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  • Is "Chinese Philosophy" a Proper Name?A Response to Rein Raud
  • Carine Defoort

In the preface to his Outline of the History of Chinese Philosophy, Hu Shi wrote: "Today, the two main branches of philosophy meet and influence each other. Whether or not in fifty years or one hundred a sort of world philosophy will finally arise cannot yet be ascertained."1 Although uncertain, Hu was still hopeful, since he believed that the two major traditions of modern world philosophy, founded in Europe and China, had finally met. That was in 1919. Now, almost a century later, we can respond to Hu's speculation with relative certainty: a world philosophy has not arisen and is not on the rise. In fact, the situation is much worse: Chinese ancient thought is not even considered "philosophy" by most Western specialists in the field.

For Feng Youlan, Hu's contemporary, this lack of recognition had become a major frustration by the end of his life. Feng earnestly felt that "parts of classical Chinese philosophy have a contribution to make to the elevating of man's spiritual sphere and in solving universal problems in human life."2 But on the last page of the last volume of his New Edition of the History of Chinese Philosophy, completed a few weeks before his death in November 1990, Feng concluded that Western philosophers had not even begun to consider ancient Chinese thought to be worthy of their attention: "Chinese traditional philosophy has always been regarded as a part of sinological studies and is considered as having no relation to philosophy."3 Feng's sentiment is still widely shared today; for instance, in the Yearbook of Chinese Philosophy for 2001, Zheng Jiadong remarks that "in the West, especially in Europe, the legitimacy of 'Chinese philosophy' has always been questioned; 'Chinese philosophy' [End Page 625] has to a large extent been considered a strange thing of questionable antecedents."4 Others confirm that "Chinese thinking has been all but excluded from the discipline of philosophy in Western seats of learning."5

Indeed, various eminent European philosophers, such as Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, and, more recently, Jacques Derrida on his visit to Shanghai in 2001,6 have proclaimed that ancient Chinese thought is not really philosophy. Kant, for example, stated that "Philosophy is not to be found in the whole Orient. . . . Their teacher Confucius teaches in his writings nothing outside a moral doctrine designed for the princes."7 Even sinology scholars sometimes wonder whether ancient Chinese thought ought to be labeled "philosophy."8 But more powerful than such explicit rejections of the legitimacy of "Chinese philosophy," which are nowadays relatively rare, is the dominant and implicit Western (especially European) view, embedded in the organization of academic conferences, journals, university curricula (as Feng Youlan remarked), and bookstores, that ancient China did not have philosophy. The average European bookstore, for instance, does not display the Laozi or Yijing on the "philosophy" shelf, but rather among various types of wisdom or practical knowledge, between Celtic myths, herbal medicine, and the art of astrology. However unobtrusive, this organizational given reveals more clearly and influentially than any contemporary scholar explicitly states, that the name "Chinese philosophy" for the Chinese masters and some Classics is not proper—or, to put it in ancient Chinese terms: this ming 名 is not zheng 正.9

The twenty-first century, however, has seen strong indications of change, not in the sense that "Chinese philosophy" is now being generally accepted as one of the two main branches of world philosophy, as Hu Shi had hoped, but in the sense that the debate has been reopened, both in China and in the West. In China, the appropriateness of the label "Chinese philosophy" for ancient Chinese thought was questioned by some leading scholars in the first part of the twentieth century. But in the last decade the matter has been experienced as a crisis and challenge, and has been discussed much more broadly and vividly by Chinese academia: conferences are being dedicated to the question of the "legitimacy of 'Chinese philosophy"' (Zhongguo zhexue hefaxing 中国哲学的合法性), newspapers report on it, and some journals devote whole forums to it.10 About one hundred articles or chapters related...