generations. Ignorance thus apparently justifies ignorance: Because we don’t know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy. Because they have little impact on our philosophy, we believe we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.

In our diverse, globally influenced country, such narrow-mindedness shouldn’t fly.