Chinese Philosophy: A Solid Counterpart of Western Philosophy

Guest Author: Dr. Haiming Wen

Many people wonder how China’s history of thought can be identified as “philosophical.” Professors and students, both in China and the West, wonder whether it is proper to claim there are philosophical ideas in the Chinese tradition. Given Western definitions of philosophy, are the Chinese classical works really philosophical? My answer is yes. China has her own philosophical system which has evolved through history, independent of other philosophical systems. However, it is not enough to just claim that Chinese philosophy can be described in its own self-sufficient jargon, especially when there are many Chinese terms which are not prima facie compatible with Western philosophical categories. I am taking a risk in writing this introduction to Chinese philosophy by applying western philosophical categories – such as metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology – in order to reconstruct Chinese traditional thought. In answering the question, “what is the Chinese philosophical sensibility,” I try to construct Chinese philosophical systems as solid “philosophical” counterparts of Western philosophy. We can claim that the Chinese are “philosophical” in their own way, and at the same time see that the Chinese provide different answers to familiar western philosophical issues.

Ever since the origin of “Chinese philosophy” as a discipline in modern era, researchers have made great efforts and achieved much. However, there is very little special study or discourse by scholars on the “Chinese philosophical sensibility.” The Chinese philosophical sensibility is built out of the shared assumptions of traditional Chinese philosophers throughout a long historical development. From the perspective of academic research, Chinese philosophical sensibility is the theoretical agreements of Chinese philosophers based on the sense of Chinese philosophy as “philosophy.” Therefore, “Chinese philosophical sensibility” is not only a new direction of thought and a theoretical focus based on the traditional horizon of Chinese philosophical problems, but also the researchers’ basic theoretical starting-point and self-awareness when exploring traditional Chinese philosophical problems.

The relationship between human beings and the world is the central concern of Chinese philosophers. Chinese philosophical sensibility encompasses the use of wisdom in regard to human life, and various arguments regarding the perception of the world. Most Chinese philosophies, such as The Book of Change (Zhouyi周易), Confucianism, and Daosim pursue the meaning of life through revealing the relationship between tian (tian天/heavens) and human beings. This focus leads to philosophical reflection on a human being’s place and role in the world.

We might say that traditional Chinese thinkers try to help people live good lives so they could enjoy their single journey of living existence. In the eyes of traditional Chinese philosophers, people naturally have puzzlement about life and world, but this confusion comes from their misunderstanding of dao (dao道/way-making). Dao is the road we walk in life, which is analogous to a person’s behavior and development. Throughout this life journey, we remain unclear of its direction because we lack understanding of our nature, or xing (xing性/nature). Thus, the basic philosophical inquires of Western philosophers, such as social, political, and cosmic problems concerning life and knowledge, are also those of Chinese philosophers. It is in the process of answering these fundamental philosophical problems that Chinese philosophers develop a unique “Chinese philosophical sensibility.”

In this illustrated introduction I explore the characteristics of different philosophers in Chinese history and distinguish the “Chinese philosophical sensibility” motivating their thoughts. Employing Western philosophical categories to describe significant issues in the history of philosophy, I examine Chinese political philosophy in the pre-Qin era, Chinese metaphysics from the Han to Tang Dynasties, Chinese epistemology from the Song to Ming Dynasties, and modern Chinese-Western comparative philosophy. I try to provide a clear, accessible conception of the Chinese philosophical sensibility and its evolution throughout history.

Author’s Bio: Dr. Haiming Wen is a scholar of Chinese and comparative philosophy. He is a professor at the School of Philosophy, Renmin University of China (RUC). Professor Wen received his Ph.D. in comparative philosophy from the University of Hawaii in 2006. His published books include Confucian Pragmatism as the Art of Contextualizing Personal Experience and World (in English), 2009, Lexington, and Chinese Philosophy (in English), 2012, Cambridge University Press; (in Chinese), 2010, China International Press. He has also published more than 50 journal articles in both English and Chinese, including nearly 10 articles in English peer-reviewed journals like Asian Philosophy, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, Contemporary Chinese Thought, Culture and Psychology, Frontier of Philosophy in China, etc.

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