Thursday, October 10, 2013

Asian philosophy

A couple of interesting articles: this, on a course at Harvard on Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory, and this, which I've only skimmed, on whether Buddhism is a religion or "a philosophy." I don't agree with it, but I'm glad that the Guardian is doing a series on the subject.

I was surprised to see one reason for the Harvard course's popularity with students:
Why are so many undergraduates spending a semester poring over abstruse Chinese philosophy by scholars who lived thousands of years ago? For one thing, the class fulfills one of Harvard's more challenging core requirements, Ethical Reasoning. 
Doesn't Sandel's course do that? Yes it does. It seems worth noting that perhaps large numbers of students are not turned on by his approach to ethical and political theory. I quite like Sandel's stuff myself, but I would far rather take a course on Daoism and Confucianism. Good to see I'm not alone.


  1. don't think that there is A Buddhism that is any-thing, just people who may do practices that we might consider religious and others that we might consider as waxing philosophical, so what uses are these words/images/etc put to?
    That said there is some irony that a preacher like Sandel gets paid as a philosopher....

  2. That sounds like a good point about Buddhism. A bit strange for anyone to say that it is not a religion though. Some Buddhists are not religious, perhaps, but there is at least one major religion called Buddhism. It's got temples, monks, nuns, robes, incense, you name it. What Buddhism really is is a debate for Buddhists to have among themselves, if they can be bothered.

  3. The popularity of Asian philosophy doesn't surprise me. I remember back at Uni a lot of students turned up to do philosophy without knowing much about it and were a bit disappointed with what they found. They were expecting profound works of wisdom and were non-plussed by all the rather dry discussions of perception, knowledge, language etc. Something along the lines of Buddhism or Daoism would've been much more to their liking.

  4. That makes sense. Words like 'classical,' 'political,' and 'theory' might put those students off, though, and I had got the impression that Sandel's course was what everybody wanted to take. So I'm still a little surprised. But pleasantly so. I like profound works of wisdom. And I think dry discussions of perception, etc., are more interesting when they're connected to that kind of thing. Not that the connection has to be harped on all the time, but I don't think it does much good to make students think about pseudo-problems they don't care about in order to get them to see that they are, after all, pseudo-problems. Maybe that's why I prefer ethics to metaphysics and epistemology.

    1. Oh, I agree. Sometimes this stuff prompts Spenglerian thoughts in me about how the aridity of western philosophy reflects on the soul of our undoubtedly "successful" civilisation. Compared to the vibrant insights of (eg) Hinduism or Buddhism it seems like a ghastly shadow of wisdom.

      And that's one of the reasons Wittgenstein continues to seem important to me. He's saying (I think) "stop getting caught up in all this nonsense; if you want enlightenment then look elsewhere".

      That's not wisdom in itself but it's a first step.