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Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist Philosophy: Converting to Multiculturalism

Once we examine the roots of “Buddhaphobia” in philosophical education, we can get easily beyond it.

By Russell P. Johnson|March 29, 2024

“Philosophy is not to be found in the whole Orient.”

Immanuel Kant wrote that sentence more than two hundred years ago, and thankfully there are few today who would explicitly endorse it. Americans who have not read Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist philosophy are at least dimly aware that it exists. However, if you look at the curriculums of many philosophy departments around the United States, you are likely to find more courses on Kant than on the Eastern traditions he disparaged. Philosophy can be found in Asia, but Asian philosophy remains hard to find in America.

This is what Brian Van Norden argues in his book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. Along with fellow philosopher Jay Garfield, Van Norden had co-authored a 2016 article for The New York Times that called for greater diversity of traditions represented in philosophical education. One of their most incendiary claims was that a department that never teaches African, Indian, Native American, or Chinese thinkers should identify itself not as the “Philosophy Department” but as the “Department of European and American Philosophy.” If you’re going to be parochial, you have an obligation to be up-front about it.

The debate that emerged in the wake of the op-ed persuaded Van Norden to write a book that is relevant not just for philosophers but for scholars of religion. As Wendy Doniger wrote in her blurb of Taking Back Philosophy, “It will make some people hopping mad and convert many others to the worthy cause of multiculturalism.” No strangers to conversion, scholars of religion should take note.

According to Van Norden, his own specialization of Chinese philosophy deserves more attention in the United States for three reasons. First, the Chinese philosophical tradition provides much-needed context for understanding contemporary China: “Chinese businessmen pay for lessons from Buddhist monks, Daoism appeals both to peasants (for whom it is part of tradition) and to many intellectuals (who look to it for a less authoritarian approach to government), and China’s current president, Xi Jinping, has repeatedly praised Confucius.” Since Chinese politics and culture are vitally important in a globalizing world, understanding the philosophical traditions that continue to shape them is worthwhile.

The second argument for diversifying the curriculum is that it helps diversify the faculty and student body. Myeshia Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel point out that doctoral cohorts in philosophy are 86% white, significantly more than most other disciplines. Van Norden explains, “Both my own experience and that of many of my colleagues suggest that part of the reason for homogeneity among philosophers is that students of color are confronted with a curriculum that is almost monolithically white.” Incorporating Chinese philosophers—ancient, medieval, and current—helps to break apart this monolith and encourage more students to join the philosophical conversation.

The third reason Van Norden gives is that, quite simply, a lot of non-Western philosophy is good. The book is at its most persuasive when Van Norden introduces debates, assumptions, and aporias in the Western tradition before outlining how arguments from Mengzi, Nāgasena, Fazang, Zhu Xi, Wang Yingming, and Mozi bring comparative clarity and insight. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s account of human nature as a war of all against all is even more influential than it is famous, but Cheng Hao’s Neo-Confucian arguments about the interconnectedness of all people challenge Hobbes’s premises. Though Van Norden focuses in this book principally on the contributions of Chinese thought, he maintains an online bibliography that includes African, Indigenous, and Islamic resources, among others.

Given the rigor and acumen found in these traditions, why have they been sidelined or excluded from many philosophy syllabi? Van Norden offers two historical reasons: racism, and the triumphal rhetoric that lauded Kantian thought as the culmination of philosophy. Compounding these tendencies are a lack of familiarity with the original languages among philosophy professors, and the conservatism built into any established canon. Thus, contemporary American philosophers may fully acknowledge the merits of Indian philosophy but feel ill-equipped to teach it and disinclined to see it as necessary for their departments to cover. Van Norden quotes Schwitzgebel, “Ignorance thus apparently justifies ignorance: Because we don’t know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy; because they have little impact on our philosophy, we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.” (I report this critique with some self-accusation, as this description identifies a hesitancy I have felt.)

Perhaps curiously, the book rarely addresses religion as such. Though Van Norden mentions religious studies departments twice in passing as a place where Chinese philosophy can be studied, he does not explain how the category of religion contributes to what Brook Ziporyn calls “Buddhaphobia” among philosophers. Texts and traditions get “coded” as religious in a biased way, and this is an additional factor in the Western marginalization of non-Western philosophy. One reason why the Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist traditions are omitted from philosophical conversations is that these are treated as religious first and foremost. They are not religious identifiers that are perceived as neutral in the West, like “Christian,” “agnostic,” or “atheist.” The fact that Nāgārjuna was Buddhist means we think of him primarily as a religious author, while the fact that Kant was Christian does not. Just as showing a gay couple in a commercial is “political” while showing a straight couple is just advertising, a text like The Analects is “religious” while John Locke’s Second Treatise is just philosophy.

Once we examine the roots of this “Buddhaphobia,” we can get easily beyond it. Contemporary thinkers who are not Buddhists can find Buddhist philosophers’ arguments compelling, just as they can appreciate Hannah Arendt’s ethics without being Jewish, Thomas Aquinas’s epistemology without being Catholic, and Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology without, shall we say, agreeing with all of his views. And if a philosopher finds Buddhist philosophy convincing enough to convert not only to multiculturalism but to Buddhism, then they might become a primary source in this ongoing, vibrant philosophical tradition.

On April 8, the University of Chicago Religious Studies program is hosting a panel titled “What Do We Miss If We Only Study Western Philosophy?” Panelists include Kevin Davey from the Philosophy department and Dan Arnold and Brook Ziporyn from the Divinity School. The event will be held at 4:30 in the Swift Hall Common Room.

Featured image: Depiction of mountains by Zhang Lu, early 16th century. Image from public domain via Shanghai Museum.


Russell P. Johnson

Columnist, Russell Johnson (PhD’19), is Assistant Director of the Undergraduate Religious Studies Program at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His research focuses on antagonism, nonviolence, and the philosophy of communication.