I want to recognize, and expand upon, Justin H. Smith's piece in the NYT, "Philosophy's Western Bias." He makes a case for why academic philosophy departments should incorporate more "non-Western" schools of thought in their curriculum. I am all for it. But I must say, right up front, that I am not an academic philosopher, but a political scientist who has drifted into ancient Chinese thought. And it is from that perspective that I have a somewhat different take on this issue than Smith.
He points out that concerns for diversity, in and of themselves, are not a sound basis for the inclusion of "non-Western" thought into our on-going discussions of "philosophy" (Lots of scare quotes, I know. But Smith is questioning the definitions of all of these terms...). He is direct in his critique:
The goal of reflecting the diversity of our own society by expanding the curriculum to include non-European traditions has so far been a tremendous failure. And it has failed for at least two reasons. One is that non-Western philosophy is typically represented in philosophy curricula in a merely token way. Western philosophy is always the unmarked category, the standard in relation to which non-Western philosophy provides a useful contrast. Non-Western philosophy is not approached on its own terms, and thus philosophy remains, implicitly and by default, Western. Second, non-Western philosophy, when it does appear in curricula, is treated in a methodologically and philosophically unsound way: it is crudely supposed to be wholly indigenous to the cultures that produce it and to be fundamentally different than Western philosophy in areas like its valuation of reason or its dependence on myth and religion. In this way, non-Western philosophy remains fundamentally “other.”
He then goes on to provide a starting point for a more effective argument for the relevance of non-Western philosophy:
An alternative approach to the history of philosophy — one that takes the aim of opening up the discipline seriously — would treat both Western and non-Western philosophy as the regional inflections of a global phenomenon.... Now it is of course very difficult to define “philosophy,” but if we think of it broadly as systematic reflection on the nature of reality and on humanity’s place in that reality, then it is clear that Europe can make no special claim to be the home of philosophy.
Yes. And let me add my own, rather simplistic, point here: Chinese philosophy is valuable to us here and now because it concerns itself, deeply and directly, with large questions of "the nature of reality and... humanity's place in that reality."
I tend to focus on politics, and in that realm it is clear that Chinese philosophy has much to contribute to any discussion of issues such as: Who should rule? How should they rule? How should we understand political legitimacy? What role does violence play in politics? etc. This is not really a matter of "Western" v. "non-Western" to me. They are large questions that have been contemplated is many diverse places and times, and the broad history of that extensive conservation remains relevant, in all its facets, to us today.
We seem to assume automatically that the ancient Greeks - so far removed in time and culture from the contemporary US - are relevant to today's political world. Well, ancient Chinese thinkers are similarly pertinent. Some might reject that assertion, and argue that the Greeks invented democracy, and that our politics is rooted in that democratic tradition; thus, since the ancient Chinese lacked a notion of democracy, they are not as germane to contemporary American political debates.
Politics, however, is about more than democracy v. authoritarianism. It is true that in their own times ancient Chinese thinkers did not think in terms of "rule of the people." However, their focus on humane public policy and ethical standard of leadership are certainly relevant in a contemporary democratic context. And they are equally relevant in a contemporary authoritarian context - as I have argued regularly here, the leaders of the CCP have much to fear in a strong and consistent application of Mencian political principles...
Here's an example. When thinking about sound government, and political strategies that might produce sound government, Analects 12.7 offers this (Ames/Rosemont translation):
Zigong asked about governing effectively. The master said to him, "Make sure there is sufficient food to eat, sufficient arms for defense, and that the common people have confidence in their leaders."
"If you have to give up one of these three things," he said, "which should be given up first?"
"Give up the arms," he replied.
"If you had to give up one of the remaining two," he said," which should be given up first?"
"Give up food," he replied. "Death has been with us from ancient times, but if the common people do not have confidence in their leaders, community will not endure."
There's a lot in there. Effective government requires something like a Weberian state, insofar as that suggests a coercive apparatus (兵). It also requires that the state provide a certain basic sustenance to the people within its territory: a kind of performance legitimacy. But, ultimately, legitimacy is not simply a matter of providing material sustenance. The "confidence of the people" (民信) is more than bread alone. It is a matter of consistent sincerity on the part of political leaders in attending to the well-being of society at large. A government that rewards the rich at the expense of the poor, or concerns itself more with the maintenance of a particular ruling group while ignoring growing social inequalities, will lose the confidence of the people. Leaders in both China and the US could learn from that now.
I don't want to ignore Daoism here. It, too, is certainly of relevance to contemporary political and philosophical debates. Its political significance lies largely in its critique of power and greed and, yes, injustice. While the Daodejing and Zhuangzi do not put forth much in the way of positive political principles (i.e. ideas that might be used to build an effective government), its perspective from outside of power is certainly valuable in terms of political analysis.
Personally, I find Daoism's insights into broader questions of ontology and epistemology to be more alluring than its politics. Zhuangzi, in particular, seems to prefigure 20th century debates about knowledge and language and reality. While not a postmodern (Zhuangzi would resist the notion that language constitutes reality; rather he would contend that language is inadequate in capturing the fullness and complexity and dynamism of reality), his thinking is certainly relevant to conservations about Derrida and Saussure.
We could go on, but will leave it there. Or, better, let's leave it with Zhuangzi (Hinton translation):
The spoken isn't just bits of wind. In the spoken, something is spoken. But what it is never stays fixed and constant. So is something spoken, or has nothing ever been spoken? People think we're different from baby birds cheeping, but are we saying any more than they are?