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New Projects in Chinese Philosophy

From: The Pluralist
Volume 5, Number 2, Summer 2010
pp. 45-56 | 10.1353/plu.2010.0000

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The general thesis of this article is that contemporary Chinese philosophy needs to be more creative than it is. It proposes eight new projects for Chinese philosophy to undertake that involve creativity. But first it asks what the term "Chinese philosophy" means in the current philosophical context.

To some people, it means the tradition of philosophy in China from the ancient world of the Zhou texts, the Confucians, Daoists, and other schools, through its development up to the point where Western intellectual influences became prominent in the nineteenth century. An appendix to this conception is the attempt to recover the vitality of the historical Chinese schools after the onslaught of Western thought (and modernization)—a project associated with many of the New Confucians. The limitation of this conception by itself is that Chinese philosophy was never sealed off and confined to the Chinese "until serious Western influence." Buddhism was only the most prominent of the many "foreign" philosophical influences on China. The Silk Road centers such as Turfan hosted important Muslim, Christian, and Zoroastrian institutions of learning and practice, and surely those influenced intellectual life in China. Sian was a multicultural city from ancient times. As we give up pre-defining philosophy, as we should, by paradigmatic names such as "Confucianism" and "Daoism," or "Platonism" and "Aristotelianism" for that matter, we shall become more aware of the eclectic nature of the "traditions" of philosophy.

To others, the first, quasi-ethnic, meaning of "Chinese philosophy" is augmented with the scholarly and philosophical study of that historical tradition, not necessarily by philosophers who are Chinese. These, including this author, are philosophers who study Chinese philosophy, as well as other kinds of philosophy. Today most philosophers educated in China are also well versed in Western philosophical traditions and contemporary movements. Insofar as this work is not limited to intellectual history but also takes the form of critical commentary, we are extending the tradition of Chinese philosophy into a wider public as a kind of philosophy worth noticing by everyone.

Yet there is something incomplete about this second conception of Chinese philosophy. Philosophy of any sort deals with first-order philosophical issues. One philosopher can learn from another as a resource for contextualizing, formulating, and addressing those issues. In this sense, "Chinese philosophy" is the use of the traditions of philosophy that once were or now are associated with China as resources for addressing contemporary first-order problems. Some traditions of philosophy use the genre of commentary on other philosophers to address first-order issues, and this has happened in China, especially in the Neo-Confucian period, as it has in the Western Medieval period. Commentators are not repeaters of those on whom they comment. They raise new questions and bring forward hermeneutical stances that reflect their own time, not the time of their subjects. For a commentator to attempt to limn out what is true and false in the subject of commentary is to assume the plausibility conditions of the commentator, not the subject, and those plausibility conditions reflect the philosophical problems of the commentator. When we read the Daodejing or Zhuxi, as historians we try to say what issues they addressed in their own terms, but what we say about that reflects our own first-order problems. To be aware of this and address our own first-order questions in the hermeneutical circle with the Chinese traditions is extremely important. This leads to the eight new projects for Chinese philosophy.

1. The first project I want to set for Chinese philosophy is that it take up the task of being creative about the first-order philosophical issues of our own time explicitly. In the mid-1980s, my wife and I visited the city of Chongqing and toured a school for the training of visual artists, mainly painters. The school was perched on a high bluff overlooking the deep gorges where three rivers joined to constitute the Yangtze, a wild and spectacular scene of natural heights and depths, forests, mists, and swirling waters. Inside the school, the students were learning only to paint Song Dynasty landscapes in the style with which we all are familiar, modeled on the tame karst mountains of the...

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