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  • Outrageously Irrelevant Remarks of a Girl in a Closed Conversation:A Reply to Tim Heysse
  • Carine Defoort (bio)

Imagine: the Western world falls apart under political, financial, and social pressure. One result is that all funding for philosophy is suspended and diverted to STEM [End Page 1086] courses (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Politicians in the U.S. and Europe, along with their voters, declare the whole tradition of philosophy a total fiasco for its inability to prevent the crisis or to show a way out. Because of this lack of funding and respect, philosophy no longer exists as an academic discipline in the mid-twenty-first century, but only as a private hobby of maladjusted, wealthy eccentrics.

At the same time, China has become so confident and rich that ample funding for research on the "masters" is provided. A Western lover of philosophy with vision and courage—let us call him Julian West—applies for funding arguing that Aristotle was also some sort of "master." His application is turned down, of course, because Aristotle had nothing to say about Yao's abdication to Shun, nor about Tang and Wu's apparent acts of regicide. But West keeps trying to convince the members of the funding committee with arguments that might appeal to them. He therefore reinterprets Aristotle's work in a fashion that is both painfully distorting and refreshingly novel, reading the early Greek thinker in a way that might convince the Chinese committee, and perhaps even attract Western intellectuals who had lost interest in philosophy. Despite West's serious attempts to produce a strong and well-written Chinese application, the committee is not convinced. Academic quality and the political freedom of their decisions are their greatest concern. Even the fact that up until the early twenty-first century philosophy had been an age-long thriving intellectual enterprise and might even contribute to the reflection on Chinese masters does not make them budge. But after a few generations, some committee members become generous and open-minded enough to provide support for projects that do not strike them as entirely relevant to the ongoing conversation. As a result, research on Western philosophy occasionally gets funded again, even without trying to make Aristotle sound like a "master."

This fictive story could go on. But anyone in the field of non-Western philosophy can enhance this thought experiment with examples from his or her current predicament. If Feng Youlan (1895–1990), one of Chinese philosophy's earliest promoters, was the Chinese Julian West, then I am that later applicant who has enjoyed the support of generous committee members without even trying to be paradigmatically philosophical. Hence, with little to complain about, I nevertheless value the occasion to speak up in a conversation that has thus far been remarkably sealed off. What really pleases me is that Tim Heysse, the vice-dean for education of my university's Institute of Philosophy, elaborates on two papers by Michael Oakeshott (1901–1991): "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind" (referred to below as Oakeshott 1959) and "The Study of Politics in a University" (referred to below as Oakeshott 1961).1 The former was the subject of a course that I attended at the Institute in the 1980s taught by one of its most inspiring professors, Arnold Burms. It is with delight and gratitude that I continue the conversation in line with Heysse's reflections. But first I want to reformulate my view.

Heysse is dismayed by the "striking lacuna in Defoort's argumentation," namely the lack of "philosophical or intellectual arguments" (his italics) that "might have cogency" and that could induce philosophers to welcome non-Western ideas into [End Page 1087] their current conversation. He believes that in philosophy "there is plenty of room for new ideas, concepts, insights, and arguments." All we have to do is capture an audience for them and steer the conversation in a new direction. Hence, we should present the best ideas in Chinese philosophy, to which philosophical experts will then patiently lend their ear. "Once this is achieved, and the success of non-Western material in enriching philosophical conversation is unmistakeable," the problem will be solved. Heysse...


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