By Brian Bruya
Is Chinese philosophy being ignored by American universities, and if so why? Brian Bruya, Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Michigan University, discusses how the importance of Chinese philosophy is being ignored at the research level in universities in the US.
As calls for diversity increase in volume across American university campuses, Chinese and Chinese-Americans are reminded that they are not included in that call because universities already have enough of them. But left out of the diversity conversation is diversity of subject matter. It’s true that multiculturalism continues to advance across many disciplines and from the elementary school level right through universities. There is one field, however, where the KKK would still feel at home in terms of not being bothered by faces and ideas from other non-white ethnicities and races, and that is the field of philosophy.
Philosophy departments across America brand themselves as ‘diverse’ or ‘comprehensive’ or ‘inclusive’, by which they mean that they include not only contemporary Western philosophy but also Ancient Greek philosophy, or that not only to they do (Western) ethics but they also do philosophy of science. The University of Chicago Department of Philosophy, for example, makes no bones about covering only the Western tradition and advertises itself as such right on its website. Indeed, they have not a single professor qualified to guide a graduate student through any of the thousands of philosophical texts of Confucianism, Daoism, or Buddhism. The same goes for Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, UCLA and so on. Berkeley only recently hired back one of its former professors on a half-time basis to teach Chinese philosophy.
Indeed, it is so bad now that senior scholars in Chinese philosophy are leaving the United States to find positions in China and Singapore. Roger Ames at the University of Hawai’i announced his retirement to take up a position at Beijing University. Franklin Perkins of DePaul departed for Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Philip Ivanhoe began the exodus nearly a decade ago leaving Boston University for the City University of Hong Kong. The list goes on. The following professors once taught in the United States or England and now teach in China or Singapore: Du Weiming, Yao Xinzhong, Bai Tongdong, Li Chenyang, Chen Derong, Huang Yong, and Dan Robins. And there are still more who graduated from Anglophone universities and sought first jobs at universities in China and Singapore. It’s not that universities in the United States don’t value Chinese philosophy. In fact, about 5% of all openings in philosophy in the United States advertise for positions appropriate for a specialist in Chinese philosophy. The problem is that none of these openings are at the upper tier of universities that train future researchers and professors. Apparently, there is a demand for Chinese philosophy from students, but the opinion shapers at research universities refuse to accept it as ‘serious’ philosophy.
This is a slap in the face to anyone who realises that the best minds in China have been contemplating the human condition for as long as anyone in the West and have managed to build a culture and civilisation that prior to colonial incursions, while not perfect, was arguably more advanced than any other civilisation on earth. Even ideas that we associate with modernity, such as meritocracy, bureaucratic efficiency, paper money, and laissez-faire economic principles, can be traced to significant influence from the Chinese tradition.
Maybe it is good for East Asia that so many of these specialists in Chinese philosophy are immigrating from the United States or not even trying to squeeze into the non-existent job market in American research universities. It still leaves us, however, with the fact that diversity in American universities is a sham as long as the academic field tasked with teaching students to think critically clings to a racist past.
I asked a senior colleague how the situation could be remedied, and he said the only way is for wealthy Chinese to endow funds to elite American universities for chair professorships in Chinese philosophy. When I broached the possibility to a Chinese friend, he reminded me that any Chinese who would want to endow a chair professorship in Chinese philosophy would do it in China, not in the U.S. Here is the problem with that way of thinking. Like it or not, China still takes many of its cues in academics from the West, especially America. As ambitious world-class philosophers in China look to elite philosophy programs in the United States for examples of high-level philosophy, they don’t see anyone doing Asian philosophy, which suggests that traditional Asian texts don’t belong in philosophy departments anywhere. Whatever way it can be accomplished, promoting Chinese philosophy in the States would simultaneously strengthen it elsewhere, including in China.
About the Author
Brian Bruya is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Michigan University. He is author of “The Tacit Rejection of Multiculturalism in American Philosophy Ph.D. Programs” and editor of The Philosophical Challenge from China (MIT Press, 2015).