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 U.S. university students are not exposed to Chinese thinkers in their philosophy classes. Looking at the course catalogs of three major universities in Los Angeles — UCLA, USC and Cal State L.A. — I find 23 philosophy department course listings that mention ancient Greek philosophy or specific ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle. Four such classes are on the fall 2015 course schedule. In contrast, neither USC nor Cal State L.A. has a single philosophy catalog listing that mentions ancient China or a specific ancient Chinese philosopher. UCLA has one listing — for a class that was last taught in 2009.
In the United States, 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 true — even more so — for 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.
Of course, there is no universally accepted way to distinguish philosophers from other thinkers. A narrow view — too narrow — might be this: Philosophers write carefully argued essays on topics generally considered to be philosophical, such as ethics and epistemology, and are seemingly guided less by aesthetic standards than by an interest in discovering the truth.
Even applying this restrictive standard, however, Mozi and Xunzi clearly fit the bill. They are both responsible for long, argumentative works of ethics and political philosophy. Han Feizi’s writings are similar in structure though more narrowly focused, like Machiavelli’s, on advice for achieving political power.
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.
And despite the fact that their works are more often taught in religious studies than in philosophy departments, their religious commitments are less obtrusive and dogmatic than the religious commitments of many European philosophers. Descartes, for one, famously relies on a Christian-influenced proof of God to establish that his senses are trustworthy and that the external world exists.
Someone intent on justifying the exclusion of these ancient Chinese philosophers might, alternatively, argue that they’re insufficiently important to warrant broader attention — that 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.
Considered globally, moreover, Confucius, Laozi and, to a lesser extent, the other major ancient Chinese philosophers have been enormously influential — probably more influential in East Asia than Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have been in the West. Even in the United States, among the general population, Confucius and Laozi are better known and more broadly discussed than any but a handful of European philosophers.
Still, one might suggest that the proper measure of historical importance is those philosophers’ influence on philosophy as an academic discipline in the U.S. True enough, that influence is slight. To endorse that line of reasoning, however, requires defending historical accident.
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.
Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside and the author of “Perplexities of Consciousness.” He blogs at the Splintered Mind.