The Chronicle Review

Chinese Philosophy Lifts Off in America

September 23, 2013

Chung-Ying Cheng, at 77 one of the elder statesman of Chinese philosophy in the United States, practically leaps from his hotel-room chair to find a note that relates to the publication he founded 40 years ago at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, the Journal of Chinese Philosophy.

He doesn't want anyone to overlook the big anniversary, to be marked in October by a double issue with more than 40 scholars participating. He'll make sure Wiley-Blackwell sends the latest copies, back issues, publicity material, whatever's needed.

The journal and its anniversary are, one might think, just one small part of the bustling world of Chinese philosophy on view all around the Ramada Hotel & Conference Center at the University at Buffalo in late July, where more than a hundred scholars are making a vibrant affair of the 18th conference of the International Society for Chinese Philosophy (ISCP).

But Cheng has a long memory. After all, he founded this organization, too.

He remembers how, in the spring of 1965, not long after he took his Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard, he was the only Chinese philosopher to attend and present a paper at the annual Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

He remembers, in that first decade after he began teaching both Western and Chinese philosophy in 1963 at Manoa—now the chief American philosophy department that trains those who do comparative East-West work, with some 40 doctoral students on hand at any time—regularly spending his own money to get the field going. With the help of one Chinese student who later mimeographed Cheng's newsletters, he sought out Sinologists to participate in the journal and association—keeping membership to philosophers then would have been a no-go proposition, given the paltry numbers—until both enterprises got off the ground.

"Honestly," Cheng says in a tone of understandable pride, determined that his achievement be recognized, "it was all me at the beginning."

But if anything seemed abundantly clear at "Chinese Philosophy and the Way of Living," the latest conference in the society's three and a half decades, it's no longer all Chung-ying Cheng when it comes to Chinese philosophy in America.

At the opening ceremony here, Jiyuan Yu, the society's ebullient 49-year-old current president, conference host, and a professor of both ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy at Buffalo, looked out upon the gathering, which included such leading American analytic thinkers as Michael Slote, of the University of Miami, and David Wong, of Duke; top specialists in Chinese philosophy like Bryan Van Norden, of Vassar; and leading scholars from China, Poland, France, Algeria, Australia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Korea, Singapore, and other countries.

As China's hard and soft power soars in almost every other dimension of political, financial, cultural, and media life, Chinese philosophy's presence in American academe is also taking off. "The exponential rise of China as an economic and political force," says Roger T. Ames, one of the top international scholars of Chinese philosophy, and a colleague of Cheng's at Manoa, "certainly means that Chinese culture will have a reach and an influence that it has not had in the past."

According to Tu Weiming, formerly Harvard-Yenching professor of Chinese history and philosophy, and since 2010 founding director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies, at Peking University, the eclipse at Harvard and many other institutions of the study of Japanese and several other languages by the study of Chinese, and the growth of Chinese-government-supported Confucius Institutes at colleges across the United States, are factors that "allow Chinese philosophy to be a more widespread subject."

Sessions related to Chinese philosophy have increased significantly at the three annual conferences (East, Central, and Pacific) of the American Philosophical Association as the number of APA member societies concerned with the subject grows. There is, for instance, a Society for Asian & Comparative Philosophy, an International Society for Comparative Studies of Chinese and Western Philosophy, and a highly active group called the Association of Chinese Philosophers in North America, an organization unthinkable when Cheng began. There's even a Midwest Conference on Chinese Thought, which has met annually for nine years, galvanized by such younger scholars as Aaron Stalnaker, of Indiana University, who entered the field years ago because he was "overwhelmed by Chinese thought and how cool it is."

The APA sessions take place on what the organization calls its Group Program, considered less prestigious by some than the Main Program, which is controlled by a discipline-wide program committee. This December, however, at the huge APA Eastern Division meeting, in Baltimore, the Main Program will include a session on virtue ethics in both Chinese and Western philosophy.

The signs of Chinese philosophy's U.S. ascent are many. The newer and broader-based journal Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy now vies with Cheng's journal and such venerable publications as Philosophy East and West (edited by Ames) for the latest scholarly work. While the philosophy job market remains challenged in all areas of the discipline, the opportunity to teach Chinese philosophy in the United States, as well as "non-Western philosophy" generally, is no longer a needle-in-a-haystack search. Nonphilosophy departments and university administrators are responding to swelling student interest in all aspects of China.

A particularly fast-rising feature of the boom is comparative work between Western philosophy and Chinese thought. Among papers at the International Society for Chinese Philosophy conference, where scholars presented in both English and Chinese, were "American Culture and Mencius's Way of Living" by Anthony Fay, of the University at Buffalo; "Socrates and the Early Confucians on the Examined Life," by Timothy Connolly, of East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania (a former Ph.D. student of Yu's); and "Skepticism, Tolerance, and the Diversity of Ways of Life in Zhuangzi and Montaigne," by Lincoln Rathnam, of the University of Toronto.

One especially active comparative area is virtue ethics, a notion in Western moral thinking rooted in Aristotle and prominently revived by the contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Among the main questions there is the degree to which Confucian ethics can, without distortion, be viewed as a form of virtue ethics. Indeed, comparative work on connections between ancient Greek philosophy and ancient Chinese philosophy is itself a burgeoning area in the field, as witnessed at August's World Congress of Philosophy, in Athens, where multiple sessions probed such links.

According to Tu, arguably the most famous exponent of Confucianism in the world and a champion of it as a "spiritual humanism" with unlimited geographical reach, "the most important reason" for the giant step taken by Chinese philosophy in the United States is "philosophical—because some of the most brilliant minds in America began to take Chinese philosophy seriously." Recent Confucian studies in English, says Tu, "are more important, more original, more sophisticated, and more forward-looking and cosmopolitan than Confucian studies in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean."

Jiyuan Yu largely agrees. He says "philosophical quality is much higher here." Some elite scholars of Chinese philosophy, he observes, go so far as to say, "I only read English work—I never read Chinese."

A clear sociological cause of the rise of Chinese philosophy in America is the larger number of Chinese philosophers in the United States than decades ago, when scholars active in Chinese philosophy were more likely to come from Taiwan than directly from the mainland. Now Chinese-born philosophers from both places, as well as scholars from Hong Kong and Singapore, flow back and forth between appointments in America and Asia. As it became easier for Chinese students and scholars to study in the United States, a fair number picked up the Ph.D. and the language ability to teach here. Because Chinese academe continues to value a quality American Ph.D. over almost any doctorate obtained in China, even from China's two most distinguished universities—Peking and Tsinghua—Chinese philosophers know that time spent in the United States is a career card playable in multiple ways back home.

Yu's own career illustrates how even Chinese-born philosophers not originally committed to their own tradition have moved toward it. Having earned his B.A. in philosophy at Shandong University, Yu, at 19, became one of the first younger Chinese scholars, in the liberalized atmosphere following China's opening to the West, to devote himself to ancient Greek philosophy. As one of three Ph.D. students in the field at Beijing's Renmin University, he worked on the multivolume Chinese translation of Aristotle's complete works. Further scholarship in ancient Greek philosophy led to stints at Pisa and Oxford, and a Ph.D. at the University of Guelph, before Buffalo hired him in 1997 exclusively as a scholar in ancient Greek philosophy.

A few years on, though, some of the department's Ph.D. students asked him to work with them on Chinese philosophy. "I said," Yu recalls, "'I am a Greek classicist.' But people kept saying, 'You must know some Chinese philosophy.' And at a certain point, I said to myself, 'Why do I keep saying I can't do it? I can do it. I'll give myself another area.'"

Then an invitation came to make a brief presentation on Chinese philosophy at an Oxford conference.

"After almost 15 years," he recalls, "I opened a book of Chinese philosophy again. I read the Analects again." That book of sayings and beliefs, attributed to Confucius, led to an intellectual revelation, Yu says—the resonances between Confucian ethics and virtue ethics in Aristotle, on whom he'd continued to work. Yu then wrote an article on the linkages, which brought him more e-mails and responses than anything else he'd written. Now he ranks among the leading scholars exploring virtue ethics in Aristotle and Confucius. Yu notes that even as his interest in Chinese philosophy became piqued back then, he was cautioned that his tenure decision at Buffalo would turn mainly on his ancient-Greek scholarship, since that was the subject area for which he'd been hired. Yu published The Structure of Being in Aristotle's Metaphysics (Kluwer, 2003) and got tenure.

Yang Xiao, the new chairman of the Kenyon College philosophy department, tells a similar tale. A student of both the pragmatist scholar Richard Bernstein and the distinguished British ethicist Bernard Williams, Xiao joined the Kenyon philosophy faculty 10 years ago to teach ethics. Today, while continuing his interests in Western philosophy, Xiao also offers an occasional course in Chinese philosophy, serves as book-review editor of the journal Dao, and works the insights of the Chinese thinker Mencius into his other courses. "Chinese philosophy will eventually become an integrated part of philosophy as a humanistic discipline," says Xiao, "even though we have yet to figure out fully how to do it. We have to try and experiment."

Many Chinese philosophers acknowledge privately that it's not just better library resources and higher scholarly standards that attract them to work in the United States, but also greater freedom of expression. The Chinese government hardly tracks obscure scholarly debates at home about passages in Mencius or Zhuangzi. In recent years, it has, in fact, supported Confucian approaches and thinking in prominent ways—for instance, through that soft-power push of Chinese culture into American academic institutions by its richly financed Confucius Institutes. But every Chinese scholar asked agreed that if a Chinese philosopher prominently and publicly pushed the line that, say, Confucianism, or any other Chinese philosophy, supports multiparty democracy and liberal values that clash with Communist Party practices, that scholar would run into trouble with the state and party supervisors, who are embedded in all Chinese academic institutions—a judgment perhaps confirmed by the current case of the economist Xia Yeliang at Peking University.

"You cannot use the philosophy to criticize Marxism," says Cheng. "That would create a lot of trouble. Particularly in this moment. because China is in a very sensitive period of transition. President Xi wants to make use of Mao. There's also the international issue about the islands" in dispute with Japan.

"The Chinese academic world is surprisingly free," says Yu. "But you cannot publish some of those things in a newspaper, or talk about them to a Western journalist."

Aside from politics, several ISCP participants explained, a variety of internal issues now exert greater force as Chinese philosophy rubs up against Western philosophy in the United States. Must one, for instance, be fluent in current Mandarin or classical Chinese in order to do Chinese philosophy? Virtue-ethicist Slote, along with David Wong the most prominent of current American analytic philosophers to begin focusing on Chinese thought, is not. Both say that they're encouraged rather than condescended to.

"They are welcoming despite my ignorance," says Slote of Chinese scholars during a break at the conference, "and I'm too old to learn Chinese."

"They're grateful," he adds, "that someone who isn't paid to study Chinese thought has, of his own free will, decided that this is important." Exploring Chinese ethics, Slote explains—its moral emphasis on empathy and "receptivity," its refusal to apotheosize rationality—showed him that "the Chinese had something to tell us that we didn't already know."

Wong, who was born in the United States and grew up in Minnesota, does not speak the language like a native, though his ability to read it is more advanced than Slote's. A Princeton Ph.D. who did his work on relativism under Gilbert Harman in that university's heyday as a hothouse of ahistorical analytic philosophy, Wong says he came to see a great deal in Chinese philosophy "that was relevant to ethical theory" even in grad school, a "way of doing moral philosophy that stayed closer to how an ethics might actually be lived." He recalls that he "didn't get a lot of encouragement" in that vein: "I more or less had to say, well, I'm going to do this."

Both men, as well as others at ISCP, rejected the notion that doing Chinese philosophy in the United States presented unique challenges different from studying other non-American traditions. Many pointed out that there's intrinsically nothing more impossible or odd about American philosophers "doing" Chinese philosophy in English than there is about discussing Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, or Kant, none of whom (it is sometimes forgotten) wrote in English.

Just as scholars of ancient Greek philosophy may argue with one another about the translation of logos (word? discourse? rational argument?) or another Greek philosophical term, so experts in Chinese philosophy wrestle over how best to render terms such as ren (benevolence? humaneness? consummate conduct?) or li (ritual? propriety?). Indeed, Chinese-philosophy experts don't even agree over whether to continue to use traditional Latinate names for Chinese thinkers rather than more phonetically accurate ones. Some, for instance, still say and write Mencius, while others speak of Meng-Zi.

Hospitality among Chinese scholars toward Western scholars who show interest in the Chinese tradition can also be explained by Chinese philosophy's so-called "legitimacy" problem. Classical Chinese philosophy, as in the work of Confucius and Mencius, often operates through storytelling, homily, and aphorism. Philosophers who insist that their discipline demands rigorous argument occasionally suggest that Chinese philosophy is better understood as "wisdom literature" or under some alternate rubric. Some philosophers born in China, and enamored of Western philosophy, share that view, approaching the Western corpus with what could be described as an inferiority complex. They're defensive about whether "philosophy"—very much a Western term drafted into Chinese—is the right label for what Chinese thinkers traditionally did.

The legitimacy problem thus feeds a prominent downside in the rise of Chinese philosophy in America—the deaf ear toward it still displayed by many departments of philosophy, especially at first-rank institutions. "Philosophy departments are generally not hospitable," says Slote.

Indeed, just as research-oriented philosophy departments in the United States have recently come under fire for being inordinately sexist and dominated by white, male philosophers pursuing esoteric epistemological projects, many specialists in Chinese philosophy make similar criticisms of the field's attitude to Chinese thought, accusing elite analytic philosophers of dismissal without understanding. They add that philosophy departments are foolishly allowing other parts of the university—such as religion and East Asian departments—to run away with burgeoning student numbers and interest.

"Philosophy is supposed to be the most universalizable mode of human thinking," says Tu, citing instances of close-mindedness he witnessed at Harvard, "but it became very, very parochial. Whereas religion, which began with a particular spiritual tradition, opened up. So the Christians love to talk with everybody, and the analytic philosophers, their religion is so parochial, they end up suffering from fundamentalism—a closed particularism."

"They will be among the last to change," says Wong of establishment philosophy departments at research institutions, "because they have their own reward structure. The top-tier research institutions are most interested in retaining their research reputations. To the extent that research is still evaluated for excellence in the traditionally defined fields, Chinese philosophy is still going to have a hard time." Wong concludes, "If traditional philosophy doesn't want to come along on this ride, too bad for it. There's light to be shed that Chinese philosophy can give."

Van Norden, a leading scholar of Chinese philosophy who just stepped down as chair of the Vassar philosophy department, is even tougher on his discipline. "To be honest, " he says, after drawing both laughs and appreciation from the conference crowd for a superb talk on the difficulties of translating classical Chinese texts, "there is a kind of racism and prejudice that's sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle. I've given presentations on Chinese thought in which people have talked about Chinese philosophy as if it were a joke, and laughed off Chinese philosophers as if they were Winnie-the-Pooh." In 2008, Van Norden published a stinging report in an APA newsletter on the failure of top analytic departments to train graduate students in Chinese philosophy. That hard-to-find training, many say, has only shrunk since two of the foremost mentors of Chinese-philosophy scholars, David Nivison, of Stanford, and P.J. Ivanhoe, of Michigan, moved on—Nivison to retirement and Ivanhoe to the City University of Hong Kong.

The disrespectful attitude to Chinese philosophy that Van Norden speaks of, however, is increasingly challenged by the precise attention being given it by a new generation of thinkers in the United States. Several speakers at the ISCP session on methodology in comparative philosophy between East and West criticized the default inclination of earlier scholars to ritually evaluate Chinese philosophy by Western standards. Any sense that Chinese philosophy ought to be judged by the standards of American analytic epistemology, with disdain toward more humanistic, practical concerns of philosophy—such as how one should live one's life—came in for withering criticism.

"In the Chinese tradition," Robert Neville, of Boston University, pointed out in one of the conference's multiple keynote addresses, "the practical orientation of philosophy has never been in question." Yu similarly declared himself against "one-way traffic" in comparative philosophy, noting that Western philosophy is too often treated as "an established framework or tool of analysis to be applied, not as a subject matter that is itself subject to investigation." Ames agrees, saying a proper "interpretive context" would allow the Chinese tradition "to speak for itself." Ames, who has taught at such Chinese universities as Peking and Wuhan, and who edits the Chinese Philosophy and Culture Series at SUNY Press, lends his authority to the notion: "We have challenged the self-understanding of professional philosophy that it is an Anglo-European discipline, and we are winning the ground."

Will Chinese philosophy ever be recognized as so important a part of our common humanistic heritage that "Introduction to Chinese Philosophy" becomes a staple first- or second-year lecture course on American campuses, like "Introduction to Psychology"? It hardly seems a preposterous thought.

At Ohio State University, for instance, "East Asian Humanities 1231," which incorporates Chinese philosophical and literary texts, at times draws more than 100 undergraduates. Patricia Sieber, director of East Asian Studies at Ohio State, e-mails that "we do not have a Chinese-philosophy faculty member on staff. However, we are trying to convince the administration that such a hire is a necessity."

Graduate students at the ISCP conference—one marker of the road ahead—sounded uniformly upbeat about the future. Several of them came to the subject after first teaching English in China. Lincoln Rathnam, 28, who is studying ancient Chinese political theory at the University of Toronto and working on a dissertation that compares Montaigne and Zhuangzi, says that when he tells people what he does these days, "it appears to have greater urgency than before."

Yitian Zhai, 29, a Buffalo doctoral student who did her undergraduate work in China and presented a paper on "Dao: The Public and the Private," speaks of the friendly back-and-forth between Buffalo graduate students who work in both Western and Eastern traditions. Paul Poenicke, 33, another Buffalo doctoral student, sees resonances between Chinese philosophy and experimental philosophy, a largely American movement that draws on empirical results in the social sciences.

"Analytic philosophy," said Poenicke, "is getting beyond the paradigm of the armchair and looking for other resources—the Chinese tradition is very rich for that. For a field that's sometimes stuffy, I think it's starting to open up."

Several weeks after the Buffalo conference, grandees of the World Congress of Philosophy, a meeting of more than 3,000 international philosophers that takes place every five years in a different world capital, voted, much the way officials of the International Olympic Committee do, on the venue for the next congress, in 2018. Two candidates—Beijing and Rio de Janeiro—had submitted bids at the meeting in Athens.

A spirited discussion about holding the event in China broke out among the scores of prominent philosophers attending the group's General Assembly. Some raised the benefits of engaging with Chinese philosophers, a fair number of whom are themselves struggling for a freer China against the controlling bent of the Communist Party. Others countered by citing continued Chinese-government suppression of dissidents, media and Internet censorship, and the moral importance of maintaining solidarity with dissident Chinese thinkers and activists.

In the end, engagement won. Representatives of the world's philosophical societies—the only ones permitted to vote—cast their ballots for Beijing.

Carlin Romano is critic at large for The Chronicle, a 2013-14 Guggenheim Fellow, and a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College. His book, America the Philosophical, was recently republished as a Vintage paperback.