- The Exclusion of Chinese Philosophy: “Ten Don’ts,” “Three Represents,” and “Eight Musts”
The legitimacy of Chinese philosophy is a thorny topic that has returned in waves during the last decades. The high tides were 2003 and 2016.1 While the topic can and has been discussed from a wide variety of points of view, most debates focus on the Chinese side: either on the nature and quality of early Chinese master texts (e.g., “Do they fit the demands of philosophy?”) or on current research at Chinese philosophy departments (e.g., “How should the Chinese intellectual heritage be studied?” “Is it philosophically interesting?”). Such reflections are important and deserve to be continued. However, one side of the issue usually remains out of view: the Western philosophers themselves, who lay the burden of proof almost exclusively with the Chinese masters or scholars. Since when, where, and how have scholars denied Chinese masters the label of “philosophy”? How explicit has the debate been? What were the various views and their historical or intellectual contexts? How did the debate evolve? What are its current implications and future prospects? These historically inspired philosophical questions differ in orientation from the dominant approaches. Even though they may not necessarily solve the disagreement concerning the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy, they do throw a fascinating light on the nature of (Western) philosophy.
I. Nelson’s Tour to the Back Side of the Legitimacy Issue
A fascinating guide to this seldom highlighted side of the legitimacy issue— like the dark side of the moon—is Eric Nelson’s recent monograph, Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought.2 It focuses on the European (mostly German) views and assumptions concerning Chinese thought (mostly Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book not only describes [End Page 214] in detail the historical context that shaped many views, but also evaluates them, traces their influence on later thinkers, and joins the debates in the form of case studies on, for example, the notion of resentment and Confucianism, technology and Daoism, and phenomenology and Buddhism. Nelson’s analysis of the larger context and argumentative strategies shows that philosophy has always been comparative and intercultural, a given that the ancient Greeks were fully aware of. Moreover, the exclusive identification of philosophy with Europe is itself a result of cultural interaction or, as he puts it, “a relatively recent modern invention” (p. 13). Far from being the unique offspring of a self-enfolding lineage from its ancient Greek roots into Western (and consequently global) modernity, the European mind-set turns out to be a fascinating amalgam of local, complex, connected, and ever changing configurations of thought. With this analysis Nelson tries to liberate Europe from its universal pretensions by granting it a degree of provincialism. In the same move, he hopes to liberate other parts of the world—in casu Asia—from the constant humiliations by a self-satisfied continent that is crumbling down.
Nelson illustrates this claim with an astonishing number of well-and lesser-known, mostly European scholars of the last centuries. Given the dominant ethnocentric responses to philosophical challenges from outside Europe, Nelson sees more potential in some of the relatively forgotten and open-minded philosophers (e.g., Popper-Lynkeus, Misch, Driesch, and Buber) than in some recurrent big shots in the philosophy curriculum who reject Chinese philosophy (e.g., Kant, Hegel, and Levinas). Some claims of Western philosophers are remarkably humiliating or racist, and hardly sustained by any knowledge of the Chinese masters. Nelson also analyzes some Western philosophers as complex combinations of die-hard ethnocentrism with the potential for dialogue and revival (e.g., Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida). Finally, he critically discusses views that appreciate Chinese philosophy and evaluates their potential for future dialogue.
His study therefore not only describes various views relating to the legitimacy question, but also questions the very question, and judges its judges. Nelson’s ideal for philosophy lies in intercultural hermeneutics. The interlocutors should exercise “a non-identitarian...