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  • Is There Such a Thing as Chinese Philosophy?Arguments of an Implicit Debate
  • Carine Defoort

"Philosophy" is the showpiece of our university: every freshman student is required to follow a general course on philosophy. But regardless of the ways in which this course may be considered general, the fact is that attention to non-Western cultures is absent throughout. The course is not titled "General Western Philosophy," and yet philosophy is, quite simply, a Western matter. This demands no further explanation; it is taken for granted. It should come as no surprise that China starts from an entirely different presupposition. Several philosophy departments have a branch dealing with Chinese philosophy, analogous to those offering Western and often even Indian philosophy. But not one Chinese university teaches exclusively Chinese philosophy, let alone under the title "General Philosophy."1

In the light of such an imposing state of affairs, the question inevitably comes to the fore: is there indeed such a thing as "Chinese philosophy"? However, the degree of certainty with which the conflicting positions are held is not the result of thorough research, painstaking debate, or well-founded reasoning. For these have hardly even begun. In both the West and China, the answer to this question consists mostly of implicit presuppositions. It belongs less to the domain of explicit opinion than to the implicit frame within which we function: the organization of universities, book-shops, journals, and conferences all confirm a vision that, in fact, they have seldom explicitly discussed. The topic is therefore rather sensitive: any explicit rejection of the existence of Chinese philosophy implies not only a painful break with the raison d'être of more than a thousand Chinese academics but also a blow to China's national pride. On the other hand, the insistence that general introductory courses to philosophy ought to include philosophical traditions laid claim to by other cultures would certainly disturb Western colleagues in the field.

From this one might be inclined to conclude that such strong emotions and exaggerated sensitivities—a Western chauvinism on the one hand and an overly sensitive Chinese self-insistence on the other—are obstacles to a mature discussion of this nevertheless fundamental question. The arguments presented here, on the contrary, shall endeavor to show that this conclusion is not entirely correct. Several concrete arguments have been forwarded in this debate, and insofar as this conclusion is correct, I will argue that this very sensitivity is an interesting phenomenon, one that is unjustly being neglected.

The following analysis of the implicit debate has a relevance beyond the field of "Chinese philosophy" since a similar problematic forwards itself not only in [End Page 393] analogous controversies around entities such as "Chinese science" or "Chinese religion"2 but also in the case of other non-Western cultures reinterpreting their tradition in terms of modern Western concepts. The existence of Chinese philosophy thus acts as a case study for a wider problematic.

It is certainly not my intention to solve the crucial question concerning the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy once and for all—this would be an impossible task given the indecision governing the definition of the concept of philosophy even in the West. Nor do I wish to call into question the legitimacy or value of two domains that are closely adjacent to the theme of this essay, namely "philosophy in China"— the philosophical activities of contemporary Chinese academics—and current "Chinese philosophy," insofar as this refers to a purely geographical variant of something like contemporary "Continental philosophy."3 The arguments presented here concern only the traditional Chinese body of thought, which is generally labeled as "Chinese philosophy." A clear definition of our domain is thus our first task.

The Expression "Chinese Philosophy"

Doubt over the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy is not exclusively the result of Western chauvinism. Indeed, the expression "Chinese philosophy" encompasses a strange paradox, which threatens to call its very identity into question. Just like other concepts such as "science" or "human rights," philosophy, by definition, makes a certain claim to universality, without thereby denying its particular, Western origin. "Spanish science" or "Swiss human rights" sounds strange to our ears because the adjectives in these expressions pose a...