The Debate over the Garfield-Van Norden Essay in The Stone

From Jay Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden’s “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is,” :

The vast majority of philosophy departments in the United States offer courses only on philosophy derived from Europe and the English-speaking world. … Given the importance of non-European traditions in both the history of world philosophy and in the contemporary world, and given the increasing numbers of students in our colleges and universities from non-European backgrounds, this is astonishing. … The present situation is hard to justify morally, politically, epistemically or as good educational and research training practice. … We therefore suggest that any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself “Department of European and American Philosophy.” This simple change would make the domain and mission of these departments clear, and would signal their true intellectual commitments to students and colleagues.

Comments on Garfield and Van Norden’s Editorial

(as of 15 May 2016; comment to suggest additional links):

  1. Anglophone Departments Aren’t “Departments of European and American Philosophy” by Brian Leiter,
  2. When Someone Suggests Expanding the Canon by Amy Olberding,
  3. Diversity, “Neutrality,” Philosophy by John Drabinski,
  4. On the Very Idea of Non-Western Philosophy by Eric Schliesser,
  5. The Still Invisible Dimension of “Western Philosophy” by John Protevi,
  6. Comments by Justin Smith,
  7. Philosophical Diversity in US Philosophy Departments by DailyNous,
  8. Philosophy’s Gatekeepers by Leigh M. Johnson,
  9. Diversify or Die by Joshua Miller,
  10. Diversifying the Philosophical Canon and Access to True Values by J. Edward Hackett
  11. Department of Euro-American Mathematics? by Michael Harris,
  12. Comments by Philosoraptor,
  13. Ordinary Philosophy on Garfield and Van Norden,
  14. Reddit discussion:
  15. NYT Op-Ed: Supremacy of Western Culture “Hard to Justify,” by Mairead McArdle,
  16. Warp, Weft, Way blog on Garfield and Van Norden in NYT,
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The Dilemma Trump Presents for the GOP

The dominance of Donald Trump in the GOP primaries presents a dilemma for Republicans:  should the GOP be more afraid of a national convention like the one that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, or like the one in which the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey in 1968?

At the 1964 Presidential nominating convention, moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller was booed by the delegates for calling on them to repudiate the right wing of their own party.  Instead of rejecting their party’s more conservative wing, the convention nominated the candidate who was the favorite of the majority of people in the party:  Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.  (Full disclosure:  my father was an enthusiastic Goldwater supporter.)

In his acceptance speech, Goldwater elicited the cheers of his supporters when he said, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.  And let me remind you also that moderation in the defense of justice is no virtue.”  As part of “extremism in the defense of liberty,” Goldwater had called for greater willingness on the part of the US to use nuclear weapons, including against the Communists in Vietnam.  He had also quipped, in a line worthy of Trump, “Let’s lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin.”  Statements like this delighted those who would have voted for Goldwater anyway.  However, as conservative commentator Matt Lewis points out in his insightful new book, Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections, such pronouncements were “politically stupid,” because they “reinforced Johnson’s narrative that Goldwater was a crazy, fringe candidate.” The Democratic campaign of sitting President Lyndon Johnson parodied Goldwater’s slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” as “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”  And in an infamous but very effective television ad, a little girl innocently picking daisies was juxtaposed with a countdown and nuclear explosion, followed by Johnson intoning, “We must either love each other, or we must die.”  Although the GOP rank and file “won” by getting Goldwater as their nominee, Goldwater not only lost the general election by a landslide, he took a lot of the Republican party down with him.  The GOP lost seats in both houses of Congress, something that allowed Johnson and the Democrats to pass the Great Society legislation, a major liberal policy initiative.

The situation had changed a great deal by 1968.  President Johnson had gradually escalated US involvement in the Vietnam War.  However, when beloved (and generally moderate) TV news anchor Walter Cronkite editorialized for withdrawing from Vietnam, he spoke for many Americans, who were tired of what increasingly appeared to be a no-win war costing the lives of many US soldiers in a strategically insignificant country half a world away.  Consequently, Johnson decided not to run for re-election.  In the Democratic primaries, the most popular candidates were opponents of the Vietnam War, particularly Robert Kennedy, who was tragically assassinated, and Eugene McCarthy.  However, sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey had the support of the Democratic party establishment, and ended up getting the nomination through back room deals, even though he had not participated in a single primary.  Although the Democratic party establishment “won” by getting Humphrey as their nominee, the convention was a public relations nightmare, which almost guaranteed a victory by the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon.  Outside the convention in Chicago, anti-war demonstrators were beaten and tear-gassed in what came to be called a “police riot.”  (Full disclosure:  I had an uncle who was a police officer in Chicago.) Inside the convention itself, police and security personnel used strong-arm tactics to try to prevent anti-Humphrey delegates from speaking out.  The popular vote in the election was close, but Nixon won.

So what does all this have to do with the contemporary GOP primaries?  Donald Trump appears to be winning by a long shot, but it’s no secret that most Republican “insiders” aren’t happy about this.  Part of the resistance is a sincere belief on the part of establishment Republican figures like John McCain and Mitt Romney that Trump is unfit to be President.  However, there is also a serious concern among Republican strategists that Trump is so far to the right of the mainstream US electorate that he is guaranteed to lose in a general election.  Almost all recent polls show Clinton beating Trump.  (Sanders does even better against Trump in contemporary polls.)  “And let me remind you also that” this is before the Democratic campaign has had a chance to run a slew of attack ads against Trump.  Trump says plenty of things that will make devastating sound bites for his Democratic opponent, and videos of African-Americans and Latinos getting beaten and ejected from his rallies will provide powerful visuals.  Trump may also cost the GOP in disputed House and Senate seats, as Democratic candidates use Trump to discredit their Republican rivals.  Democrats need to win only five seats to regain control of the Senate, and more Senate Republicans are up for reelection in 2016 than Democrats.

However, there has been buzz that Republicans may have an alternative to this dire prospect.  If Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich can win just enough delegates between them to block Trump from getting the 1,237 needed to guarantee the nomination, the GOP would go to a brokered convention.  The nominee would then be selected via astute political maneuvering.  And if there were a majority of delegates at the convention who were anti-Trump, they would “only” have to agree which alternative to Trump to support.  However, Trump’s supporters would be livid that their candidate was denied the nomination despite capturing a plurality of the delegates.  The fights on the convention floor would be ugly, and would certainly alienate pro-Trump voters, who would probably not rally around the Republican nominee in the general election.  (The last time Republicans had a brokered convention was 1948, when they selected Thomas Dewey to run against Harry Truman, and we know how well that turned out for them.)  

In short, the 2016 GOP faces the dilemma of choosing between a candidate like Barry Goldwater in 1964 and a candidate like Hubert Humphrey in 1968. If Trump becomes the Republican nominee for President, his extreme views may guarantee a devastating loss for the GOP in the general elections.  But if the party establishment engineers a way to nominate someone other than Trump, it will probably divide and demoralize the party, again setting the GOP up for losing the general election.

Whichever alternative plays out, there will be protesters at the convention, and one of the issues will be the perceived racism of Trump’s campaign.  Given heightened tension following unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, it is not impossible that we will see riots at the Republican convention comparable to those at the 1968 Democratic convention.

Of course, as baseball great Yogi Berra sagaciously remarked, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”  Donald Trump may have the delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first round of voting at the convention.  In addition, far-right parties have proven surprisingly strong in elections in other Western democracies, including the National Front in France, the True Finns Party of Finland, the Freedom Party of Austria, and the Golden Dawn Party of Greece, whose party symbol is shown below. (Remind you of anything?)

Perhaps the US is headed in this direction.

Full disclosure:  I have a bumper sticker that says “Anyone but Trump 2016.”  (Perhaps the bumper sticker is unnecessary, since the fact that my car is a Prius already makes it highly unlikely that I am a Trump supporter.)  So allow me to end on a partisan note.   Mr. Trump, if you do become President, true patriots will not stand by while you harass fellow Americans because of their race, sexual preference, or religion.  I am one of those patriots, because my father’s remains are in Arlington National Cemetery, right beside those of people like Staff Sergeant Ayman Abdelrahman Taha.

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Bibliography of Essential Readings on Chinese Philosophy

Essential Readings on Chinese Philosophy

Compiled by Bryan W. Van Norden
(version of August 5, 2015)

 This list represents one opinion on the essential translations and secondary readings in English on Chinese philosophy. This is not a comprehensive list, and it focuses on works that will appeal to those with interest in philosophy. Obviously, such a list is, of necessity, parochial and biased in certain ways. I apologize in advance for offending anyone by leaving out their favorite books or articles. Feel free to email me with comments or suggestions about this bibliography. My username is “brvannorden” at host vassar dot edu.

Van Norden Intro Classical Chinese PhilosophyIvanhoe Readings in Classical Chin Phil Van Norden Mengzi Tiwald Readings Later Chinese Phil
Van Norden Confucius and the Analects

Table of Contents

  1. General Histories
  2. General Anthologies
  3. Confucianism
  4. Daoism (Taoism)
  5. Mohism
  6. I Ching (Changes)
  7. Han Dynasty
  8. Thematic Studies
  9. Buddhism
  10. Neo-Confucianism
  11. Online Resources

1. General Histories

  • Angus C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1989). ISBN: 0812690885. One of the best general histories of ancient Chinese philosophy so far. Much of this book is culled from Graham’s earlier articles. Graham is not as strong as Schwartz (see below) on Confucianism, but his discussion of Later Mohism and the “School of Names” is better than Schwartz’s. You can order this book
  • Benjamin Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1985). ISBN: 0674961919. One of the best general histories of ancient Chinese philosophy so far. Schwartz is not as strong as Graham (see above) on Later Mohism and the “School of Names,” but his discussion of Confucianism is better than Graham’s. You can order this book
  • Bryan W. Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2011). A general history of ancient Chinese philosophy. Chapters are brief and designed to be accessible to undergraduates or general readers. You can order this book

2. General Anthologies [ToC]

  • Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2005). Want to order this book?
  • Justin Tiwald and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds., Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2014). Want to order this book?

3. Confucianism [ToC]

  1. Translations

i. Analects of Confucius

  • Edward Slingerland, trans., Confucius: Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003). In my opinion, this is the best English translation of the Among its advantages is that it includes commentary on each passage, which gives English readers an experience more faithful to that of generations of Chinese readers. There are also several very useful appendices. For those who prefer a different format, Slingerland has also published The Essential Analects, a partial translation with the commentary grouped at the end of the text. Want to order this book?
  • Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks, The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and His Successors (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 342 pp. ISBN: 0-231-10430-8. This translation includes extensive notes and commentary. The Brookses present their controversial theory of how to sort the “books” and “chapters” of the Analects according to the historical order in which they were composed. Want to order this book?
  • C. Lau, Confucius: The Analects (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), 249 pp. ISBN: 0140443487. Very good translation with interpretive introduction and scholarly appendices on various topics. Want to order this book?
  • James Legge, Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean (New York: Dover Books, 1971; o.p. 1893), 503 pp. Translation of the Analects along with two other important Confucian texts. A little dated, but still worth consulting. Includes Chinese text and, as Legge himself observes, “Critical and Exegetical Notes, Prolegomena, Copious Indexes, and Dictionary of All Characters.” Want to order this book?
  • Simon Leyes, trans., and Michael Nylan, ed., The Analects (W.W. Norton and Company, 2014). Like other works in the “Norton Critical Editions” series, this includes a translation of the primary text, along with selected secondary essays. Want to order this book?
  • Arthur Waley, The Analects of Confucius (New York: Vintage Books, 1989; o.p. 1938), 257 pp. Very good translation with interpretive introduction and scholarly appendices on various topics. (Different, in defensible ways, from Lau’s translation.) Want to order this book?

ii. Mencius (Mengzi)

Although he is less well-known in the West than Confucius, the fourth-century B.C. philosopher Mencius has had an immense influence on Chinese (as well as Korean and Japanese) culture. Indeed, one could argue that his influence on China alone is equivalent to the combined influence of Plato and St. Paul on Western civilization. In addition, Mencius is more systematic and “philosophical” than Confucius.

  • C. Lau, Mencius (New York: Penguin Books, 1970). Very good translation with interpretive introduction and scholarly appendices on various topics. See especially “On Mencius’ Use of the Method of Analogy in Argument,” Appendix 5, pp. 235-263. Want to order this book?
  • James Legge, Mencius (New York: Dover Books, 1970; o.p. 1895). A little dated, but still worth consulting. Includes Chinese text, indexes and critical notes. Want to order this book?
  • Bryan W. Van Norden et al., “Comments and Corrections to D.C. Lau’s Mencius.”
  • Bryan W. Van Norden, trans., The Essential Mengzi (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2007). Partial translation with commentary on selected passages at the end of the volume. Want to order this book?
  • Bryan W. Van Norden, trans., Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2005). A translation with interlineal commentary. Want to order this book?

See also Nivison, “On Translating Mencius”, in his The Ways of Confucianism.

iii. Xunzi (Hsün-tzu)

  • Eric Hutton, trans., Xunzi: The Complete Text (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). This is the best English translation of the complete writings of Xunzi, one of the most philosophically sophisticated ancient Confucian thinkers. The translation is elegant, accessible, and accurate. In addition to being an important work of high-level scholarship, Hutton’s translation will be invaluable for non-specialists with an interest in Chinese thought, ranging from advanced undergraduates and graduate students, to scholars in Chinese language and literature, history, philosophy, religious studies, and other disciplines. Hutton’s work is more comprehensive and more philosophically precise than Watson’s translation, but much more readable than Knoblock’s version. Hutton makes some innovative editorial choices in this translation, such as rendering the poetry Xunzi cites into rhyming verse in English. Not everyone will agree with this decision, but I find that it makes the poetry much easier to read and appreciate. I also concur with Hutton’s decision to add line numbers to chapters. Those of us who encourage our students to use the technique of “close reading” will particularly appreciate this. Want to order this book?
  • John Knoblock, trans., Xunzi, reprint (Hunan Publishing House, 1999), 2 vols. The Chinese and English texts. Want to order this book?
  • John Knoblock, Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988, 1990, 1994), 3 vols. A complete translation with extensive introductory material (which is better on textual and narrowly historical matters than philosophy). Want to order volume 1 of this book?
  • Burton Watson, Hsün-tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 177 pp. Fairly good translation of selected passages.
  1. Other
  • Ian Johnston and Wang Ping, trans., Daxue and Zhongyong (Chinese University Press, 2012). Chinese text and English translation of the original text of the Great Learning and the Mean, along with two sets of commentaries. You can read a review of this book here. Want to order this book?

B. Secondary Discussions of Confucianism [ToC]

i. Confucius

  • Herrlee G. Creel, Confucius and the Chinese Way, reprint (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960; o.p. Confucius: The Man and the Myth, 1949). Perhaps the best general study of Confucius in English, this is a thoughtful discussion of his life, his era, and the contemporary relevance of his thought. Any book this old (the original version was published in the 40’s, I think) is a little out of date. And Creel sometimes succumbs to the temptation to read Confucius as a proto-Deweyan pragmatist-democrat. However, Creel was one of the great Sinologists of the 20th century, and even when one disagrees with his conclusions, he notes his sources and explains why he accepts or rejects them. In my opinion, Creel provides many insights into the teachings of “the Master,” and gives an engaging (if speculative) portrait of his life. Want to order this book used or order a reprint of the original edition?
  • Ken Brashier uploaded and translated “The Evil Life of Confucius,” a Cultural Revolution era propaganda poster.
  • Erin Cline, Confucius, Rawls, and the Sense of Justice (Fordham University Press, 2012). Want to order this book?
  • Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (New York: Harper & Row, 1972). Controversial, but several chapters are very insightful. A good critique of some of Fingarette’s less plausible claims may be found in Schwartz. Want to order this book?
  • David Jones, ed., Confucius Now: Contemporary Encounters with the Analects (Chicago: Open Court, 2008). Want to order this book?
  • Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson, The Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage through the Ages (Crown Archetype, 2010). Want to order this book?
  • Amy Olberding, ed., Dao Companion to the Analects (Springer, 2013). You can read a review of this book here. Want to order this book?
  • The UNESCO World Heritage site about the Temple and Cemetery of Confucius in Qufu includes videos and other useful information.
  • W. Van Norden, ed., Confucius and the Analects: New Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Want to order this book?

ii. Mencius (Mengzi)

  • Kwong-loi Shun, Mencius and Early Chinese Thought (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 295 pp. ISBN: 0804727880. Everyone in the West has heard of Confucius. But in East Asia, Mencius is known as the “second sage” of Confucianism, and has been almost as influential. This book is a serious scholarly study of Mencius as a philosopher. Shun (a professor in the Philosophy Department at U.C. Berkeley) carefully argues for his interpretations of key terms and claims in the sayings of Mencius, always considering the intellectual context in which Mencius thought and lived. Shun has well-defended positions regarding Mencius’s views on the key virtues (benevolence, righteousness, wisdom and propriety), and the relationships among the human heart-mind, human nature, and ethical cultivation. This is a real tour de force as a work of scholarship. Want to order this book?
  • Alan K-L Chan, ed., Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations (University of Hawaii Press, 2002). You can read a review of this book. Want to order this book?
  • Angus C. Graham, “The Background of the Mencian Theory of Human Nature,” in his Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990). Want to order this book?
  • Philip J. Ivanhoe, Ethics in the Confucian Tradition: The Thought of Mengzi and Wang Yangming (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002). How Mencius was (mis)understood by one leading Neo-Confucian. A good introduction to the thought of both Mencius and Wang Yang-ming, with chapters contrasting their views on “The Nature of Morality,” “Human Nature,” “The Origin of Evil,” “Self-cultivation,” and “Sagehood.” Want to order this book?
  • Xiusheng Liu and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds., Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002). Excellent collection of secondary essays! See especially the contributions by Hutton, Ivanhoe, and Wang. Want to order this book?
  • Lee H. Yearley, Mencius and Aquinas: Theories of Virtue and Conceptions of Courage (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990). Want to order this book?
  • Bryan W. Van Norden, “Mencius,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

iii. Hsun Tzu (Xunzi)

  • Paul Rakita Goldin, Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi (Chicago: Open Court, 1999). ISBN: 0-8126-9400-7. Intriguing secondary study on Xunzi, and also one of the best books on early Chinese philosophy to come out in recent years. Want to order this book?
  • Thornton Kline and Justin Tiwald, eds., Ritual and Religion in the Xunzi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014). Want to order this book?
  • Thornton Kline and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds., Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2000). Want to order this book?
  • Edward J. Machle, Nature and Heaven in the Xunzi (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993). A very detailed (and very good) textual study of the “Essay on Heaven” by Xunzi (Hsun Tzu). Want to order this book?
  1. Broader Studies of Confucianism
  • Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation, reprint (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2000). I am aware of no other work in English that introduces such a broad range of figures from the Confucian tradition with such depth and accuracy. This is one of those rare works that provides an accessible introduction to the novice, yet challenges the specialist scholar. As Ivanhoe observes, Confucius mentions both study (xue) and reflection (si) as methods of self-cultivation. This introduces a tension within Confucianism, never definitively resolved, between learning from texts and teachers vs. reflecting upon one’s own innate moral sense. Ivanhoe traces how this tension plays out in a variety of later Confucian philosophers, including the seminal figures Mengzi, Xunzi, Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming, and Dai Zhen. Want to order this book?
  • Daniel K. Gardner, Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). Want to order this book?
  • C. Lau, “Theories of Human Nature in Mencius and Shyuntzyy,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 15:3 (1953), pp. 541-565. An excellent and often overlooked comparative study of Mencius and Hsun Tzu.
  • Donald Munro, The Concept of Man in Early China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969). A theoretical overview, stressing the differences between early Chinese and Western thought. Focuses on Confucians and Daoists. Want to order this book?
  • ——, The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy, ed. Bryan W. Van Norden (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1996). Nivison’s collected papers on Chinese philosophy, mostly on Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism. Some essays are good for undergraduates or beginners (including “Weakness of Will in Ancient Chinese Philosophy” and “The Philosophy of Wang Yangming”) while others are fairly heavy going. Want to order this book?
  • W. Van Norden, “Mengzi and Xunzi: Two Views of Human Agency,” International Philosophical Quarterly 32:2 (June 1992), pp. 161-184. Overview of the philosophies of Mencius (Mengzi) and Hsun Tzu (Xunzi), focusing on their views of the role of desire in self-cultivation.
  • Lee H. Yearley, Mencius and Aquinas (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990). A brilliant comparative study. Want to order this book?

4. Daoism (Taoism) [ToC]

  1. Translations of Daoist Texts
  1. Anthologies
  • Livia Kohn, The Taoist Experience: An Anthology (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993). ISBN: 0791415805. Readings from “Taoist” texts from a variety of periods and orientations. Want to order this book?
  1. Daodejing (Tao Te Ching)

The Dao De Jing is one of the two foundational texts of Daoism, and one of the most frequently translated texts in the world, but unfortunately most of the translations are quite unreliable. Following are a few of the good translations.

  • Richard John Lynn, trans., The Classic of the Way and Virtue: A New Translation of the Tao-te Ching of Laozi as Interpreted by Wang Bi (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004). Although it is a challenging read, this is the best introduction to the Daodejing overall because it provides the classic commentary on the text by Wang Bi. If you only read Lynn’s translation of Wang Bi’s “Outline Introduction to the Laozi” section, you will learn a lot. Want to order this book?

The standard text of the Dao de jing for many years was the so-called “Wang Bi” text, so most translations are based on that text. However, an earlier (and slightly different) version of the text was found at a placed called “Mawangdui,” so many recent translations are based on this older (but more recently discovered) version.

Wang Bi (Wang Pi) Version

  • Philip J. Ivanhoe, The Daodejing of Laozi (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003). Want to order this book?
  • C. Lau, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 192 pp. Very good translation with interpretive introduction, scholarly appendices, and some textual notes.

Mawangdui (Ma-wang-tui) Version

  • Robert G. Henricks, Lao-tzu: Te-Tao Ching (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), 282 pp. ISBN: 0345370996. Very good, scholarly translation with many notes. (Perhaps a little too scholarly for undergraduates — they may be scared off.) Provides Chinese text of the Mawangdui manuscript only. (This is somewhat unfortunate, as the Mawangdui manuscipts are incomplete and must be supplemented with the Wang Bi text to be readable.) Want to order this book?
  • C. Lau, Lao-tzu: Tao Te Ching (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library, 1994). ISBN: 0679433163. Updated translation, based on the Mawangdui texts. Omits Lau’s (interesting) original introduction, but retains the appendices. The version of this translation published in Hong Kong (not legal for sale in the U.S. because of copyright problems) includes both the old and the new translation, along with the Chinese text. Want to order this book?
  • Victor Mair, Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way (New York: Bantam Books, 1990). ISBN: 055334935X. Very good translation, although some of the notes and other supporting material is rather controversial. Want to order this book?

iii. Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu)

Although less well-known in the West than the Dao De Jing , the eponymous Zhuangzi is a beautitul classic of world literature and a truly great work of “anti-rationalist” philosophy. (I actually find it much more beautiful and interesting than the Dao De Jing.) The complete Zhuangzi is a fairly long work, but scholars now agree that most of it cannot be attributed to the philosopher Zhuangzi, a contemporary of Mencius (see above) who lived around 300 B.C. However, the first seven sections of the text, the “Inner Chapters,” are believed by many (although not all) scholars to be by one hand.

  • Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 148 pp. ISBN: 0-231-10595-9 This is the most readable translation for the general reader of the Inner (first seven) Chapters, along with several other sections. Trust me: you will love reading this! Want to order this book?
  • C. Graham, trans., Chuang-tzu: The Inner Chapters, reprint (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2001; o.p. 1981), 292 pp. Very good translation of the Inner (first seven) Chapters, with some material from other chapters too, although Graham is fond of re-arranging the text (believing it to be out of order). Introductory discussion also very good. Unfortunately, this book is out of print.
  • Victor Mair, Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1998; o.p. New York: Bantam Books, 1994), 402 pp. ISBN: 082482038X. A very good, new, complete translation of the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). Somewhat less “literary” a translation than Watson’s. The introduction, which gives a brief survey of early Chinese philosophy, is not bad either. Want to order this book?
  • ——, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), 397 pp. Very good complete translation.
  • Brook Ziporyn, trans., Zhuangzi: Essential Writings: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2009). You can read a review of this book here. Want to order this book?

B. Secondary Discussions of Daoism [ToC]

  • Alan K.L. Chan, Two Visions of the Way: A Study of the Wang Pi and the Ho-shang Kung Commentaries on the Lao-Tzu (SUNY Press, 1991). ISBN: 0-7914-0456-0. Want to order this book?
  • Scott Cook, ed., Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003). Read a review of this book. Want to order this book?
  • Herrlee G. Creel, What Is Taoism? And Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970). ISBN: 0-226-12047-3.
  • Mark Csikszentmihalyi and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds., Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999). Excellent anthology focusing on philosophical issues. Want to order this book?
  • Paul Kjellberg and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds., Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996), 240 pp. Excellent collection of articles, plus a comprehensive bibliography. Want to order this book?
  • Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue, eds., Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998). A good collection focusing more on historical and textual issues. Want to order this book?
  • Livia Kohn, Sitting in Oblivion: The Heart of Daoist Meditation (Three Pines Press, 2010). Want to order this book?
  • Victor Mair, ed., Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), 171 pp. See especially the articles by A.C. Graham, Victor Mair, and Lee Yearley.
  • Ariane Rump and Wing-tsit Chan, trans., Commentary on the Lao Tzu by Wang Pi (University of Hawaii Press, 1979). ISBN: 0-8248-0677-8. A translation of one of the classic commentaries on the Dao de jing. Want to order this book?
  • Rudolf G. Wagner, The Craft of a Chinese Commentator: Wang Bi on the Laozi (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1999. ISBN: 0-7914-4396-5. Want to order this book?

5. Mohism [ToC]

  • C. Graham, Later Mohist Logic, Ethics, and Science, reprint (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 2003), 590 pp. Scholary and technical, but a landmark study of the Mohist “dialectical chapters.” to order this book?
  • Ian Johnston, trans., The Book of Master Mo (New York: Penguin Books, 2014). Want to order this book?
  • Scott Lowe, Mo Tzu’s Religious Blueprint for a Chinese Utopia (Lewiston, UK: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 200 pp. A good summary of the core chapters of the
  • Yi-pao Mei, The Ethical and Political Works of Motse (Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1973; o.p. 1929) 275 pp. Translation of a number of passages, including many not included in Watson.
  • Burton Watson, Mo Tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 140 pp. Translations of selections from the “synoptic chapters.” Want to order this book?

6. The I Ching (The Changes) [ToC]

  • Cary F. Baynes and Hellmut Wilhelm, trans., The I Ching (Princeton University Press, 1992). ISBN: 069109750X. One of the best translations based on the traditional version of the text. This translation includes an interesting Foreward by psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Want to order this book?
  • James Legge, trans., The I Ching, 2nd ed. (New York: Dover Books, 1975). ISBN: 0486210626. One of the best translations based on the traditional version of the text. (Legge’s translation is available in several editions from several publishers; however, Dover Books are reasonably priced and well bound.) Want to order this book?
  • Richard John Lynn, trans., The Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the I Ching as Interpreted by Wang Bi (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004). Want to order this book?
  • John Minford, trans., I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom (New York: Penguin Books, 2014). Want to order this book?
  • Edward Shaughnessy, trans., The I Ching (Ballantine Books, 1998). ISBN: 0345421124. This translation is based on earlier versions of the text of the I Ching, which have only recently been recovered from archaeological sites. Want to order this book?
  • Kidder Smith, Peter Bol, Joseph Adler, and Don Wyatt, Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching (Princeton University Press, 1990). ISBN: 0691055904. This is the best secondary discussion I have seen on the I Ching: clear and scholarly. Although it focusses on Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) uses of this text, there is also a chapter on “The I Ching Prior to the Sung.” Want to order this book?

7. Han Dynasty [ToC]

  • Mark Csikszentmihalyi, ed., Readings in Han Chinese Thought (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006). Excellent anthology of readings from a variety of Han Dynasty texts and authors. Want to order this book?
  • John S. Major, Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought : Chapters Three, Four and Five of the Huainanzi (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993). ISBN: 0791415864 . The paperback edition of this book is currently out of print, but you can still order the hardback edition of this book.
  • Sarah Ann Queen and John S. Major, trans., Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn (Columbia University Press, 2015). Want to order this book?
  • Burton Watson, Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsün Tzu and Han Fei Tzu (New York: Columbia University Press). Three translations bound together in hardback. Cheaper than making students buy all three individually. General note: An interesting aspect of Watson’s translations is that he seems to translate from Japanese translations of the works, rather than directly from the Classical Chinese.
  • Wang Chong, Lun-heng [Balanced Discourses], Alfred Forke, trans., reprint (BiblioBazaar, 2009). Want to order this book?
  • Yang Hsiung, The Canon of Supreme Mystery, Michael Nylan, trans. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993). Want to order this book?
  • Yang Xiong, Exemplary Figures: Fa Yan, Michael Nylan, trans. (University of Washington Press, 2013). Want to order this book?
  • Yang Xiong, Philosophy of the Fa Yan, Jeffrey Bullock, trans. (Mountain Mind Press, 2011). Want to order this book?

8. Thematic Studies [ToC]

Works in this category typically follow some special topic through two or more early Chinese thinkers.

  • Lee H. Yearley, Mencius and Aquinas (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990). This is a brilliant comparative Yearley’s strength is that he avoids simplistic comparisons. His motto is “similarities in differences and differences in similarities,” meaning that superficial similarities often mask deeper differences, while superficial differences sometimes mask deeper similarities. Yearley uses this approach to explore Mencius (Mengzi) arguably the second-most influential Confucian philosopher, and Thomas Aquinas, the brilliant synthesizer of Aristotelianism and Christianity. This is a wide-ranging study, discussing comparative methodology, practical rationality, the nature of virtue, and how to distinguish courage as a genuine virtue from its semblances and counterfeits. Want to order this book?
  • Stephen C. Angle, Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy (Polity, 2012). Want to order this book?
  • Angus C. Graham, Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990). ISBN: 0791404501. An excellent collection of essays on many topics, including the notion of “human nature” in both early Chinese thought and in Neo-Confucianism, and the “White Horse Paradox.” (Not a book for beginners, though.) Want to order this book?
  • Christoph Harbsmeier, “Marginalia Sino-logica,” in Robert Allinson, ed., Understanding the Chinese Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 125-166. Discussion of “truth” and related concepts in early Chinese thought.
  • ——, “The Mass Noun Hypothesis and the Part-Whole Analysis of the White Horse Dialogue,” in Henry Rosemont, ed., Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts (La Salle, IL: Open Court Press, 1991), pp. 49-66. A discussion of nouns in Classical Chinese.
  • John B. Henderson, Scripture, Canon, and Commentary: A Comparison of Confucian and Western Exegesis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 247 pp. This is a brilliant and often-overlooked study, showing how different commentarial traditions often make similar assumptions and use similar interpretive strategies.
  • Lisa A. Raphals, Sharing the Light : Representations of Women and Virtue in Early China (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998), 348 pp. ISBN: 0791438562. I have not had a chance to read this book yet, but, based on Raphals’ earlier work, I expect that it will contain much interesting detail. Want to order this book?
  • May Sim, Remastering Morals with Confucius and Aristotle (Cambridge University Press, 2007). You can read a review of this book here. Want to order this book?
  • Bryan W. Van Norden, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Want to order this book?
  • Robin Wang, ed., Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003). Want to order this book?
  • David Wong, “Universalism vs. Love with Distinctions: An Ancient Debate Revived,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 16:3/4 (September/December 1989), pp. 251-272. Stimulating discussion of Confucians and Mohists on whether we should care for all humans equally.
  • Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue (Routledge, 2007). Want to order this book?

9. Buddhism [ToC]

A. Indian Background

  • Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2007). This is the best introduction to the Indian schools of Buddhism as philosophy. It discusses Theravadan Buddhism, as well as the various schools of Mahayana, including Yogacara and Madhyamaka. Want to order this book?
  • Christopher W. Gowans, Philosophy of the Buddha: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2003.
  • B. Horner, Milinda’s Questions, 2 vols. (United Kingdom: Pali Text Society, 1963-64). ISBN: 0-86013-046-0 and 0-86013-047-9. A complete translation of a work also known as The Questions of King Menander. Go here for information about ordering this book in the U.S.
  • K.G. Mendis, ed., The Questions of King Milinda, I.B. Horner, trans. (Vipassana Research Publications, 1993). ISBN: 9552400678. This is an abridgement of Horner’s complete translation (see below) of the work also known as The Questions of King Menander. This is a Theravadan Buddhist work (written in Pali) which is very interesting philosophically for its discussion of issues such as “no-self.” Want to order this book?
  • Nagarjuna, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, trans. with commentary by Jay L. Garfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). ISBN: 0-19-509336-4. Nagarjuna is one of the most influential and profound Buddhist philosophers. (Nagarjuna’s philosophy influenced the development of Hua-yen and Ch’an in China.) This translation of his major work includes a very clear commentary by a Western-trained philosopher. Want to order this book?
  • Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grove Press, 1979), 151 pp. This is about Theravada as opposed to Mahayana Buddhism (the latter being what is most influential in China), but it is one of the clearest and most philosophically accurate introductions to Buddhism of which I am aware. Want to order this book?

B. Chinese Buddhist Texts

  • Stephen Addiss et al., eds., Zen Sourcebook (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2008). Want to order this book?
  • Peter Gregory, trans., Inquiry into the Origin of Humanity (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995). Want to order this book?
  • Burton Watson, trans., The Lotus Sutra (Columbia University Press, 1993). Want to order this book?
  • Burton Watson, trans., The Vimalakirti Sutra (Columbia University Press, 2000). Although originally an Indian Buddhist text, this work had an immense influence on Chinese Buddhism. Want to order this book?
  • Philip B. Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), 212+ pp. Annotated translation of one of the fundamental texts of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. Includes the Chinese text.

C. Secondary Discussions of Chinese Buddhism

  • Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, rev. ed. (Parallax Press, 2009). This is a very readable introduction to the metaphysics of Hua-yen and Chan (Zen) Buddhism by a Vietnamese monk and peace activist. Want to order this book?
  • Jinhua Chen, Philosopher, practitioner, politician: The many lives of Fazang (643-712) (Leiden: Brill, 2007). Want to order this book?
  • Francis H. Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (University Park, Penna.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), 146 pp. A fairly good and often overlooked discussion of one of the most important Chinese Buddhist schools. Unfortunately, this book is currently out of print.
  • Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History, vol. 1, India and China (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1994), 387 pp. The standard history of the subject.
  • Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery, reprint (Vintage Books, 1999). First-person account of a Westerner who learned about Zen through studying archery. Although technically about Japanese Zen, it is also relevant to understanding Chinese Chan. Want to order this book?
  • Tao Jiang, Contexts and Dialogue: Yogacara Buddhism and Modern Psychology on the Subliminal Mind (University of Hawaii Press, 2006). Want to order this book?
  • Stephen S. Teiser and Jacqueline Stone, eds., Readings of the Lotus Sutra (Columbia University Press, 2009). Want to order this book?
  • Morton Schlüter and Stephen S. Teiser, eds., Readings of the Platform Sutra (Columbia University Press, 2012). Want to order this book?

10. Neo-Confucianism [ToC]

Han Yü

  • Charles Hartman, Han Yü and the T’ang Search for Unity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986). 

Shao Yong

  • Don J. Wyatt, The Recluse of Loyang: Shao Yung and the Moral Evolution of Early Sung Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996), 340 pp.

The Cheng Brothers

The philosophers who, in the opinion of many scholars, established the mature metaphysics of Neo-Confucianism. Subtle differences between the two brothers, of which they seem to have been unaware, led to the major schism between the “Cheng-Zhu” and “Lu-Wang” schools of Neo-Confucianism.

  • Angus C. Graham, “What Was New in the Ch’eng-Chu Theory of Human Nature?” in Graham, Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature, pp. 412-435. An excellent discussion of the ethical implications of the mature, Neo-Confucian view of human nature.
  • ——, Two Chinese Philosophers (La Salle, Il.: Open Court Press, 1992; o.p. 1958), 201 pp. Excellent introduction. Want to order this book?

Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi)

This philosopher has been compared to Thomas Aquinas because of his masterful intellectual synthesis, which became orthodoxy in China and Korea.

  • Daniel K. Gardner, Chu Hsi: Learning to Be a Sage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 218 pp. ISBN: 0-520-06525-5 Excellent translation of selections from the writings of Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) along with very good interpretive notes. Want to order this book?
  • Daniel K. Gardner, The Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2007). You can read a review of this book here. Want to order this book?
  • Wing-tsit Chan, ed., Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986), 644 pp. Collection of essays by various scholars; some excellent, some abysmal.
  • Donald J. Murno, Images of Human Nature: A Sung Portrait (Princeton University Press, 1988), 322 pp. ISBN: 0691073309. Traces and attempts to explicate the use of key Neo-Confucian images. Want to order this book?

Wang Yangming

Deeply influential Neo-Confucian critic of the orthodox school of Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi.

Chang Hsueh-ch’eng (Zhang Xuecheng)

An 18th century historian and philosopher of history who has been compared to Hegel and Vico.

  • Philip J. Ivanhoe, trans., On Ethics and History: Essays and Letters of Zhang Xuecheng (Stanford University Press, ). Want to order this book?
  • David S. Nivison, The Life and Thought of Chang Hsueh-ch’eng (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), 336 pp. ISBN: 0804702306. An acclaimed intellectual biography. Want to order this book?
  • ———-, “The Philosophy of Zhang Xuecheng,” in Nivison, The Ways of Confucianism, pp. 249-260.

Dai Zhen (Tai Chen)

Brilliant critic of the entire Neo-Confucian tradition, who demonstrated that Neo- Confucians see their traditions through Buddhist lenses.

  1. Online Resources [ToC]
  1. Classic Chinese Texts Online
  1. Translations of Important Texts
  1. Miscellaneous Resources
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Should the Ethics of Presidential Candidates Matter?

The classical view on the relationship between ethics and rulership can be traced back to Plato (424-348 BCE), whose Republic argues that a state will never be well governed unless its rulers are virtuous.  Plato’s student Aristotle challenged his master on many issues (rejecting Plato’s radical views on gender, the family, and the private ownership of wealth), but the two agreed in linking personal virtue and effective leadership.  In contrast, the foundational texts of modern political philosophy – The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) – distinguish the qualities of a skillful sovereign from the traits of a virtuous person.  What can this debate between the ancients and the moderns teach us about the current Presidential race?

One can make a prima facie case that virtue has little to do with being a good President.  Jimmy Carter, a sincerely devout Sunday-school teacher, was one of the most ineffectual of Presidents. In contrast, Jefferson, Eisenhower, Roosevelt, and Clinton have been ranked either great or at least very good Presidents by most historians, but each had extra-marital romantic relationships that were – what shall we say? – problematic. Perhaps Machiavelli is right, and what we need from our leaders is not virtue but virtù – the amoral excellences that made states like the Roman Empire great, including cunning, disciplined self-interest, and daring.

I think that both the classical idealist and the modern realist are wrong about Presidential virtue.  Virtue is an important trait of successful Presidents.  As Robert W. Merry notes in The National Interest, Lincoln’s greatness as President depended in large part on his virtues like tenacity (even in the face of what sometimes seemed like certain defeat), and the wisdom that allowed him to envision what America needed to become. But the traditional conception of virtue is mistaken in a key respect.  Plato and Aristotle were committed to the doctrine of “the unity of the virtues.”  According to the unity of the virtues, in order to have any one virtue, you need to have them all.  This is plausible in some cases.  Consider the relationship between benevolence and wisdom.  Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) quipped, “Hell is paved with good intentions,” which is a poetic way of saying that in order to have genuine compassion you need to also have common sense.  But the records and personal characters of our Presidents don’t support the unity of the virtues in every case.  According to the unity of the virtues, Carter should have been a great President: Carter genuinely possesses virtues like loyalty, generosity, piety, and fidelity, so he should also possess the practical wisdom that a President needs. In contrast, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Clinton should be bad Presidents:  they each demonstrated disloyalty in one of the most important and intimate of human relationships, so they should lack all the other virtues.

However, the unity of the virtues is not plausible as an ironclad rule.  Humans are more complex than that, and sometimes manifest valleys of vice next to peaks of virtue.  Nixon is an excellent example of the complexities of character.  It took impressive fortitude for Nixon to come back again and again from political setbacks (including the devastating failure of Eisenhower to offer Nixon his firm support in the 1960 election).  In addition, re-normalizing relations with China required brilliant strategic insight and courage to break with the views of many in his own party.  However, Watergate was a largely self-inflicted wound.  Nixon believed (perhaps rightly) that Kennedy had eked out a slim victory in 1960 through voter fraud in Illinois. Nixon lacked the healthy pride that would have allowed him to move beyond his bitterness over this.  Kissinger expressed a deep insight into the limitations of Nixon’s character when he said, “He would have been a great, great man, had somebody loved him.”  Consequently, even though Nixon could easily defeat McGovern fair and square, operatives with connections to the White House engaged in needless political dirty tricks that would eventually lead to the only Presidential resignation in US history.  Looking at examples like Jefferson, Carter, and Nixon helps us to see that virtue and vice are far from binary.  In place of the unity of the virtues, we should adopt a “pragmatic idealism about Presidential virtue.”  We must demand virtue of our Presidents (idealism), but be prepared to evaluate them based on the complex relationships among their strengths and weaknesses (pragmatism).

Let’s see how a pragmatic idealism about Presidential virtue applies to a couple of the Republican candidates for the Presidency:  Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio.  Huckabee’s religious faith seems as bona fide as that of Carter.  He speaks movingly in his autobiography about how his experience as a Pastor shaped his political convictions.  But does he possess the practical wisdom that a President needs?  Over the last few weeks, Huckabee has repeatedly expressed his support for Josh Duggar.  Duggar is the eldest son of a Fundamentalist Christian family featured on the reality show, 19 Kids and Counting.  It recently came out that Josh Duggar had admitted to sexually molesting five underage girls (including four of his sisters) when he was a teenager.  The line taken by the Duggar family and repeated by Huckabee is that Josh is sincerely penitent for his sins, has been forgiven by his sisters, and is a changed man now. The issues surrounding these events that most commentators have focused on are certainly legitimate.  However, I want to draw attention to an ethical question that has been overlooked. Regardless of whether one thinks Josh Duggar is, or can be, reformed, and regardless of whether one thinks the media are “victimizing” the Duggars, it is undeniable that association with an admitted child molester is about the worst political liability one can imagine.  Can someone be an effective President who lacks the practical wisdom and sense of self-preservation to cut ties with such a person?  Whatever else one may think about the Duggar scandal, does it show a Presidential level of good judgment that Huckabee is willing to expend political capital defending this man?

Marco Rubio presents a very different issue.  There is evidence that he has shown poor judgment in managing his personal finances.  One writer editorialized that this shows Rubio “can’t be trusted [to] manage his own checkbook, much less run the country.”  But this argument is the unity of the virtues rearing its ugly head again. William Howard Taft was America’s fattest President, but his gluttony is irrelevant to the strengths and weaknesses of his administration.  Just as Taft’s gluttony is irrelevant to his achievements as President, so are Rubio’s personal spending habits irrelevant to his qualifications to become President.  We want a President who has a courageous commitment to a realistic ideal of the role of government (including government finances), and one who has the wisdom to organize support for this vision in his own party and among moderates in the opposition party.  I do not claim to know that Rubio has these virtues, but his personal finances do not tell us one way or the other.

In the Divine Comedy of Dante (1265-1321), sins are distinguished and punishments allotted according to their severity.  Adulterers are among the most sympathetic figures that Dante and Virgil encounter; those who are violent toward the defenseless are considered much worse, and Virgil warns Dante against sympathy toward them. This reflects Dante’s understanding (based in Catholic theology) of the complexity of human weaknesses. Any discussion of the need for our leaders to be virtuous must be similarly nuanced.  Virtues are connected in subtle and complicated ways and need not come in one monolithic block.  A pragmatic idealism about political virtues captures the fact that Presidents need genuine strength of character to succeed in the demanding role they occupy, but those strengths are not the same ones that make them good spouses, friends, or controllers of their household budgets.

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The Bone that Changed China

FamenTemple27The Famen Buddhist Temple (in what is now Shaanxi Province, in the People’s Republic of China) has been an important center for Buddhism since it was built near the end of the Six Dynasties period (220-581 CE). The temple is particularly famed for housing a Buddhist religious relic, an alleged finger bone of the Buddha. The relic had the reputation of producing miraculous cures, and several times during the Tang dynasty (618-906) it was brought to the royal palace, in nearby Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), when the emperor or empress was ill. During one procession from Famen to Chang’an, the bone was said to have restored sight and hearing to the blind and deaf along its route.

One of the most influential forms of Chinese Buddhism is Huayan. The monk Fazang (643-712 CE) was the Third Patriarch of Huayan Buddhism, and he is best known today for his philosophically sophisticated works such as “The Rafter Dialogue” and “Essay on the Golden Lion.” Less well known is his association with the Famen Temple. At the age of 16, he made a pilgrimage to Famen, and was so inspired by the bone of the Buddha that he set fire to his own finger as an offering to it. Much later, after becoming a leading figure in Chinese Buddhism, Fazang wrote a commentary on the apocryphal Fanwang sutra, the primary canonical source used to justify Buddhist self-immolation and bodily mutilation. In his commentary he enthusiastically supported the orthodoxy and piety of such actions, disagreeing with more moderate Buddhists who regarded stories of bodily mortification as metaphorical or simply upaya (myths used for pedagogic purposes).

About two generations after Fazang, Emperor Xianzong ordered that the bone of the Buddha be temporarily brought from Famen to the palace, so he could venerate it in person. This provoked the Confucian scholar Han Yu (768-824) to write his famous essay, “Memorandum on a Bone of the Buddha.” In this work, Han Yu harshly criticized Buddhism, claiming that its practices were foolish, and that its tax free monasteries and temples were a drain on state resources. One of Han Yu’s particular objections to Buddhism was that it encouraged people to engage in unhealthy practices of bodily mortification. (We can see from the example of Fazang that this charge is not without merit.) For Confucians like Han Yu, self-immolation and bodily mutilation are not only unnatural but also a violation of filial piety, because they involve intentionally damaging the body one received from one’s parents. Although Han Yu was banished by the emperor (who was an ardent Buddhist), his essay became a seminal document in Neo-Confucianism, the movement that revitalized Confucianism.

Zongmi (780-841 CE), the Fifth Patriach of Huayan Buddhism, was a contemporary of Han Yu’s, and wrote On the Origin of Humanity, a polemical work arguing for the superiority of Huayan to Confucianism, Daoism, and even other sects of Buddhism. (The title of this work may be a play on Han Yu’s essay “On the Origin of the Way,” another text critical of Buddhism.) Zongmi was also a supporter of religious self-mutilation, and lavishly praised a man who was so inspired by one of Zongmi’s public lectures that the man cut part of his own arm off as an offering. I am tempted to speculate that some of the Buddhist enthusiasm for self-mutilation was a manifestation of apotemnophilia, a mental illness in which individuals see parts of their own body as alien to themselves and crave their removal. (Apotemnophilia is recognized as a type of “Body Dysmorphic Disorder” according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.)

Famen Temple was temporarily closed in 845 CE as part of the Buddhist Persecution carried out under Emperor Wuzong (814-846 CE). One might expect, given what we have heard about Han Yu, that Wuzong’s anti-Buddhist crusade was instigated by Confucians. In fact, it was Daoists who encouraged Wuzong to eliminate Buddhism from China. When Buddhism first came to China from India during the Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE), relations between Buddhists and Daoists were cordial. The two religions often saw important parallels between each other’s teachings, and some even speculated that Laozi, the legendary founder of Daoism, was the same person as the Buddha. However, Buddhism and Daoism later became increasingly sectarian (perhaps because they were competing with one another for the support of the general populace and the government). Consider an incident from the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West. This famous fantasy is inspired by the historical monk Xuanzang, who made a long and dangerous pilgrimage to India to bring back Buddhist sutras. In one chapter of the novel, Xuanzang and his two companions (the Monkey King and Pigsy, an anthropomorphic monk-pig) use magic to liberate a city of Buddhists who are enslaved by evil Daoists.

The Buddhist Persecution ended with the death of Emepror Wuzong a year later, but Buddhism in China never regained the extent of influence it had among intellectuals and rulers in the Tang dynasty. Neo-Confucianism, inspired by the writings of anti-Buddhists like Han Yu, came to dominate intellectually and politically. Nonetheless, Buddhism remained an important popular religion, and Famen Temple continued to be an active center up until the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949). In accordance with Marx’s teaching that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” the practice of Buddhism was discouraged under Chinese Communism. Although the Famen Temple itself was nominally protected by law as a historical site, it was ransacked by members of the paramilitary Red Guard at the beginning of the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In an effort to protect the religious artifacts from the Red Guards, the abbot of the temple, Liangqing, immolated himself at the entrance to the True Relic Pagoda. (Perhaps Liangqing was the reincarnation of Fazang or Zongmi.)

When Mao Zedong died in 1976, the Cultural Revolution came to an end, and a much more moderate government assumed power. China’s contemporary government is largely supportive of tradition (as a way of encouraging nationalism). As a result, Famen temple is one of many historical sites that has been restored. The Chinese government also encourages capitalistic economic development, like tourism, so the grounds of Famen Temple have been enlarged to host the crowds who visit the temple (including close to 100,000 tourists on the first day of Chinese New Year alone). Fortunately for tourism (and Buddhism), Liangqing’s self-sacrifice was apparently successful, because when the True Relic Pagoda was restored in 1987, the relics were re-discovered, including the finger bone of the Buddha.   Admission to the temple is ¥28, while admission to the museum is ¥45.

The colorful history of Famen Temple and the alleged finger bone of the Buddha (allegedly rediscovered in 1987) is fascinating in its own right, and helps to illustrate the complex interplay of religion, politics, economics, and philosophy down to the present day.


Chen, Jinhua, “Fazang, the Holy Man,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28.1 (2005): 11-84. (Excellent brief biography of Fazang, along with some information about Zongmi.)

Tiwald Justin and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds. Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2014). (Includes representative works by Fazang, Han Yu, and Zongmi.)

Waley, Arthur, trans., Monkey: A Folk Tale of China (originally published 1942). (An abbreviated version of the classic novel, Journey to the West.)

Wang Zhiyong, “China’s Buddhist Mecca – Famen Temple – Enlarges,” (5 September 2007), (accessed 16 April 2015).

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Zhuangzi and Peirce on Truth and Rationality

If Western readers are familiar with any Taoist text, it is probably the Classic of the Way and Virtue, attributed to Laozi.  (Ronald Reagan even cited it in a State of the Union Address.)  However, cognoscenti are aware that the Zhuangzi is the Taoist classic that it most influential and most highly regarded in East Asia.  Among the many philosophically challenging passages in this book (named after its supposed author) is the following, which contains an argument that is brief but appears to be absolutely devastating for any conception of rationality:

Once you and I have started arguing, if you win and I lose, then are you really right and am I really wrong?  If I win and you lose, then am I really right and are you really wrong?  Is one of us right and the other one wrong?  Or are both of us right and both of us wrong?  If you and I can’t understand one another, then other people will certainly be even more in the dark.  (Ivanhoe and Van Norden, eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed., p. 223)

In order to appreciate the point of this passage, consider what it means for A to “win” in an argument with B.  It might mean that the audience of the argument (which could range from an ancient Chinese king to those who watched and listened to the Kennedy/Nixon Presidential debates in the 20th century) was convinced by A that A’s position is correct, while B’s position is mistaken.  Does this demonstrate that A is in fact correct and B is in fact mistaken?  We cannot believe this, because we all know of cases in which we believe an audience is mistaken in being convinced.  For example, if you believe in evolutionary theory, you must acknowledge that there are audiences that are convinced (mistakenly, in your view) by arguments for intelligent design.  Or, conversely, if you believe in intelligent design, you must acknowledge that there are audiences that are convinced (mistakenly, in your view) by evolutionary theory. This same problem will arise however we interpret the concept of A “winning” an argument with B.  Another way of framing Zhuangzi’s point is the following.  All we really know is whether people are convinced by certain considerations.  However, there is no way to establish that those considerations will arrive at the truth without begging the question in their favor.  (Ironically, Zhuangzi’s skeptical argument here undermines even itself:  all we know is whether we are convinced by his argument, but it is question-begging to assume that for that reason its conclusion is warranted.)

Is there any way to salvage rationality from Zhuangzi’s argument?  I can think of one.  The early 20th century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce proposed the definition that true beliefs are those that an ideal community of inquirers would converge on in the limit of history.  In other words, to say that a belief is true is to say that it is one of the beliefs that a community of ideal human thinkers would agree upon after discussing, observing, experimenting, and arguing over an infinite amount of time.  Of course, we never will achieve an ideal community of inquirers and we never will reach the end of time, but we can try to approximate the beliefs of that community.

How does this answer Zhuangzi’s challenge?  Zhuangzi suggests that the fact that an audience is convinced by an argument for a belief does not demonstrate that the belief in question is true.  This seems plausible, and Peirce would actually agree with it – at least as a description of any non-ideal community in the short term.  A non-ideal community in the short term could become convinced of any number of beliefs that are mistaken.  However, the beliefs that the ideal community of inquirers converge on in the limit of time is the standard of truth, so those beliefs are, by definition, not mistaken.

Although Peirce’s view is attractive in some ways, it involves a much more radical revision of our common-sense notion of truth than is obvious at first glance.  Peirce is not assuming that “true” means what we normally take it to mean (whatever that might be), and then simply asserting that an ideal community of inquirers will converge on the beliefs that are true in that sense.  This would be an empirical claim that two distinct properties just happen to refer to the same things:  “true” and “believed by an ideal community of inquirers.” But this is an empirical claim for which there is no evidence.  Peirce’s claim is not empirical, though; it is conceptual.  Peirce is stating that “true” means (or that we should start using it to mean) “believed by an ideal community of inquirers.” In other words, there is nothing to the notion of truth other than acceptance by an ideal community of inquirers.  So if Zhuangzi asked, “How do you know that the beliefs held by the ideal community of inquirers in the limit of history is true?” Peirce’s response would be, “That is what ‘true’ means. There is nothing more to truth than belief by that ideal community.”

But is Zhuangzi’s argument as powerful as I am making it out to be?  And has Peirce offered a plausible conception of truth?

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Review of Iris Murdoch’s Novel, The Nice and the Good

This is a review of Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Nice and the Good (1968).

f2481d0313f9301a0a7931623b9a63dcIris Murdoch (1919-1999) was one of the greatest English novelists of the 20th century, and also an important figure in philosophy.  In fact, she was a professor of philosophy at Oxford, and her collection of essays The Sovereignty of Good(1970) continues to stimulate discussion.  Her novels reflect her philosophical views, but they are largely devoid of technical terminology.  (A pedantic character in this novel uses the expression “sense datum” in conversation with a friend, who immediately mispronounces it as “sense of datum” [273].)  Murdoch’s most fundamental claim is that humans are, by nature, deeply narcissistic.  We are able to break out of our natural preoccupation with ourselves only through genuine love, be it love of beauty or love of what is genuinely good in another person.  The characters in this exquisitely written and engagingly complex novel illustrate the various ways in which love can manifest itself, and the tension between that love and our selfishness.

The central narrative of the novel is set in motion by the death of Radeechy, a civil servant who has apparently committed suicide in his office at work, but without leaving any suicide note.  Since Radeechy had access to classified information, the head of the office, Octavian Gray, assigns his subordinate John Ducane to investigate the death, and confirm that there is no security risk.  Ducane is a talented, dedicated man, but one with a streak of “strict low church Glaswegian Protestantism,” which left him with “a devil of pride, a stiff Calvinistic Scottish devil, who was quite capable of bringing Ducane to utter damnation” (78).  Of course, Radeechy’s suicide will turn out to be a complex matter, and the plot is quite engaging.  Several times while reading I spontaneously muttered “Oh no,” out loud.  But this is really a novel of characters, driven by the web of personal relationships that radiate out from Ducane and Octavian.  As in any great novel, the characters just seem “right.”  They are more real than real people, the way Sherlock Holmes or Michael Corleone seem to us.   There is no easy way to summarize the cast of characters without sounding breathless, so bear with me for a moment.

Octavian and his wife Kate are wealthy, with a small estate in the countryside outside London. Ducane is, in addition to being Octavian’s subordinate at work, a family friend, so he often visits the Gray household, which supports a menagerie of people.  (One of the aspects of the novel that makes it intriguing for American readers is seeing a mode of life that we have no analogue for, and that perhaps no longer exists in England either.) A family friend, Mary Clothier, lives at the house and helps out, almost like a servant.  She is a widow, and is in love with Willy Kost, a Holocaust survivor who lives in a cottage, away from the main house.  However, Willy seems too emotionally damaged to reciprocate Mary’s love.  Mary’s son, Pierce, has grown up in the house.  Pierce is infatuated with Barbara, the daughter of Octavian and Kate.  She has just returned from finishing school in Switzerland, having blossomed into a nubile young lady, but she treats Pierce with callous disdain.  At some level, Barbara realizes that she is being cruel to Pierce, but she is having trouble navigating the loss of innocence that becoming an adult entails:  “When I was younger, when I read in the papers and in books and things about really nasty people, bad people, I felt so completely good and innocent inside myself, I felt that these people were just utterly different from me, that I could never become bad or behave really badly like them. …I’m afraid it’s all turning out to be much more difficult than I expected” (63). Another frequent visitor to the Gray household is Paula, a brilliant classicist who has a pair of preternaturally bright, pre-pubescent twins, Edward and Henrietta.  Paula is divorced from Richard Biranne, who works in the same office with Octavian and Ducane.  Biranne is known to be a rake, so everyone assumes that Paula divorced him.  In fact, Biranne’s vices were part of his appeal to Paula:  “Chaste Paula, cool Paula, bluestocking Paula, had found in her husband’s deviously lecherous nature a garden of undreamt delights” (147). The cause for the divorce was actually Paula’s affair with another man, Eric Sears, which ended so disastrously that Eric fled the country. But Eric has written that he is coming back.  Paula does not want him to return, and she is now in a whirlwind of uncertainty about how to deal with him.

Ducane himself is pursuing a relationship with Kate Gray.  This relationship is not an affair as we would think of it, though.  It is more like a Platonic love in the truest sense of that term, and the two never do more than kiss:  “The wonderful thing about Kate was that she was unattainable; and this was what was to set him free forever” (104).  Moreover, Octavian is fully aware of Ducane’s relationship with his wife.  In fact, we learn that Kate and Octavian are titillated by her flirtations with other men, so much so that discussing it is part of their foreplay.  Ducane’s relationship with Kate is complicated by the fact that Ducane himself has been trying to end a relationship with Jessica, an art teacher much younger than himself. Jessica’s “integrity took the form of a contempt for the fixed, the permanent, the solid, in general ‘the old’, a contempt which, as she grew older herself, became a sort of deep fear.  So it was that some poor untutored craving in her for the Absolute, for that which after all is most fixed, most permanent, most solid and most old, had to express itself incognito” (84).  Ducane became for her that Absolute, and she loves him to the point of idolatry.  However, Ducane does not reciprocate her love. Ducane himself is, in many ways, a good man, but he faces “one of the great paradoxes of morality, namely that in order to become good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible either because of surreptitious complacency or because of some deeper blasphemous infection which is set up when goodness is thought about in the wrong way” (77).  Well, that will do for now.  There are more characters, but the preceding are most of the important ones, and the others I cannot explain without giving away plot points.

As its title suggests, one of the themes of the novel is the distinction between being nice and being good.  Ironically, even though the setting of the story is so quintessentially English, this particular theme is an especially important lesson for us Americans to learn.  Someone once said that the true religions of the American people are optimism and denial.  We so often confuse being “positive,” “nonjudgmental,” “easy to get along with” – in a word, “nice” – with being a good person.  But the two are not in any way the same.  Kate is very nice, but that niceness has an intrinsic element of falsity.  Ducane says, “Her idea is that our relationship is to be simple and sunny, and simple and sunny I must faithfully make it to be” (138).  If the Devil exists, he is no doubt very nice:  all the better to seduce us into wrongdoing.  Good people, in contrast, are sometimes gruff, sometimes blunt, sometimes cruel in order to be kind.  (Contrast the television characters House and Chase.  Which is a nicer person? Which is a better person?)  Murdoch also teaches us that to be good is not to be perfect.  Willy Kost rebuffs Barbara’s request to tutor her:  his motive is good, but it is good because he is aware he must protect her, and himself, from other motives that are not good (182-185).

If there is any flaw in this jewel of a novel, it is that its ultimate conclusion is perhaps overly sanguine.  This might sound like a strange critique of a novel so focused on human frailty in the face of temptation.  The novel is filled with dalliances.  Sometimes they have catastrophic consequences, but one is left with a sense that this is inevitable, and everything will turn out fine as long as we forgive each other:  “All we can do is constantly notice when we begin to act badly, to check ourselves, to go back, to coax our weakness and inspire our strength, to call upon the names of virtues of which we know perhaps only the names.  We are not good people, and the best we can hope for is to be gentle, to forgive each other and to forgive the past, to be forgiven ourselves and to accept this forgiveness, and to return again to the beautiful unexpected strangeness of the world” (198-199).  We humans are just as weak, and forgiveness just as beautiful as the novel suggests, but one wonders whether these truths have become rationalizations that are ultimately enervating. As Willy warns someone, “…in hell one lacks the energy for any good change.  This indeed is the meaning of hell” (283). (Murdoch’s own personal life perhaps illustrates this danger.  See the moving film Iris [2001].)

One of the wonderful things about Murdoch was her openness to religious traditions as sources of spiritual inspiration, whether one is a believer or not.  So it is not out of place to end this review by recalling that Jesus saves the adulteress from being stoned to death by challenging the crowd, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (the forgiveness that comes with love).  But let us also not forget that his final words to her are, “Go, and sin no more” (the strictness that comes with the law).

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Obituary for David S. Nivison

David Shepherd Nivison, emeritus professor of Philosophy, Religious Studies, and East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford University, passed away peacefully on October 16, 2014, aged 91.

Nivison had a career trajectory that would be almost impossible in the contemporary academic world, and a range of intellectual interests and talents that almost no one could match. He was studying classics at Harvard when WWII broke out. Like many people of his generation who went on to become Sinologists or Japanologists, he was drafted and assigned to learn Japanese and become a codebreaker. After the war, Nivison switched his major to Chinese, eventually receiving his doctorate. He then came to work at Stanford, where he remained for the remainder of his career. Nivison was hired into what was then called the Oriental Languages Department (at a time when that was not a pejorative term). His first book, The Life and Thought of Chang Hsueh-ch’eng: 1738-1801 (published 1966), was an intellectual biography of an influential Chinese historian and philosopher of history, who has been compared to Hegel and Vico. The book was immediately recognized as a landmark contribution, and is still required reading for anyone seriously interested in the intellectual history of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). While working and teaching in the Oriental Studies Department, Nivison struck up a friendship with philosophy professor Patrick Suppes. One day Nivison noticed a book on Suppes’s desk and flipped through a few pages. Finding it interesting, Nivison asked to borrow it. The book was Methods of Logic by W.V.O. Quine (a Harvard professor who would go on to become one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century).   When he returned the book, Nivison asked Suppes whether he could teach a course on logic in the Philosophy Department. Suppes agreed and thus began Nivison’s long and productive relationship with the Stanford Philosophy Department. Soon, Nivison was teaching courses on a variety of topics, including the Philosophy of History and Marxist Thought.

Nivison’s engagement with the Philosophy Department would have a significant influence on the course of his research, which began to focus increasingly on the application of the techniques and issues of “analytic philosophy” to Chinese thought. This was almost unheard of, and started what became a revolution in comparative philosophy. Donald Davidson, a student of Quine’s, was now one of Nivison’s colleagues in the Philosophy Department, and the two of them had fruitful conversations about the problem of “weakness of will.” This is the problem of whether it is possible for a person to fail to do what she knows to be right (and, if so, how). Nivison recognized that this problem, which in the West goes back at least as far as Socrates, was also discussed in Chinese philosophy. Indeed, Nivison showed that the Chinese Confucian philosopher, Wang Yangming, gives a solution to this problem very similar to that of Socrates.   Nivison’s contributions were appreciated by other members of the philosophical community. Donald Davidson thanked Nivison in the acknowledgments to his widely-cited anthology, Essays on Actions and Events, and Nivison was elected President of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association.

By the end of his teaching career, Nivison was active in three departments (long before “multidisciplinary” was a buzzword): the (renamed) Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Philosophy, and Religious Studies. He worked closely with undergraduate majors and graduate students in all three departments, and a number of them went on to become influential scholars in their own right, including Mark Csikszentmihalyi, of the East Asian Languages and Cultures Department at the University of California at Berkeley, Philip J. Ivanhoe, of the City University of Hong Kong, Kwong-loi Shun, of the Philosophy Department at Berkeley, Paul Kjellberg of the Philosophy Department at Whittier College, and Bryan W. Van Norden, of the Philosophy Department at Vassar College. Although he was very active as a scholar, many of Nivison’s most interesting essays were delivered as conference presentations and remained unpublished, circulated among a small but admiring group of other scholars as photocopies or even blue “ditto-sheet” copies. This situation was remedied with the publication of many of Nivison’s important philosophical essays in The Ways of Confucianism (published 1996). Through this anthology, later generations of specialists in comparative philosophy have come to know Nivison’s work. Particularly influential is Nivison’s discussion of how, according to Confucianism, we can be ethically required to cultivate certain feelings.

Near the end of his teaching career, Nivison came to be fascinated with the Bamboo Annals, a historical chronicle that most scholars regarded as unreliable.  Nivison argued that the text not only includes accurate historical material, but also can be used to date the founding of the Zhou dynasty. The founding of the Zhou is a seminal event in Chinese history, but one whose exact date Western and Chinese scholars had struggled to pin down. The date Nivison determined is now widely accepted by many Sinologists, and even those who disagree with Nivison acknowledge the original and provocative nature of his work. The final book that Nivison published in his lifetime, The Riddle of the Bamboo Annals (2009), is concerned with this topic, and Nivison continued to work in this area after his retirement from Stanford.   (An earlier version of this obituary inaccurately attributed to Nivison the identification of a conjunction of the planets mentioned in the Bamboo Annals with the conjunction of 1059 BCE. This identification was actually made by a former student of Nivison’s, David Pankenier. I regret the misattribution. For Nivison’s views on this topic, see David S. Nivison and Kevin D. Pang, “Astronomical Evidence for the ‘Bamboo Annals’ Chronicle of Early Xia,” Early China 15 [1990]: 87-95, 97-196.)

The preceding sketch cannot do justice to the full range of Nivison’s interests, which included oracle bone inscriptions (the earliest surviving form of Chinese writing, and the hardest to interpret), the ethics of Chinese communism, and English-language poetry. He (along with Philip J. Ivanhoe) were also early pioneers in the development of computerized concordances for Chinese texts.

As a person, Nivison was tall, reserved, and distinguished, a Western version of a Confucian gentleman. However, like Confucius himself, he could display a whimsical sense of humor or a willingness to violate convention when it seemed appropriate. When the great political philosopher John Rawls gave a lecture at Stanford to a standing-room-only auditorium, Nivison showed up right before the start of the talk, due to a previous commitment. Rather than inconvenience people standing tightly together by the doorway, Nivison climbed in through an open, ground-floor window, in order to take an unoccupied spot further in the room. Unforgettable as a person and having left an indelible influence in many intellectual disciplines, David will be missed.

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My College Is Being Blackmailed

My college is being blackmailed. The story of the blackmail goes back to Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education under Bush the Younger. Spellings (who has no classroom teaching experience, and no degree that would even qualify her to teach at the college or university level) has three claims to fame. First, Spellings is the only sitting member of a Presidential Cabinet to be on Celebrity Jeopardy. She came in a distant second to actor Michael McKean (best known as “Lenny” on the sitcom Laverne and Shirley). Second, she is responsible for the No Child Left Behind program. Nicknamed “No Child Left Awake,” this initiative forces educators to teach students how to pass standardized tests, rather than helping students to actually learn. Apparently concerned that she had not done enough damage to US education, Spellings also convened a Commission on the Future of Higher Education. One of the recommendations of the Commission was that colleges and universities institute a “robust culture of accountability” emphasizing “learning outcomes.”


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So what is wrong with that? I teach philosophy, and the basic format for teaching humanities goes back at least as far as the Roman Empire in the West and the contemporaneous Han dynasty in China. Students read challenging works. Students discuss those works. Students write about those works. The instructors lecture, guide the discussions, and give feedback on the writing. Thomas Aquinas was doing this in 13th-century Europe and Zhu Xi was doing this in 12th-century China. This basic framework has been unchanged for over two millennia for a simple reason: it is the only one that has ever worked.

However, the preceding is not good enough for advocates of “learning outcomes” and the related shibboleth “outcomes assessment.” They want outcomes that can be “measured” and “tested.” They are quick to explain that assessment need not be quantitative in the humanities. But we already have a qualitative vision of what outcome we want (that is what the major and general education requirements are about) and we already have qualitative measures for assessing outcomes (these are known by the arcane technical terms “comments on your essay,” “grades,” and “letters of recommendation”).

Since I am fortunate to teach at a private liberal arts college with a long history of being a leader in higher education, why should I or my students care about what some failed Celebrity Jeopardy contestant said about outcomes assessment? Here is where the blackmail comes in. Every college and university that hopes to maintain its prestige and be eligible for certain kinds of funding must be “accredited.” Accreditation is done through NGOs that wield immense amounts of power, despite not being answerable to anyone. The NGO responsible for accrediting my school has been taken over by devout apostles of outcomes assessment, and they insist that we must institute a “culture of assessment” – or else.

Here is my assessment of the outcome (pardon the expression): either my school’s educational practices will be perverted, or we will institute a purely formal version of outcomes assessment, lacking in any actual content. I am hoping for the latter. In a meeting with a representative of our accrediting body, I asked whether the philosophy department could develop a checklist based on our stated goals, and have instructors certify that essays written by senior majors met these goals. (“Good grammar? Check. Independent thought? Check. Take the best that has been thought and said and transmute it into wisdom in the smithy of your soul? Check.”) Incredibly, she said that sounded fine. It is not the worst result if we can find some bureaucratic trick that allows us to continue to teach in what is transparently the best way. (Apparently some other schools are also trying the “just write something to get them off our backs” approach. The following is from an actual outcomes statement at another college that we were given as a paradigm: “The goal of the political science department is to transmit the knowledge of the discipline by providing courses and instruction that are characterized by excellence.”) However, whatever approach we employ, we incur what economists refer to as a significant “opportunity cost.” In their incisive essay, “Is Outcomes Assessment Hurting Higher Education?” James Pontuso and Saranna Thornton note that “Ongoing assessment diverts teachers from teaching. Instead of preparing their courses, meeting with students, or grading papers – in short, executing their teaching duties – instructors must spend a substantial amount of time worrying about how to assess what they teach.”

I am not suggesting that higher education is perfectly fine just the way it is, either at my school or at other institutions. For example, I chaired a Committee on Assessment that recommended that my school work for greater clarity in its quantitative, writing, and foreign language requirements. But this will not result in “measurable” or “testable” outcomes. I say all of the preceding as a dedicated teacher. I can show you letters from students telling me that my classes changed their lives, three textbooks that I wrote specifically to meet the needs of my students, mountains of essays with my carefully written comments, and sheaves of handouts I painstakingly prepared to address confusions my students had. That is what teaching is about, not about pseudo-rational “outcomes.” As Pontuso and Thornton wrote: “Many people’s lives have been affected by good teachers, but no one’s soul has ever been touched by a committee of test writers.”

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The McDonalds-ification of Higher Education

There is an approach to learning that is corroding education, especially higher education, in the US: I call it the “McDonalds-ification of Education.”

Hamburger_University“Fast food” has been around for a long time. The ancient Romans had it. But McDonald’s raised it to a high art. You come in, you look at the menu up on the wall while you are in line, you order, and you immediately get your food. In many ways, McDonald’s has become a paradigm for how our consumer society works. The internet is basically McDonald’s for information and entertainment. Pick what you want, get it immediately, move on to the next thing. There is nothing wrong with any of this in principle. I love the internet. And I love an occasional Big Mac. But as the Greek said, “μηδὲν ἄγαν” — do nothing in excess! As the documentary Super Size Me (2004) showed, a consistent diet of McDonald’s has the potential to kill you. And if you treat surfing the web as the paradigm for all information gathering, it can kill your mind.

What concerns me is that you find a tendency among students to think that education is about being given a menu of easily digestible ideas, picking out one that you like, and swallowing it in one gulp. But education is not about just picking out an opinion or theory that you find appealing at first glance. Deep ideas sometimes seem implausible at first, and shallow ones can have the specious appearance of being incisive. (I like to remind my students that it was not just dogmatism that led people to oppose the Copernican theory that the Earth goes around the Sun. After all, it doesn’t feel like the Earth is spinning like a top while wheeling around the Sun, does it?)

I teach philosophy, and students often walk into class with the assumption that philosophy is all about hyperbolic doubt. How do you know that the world is not an illusion? How do you know that 2+2=4? How do you know that pain is bad? Doubt can be useful if used, like Descartes did, as a therapeutic tool. “Let’s doubt such-and-such, and see if we can discover what grounds for belief there are.” But doubting everything is a dead end. The most productive technique of philosophy is dialogue. Begin with some issue on which another person disagrees with you. Ask your interlocutor (or read up on) why she holds that position. If she gives a good reason, agree with her! If not, try to come up with a response that should convince her that she is mistaken. Find out what she says (or would say) in response, and…. This process seldom comes to an end quickly or decisively, and it is hard to do well. But it promotes a deeper understanding of others, and a skill for careful thinking that no other kind of education can produce. (And what if we lived in a world of people who tried hard to understand and convince, rather than kill, one another?)

Too often, though, students who have been raised in our McDonalds-ified civilization find this intellectual discipline alien or even offensive. They hear an idea they like — the more glib the idea the more appeal it is likely to have to the unreflective — and counterarguments bounce off them like pebbles hitting titanium. A society of instant gratification is not a society of deep thought. In fact, the dogmatic skepticism or casual relativism that passes as “philosophy” in some intellectual circles is attractive precisely because it insulates people from thinking. I can’t count how many times a student has tried to shut down a philosophical discussion at precisely the point at which it was becoming difficult and personally challenging by saying, “Who’s to say what the truth is?”

The spirit of Pontius Pilate is alive and well, and he is enjoying his intellectual chicken McNuggets!

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