Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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APA Newsletter on the State of the Field

The newsletter (previewed before on this blog) on the state of the field of Chinese philosophy–particularly with respect to Ph.D. programs–has now been published. It contains opinions and information that should be of interest to anyone interested in joining the field or already in the field. It is edited by Amy Olberding. Contributors are Stephen Angle, Roger Ames, Donald Munro, Justin Tiwald, Bryan Van Norden, David Wong, and myself. There are also two contributions from department chairs giving their perspectives on the issues, Hugh Benson of Oklahoma and Leslie Francis of Utah.

It is available here in html and here as a PDF. Comments are open; a good discussion of the various views expressed in the newsletter should be interesting.

October 8, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy


  1. Thanks for linking this, Manyul!

    To get the ball rolling, I’ll just underscore a couple of points that came out in many of the contributions.

    First, there’s really no substitute for reading the Chinese philosophical texts in classical Chinese. This is truer of the Chinese works than of Greek or German ones. I assume most readers of this blog already know this, but it’s worth emphasizing.

    Second, the lack of pluralism in the field should be cause for alarm, even for those who think that the dominant approach to the tradition is the correct one. There are number of reasons for this, but two stand out in particular: One is that the dominant approach might be wrong. The other is that even true philosophical beliefs should be tested by strong and capable critics, lest they become “dead truths” (apologies to J.S. Mill).

    Comment by Justin Tiwald | October 9, 2008

  2. Hey Justin. I also noticed some of the contributions arguing something stronger, namely, that philosophical progress or improvement, ostensibly in the West, *requires* engagement with non-Western traditions. At least I thought Angle, Van Norden, and possibly you, were hinting strongly at this. That seems like a pretty strong claim, so I wonder exactly if that is what people meant to argue, and what the reasons would be for it.

    Comment by Manyul Im | October 9, 2008

  3. I just want to make it clear that I agree completely about reading classical Chinese texts in the original Chinese. Because my classical Chinese is too weak to allow me to do anything but struggle through brief passages with lots of help from Mathews and existing translations, I do not feel competent to supervise a dissertation in classical Chinese philosophy by myself. With Lisa Raphals’ help (and she is a “co-operating” member of the Philosophy Department here so she can supervise Philosophy dissertations), I think UCR could take on a dissertation in classical Chinese philosophy, with me holding the student to the standards of analytic philosophy and Lisa doing the language training and Sinology — but I agree it would be better if these two capacities were combined in a single individual!

    Comment by Eric Schwitzgebel | October 9, 2008

  4. I hope this doesn’t constitute changing the subject slightly, but it occurred to me in compiling the job posting data that in this there may be some incentive to think of AOC’s in the field as part of the wider discussion, particularly as it bears on incentives for departments without specialists to begin hiring in the area. The job postings appear to tilt toward “teaching needs” or other expressed interest that is milder than a desire for a specialist. A couple of things occur to me. 1) Mid-level departments that can provide students who wish AOS’s outside Chinese philosophy with an AOC in it may give them some edge on these sorts of jobs. I.e., if one is in analytic epistemology, an AOC in Chinese philosophy could be a way to distinguish oneself from the pack on the market, particularly for teaching jobs. 2) This may provide a rather prudential case for mid-level PhD granting departments to hire the specialists who could aid in the development of such AOC’s. Such departments worry much more about placement and this may represent a viable strategy for improving the “marketability” of students. This in turn would open such programs to AOS-seeking students as well. I suppose as a kind of prior question, I’m also interested to know what others make more generally of the job market data.

    I have a second question related to Justin’s earlier comment. What *is* the “dominant approach” these days? Certainly UH is producing many of the PhD’s but it does not seem to me that, as an intellectual matter, a) this has yielded a unitary approach among those emerging from that program or, most importantly, b) that this approach prevails in the scholarship. Such is not to underestimate the pronounced disadvantages to the field that result from so few training programs, but merely to ask whether this is having the sort of intellectual effect some seem to see. Perhaps the worry is more future-directed and assumes that an intellectual effect will more dramatically emerge as those presently publishing in the “non-dominant” vein age and are not replaced. Nonetheless, is there some need to conceptually separate the worry that we risk stultifying into a singular doctrinaire approach from other, perhaps more immediate, worries? What occurs to me is simply that brute numbers will inevitably be reduced where the venues for training are reduced, that there will simply be fewer scholars, of any approach, where there are fewer places to train them. And we’re thin enough on the ground as it is. To draw this back to the job posting data, the question would be where will the people to fill these slots come from? And, will it depress interest in hiring in Chinese philosophy if positions in it are unusually difficult to fill? That’s one sort of risk. Another is simply that where there are fewer scholars, again in simple brute numbers, progress toward making the field more visible and more integrated in the wider profession will be slower. This seems to me a more immediate danger than intellectual sedimentation.

    Comment by Amy Olberding | October 9, 2008

  5. Hi Amy,

    Thanks. Those are very helpful comments. I suspect we’re largely on the same page in some respects, but it might help to say a bit about an “approach” (I’ll set aside “dominance” for another day!).

    I take an approach to include

    (a) significant philosophical or exegetical convictions (e.g., that xing 性 should be translated in a certain way),
    (b) a view about which issues are important or worthy of investigation,
    (c) the skill set that someone brings to bear on those issues,
    (d) maybe other features of one’s methodology that aren’t covered by (b) or (c)

    In light of your remarks, I agree that we shouldn’t worry about the dominance of one approach in at least one key respect–namely, insofar as an approach is represented by (a) significant philosophical convictions. It runs against the inclinations of philosophers to trumpet the same views as everyone else, and it would make our work boring and difficult to justify to our deans and provosts. So there’s not a great deal to worry about here.

    I’m also not too worried about the dominance of an approach in sense (d), in part because I think most philosophers are governed much more by (b) and (c) than by (d)–no matter what they may say. Call me a curmudgeon.

    But I do think it would be unfortunate if there were dominant approaches in senses (b) and–especially–(c). And this is a real possibility: if graduates of a particular department don’t get the skill set they need in graduate school, when will they get it? In the overwhelming majority of cases, they won’t. If you don’t study Heidegger in grad school you probably won’t ever be fluent in Heideggerean. If you don’t study contemporary metaethics in grad school you probably won’t ever be able to say with any authority how Xunzi fares against the Cornell realists.

    And it would be a real tragedy if we had a dominant approach in senses (b) and (c). It would impoverish the discourse and severely constrain our ability to reach out to the wider philosophical community. Am I wrong about this?

    Comment by Justin Tiwald | October 12, 2008

  6. Hey Manyul,

    I also noticed some of the contributions arguing something stronger, namely, that philosophical progress or improvement, ostensibly in the West, *requires* engagement with non-Western traditions. At least I thought Angle, Van Norden, and possibly you, were hinting strongly at this.

    Yeah, this is well worth exploring. My claim has less to do with progress and more to do with health. I’m suggesting that academic philosophers keep the discipline robust by engaging with movements that make lasting changes to the intellectual landscape. If philosophers had ignored evolutionary theory or Marxism they would have risked the long-term health of the profession. East Asian Buddhism and Confucianism are sure to leave a lasting mark as well, comparable at least to Marxism, if not to Christianity.

    An upshot: philosophers don’t need to wait to decide once-and-for-all whether Confucianism is deeply philosophical, just as they didn’t wait to do the same for Christianity or evolutionary theory. It is deeply philosophical, of course, but we shouldn’t get too sidetracked by this issue–especially when making our case to the skeptics.

    Comment by Justin Tiwald | October 13, 2008

  7. Justin and Amy,

    The “dominance” issue really interests me. I’ve heard and read people argue, e.g. Bryan Van Norden, that the field should lean toward some version of methodological, textual (with regard to secondary literature, perhaps even primary text), and “skill-set” conformity. Usually no one puts it in terms of canon-building or orthodoxy. In its best light, the push I think is for this:

    Threshold of Agreement (“TA” for the acronymphos, such as myself): There ought to be a minimal set of basic interpretive and methodological agreements that we can all acknowledge so that subsequent disagreement can take place against that background of agreement.

    I think the reasons usually laid out for TA are based on the quasi-Kuhnian idea that progress in a field can’t take place without some sort of dominant paradigm in place–so let’s get one going for Pete’s sake. Mixed in with that is a quasi-Davidsonian idea that we can’t really even talk sensibly to each other in the field unless we have some things we can attribute to each other that we all regard as true. I think these are, in principle, good procedural guidelines for a relatively young discipline (“Young” may sound strange, given the long history of Chinese thought, but what I mean, I suppose, is the current discipline of philosophical engagement with the material that is more “cross-tradition” based, to borrow a phrase from Steve Angle). What I fear–and I think I agree with Justin in this–is that in trying to construct TA, we can end up with something that does look or sound more like canon or orthdoxy construction. There’s a fine line here, I think, between “interested” and “disinterested” construction of TA. There is, to borrow from the literature on Rawls, a problem of just how thick or thin a veil of ignorance can be in coming to the threshold of agreement.

    I don’t know, does that put too fine a point on things?

    Comment by Manyul Im | October 15, 2008

  8. I think Manyul is making an important point, especially for a small field (in terms of the number of practitioners). Perhaps a good way to think about TA is in terms of momentum. Mill was able to say a lot of smart things in favor of pluralism because he was working in a context (as he regularly complained) that involved a significant amount of uniformity. Kuhn shows us the other side of Mill’s “partial truth”: yes, pluralism is important to keep uniformity from becoming stagnation, but too much plurality in fact leads to a different kind of shallowness and stagnation. Scholars can’t do good work unless there are enough people on the same page to have an interesting conversation and push each other with questions that the questionee recognizes as being relevant (through something like Kuhn’s shared standards). My hunch is that (and we can draw on Mill again here) as long as people working on Chinese and comparative philosophy in the West are a minority that is forced to interact in intellectually significant ways with a larger philosophical/scholarly culture, lack of pluralism within the Chinese/comparative scene is less of a danger to intellectual vitality than lack of cohesion/momentum. In this sense, Steve’s NEH seminar group this summer was a very nice experiment in taking a set of people with fairly diverse backgrounds and building some momentum on certain shared issues and texts.

    Comment by Ben Huff | October 17, 2008

  9. I agree with Justin’s original Millian response to the “dominance” question: The dominant approach can all too easily be wrong, especially in a small field prone to cross-citation by writers who belong to the same scholarly “lineage.” Cronyism is a real danger.

    TA sounds like an attempt to define truth or scholarly respectability by appeal to academic politics. Manyul, not only do I share your fear about hasty construction of an orthodoxy, I suggest that for a young field — which philosophical discourse on Chinese thought indeed is — pluralism is to be expected and desired. TA is a recipe for stagnation, not vitality.

    Philosophy in general cannot be expected to fit neatly into a Kuhnian developmental model (for that matter, nor can science). The nature of the subject is such that it often more closely resembles Kuhn’s “pre-science” than “normal science.”

    Ben, I don’t think vitality requires cohesion, or not much at least. It requires mainly the resources for interesting conversations, as you suggest. The most interesting conversations are likely to be those in which received ideas face strong challenges. For that, diversity is needed.

    I think there is, at present, no single dominant approach in Anglophone work on Chinese thought, and I hope things remain that way.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | October 19, 2008

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