“Eastern Philosophy”

A post over at the illustrious philosoraptor’s blog sparked some reflection in me, and I thought I might cross-post my response (and perhaps add to it and modify it a bit) here.

I have spent quite a lot of time relative to the duration of my short-ish life studying the great works of human history, and my focus has been almost entirely on Western (predominantly Greek, Roman, German, and English) and Eastern (predominantly Chinese) thought.  I intend to produce a timeline and catalogue of the works I have covered and intend to cover (as a guide for any wondering to what a graduate student of these matters devotes his time; that is some REALLY hard-to-find information in the secretive, goofy environment of modern academia), but for now, that summary will suffice.

Basically, the illustrious philosoraptor notes that the lack of representation of “Eastern philosophers” in modern philosophy departments is on account of more complicated reasons than simple ignorance of diversity or prejudiced ostracization.  His observation that “Western philosophy” is generally distinct from “Eastern philosophy” in very substantive ways is, in my opinion, correct, and his employment of The Critique of Pure Reason as an example of Western philosophy is excellent; it is extremely systematic, dedicated to arriving at an extremely clear and well-defined conclusion through a rigorous and exhaustive formulation of the relevant ideas and their relationships.  An equally valid emblem of “Eastern philosophy,” the Analects of Confucius, on the other hand, is quite different; it is not systematic AT ALL (in fact, it’s just a series of utterly disjointed assertions, not even organized topically in the text) and often more similar to theology than philosophy in that the material almost always brings with it implicit theoretical assumptions which are not subjected to scrutiny.

Obviously, this subject matter deserves an expertly written treatise more than a simple blog post, but I thought I might try to make a simple (and hopefully important) point:

The word “philosopher” really seems to me to hit the nail on the head when it is used to describe “Western philosophy.”  Above all, from the pre-Socratics until now, Western philosophers have been after one thing, and that is knowledge.  Apprehending the truth of any matter is the pursuit of Western philosophy, and this love for knowledge is built right into its name.

The phrase “Eastern philosophy” seems to me to be most often a rather inappropriate use of the term “philosophy,” for the prominent figures (e.g. Confucius) in the cultures to which that “Eastern” designation largely refers (e.g. China) are quite obviously not above-all lovers of knowledge.  Plato and Confucius agreed on much, but that they both had knowledge and that they both developed knowledge should not be confused with the assertion that they both held such activities in the same esteem.

To the West, knowledge is considered the ultimate end of the project of which we are speaking.  To someone like Confucius, knowledge is very much a means to an end, and that end is living rightly.  Perhaps we should call them “philodeons” rather than “philosophers”, for what they truly love is the Way of Righteousness, and it is this after which they establish their projects.  Does such a project intersect with those of Western philosophy?  Absolutely; how could it not?  In fact, many Western “philosophers” themselves fall into this category, holding virtue above knowledge.  As with any generalization, there will be exceptions, but I do think this is an important cultural difference and good reason to categorize the relevant projects distinctly.

Structurally, the Analects of Confucius is a series of topically-disjointed, pithy, often-cryptic proverbs.  It is much more similar to the Proverbs of the Bible than to the Socratic Dialogues.  Again, the Chuang-Tzu is a series of dramatically distinct stories, often wild and mystical, and though there is surely a theme underlying them all (which has been the subject of many an important discussion for millennia), it is not the systematic inquiry after truth with which the West has been so long enamored.

We need not suggest that the “Eastern philosophers” (though, again, philodeons or something like that is a good way of identifying the primary issue up-front, if you ask me) are inferior to the Western philosophers because of this difference.  It is truly important and in one’s best interest not to ignore or consider their works unworthy of scrutiny or understanding; they have changed my life for the better in immense and unexpected ways.  In fact, it is their insistence that knowledge is not the most important element of life that has led most powerfully to the most unexpected and valuable changes in my life.

So, beyond the fact that we need not shove them into the category of “philosophy” in order to grant them this well-deserved recognition, I say that it is very important that we do not do this, for what seems to me to be the most valuable contribution they can bring to Western philosophy is the notion that perhaps we would be better off tempering our focus on knowledge.  Kant’s position that The Critique of Pure Reason is an ultimate defense of religion and its commensurability with the Way of the Daoists has brought me to the belief that, indeed, beyond knowledge lies something even more important to us, and though it cannot be understood, it can be apprehended, and its pursuit, not knowledge, is the highest goal we might have.

And that is why I think religion, as it were, supersedes philosophy in terms of import.  “Eastern philosophy” is a huge part of what initially supported and encouraged my ardent belief in this matter, but it was Western philosophy that ultimately satisfied my curiosity and allowed me to rest easy in my belief (as recommended by Sima Chengzhen).

So, basically, I agree with the illustrious philosoraptor that Western philosophy and “Eastern philosophy” are largely separate projects.  There are surely Eastern philosophers out there, but I would stand by the estimation that the general categorization of important Eastern leaders in thought as philodeons rather than philosophers is superior and indicative of the main division between the projects, if you ask me.

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