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  • Turning to Others to Learn about Self
  • J. E. Tiles
Learning from Asian Philosophy. By Joel J. Kupperman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. viii + 208. Paper $19.95.

In order to learn from Asian philosophy it is not sufficient to learn something about Asian philosophy. In addition to learning what is to be found in Asian philosophical texts, these texts must also be used as resources to advance one's own understanding of philosophical issues and problems—much as one might draw on the works of Aristotle or Augustine and of John Locke or John Rawls.

Joel Kupperman has been learning from Asian philosophy for over thirty years, and has assembled Learning from Asian Philosophy to bring that experience together and make it more widely available. The core of his book consists of nine previously published articles supplemented by one that is previously unpublished. These ten taken singly or in pairs form the kernels of six parts, each with a new introductory essay and a brief (one- to four-page) "afterword."

Kupperman draws most extensively on the ancient East Asian philosophers Confucius, Men cius, and Zhuangzi and to a lesser extent on Buddhism, and there is occasional input from the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā. His interests center on ethics and moral psychology. Two of the six parts deal with self: its formation and its fluidity. A third examines the extent to which a self should allow room for choice, and the place of choice in ethical theorizing. The remaining three parts deal with the scope, the demands, and the strategies for communicating ethics.

The lessons Kupperman draws from Asian philosophy are rich and yet capable of further refinement; the concepts he uses to frame these lessons are familiar and yet call for further clarification. It is in part because it both opens paths and draws the reader to travel further along them that Kupperman's book is an exemplary illustration of how we in the West can profit from resources available outside our own traditions. The best tribute this reviewer can pay to this successful book is to attempt to venture further along these paths (in the second through fourth sections below), but before doing so it would be useful to take a look at Kupperman's line of approach.

Matters of Method

Skimming the book's Introduction, some readers of this journal may well hear alarm bells when they reach the fifth sentence. There Kupperman states that his "goal will [End Page 246] be to gain contributions to philosophical enterprises that are, in the end, primar ily Western rather than Chinese or Indian" (p. 3). Is not the first step to any genuine understanding of the East on the part of Westerners the realization that the enterprises are radically different? Is not the failure to appreciate this what commonly leads those who practice Western styles of philosophy to dismiss Asian traditions as containing little or nothing of value?

Kupperman is well aware of the differences in these enterprises. The caution in one of his infrequent digressions on method—"we must not expect Confucian and Western philosophers to be answering exactly the same questions" (p. 103)—is posted in general terms on the back cover: "the two traditions [East and West] do not, by and large supply different answers to the same questions. Rather, each tradition is searching for answers to its own set of questions . . . ."1 Indeed, what Kupperman suggests should be the way to profit from trade with the East, at least within his areas of interest, is not to seek a wider range of answers to familiar questions but to find ways to supplement the arguably inadequate diet that feeds on these familiar questions. We stand to gain not by finding exotic doctrines to import but by coming across "reminders of problems or lines of thought that we might have forgotten about or ignored" (p. 3). Of course, we will have to "be cautious of imposing alien philosophical frameworks" (p. 86) and to be "wary of possible misinterpretation or over-interpretation" (p. 109), but our own intellectual economies can in some instances become healthier and more prosperous if we undertake to explore issues...


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pp. 246-255
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