This is the second in a series of interviews with teachers, scholars and translators of Daoism. Each interview includes both general and in-depth questions, and finishes with further information about each interviewee’s work.
A while ago I visited Harvard University and had the pleasure of attending a talk by Bryan Van Norden, James Monroe Taylor Chair in Philosophy at Vassar College (USA), and Chair Professor in the School of Philosophy as Wuhan University (China). A recipient of Fulbright, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mellon fellowships, Bryan has authored, edited or translated ten books on Chinese and comparative philosophy.
In our interview, Bryan shared his understanding of philosophy, compared Western and East Asian philosophical traditions, and answered a number of more technical questions about aspects of both Daoist and Confucian thought.
What was it that first appealed to you about Chinese philosophy and led you to study it to the high level that you have?
I'm part of the generation that came of age after Nixon and Kissinger went to China and re-normalised relations between the United States and China. There was a lot of interest and excitement about China during that period. Then, when Mao died in 1976, Deng Xiaoping led China in a more open and moderate direction. That led to even more excitement in the US about China. To be honest, the third factor was that in 1973 Bruce Lee’s film Enter The Dragon came out. As an adolescent I thought martial arts were very cool.
So that was the beginning of my interest in China, and I became interested in philosophy when I took part in an interscholastic debate at high school. One of the issues we debated was registration for the draft, which has recently been re-instituted. We discussed things like whether there should be a military draft and, if there was one, whether you have to go. Is it ethical to resist an order to join the military? This got me thinking about the relationship between the individual and the state, which led to an interest in philosophy. By the time I got to college, I decided to try and combine my interests in both philosophy and China.
In what ways do you think the study of Chinese philosophy has permeated into the rest of your life?
The thing I learned about Chinese philosophy that has most influenced my personal life, and continues to make me very excited about studying and teaching Chinese philosophy, is its emphasis on ethical cultivation. Of course, there is also this interest in Western philosophical traditions. For example, Pierre Hadot points out in Philosophy as a Way of Life that originally there was a vibrant Western tradition of ethical cultivation, but it was largely abandoned in later times.
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Some believe that terms like ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ are so coloured by western cultural traditions that they do not accurately reflect non-western culture. Do you believe that there is a universal human endeavour that can be accurately termed ‘philosophy’?
If you want to ask whether there is philosophy in other cultures, one answer is that the term ‘philosophy’ has been used so broadly in Western traditions, that it’s hard to believe no one else did it. For example, Leibniz and Newton both thought of themselves as natural philosophers, but now we classify Newton as a physicist and Leibniz as a philosopher, but they would not have understood that distinction at all.
We might also say, perhaps more satisfyingly, that when we look at what we count as philosophy, we find that people in other cultures are doing similar things and asking similar questions, but coming up with interestingly different answers to the same questions. For example, both Western and Chinese philosophy try to answer issues such as: how one should live well; what the virtues and vices are and how to cultivate them; what human nature is; how humans fit into the broader universe of which we are a part; and how language works and what its limitations are. Furthermore, these issues are discussed using similar forms of argumentation and framed by questions that are recognisably the same.
How would you define ‘philosophy’ in just one or two sentences?
In Taking Back Philosophy I say that philosophy is a dialogue about questions that we regard as important, but don’t agree on the methodology for resolving. I also say that these questions are discussed not only in Western traditions, but in East Asian traditions, South Asian traditions, African philosophy and indigenous American philosophy.
The West has long displayed a puzzling lack of interest in Chinese philosophy. Why do you think this is and do you think the situation is changing?
Originally when Europeans found out about Chinese philosophy, it was from accounts by Jesuit missionaries. The initial reaction of both Jesuit missionaries and philosophers in Europe was that Chinese thinkers were obviously philosophical and very much worth engaging with. The first translation of the sayings of Confucius, The Analects, into a European language was done by Jesuit missionaries in 1687 and translated under the title Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (Confucius: The Chinese Philosopher).
Things began to change towards the end of the 18th century when pseudoscientific racism developed. Kant certainly did not invent pseudoscientific racism, but he bought into it and argued that only the white race was capable of doing philosophy. Because of Kant’s influence, his later followers rewrote the history of philosophy and wrote Africa and Asia out of the canon, instead telling a story of philosophy that went back uniquely to Ancient Greece and groped its way more or less successfully towards Kant’s transcendental idealism. If you want evidence about this, a great book is by Peter KJ Park called Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy. It looks at the philosophy textbooks before and after Kant and details how they changed over time.
When I got my PhD in 1991 and started my career as a professor, there was still almost universal resistance to the idea that there was such a thing as Chinese philosophy and there was almost no interest in adding it to the curriculum. However, in the last few years I’m seeing a change. Now a lot of philosophy undergraduate and graduate students are interested in learning about Chinese thought. Many assistant professors and even a handful of senior professors are very open to the idea of expanding the curriculum. So I'm optimistic that finally things may be changing in the field.
What do you think are the broad differences between Western and Chinese thought? For example, I have heard it said that Western thought is more concerned with questions of essence, whilst Chinese thought is more concerned with mapping processes of change.
I often warn students to be careful about making overly simple and broad distinctions between East Asian and Anglo-European thought. Both are long, complex and multi-faceted traditions. Any generalisation is going to be false if it's supposed to apply to everyone in the tradition and we often get simple distinctions between East and West that dangerously reinforce preexisting stereotypes. However, I think the distinction you raised is a kind of helpful oversimplification. The most common view you find in the West is that we live in a universe of distinct individuals. The puzzle then becomes explaining how these distinct individuals are connected to one another. In the Chinese tradition and other East Asian traditions the most common assumption is that we live in a universe of things that are interrelated. The puzzle then becomes understanding the differentiation among the things that are interrelated.
This is an oversimplification. There are forms of monism in the West — for example Parmenides at the beginning and then people like Spinoza and Hegel later on. However, the dominant view is like that of Aristotle, who thinks that ultimately what exists are primary substances — things like tables, chairs, dogs, cats, you and me. Likewise, you get people in the Chinese tradition like Hanfeizi (c. 280–233 BCE) who are very cognisant of the ways in which people’s interests are often opposed to one another. He believes that it requires a kind of artificiality to get human interests to work together. However, the dominant views in Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism tend to be some degree of monism.
When people hear the term monism, they often think of something like the monism of Shankara (c.700-c.750), the Indian philosopher who said that everything is one and any differentiation is an illusion. Hegel famously parodied this kind of monism as ‘the night in which all cows are black’. However, there are more gentle forms of monism. For example, imagine an astronaut goes in a spaceship to another solar system, and is discovered by aliens from another world. If they looked at this one human being and wondered how this animal discovered spaceflight all by itself and built the spaceship all by itself, those aliens would have completely misunderstood what humans are. No human discovers spaceflight by herself; it’s something we do as parts of community and we only have projects like this because we are parts of community. This is a kind of soft monism and it’s important to think about humans in this way if we want understand what we really are.
If you had to summarise Daoism to a Western person unfamiliar with it, what would you say?
The Daoist tradition is so multifaceted that it's difficult to summarise, but I would say that one of the key philosophical notions behind early Daoism is a suspicion of the project of trying to become a better person. In particular, it opposes the Confucian idea of trying to become a better person through the active cultivation of virtues as either self-defeating or based on false assumptions about how the world works.
The traditional bifurcation of Daoism into early philosophy and later religion has now largely been rejected by scholars. Do you think this is correct? Are texts like the Laozi and Zhuangzi best understood as religion or philosophy?
When I first started learning Chinese philosophy, the notion that it was important or useful to distinguish between philosophical Daoism and religious Daoism was the standard view. However, people increasingly realised that there was a continuum between the two. People in the Chinese tradition did not think that they were doing different things when they did what we call ‘religious’ or ‘philosophical’ Daoism. So, scholars started to reject that distinction.
However, I think that in rejecting that distinction completely, we miss something. There are differences between, say, popular practices identified as Daoist in some way and the literary and exegetical traditions practised by literati that we might classify as more philosophical. For example, as a philosopher I might be more interested in Guo Xiang’s commentary on the Zhuangzi or Wang Bi’s commentaries on the Daode Jing and Yijing. Later in the tradition, you get people who identify as Daoist trying to develop immortality elixirs, and we might be less interested in what they are doing from a philosophical perspective. So it might be useful to mark the distinction for us, even whilst we recognise that it’s not a distinction that is marked within the tradition itself.
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Much of your work has been focused on the Confucian tradition, and you have a particular fondness for the Mengzi. Could you explain why this is?
I often joke that when people learn Chinese philosophy, at some point they learn both the Mengzi and the Zhuangzi, and at that point they either realise that they are a Mengzian or a Zhuangzian. That then shapes their orientation in the tradition from there on in. It’s like in the Western tradition they say you are either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. That’s an oversimplification, but it may be a useful oversimplification.
I think Zhuangzi, who is often classified as a Daoist, offers an ironic way of looking at human institutions and practices, and seeing humour in the discrepancies between what humans think they’re doing and what they’re actually doing from the perspective of the universe. It’s much less important and much less successful from the perspective of the universe than humans think it is. There’s a famous story in the Zhuangzi of a monkey trainer who gives the monkeys three nuts in the morning and four nuts at night. The monkeys are outraged, so the monkey trainer says they can have four nuts in the morning and three nuts at night. The monkeys are all satisfied by that. But the reality is that they’re getting seven nuts either way; it doesn’t make a difference. Aside from being a great story, I think it illustrates what Zhuangzi thinks is silly about most of the things that humans take seriously. This goes back to the theme of being dubious about human ethical practices and institutions, which I think is characteristic of a lot of early Daoism.
Mengzi, in contrast, is someone who sees suffering in the world, corruption in government and oppression of the common people. He cares deeply about that, so he fights to make the world a better place. He generally fails in his efforts, but leaves behind a record of his sayings, dialogues and actions that can inspire later generations to make themselves better people and the world a better place. So, fundamentally it comes down to whether you want to laugh at the world or whether you want to cry at the world and try to make it a better place. I’ve come down on the side of recognising the pain and trying to help my fellow humans, but I completely understand the appeal of the Zhuangzi and just wanting to laugh at how silly we all are with our pretensions to achieve anything important.
I'd love to hear what you think of Mengzi's famous and cryptic claim that he is ‘good at nourishing his flood-like qi' (我善養吾浩然之氣).
Mengzi says that this is “difficult to explain” and the commentary tradition often remarks that the fact Mengzi found it very difficult to explain to others shows that he understands it himself!
Sometimes the forces of oppression seem to be winning and it can be overwhelming. What thinkers in many traditions have said you need in order to persevere is a belief that you have a connection with something that will sustain you, and which in the long run will make sure that history moves towards the good. So, I think when Mengzi says that he is ‘good at cultivating his flood-like qi’, he means that what keeps him going in the face of adversity is the belief that he’s in contact with forces greater than himself that in the long run will make sure the good guys win. It reminds me a little bit of the remark that Martin Luther King Jr liked to quote from an earlier minister who said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. A belief in this kind of connection allows people to call on reserves of moral stamina and commitment that those with a more narrow, secular orientation might lack.
Do you think that this statement also suggests that Mengzi practised forms of meditation or body-based cultivation?
I think the perspective I just mentioned is consistent with that. Cultivation through meditational activities engages with forces that are beyond you as an individual. Some scholars and sinologists, like Harold Roth, argue that meditative practices and practices designed to cultivate your qi are hinted at in a variety of early texts. It would surprise me if Mengzi wasn’t aware of and didn’t practise some of these things. What he counted as cultivating qi, we might count as seated meditation or it might have been more like what we now call taiji. This isn’t to say that this is how he conceptualised them, but he may have done things that if we saw them now we’d label them in this way.
Lastly, please share with readers any of your publications, events or resources that they may be interested in. I’m sure they would also like to hear about your past publications that introduce readers to the world of Chinese thought.
I would direct people to my website, bryanvannorden.com, which has links to many of my articles and editorials. On that website you will also find an extensive bibliography of translations and secondary readings on the less commonly taught philosophies, especially East Asian, South Asian, African and Indigenous American philosophy. That website also has a pointer to my YouTube channel, which has a lecture series covering Chinese philosophy from Confucius all the way to Xi Jinping. Many people have found that a useful resource.
In terms of my books, I’d recommend starting with Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. It talks about what philosophy is, why philosophy is important, and how we can learn from Chinese philosophy and bring Chinese and Western philosophy into dialogue. If you just want to learn about the early period of Chinese Philosophy, my Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy is a good place to start. It’s available in paperback, Kindle, or audiobook versions.
I hope you enjoyed this edition of the Nüwa Newsletter!
Great interview, thanks!
Thank you for the post. I also follow Professor Bryan Van Norden on twitter.
Really liked his book, Mengzi.