[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]
Western vs Eastern(s) philosophies?
Our short tour on the varieties of philosophy begins with a brief examination of the similarities and differences between so-called Western and Eastern approaches. This is very complex and potentially exceedingly treacherous territory, which I cannot but skim before zooming into some of the nuances within the Western tradition itself. Throughout the following the gentle reader will need to keep in mind a couple of fairly large caveats: first, Eastern philosophical traditions are arguably even more heterogeneous than the Western one(s), so that any general talk of Western vs/and Eastern philosophy is strictly speaking a non-starter; second, when I will argue that some forms of Eastern philosophy should not really be considered philosophy, this is meant to be recognizing a distinction, not making a value judgment (and even when I will make something close to a value judgment, this ought to be understood as based on my values, not as a universal statement of any sort).
Perhaps a good place to start is the contrast between comparative philosophy and world philosophy (Littlejohn 2005). The aim of the former is, as the name plainly implies, to compare philosophical traditions, looking for both differences and similarities. World philosophy, instead, is after a program of unification or reconciliation of different traditions. For reasons that will be apparent soon, I am sympathetic toward the first approach but less so toward the second, and while I think there is some value in world philosophy, I will leave it entirely out of the following discussion.
Nussbaum (1997) has made very clear the sort of pitfalls to avoid in considering a comparative approach to philosophy. She warned about a number of potential problems, which we need to briefly consider, if nothing else to keep them clearly in mind for the rest of this chapter. First, there is the issue of chauvinism, which can be descriptive or normative. Descriptive chauvinism occurs when one writes about other philosophical traditions by using his own as an interpretive filter; normative chauvinism is a close companion of the descriptive variety, taking the further step of upholding one’s own tradition not just as an interpretive key to other approaches, but in order to maintain that it constitutes an inherent qualitative standard by which any other way of doing things must be judged.
Second, Nussbaum (rightly, I think) considers “skepticism” a vice in the context of comparative philosophy, where the term refers to an attitude of suspending judgment about different traditions: on the contrary, the job of the philosopher is in part to separate good thinking from bad thinking, regardless of which cultural tradition happens to have produced specific instances of the latter (a task made more palatable, perhaps, by the common observation that of course no tradition is immune from bad thinking).
Third, we need to be wary of different kinds of alleged incommensurability among traditions: this may take the form of the (ostensible) lack of feasibility of translating concepts across traditions, the (suggested) sheer impossibility of understanding a different tradition, and finally the claim that different traditions may use different (and incompatible) standards of evidence or reasoning. Now, in some instances — again, we will briefly look at examples below — I do think that there is something like true incommensurability among traditions, but it is certainly the case that this needs to be argued for, not simply assumed.
Finally, Nussbaum warns about the trap of “perennialism.” the assumption that (other) philosophical traditions do not change over time. Clearly, the Western one has — just compare the ancient Greeks with the medieval Scholastics, or even simply the analytical and continental approaches discussed below. Similarly, scholars distinguish significantly different periods within, say, Indian, Chinese, or Japanese philosophies.
The above cautionary statements notwithstanding, I will commit an infraction here and propose a type of normative chauvinism — which I think should apply not just to the comparison of Western and non-Western traditions, but also to discussions of the different types of Western traditions (both those currently operating in philosophy departments, and those constituting the standard canon of the history of Western philosophy). What I am going to do is to restrict the term “philosophy” to approaches that are based on discursive rationality and argumentation (henceforth, DRA). I hasten to say that — contra perhaps prima facie appearance — this is not an endorsement of analytical philosophy at the exclusion of the continental tradition (as we shall see in a bit), and much less is it an endorsement of Western philosophy “over” Eastern ones. This is because DRA has been a major (though not the only) mode of philosophizing since the pre-Socratics, and also because it is clearly found in non-Western traditions — it’s just the proportion of DRA vs non-DRA “ingredients,” so to speak, that differs across traditions.
Now, why would I want to make the move of limiting my treatment of philosophy to the practice of DRA? For two reasons, one historical, the other pragmatic. Historically, as is well known, the term “philosophy” comes from a Greek root meaning “love of wisdom,” and the associated practice has been — largely — one exemplifying DRA. So DRA-type philosophy broadly construed (i.e., not only in the narrower sense of the modern analytic tradition) can claim historical precedence on any other type of human activity that people may wish to characterize as philosophy.  Pragmatically, it seems to me that it doesn’t helps much, and actually increases the general confusion, if we use the same term for significantly different activities (and, after all, one of the points of philosophical inquiry is to get clear on the use of our language!). So, for instance, if you are invoking what can be fairly characterized as mystical insights (as some Eastern traditions do, though there are plenty of examples in the West as well), then you are doing something else (mysticism, to be precise). Similarly, if your writings do not contain arguments backed up by logical discourse but, say, appeal instead to emotional responses, then you are doing something else (literature, essayism, or other things, depending on the specifics). Again, examples can be found both within and without the Western tradition. Conversely, however, we can also find examples of prominent philosophers within the Western tradition who have used a variety of tools and approaches, and it serves us well to keep this firmly in mind: for instance, some have used stories (Plato, Rousseau, Kierkegaard), others have appealed to sources of evidence other than those favored by empiricists or by “analytic” philosophers (Plotinus, Augustine, Husserl), still more have proposed methods of argument different from the ones popular in the Anglophone tradition (Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Foucault), and there have been those who saw philosophy as proceeding through the juxtaposition of aphorisms (Pascal, Lichtenberg, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein).
Having clarified that what I mean by “philosophy” in this book is a DRA-based activity (again, broadly construed), what happens to non-Western approaches? The answer is complex, and amounts to a highly qualified “it depends,” but here are some specifics. A good instance of largely DRA-type activity, which would therefore fall under my understanding of the word “philosophy,” is constituted by both classical Indian epistemology and logic (Gillon 2011; Phillips 2011).
Classical Indian authors deployed a set of logical tools that will be familiar to students of Western philosophy, including modus ponens, modus tollens, reductio ad absurdum, and the principle of the excluded middle, among others. Moreover, Indian logicians did not formally develop, but did implicitly use, other well recognized tools, such as the principle of non-contradiction. There are, of course, differences between Indian and Western logic, especially when it comes to the examination of the contributions of individual authors. For instance, Gillon (2010) notes that the 5th Century author Vātsyāyana apparently thought that sound syllogisms need to be underpinned by a relation of causation, which confuses issues that are arguably best kept separate. But of course logic as a field has progressed also within Western philosophy precisely through the clarification and sometimes rejection of positions advanced by previous philosophers, so in this respect Indian classical logic is certainly no exception.
The situation for Indian classical epistemology is — as far as I understand it — a bit more complex. Similarities with the Western traditions are again easy to find. For instance, the concept of knowledge being impossible by accident is reminiscent of the idea (attributed to Plato, though there are scholarly debates about this: Chappell 2013) that knowledge is justified true belief, which in the West was not challenged until the very recent work by Gettier (1963). We also find equivalents to the Western empiricist position that the ultimate source of knowledge is perception, for instance in the Cārvāka school; interestingly, that claim was accompanied by skepticism of inferential processes, because they depend on generalizations that transcend perceptual experience (one is reminded of David Hume’s famous problem of induction, as expressed in the Treatise of Human Nature, 1739-40). Another fascinating dispute among classical Indian philosophers concerned the idea of Yogācāra, according to which perception is concept-free, a notion challenged by Bhartṛhari in the 3rd century, with reference to the baggage imposed by language, and by some “realists” who argued that some perception is actually concept-laden. Perhaps it is a stretch to draw a parallel between those ancient debates and modern discussions in (Western) philosophy of science concerned with the theory-ladeness of observations (Quine 1960; Kuhn 1963), but one can reasonably be tempted to do so.
That said, part of the Indian classical epistemological literature comprises Buddhist texts asserting the value of the nirvāṇa experience, a type of mystical insight that provides spiritual expertise. This seems to me definitely not within the province of DRA-type philosophizing, belonging instead to a tradition that proceeds independently of discursive rationality and argumentation  (again, tendencies of this type are however also easy to find within Western philosophy broadly construed, and they would accordingly be excluded from a treatment of philosophy as DRA-based). A similar problem is encountered when one considers Vedic texts, since the Veda are supposed to be exempt from error on the ground that they were not composed, nor were they allegedly spoken by anyone at the source. It is difficult to make sense of what this might mean outside of a mystical-religious tradition, and the infallibility of the Veda (or of anything else) is not the sort of thing that can be taken onboard in any DRA context.
Let us briefly consider for comparison another broad “Eastern” tradition, the Chinese one (Wong 2009), which is in itself remarkably distinct from the Indian one, arguably more so than any of the Western schools of thought are different from each other, though there are, naturally, influences from Indian to Chinese and then Japanese schools of philosophy, often traceable to the historical paths of influence of various religions in the respective geographical areas. Here a better case can be made for some degree of incommensurability with the Western intellectual lineage, as pointed out by Wong (2009) when he mentions that according to the Daodejing “The Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way” and the “sages abide in nonaction and practice the teaching that is without words.” While one can perhaps make sense of talk of a “constant Way” within the logic of a given mystical tradition, it is by definition out of the question to apply a DRA-style philosophizing to an approach that is based on teaching without words. Then again, the same author points out the existence of skeptics of discursive rationality within the Western tradition (to a degree, Wittgenstein comes to mind), which raises the question of whether such skepticism does or does not belong to DRA philosophizing. This is not necessarily an easy one to answer, considering that the limits of discursive rationality itself can be explored in a discursively rational fashion, as in classical Greek skepticism (or on the basis of modern cognitive science).
Consider another example: Wong mentions Mengzi’s notion of human nature as originating from some sort of impersonal universal ordering force, a concept that is clearly at odds with modern science, and hence with the currently dominant naturalistic approach in Western philosophy. But of course plenty of equally unscientific notions (by contemporary standards) can be found throughout the history of Western philosophy itself, for instance the Stoic concept of fate, or the Platonic idea of a transcendental realm of forms. Still following Wong, it is fair to characterize Chinese metaphysics and epistemology as a type of “wisdom” literature that is wary of Western-style argumentation. Some authors have talked about the “invitational” style of Chinese philosophy (Naes and Hanay 1972), the aim of which is to make palatable a particular way of looking at and doing things, something akin to some (but definitely not all) continental Western philosophy. Wong rightly argues that the difference is of degree, not kind, citing for instance Plato’s own propensity for long and vivid descriptions in the Republic, at the expense of straightforward DRA philosophizing. Not to mention that Confucian philosophers have been criticized — and have responded to criticism — by way of arguments directed at specific aspects of their teachings.
Indeed, the similarities between Chinese and Western traditions are perhaps most obvious when it comes to ethics. Several authors have pointed out that the Confucian idea that the state is a larger version of the family would have been perfectly understandable by and debatable within the conceptual resources of ancient Greek virtue ethics. Wong (2009) goes even further, suggesting that a recent renewal of interest about Confucianism is the result of the parallels one can draw not only with Greek’s virtue ethics, but with the Western medieval and even modern approaches to ethics that rely on the concept of virtue. And Yu (2007) has proposed that the idea of dao in Confucius has strong similarities with the concept of eudaimonia. The fact that there are differences between Greek virtue ethics and Confucianism (e.g., there is no equivalent central role of the family in the first one, while the latter lacks a strong sense of individual rights) does not undermine the general point that Confucianism does come close to a type of DRA-style philosophizing, and therefore the broader point that no simple distinction can be made between Western and Eastern philosophies on the basis of the DRA criterion.
One last set of examples comes from the much discussed Kyoto school (Davis 2010), which explicitly made an attempt to merge Eastern and Western traditions, in a way that is particularly illuminating as far as our discussion of DRA vs. other styles of doing philosophy is concerned. As Davis argues, understanding the Kyoto School requires more than a straightforward framework of Eastern philosophers adopting a patina of Western philosophy, nor is it a simple matter of a “Japanization” of standard Western thought. The Kyoto philosophers were original thinkers who truly attempted a third way throughout the 20th century. This said, it is interesting to note that the School drew mostly from two influences: Mahâyâna Buddhism from the East, and clearly continental (or continental-style) authors such as Nietzsche and Heidegger from the West.
This is not the place for an in-depth discussion of the Kyoto School (nor am I qualified to lead such a discussion anyway), but it will be instructive to take a brief look at the School’s cardinal notion of “Nothingness” and how it contrasts to the Western (largely, Continental) one of “Being.” From the point of view of Kyoto exponents, Western philosophy is characterized by “the question” of Being, which — though in very different forms — can be traced from Aristotle to Heidegger. For Aristotle and much of the pre-modern Western tradition, Being was to be conceptualized as substance, which could then be instantiated in either particular or universal form. Within that framework, it makes sense to ask questions about, for instance, whether there is a highest being (Aristotle’s Prime Mover, or the God of Christian theologians), though Heidegger shifted the discussion in an even more esoteric direction.
The Kyoto counter to the notion of Being is the idea of Nothingness, which is very hard to wrap one’s mind around when coming from outside of the specific cultural ancestry that led to it. Kyoto philosophers talk about a “meontology” as opposed to ontology, meaning a philosophy of non-being. If Heidegger is too mystical for you (as, I must admit, he is for me), you will feel even more uncomfortable with the writings of the Kyoto School. It is not by chance that Kyoto philosopher Nishitani (1990) has drawn direct parallels not just with the above mentioned Nietzsche and Heidegger, but with Christian mystical thinkers and with Neoplatonists.
When one of the major authors of the Kyoto School, Nishida (quoted in Davis 2010) writes things like: “Absolute Nothingness at once transcends everything and is that by which everything is constituted,” defines self-awareness as “self reflecting itself within itself,” or claims that the Absolute “contains its own absolute self-negation within itself” it is hard to see what sort of DRA-type defense of these claims one could possibly mount, or indeed even what these claims mean outside of the particular Buddhist Zen tradition in which they are rooted. This is also a result of the fact that — has noted by others (Heisig 2001) — the Kyoto School explicitly rejects a crucial methodological tenet of modern Western philosophy (though not, obviously, of its Medieval counterpart): a clear logical separation between religion and philosophy. That rejection, in my view, situates the Kyoto scholars closer to a non-DRA form of philosophizing. Therefore, in the specific sense explained above, they may not actually be doing philosophy, but rather something else related to philosophy in a family resemblance fashion.
Then again, some members of the Kyoto tradition do engage more directly with Western philosophers, though — tellingly — almost always of the Continental type. For instance, Ueda’s “twofold being-in-the-world” (see Davis 2010) is a form of religiously based philosophy that draws on phenomenologists like Husserl and Heidegger, the latter arguably among the closest, within modern Western philosophy, to a non-DRA mode of thinking, especially in some of his later writings. When Davis, in summarizing Ueda’s thought, says that “Ueda argues that both the ego of the Cartesian cogito, as well as the non-ego of Buddhism, must ultimately be comprehended on the basis of an understanding of the self as a repeated movement through a radical self-negation to a genuine self-affirmation,” it is again a bit difficult to see — from a DRA-perspective — in what sense one can “argue” or unpack this.
So of what style of philosophizing is the Kyoto School an example, in the end? Davis (2010) himself concludes his review with a mixed message in this respect. On the one hand, he acknowledges that it is reasonable to see the Kyoto writings, while being the result of a dialogue with the West, clearly as a reflection of a largely Eastern (and, specifically, Zen Buddhist) tradition. On the other hand, some Kyoto authors are to be interpreted as appropriating a Hegelian style of dialectical logic, and not as reflecting Buddhist thought in any straightforward manner. Interestingly, the Kyoto philosophers themselves are pretty clear that the term philosophy — just as I have argued above — is historically a result of Western thought, and is therefore markedly distinct from the Eastern roots of the School. However, the claim is also that the Kyoto School is sympathetic to the idea of a philosophy that transcends any East-West divide, in analogy to the fact that there is no such thing as Western vs Eastern science or technology. I am not so sure that that particular analogy actually stands up to critical scrutiny, for the reasons explained above. Indeed, (modern) science very much proceeds by the same general methods and standards of evidence worldwide, and its products are directly comparable to each other, regardless of where the research has been conducted (Newtonian mechanics isn’t culturally relative). By contrast, I would not know how to explain in what sense a philosophy of Nothingness is comparable to a lot of what dominant styles of Western philosophy have produced. Davis wraps up his commentary on the Kyoto School with a bold call to action: “If philosophy today is to mature beyond its Eurocentric pubescence, then it is necessary to deepen its quest for universality by way of radically opening it up to a diversity of cultural perspectives.” But I am not at all convinced that DRA-type philosophy (Western or not) can seriously be thought of as “pubescent” after more than two and a half millennia of practice, nor am I confident at all that indiscriminate embracing of all other traditions that may call themselves philosophical is actually a project worth pursuing.
So much for East and West, then. Let us now zoom into modern Western philosophical practice and take on another allegedly deep divide between ways of doing philosophy: the infamous distinction between analytic and continental modes of philosophizing.
 I would go even further and argue that part of the reason practitioners of other approaches wish to use the term “philosophy” is because of the huge cultural cachet that derives from an association with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and all the others. And I do not say this out of cultural chauvinism, since I am Italian, not Greek.
 That said, my colleague Graham Priest and I have amiably disagreed in public on the relationship between Buddhism and logic: see my contribution, based on a previous essay of his, and his response to me.
Chappell, S.G. (2013) Plato on Knowledge in the Theaetetus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-theaetetus/, accessed on 18 June 2015.
Davis, B.W. (2010) The Kyoto School. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 19 July 2012).
Gettier, E.L. (1963) Is justified true belief knowledge? Analysis 23:121-123.
Gillon, Brendan S. (ed.) (2010) Logic in earliest classical India. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, pp. 167-182.
Gillon, B. (2011) Logic in classical Indian philosophy. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 20 July 2012).
Heisig, J.W. (2001) Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School. University of Hawaii Press.
Hume, D. (1739-40) A Treaty of Human Nature. (accessed on 24 August 2012).
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Naes, A. and Hanay, A. (1972) Invitation to Chinese Philosophy: Eight Studies. Universitetsforlaget.
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Nussbaum, M. (1997) Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Harvard University Press.
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Quine, W.V.O. (1960) Word and Object. MIT Press.
Wong, D. (2009) Comparative philosophy: Chinese and Western. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 19 July 2012).
Yu, J. (2007) The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle. Routledge.
Categories: Nature of Philosophy