Diving into Chinese philosophy

Back when I was in college one of my roommates was taking a Chinese philosophy class for a general education requirement. A double major in mathematics and economics (he went on to get an economics Ph.D.) he found the lack of formal rigor in the field rather maddening. I thought this was fair, but I suggested to him that the this-worldy and often non-metaphysical orientation of much of Chinese philosophy made it less amenable to formal and logical analysis.

I recalled this when a friend of mine, from an Indian background, asked what I would recommend for him to learn a bit about Chinese philosophy. What I suggested was that he read A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, and then read The Analects and something like Confucius: And The World He Created.

As someone who lives in the West from a Hindu background, I didn’t think it was worth it for him to explore Chinese Buddhism, or even Neo-Confucianism, which emerged out of the reaction and accommodation with Buddhism.

Thoughts? Recommendations?


7 thoughts on “Diving into Chinese philosophy

  1. The Book of Lord Shang and Han Feizi. I think anyone who wants to understand China must understand legalism. Though it would be interesting to consider whether it counts as “philosophy” per the dictionary definition of the word. Most legalist stuff reads like a guidebook on governance. Pragmatic and practical.

  2. I don’t think you can get any meaningful insight beyond the most superficial Atlantic magazine level stuff without including Neoconfucianism, unfortunately there seems to be a strong tendency to ignore everything that happened after the Han dynasty in Chinese philosophy. Japan’s experience with Confucianism in particular came entirely after Neoconfucianism had developed and so is really not understandable without that background. You seem to be dismissing it as crypto-Buddhism, but it became the state orthodoxy for like 1000 years, much longer than OG Confucianism was, so I don’t think you can ignore it like that

    Orthodox Neoconfucianism is different in important ways from OG Confucianism, roughly speaking moving from a more virtue-ethical approach of the original Confucians towards a more deontological approach, and arguably a more rationalist approach as well, although that’s complicated. OG Confucianism sort of looks like Aristotle or Catholic Scholasticism in terms of ethics, whereas Neoconfucianism looks more like a conservative Kantianism

    I would recommend the works of Stephen C Angle, starting with



    Angle represents the school arguing against the incomparability/incompatibility between Chinese philosophy and Western philosophy, so in the interest of full disclosure the other side of that is well represented by Hall and Ames


    IMO the much more problematic thing about premodern Chinese political philosophy from the point of view of the West is its lack of interest in constitutionalism and the rule of law, stemming from a generally less rationalist approach than the Classical Westerns, than any sort of inherent anti-individualism or collectivism or whatever. For someone like Aristotle the constitutional rule of law was the highest moral good in itself and the definition of justice, very much not so for Confucius or for Zhu Xi. They still believed in Justice in the sense of people getting what they deserve, but they didn’t really consider the written rule of law an appropriate way to conceptualize it. OG Confucius leaned more towards the unwritten traditions and rituals passed down from the ancestors, and Neoconfucianism leaned more towards a sort of Universal Reason that could be accessed by the individual’s subjective understanding but which again need not be written down necessarily (although unlike Kant/the Enlightenment it basically implies that such subjective reasoning will naturally lead one to reaffirming the ancient traditions). In left-right political spectrum terms IMO this leads to a well-defined right and left and a big old hole in the center where classical republicanism would be in the West. This resonates pretty well with modern East Asian political history IMO

  3. Not sure if the question is purely on Neo-Confucianism or on classical chinese philosophy in general:
    Van Norden, Intro to Classical Chinese Philosophy, is probably one of the best intro there is : https://www.amazon.ca/dp/1603844686/
    He also has an anthology of texts ( https://www.amazon.ca/dp/0872207803/ )
    If you, or your friend, read french, Anne Cheng’s Histoire de la pensée chinoise, is very good (covers a lot of ground, even more “modern” thought) : https://www.amazon.ca/Histoire-pens%C3%A9e-chinoise-nouvelle-%C3%A9dition/dp/275784444X/ref=sr_1_1
    I quite liked The Taoïst Body, from Kristofer Schipper, although from what I heard he is quite controversial in the field.

  4. Angus Graham’s ‘Disputers of the Tao’ has gotten a lot of praise, although I haven’t read it myself. But it centers on the early ‘foundational’ pre-Han period, when Confucianists, legalist, taoist, Moh-ist, and other schools were still in play, before the intrusion of ‘foreign’ Buddhist elements or the Neo Confuican reaction.

    2 more ‘out there’ works worth Mentioning are Chad Hansen’s ‘Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought’, and the French Sinologist Francios Jullien’s ‘Propensity of Things’ , but these are not good general guidebooks, and focus on the pre-Buddhist period as they are both concerned to find a kind of ‘ur-essence’ of pure Chinese philosophy before any outside influence, as a way of answering more general questions about human universality and ‘otherness’. The interest is more philosophical than historical.

    For a more historical and general-roadmap approach, the China chapters in Randal Collins’s ‘Sociology of Philosophies’, which do include the Buddhist and neo-confucian periods. This book although 1000 pages is worthwhile in general as it covers the sweep from Greco-Roman, Chinese and Indian beginnings thru Christian-Islamic/later India and Chinese, and then modern
    Western thru the 1950s..

  5. Judge Fang and Dr. X in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age taught me everything I know about Chinese philosophy.

  6. If one has time for lectures, the edX course from Hong Kong University is very well done.


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