Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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(un)clarifying Terms: “Philosophical”

In the Yijing thread of comments, astute participants have pointed out that I am not at all clear about how I construe “philosophy” and “philosophical” value. How can we judge that something has little or no philosophical value if we aren’t precise about what that means? I’m taking that as an excuse to introduce this post about the issue.

First, almost anything whatsoever could be construed philosophically and hence have philosophical value. The mindset or aims of the “construer” determine this. Anything from the Big Bang to defecation can seem interesting from the point of view of thinking philosophically about something.

That should indicate that the crux of the matter lies somewhere in a type of “point of view” or “mindset” that could be reasonably regarded as philosophical. As applied to a text, say the Yijing, I should then clarify that when I’m in my philosophical mindset, I don’t see anything very interesting in the actual semantic content of the text. I do, however, see something philosophically interesting in the way it is used and the influence it has.

So, what makes for a philosophical point of view or mindset? I almost want to say that I know when I’m in it and that’s that, but I don’t know how adequate that will sound. Any suggestions? Disagreements with my way of setting up the question?

A somewhat interesting issue at stake here is whether there is such a thing really as a distinction between Western and Eastern/Asian/non-Western philosophy, or whether instead there is just THE philosophical point of view as applied to different sets of texts and viewpoints.

February 5, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy

8 Comments

  1. I would argue a properly “philosophical” mindset is one that actively challenges comfortable or conventional understandings of concepts through either rigorous questioning or analysis (explicit or implicit) that seeks to lead to a clarification of these concepts or new insight into the agents which propose or use them.

    Thus construed, the Yijing could only be “philosophical” if its semantic content challenged its reader in such a way as to lead the reader to engage in “dialogue” with the work or to leave its pages with a different or more nuanced understanding of the concepts employed by that reader. I’m not certain that the Yijing does this for me when I read it. To be philosophical is to be reflective or to cause reflection in another.

    I’m not wedded to this definition. Just a suggestion.

    Comment by Thomas J Wood | February 5, 2008

  2. If it’s a mindset, I’d want to distinguish between (a) texts (or anything else) that we can think about productively when in a philosophical mindset, and (b) texts that were written from that mindset. It’s only in the first sense that maybe anything can be philosophically interesting. (And what I missed most in the Yijing thread was any suggestion that the Yijing is philosophical in the second sense.)

    Comment by Dan Robins | February 5, 2008

  3. If there is enough debate about an issue, the subject can go from trivial to important in a matter of minutes. When people show interest in a subject, people begin to respect it more because it obviously has some value to someone’s life. I think this idea reflects the subject of philosophy. If we all did not sit around and “think” and “analyze” about problems such as “why are we here?” or “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around does it really make a sound?”, then we would be unhappy with life. We would think it truely was meaningless to be on earth because if no one cares why we are here then perhaps there is no purpose for us to be here. Critically analyzing subjects and theories help us to identify with people based on shared understandings. I believe philosophy has a huge part in creating or destroying bonds with people, which makes for an interesting world. If nobody cared or showed passion about subjects, the world would be a boring place. An apathetic existence is less then ideal, to say the least.

    Comment by shannon1987 | February 5, 2008

  4. I want to address something from your last paragraph: I think that philosophy is philosophy, be it East or West, North or South. However, Western philosophy, as practiced, including its choice or range of topics, its canonical histories, its perception of non-Western philosophy, and so on, remains in many respects Eurocentric or at least disturbingly parochial and provincial if not neo-colonialist in orientation. Look, for instance, at many of the entries from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Sure, they have entries related to non-Western philosophies (although Indic traditions remain conspicuously absent), but look at specific topics having to do with, say, epistemology, personal identity, or philosophy of religion: almost without exception these subjects are covered in a manner that reveals an appalling and inexcusable ignorance of non-Western traditions. I’ve corresponded with not a few of the SEP authors and they invariably inform me that they know little or nothing about the relevant non-Western philosophical material (and of course that fact is not their fault but a consequence of professional training and socialization into the larger norms of the discipline). Still, there’s frequently no avowal to that effect in the entry and the entries proceed as if these non-Western philosophies simply do not exist or have nothing of relevance to say on the subject. I could rant and rave about this, but that would run counter to a philosophical temperament, so I won’t. Instead, read folks like Feyerabend; or Stephen Phillips at the University of Texas, Austin, or the late Ninian Smart; or books by Oliver Leaman, or Jonardon Ganeri, or Fred Dallmayr, or Thomas McEvilley, or J.J. Clarke; or recent stuff from Amartya Sen or Richard Sorabji; or consider the following from A.J. Mandt:

    “The exclusion of the great intellectual traditions of Asia from the realm of ‘philosophy’ remains, and one can hear these systems of thought dismissed as ‘merely religion’ by philosophers perfectly ignorant of them. In such circles, philosophers interested in ‘oriental philosophy’ are themselves suspect.”

    So, while the aforementioned authors may represent a turning of the tide, suffice to say we have a long way to go before philosophical perspectives and traditions of non-Western provenance are accorded a proper hearing in the halls of professional philosophy in a manner that puts them on equal footing with their Western counterparts.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 5, 2008

  5. This in general is a very tough question. The nature of Philosophy is that of which that can be tide to many if not all topics of life. Thinking through the process of analysis leads the knowledge and awareness. Take a second to pause and think. In today’s society, where everything is fast-paced, productivity is accessed by how well can one multi-task. In today’s society, your success in life is measure by how much money you have in the bank account.
    What if everyone, at all times, would walk around in a philosophical state of thinking? Would the world be a better place? What if everyone one was a philosopher? Could this be possible? Why or why not? People learned through experience and reflection. One cannot be taught to think in a certain way, until there are capable to be objective and view things from all different angles.

    Comment by Jason D. | February 6, 2008

  6. I think I basically agree with Dan, Manyul, and probably a few others. There’s nothing particularly philosophical about the mindset from which the Yijing was written, except in the accidental way in which most non-trivial discourses can be philosophical. So it’s not a philosophical text in Dan’s sense (b). But it is more amenable to philosophical reflection than most texts, and, of course, no one who studies the history of Chinese thought should omit it.

    Comment by Justin Tiwald | February 6, 2008

  7. I’m late to the party and now realize that my post in the Yijing thread offers a distinction that maps onto Dan’s (post 2 above).

    There’s been much discussion among colleagues in China and elsewhere in recent years over whether “China has philosophy” or whether what we call “Chinese philosophy” is “philosophy.” (In my view, most of the discussion conflates the role of philosophy in the West in various ancient eras with its role since Kant.) I think a more meaningful question is that suggested by Dan’s sense (a): Are there texts that provide plenty of material that we can think about productively in what we deem a philosophical style? The answer is obviously yes.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | February 6, 2008

  8. I agree with Patrick…philosophy is philosophy, regardless of the part of the world it is practiced in. In simple terms, philosophy can be thought of as a search of wisdom or understanding. Or, more complexly, the core of what is. Nonetheless, philosophy can be applied to everything so long as a person searches for its true meaning, its core. Different people have different ways of approaching philosophy, which lends itself to the distinction between Western philosophy and Eastern/Asian/Non-Western philosophy. The characteristics that distinguish one philosopher’s approach from another’s approach are minute and insignificant because ultimately, each philosopher is pursuing the same idea. What makes a philosophical point of view, you ask? I believe inquiry does just that. Furthermore, a desire to know what lies at the core of a certain object, idea, or human, or, rather, a curiousity makes for a philosophical point of view. It makes no difference whether the idea is accepted by others; it is a point of view that a person has formulated about a certain thing in pursuit of the philosophy of said thing. In fact, as humans, I think we have innate need to form philosophical points of view. We like to discuss, analyze, project; these are all in our very nature. And, it is up to us to practice this innate features.

    Comment by Christine Ruane | February 25, 2008


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