Chinese philosophy: The wild goose gradually draws near the tree

Update-The wild goose is getting closer to the tree

Apparently we are experiencing a Chinese Philosophy Fever. The Atlantic has an article up on Michael Puett’s Harvard class on Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory, as described at Warp, Weft, and Way.

In general I would agree with WWW commenter Bill Haines that “I think it makes sense that a course taught this way would be taught by a historian rather than a philosophy prof.” In part this is because I am a historian, but also because I think it fits better with reasons for kids to come to a class like this. A while back I read something (Chronicle?) about a Renaissance history guy who was ordered to come up with some sort of mass-market class that drew on his period. He came up with something like “How to be a corporate toady and suck-up: Kissing the asses of the rich and powerful in a profoundly unequal society” drawing primarily on Michel de Montaigne

Needless to say the class was a huge hit, and he was horrified by both how many students wanted to take it and how many sections of it the administration wanted him to teach and how useful the class was for student who wanted to find a place in our society.

I don’t think Puett created this class out of spite, but I do think  a historian is in a good place to help students understand how philosophical or self-help texts1 help those who are reading them figure out how they fit into society. The society of Warring States China is a good analogue for ours today, where we like to talk about how the old rules no longer apply, but are still worth thinking about.2 Harvard students in particular are shi, members of the elite who can’t go wrong (in the sense of starving) whatever they do. Plus there are books like Finnegrete’s Secular as Sacred that may not be very strong as sinology or philosophy,3 but do help you make the connection.

So my point here is that if you want to teach a class like Puett’s, which uses examples from the past to explain how you should fit into society now (i.e. get a liberal education) then Warring States China is a good place to look, and a historian is an excellent guide.

 

Old post

I may eventually post more on this, but better than anything I might add, you should go read this article on Chinese Philosophy in the U.S. (from the Chronicle)

The thing that struck me is that the academic study of Philosophy seems to be broadening out in a way that Religious Studies (which they mention) did a long time ago, as did History. I don’t know of any nice short introductions to the struggle to get Chinese history accepted as history in American colleges, but maybe someone else does. The process seems somewhat different in Philosophy, but there are a lot of parallels.

Via Warp, Weft, and Way


  1. Analects, Zhuangzi, and most of the classical texts are self-help books that really belong on the shelf with Dr. Phil 

  2. I’m not sure how unique this really is, but  undergrads like believing that we live in an unprecedented age of change. 

  3. I am neither a philosopher or a ancient China person, so I can’t say for sure 

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