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  • Philosophies versus Philosophy:In Defense of a Flexible Definition
  • Rein Raud

It is strange that no one has taken up Carine Defoort's clearly formulated and timely argument about the intercultural tensions in interpreting what philosophy is, although the issue deserves at least a roundtable, if not an international conference.1 I doubt that this is because there is a general consensus that the matter is now settled, and I would therefore like to develop the argument a bit further and offer a few additional factors to consider. It is also obvious that the problem is not limited to the subject of Chinese philosophy alone: all traditions of thought from all over the world, but most notably the Indian, Islamic, and Japanese heritages, are affected by the positions we adopt. As in most debates about the commensurability of cultural traditions, we can find differences when we look for them, and similarities if these are what we would like to see, so the "conflict of sensitivities"2 is also a matter of attitudes. My own position is that regardless of what we prefer to call the practice of deeper thought (and 'philosophy' is a very good name), it would be extremely useful for all of its participants, whatever their origin and upbringing, to find a common denominator for them to be able to exchange ideas and mutually enrich each other on its basis. In what follows I shall try to sketch a perspective from which this could, in my opinion, be theoretically grounded.

Four Positions

Defoort has identified four possible points of view on the problem of whether classical Chinese thought could or should be called 'philosophy,' which could be summarized as follows.

  1. 1. Chinese classical thought is not philosophy, because it does not satisfy the conditions of philosophy as it is generally and traditionally understood in the West.

  2. 2. Chinese classical thought is philosophy, because it reveals the necessary characteristics if analyzed with the help of an appropriate (Western-type) observation language.

  3. 3. Chinese classical thought can be called philosophy, but only if we redefine philosophy in order to accommodate some of its nontypical or clearly deviant features.

  4. 4. Chinese classical thought should not be called philosophy, because philosophy is a culturally closed Western phenomenon with a limited scope and incapable of understanding fundamentally different modes of thought. [End Page 618]

If we dismiss the birthright variety of the first position, we could label it essentialist, and its weakest point is certainly that Western philosophy has not remained unchanged during the course of history. It is highly doubtful that Socrates, Diogenes, scholastics, Nietzsche, and Gareth Evans could all be members of the same set if the same strict criteria were applied to all periods and all cultural settings in the same way, and, as Defoort herself stresses,3 the fact that seventeenth-century Jesuits (the basis of whose original worldview, we should think, was much farther from the Chinese than ours) had no problem in calling Chinese thought philosophy should show us that the paradigm shift of the thing called 'philosophy' has occurred in the West and is, so to speak, our problem and not theirs.

Now, it is also possible that in some circles even some prominent names in the Western tradition do not qualify as real philosophers, in the sense in which Hegel was treated by Bertrand Russell4 and Heidegger was dismissed by Alfred Ayer5 in their respective histories of philosophy (while they nevertheless felt compelled to include chapters or passages on them). A definition of philosophy that puts forward such criteria that a considerable number of thinkers would have to remain outside its borders should be labeled sectarian-and it can still be met, even if ever less often, in some analytical schools of philosophy. It is my conviction, however, that in our globalizing world any definition that would leave non-European philosophy outside the borders of 'philosophy proper' should be considered sectarian in nature. The main problem that I have with Defoort's family model6 is precisely that in it the head of the family, who makes the decisions as to who can be adopted and who cannot, is always Western, and the...


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