Advice to student contemplating a doctorate in Chinese philosophy

An undergraduate recently emailed me, asking for advice about getting a doctorate in Chinese philosophy.  The student explained that he was particularly interested in the comparative study of epistemology and the philosophy of language from an analytic perspective.  In addition to asking for general advice, he wondered about what field he should get his doctorate in, and what the job situation was like for recent PhD’s.  Here is part of what I said in reply (slightly rephrased to make sense without quoting his original letter):

Although there is much talk about multidisciplinary studies at the moment, a philosophy department will want you to have a PhD in philosophy, and a Chinese department will want you to have a PhD in Chinese.  In short, the doctoral program you pick determines what kind of department you will be able to teach in.  For what you are interested in studying, you will need a PhD in philosophy.  You will simply not get the right sort of training or support for your particular research interests in a Chinese department.  It is important, however, that you take courses in Chinese language (both modern Mandarin as well as Literary Chinese), literature, and history while you are pursuing your doctorate in philosophy.

Regarding employment opportunities, I must be honest with you here, even though it will be discouraging.  The job situation in philosophy right now is catastrophic.  There are massive cuts to higher education at both the federal and state levels.  As a result, many philosophy departments are under threat of being completely eliminated, and the ones that survive are being downsized, meaning that retiring faculty are not being replaced.  In addition, when someone specifically working in Chinese philosophy retires, even if the institution authorizes a replacement, that person is seldom replaced with a scholar who studies Chinese philosophy.  The University of Michigan, Stanford, Berkeley, and the U of Connecticut all had leading scholars of Chinese philosophy in their philosophy departments.  None of them were replaced when they retired or left the institution. I am less familiar with the job market in Chinese language and literature, but all departments are feeling the economic crunch.  In addition, my sense is that the trend in Chinese language programs is to hire more and more native speakers of Chinese.   (For example, our Chinese-Japanese Department has three native-Chinese speaking professors, one native-Japanese speaking professor, a number of native-Chinese or -Japanese speaking adjuncts, and me.)  Sorry for not having more encouraging news, but anyone who tells you anything more optimistic about the job situation is either not being realistic or not being honest.

Here are a couple of other points to consider.  I think that a broadly analytic approach to Chinese philosophy is very valuable, and is what I pursue myself.  What I mean by “broadly analytic” is that there is an emphasis on clarity of expression, disambiguation, and the careful formulation and critique of arguments.  However, in my opinion, there is little work to be done on the philosophy of language, per se, in traditional Chinese thought.  You would be working almost exclusively with the texts of the so-called “School of Names” and the Later Mohist writings.  I think these brief works have been picked over so much already that there is not too much more to say.  (See the chapter, “Language and Paradox in the ‘School of Names,'” in B.W.V.N., Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy.)  Similarly, the sorts of issues that engage analytic epistemology (e.g., “How do we know that the world presented to our senses is real?” “How do we know that other bodies have minds?” “How does induction work?”) were never central to early Chinese philosophy.  Admittedly, the Consciousness-Only School of Buddhism did engage some of these issues in the later Chinese tradition.  You might focus on this, but I am aware of only one competent book that has been done on this topic (Buddhist Phenomenology by Dan Lusthaus).  That means there is much potential for research, but also that you will have trouble finding anyone to guide you in your research.  This is a bigger problem than it might seem at first.

I am attaching a special issue of the APA Newsletter on “the crisis in Chinese philosophy.”  Obviously, I am partial to my own contribution to this newsletter, but it is worth reading all of them to get a broader perspective.  (Do keep in mind, though, that since the publication of this newsletter, the job market has gotten worse, and some people mentioned are no longer teaching Chinese philosophy.)

About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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