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  • Confucianism Can be Read as Philosophy—A Response to Eske J. Møllgaard
  • Tongdong Bai (bio)

"Is Traditional Chinese Thought Philosophy?" has been a perennial question ever since the term zhexue 哲學, as a translation of the Western concept of philosophy, was introduced to China via Japan, and it will stay this way for years to come. Two factors make the answering of this question a Sisyphean project. First, a lot of scholars feel that they have to answer this question. The contemporary academic disciplines were defined by Westerners, and the discipline of philosophy was alien to traditional Chinese scholarship. Then, unless the structure of academia is radically redefined (maybe when China runs the world and decides to do this), anyone who relies heavily on traditional Chinese materials and wishes to work in the discipline of philosophy, especially professionally, has to justify their work by explaining why this endeavor should take place in a philosophy department. Sometimes, those who rely on similar materials but refuse to work in the discipline of philosophy are also forced to answer this question (in the negative).

Second, the question is fundamentally unanswerable. In order to answer this question, we need to define philosophy. But philosophy is really hard to define. After a hundred-year effort, philosophers of science still can't settle on a clear line between science and superstition (and other kinds of non-science). If we can't even do this, which seems to be rather easy, how likely can we achieve a consensus on the line between philosophy and non-philosophy? The plurality of the understandings of philosophy (and science) may be genuine in that it cannot be eliminated even if we are rational and are willing to and do understand each other.

On the issue of the status of Chinese thought as philosophy, Carine Defoort has offered one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful analyses of the debates in two of her articles (2001 and 2006). In spite of her efforts, the debate inevitably goes on, as she also envisioned. Eske Møllgaard's article in this issue, which is focused on Confucianism rather than Chinese thought in general, is a most recent addition to this Sisyphean project.

A key difficulty of defining philosophy is that its meaning is shifting and different from one reasonable person to another. Any definition, then, has to be conditional and tentative. One can openly construct a definition of philosophy, and then investigate whether or not something, such as Chinese thought, is philosophy. One should be humble enough to acknowledge the "constructivist" nature of this endeavor. But Møllgaard doesn't bother to offer a definition of philosophy until the Conclusion section of his article. In [End Page 1046] this section, he expresses his dissatisfaction with those who argue that the definition of philosophy is shifting by saying that this approach doesn't answer "the question whether Confucian discourse is philosophy." But it is not the case that every scholar of Chinese thought has to answer this question. One can be happy with being an intellectual historian rather than a Confucian philosopher.

After criticizing this "dissolution" approach and Bryan W. Van Norden's definition of philosophy, Møllgaard finally offers the following definition:

most would agree with Alain Badiou that philosophy arises "the moment when the validity of a statement is no longer seen as organically tied to the person making it."

I have to say that I don't share his confidence in the near universality ("most would agree") of this understanding of philosophy. Moreover, this understanding seems to say that whenever the speaker's authority is challenged, philosophy arises. How, then, do we distinguish between philosophy and science, the latter also being based on the challenge to authority? Should a Mafioso be called a philosopher if he dares to challenge the words of his boss, and even decides to "whack" him? Joking aside, the serious point I wish to make here is that this definition may be too broad to exclude things that are obviously not philosophical.

To be fair, as his following arguments reveal, Møllgaard uses this account to show that Confucianism is no philosophy because, in the Confucian discourse, there is...


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