Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Philosophical Undertakings

Digging a grave is not like digging a hole.  Some of the difference is quickly discovered.  A grave wants to be tidy, the sides cut smooth and corners keen.  The work is careful, not quick, and it is much physically harder than I expected.  For in digging I discovered why the cemetery sits where it does on our family farm.  It rests on a rise of land overlooking an expanse of lower pasture and, beyond that, hills that push away west and show the last of the sun in evening.  It’s beautiful, yet this is but coincidence.  The cemetery sits where it does because its soil is so leavened with rock as to make farming untenable.  This, then, is the prudent logic of location in the always sorry economics of farming.  We bury our dead in our loveliest spot, but this is because we bury them in the worst of our dirt.

In digging, I remembered too well that tombstones have purpose beyond serving sentiment.  We mark graves to announce human significance, the tombstone a tangible sign that our dead lived and we rued their loss.  But we also mark graves for the ones who must dig next.  My grandfather recalled his boyhood experiences digging graves in our cemetery, with its several unmarked graves.  What stones there were for these were long ago lost, so “sometimes,” my grandfather would say, “we’d be digging and hit coffin, and we’d have to move over and start again.”  An unmarked grave evokes sorrow for dead completely forgotten, but it also makes potential trouble for next gravedigger.  When I dug a grave, I hoped against this trouble.

But grave digging just is trouble, and trouble of the worst sort.  Grief is dirty and it is work.  One doesn’t want it easier – that just seems, as Dostoyevsky might say, false to the fact – but help would be nice.

I’ve always thought that whatever else philosophy does, it should help.  I expect many people have thought so, but the ones we study most are little help with grave digging.  To be sure, they have much to say about death.  Philosophy itself, if we heed Plato, is training for death, the mental discipline that readies its practitioners to die well, without fear and anxiety.  Plato was schooled in this by Socrates, that philosopher whose death perhaps marks the genesis of all philosophy in the west.  Socrates died with fierce defiance – of the shortsighted contemporaries who persecuted him, but more ambitiously of death itself.  He would not fear it, insisting instead upon the power of reason to overmaster anxiety.  But he is not a philosopher with whom I could bear to dig a grave.

Much of philosophy in the west simply takes it as obvious that the problem of death is that I will die.  It was so for Socrates and Plato, and remains so now:  Pick up any recent philosophy collection on death and you will find much to school you on your own end, much that will work away at whether you ought count your death bad and attempt to sort your mortality into rational order.  For in most of our philosophy still, the death that matters is your own.  This is why most philosophers would make poor gravediggers, poor companions in grief. 

I will die – of course I will – and I suppose that represents a challenge of sorts.  But the problem I have with death is that other people die.  Whatever trouble my own death poses is but dull afterthought to more potent longings against loss.  Where one wants help with this, one must look elsewhere, to poets, memoirists, or novelists.  If one wants a philosopher, though, best look to China.  There one finds philosophers who feel the trouble of graves. 

When Confucius buried his parents, he built a mounded grave, one that would be visible and stand above its surrounds.  Great care was taken to build it well, for its height would be the way he would find it again when he would wish to return.  The fates were against him, however, and under the weight of uncommonly heavy rains, the mound collapsed.  When his students informed him of this, they had to repeat the news three times, Confucius unable to take it in.  As understanding broke upon him, he wept openly, wrecked by the failure to make some modest symbolic good out of sorrow. 

In my own digging, I felt the force of Confucius’ distress.  One wants so badly in grief to exercise what pitiably small control one can, to make something go right where all has gone wrong.  So too, one wants to do for the dead, not because they’ll know what we do in laying their graves, but because it feels, however modestly, something like life once did.  When they lived, the dead took what we could offer – conversation, affection, shared experiences – and they gave back in kind.  Death puts them beyond reach of our doings, but in mourning we pledge ourselves against this, telling the fates that not all is altered.  We hold in remainder the power to do for them just a little bit more and a little bit longer.  And, since it is all we can do, we want this bit of doing to go right and well.  To have it go badly or, worse, to have failed to make our efforts the best we could, is to suffer a redoubling of loss.

The Daoist Zhuangzi is in many ways a foil to Confucius.  He describes sages cheerfully singing beside the corpse of a dead friend, reveling in nature’s endless transformations.  Sometimes he rejected the idea of graves altogether, suggesting that burying the dead but arbitrarily favors worms over birds as nature has her way with our remains.  Zhuangzi’s happy sages come to prize death precisely because they prize life, understanding that change, including the dramatic change of death, is where we find whatever beauty, interest, and meaning life can afford.  Without it, much that makes our happiness would be lost.  Still, even Zhuangzi could not pass the grave of a friend without melancholy.  Seeing his companion Huizi’s grave, he speaks to Huizi, ruefully observing that he now has no one with whom to talk. 

Zhuangzi’s vision of a world without graves is tempting, as if giving up the burial of our dead could lay to rest our grief.  It would also be a valuable admission of human vanities, a check on all the ways we strive to make monuments in life and out of our lives.  Efforts to make that which will last are a folly in defiance of how the world works, its endless capacity to forget and, in the dreadful phrase, “move on.”  But even Zhuangzi saw the wide difference between vainly heroic aspirations to defy mortality through our memorializing actions and wishing one’s own dear friend was not dead.  In the latter, one cares not about monuments to human significance, but about the lost chance to have one more ordinary word.  A grave can’t fix this, but it gave Zhuangzi a place to talk when death had shut the ears of the one he wanted to listen.  However sorry a substitute, a grave may save the interchange between friends from becoming a dead language.  Or, at least, provide a place to speak of languages lost. 

Another Confucian, Xunzi, meditates on the problems our dead present as corpses.  Dead bodies are not like living bodies, but neither are they terribly different when they belong to one’s own.  We want to keep our dead, save them from the nullity of death, even as the blunt facts of decay insist that we must take leave.  The trouble then is how to balance longing with fact, how to separate ourselves from what used to be when the present is emphatically not as we would wish.  Xunzi apprehended that where death is quick, leave-taking wants to be long.  Our efforts at tending our dead, digging their graves, and ritual exercises of remembrance are actions undertaken in the gap, the gap between what has happened and our hesitant, unwilling adjustment to it.  We need to do something, so we do what we can to make it seem as if they recede from view rather than bluntly disappear:  We dig, we weep, we memorialize.  In this, Xunzi understood the irrelevance or, perhaps more kindly, impotence of the merely doxastic in taking leave of our dead.  What we believe about our dead matters far less in grief than what we do.

Like many contemporary philosophers, Xunzi assumed that the dead are just that – gone, from us, from life, from existence.  But Xunzi did not imagine that this stone cold fact signified much.  Fact pales before desire and desire wants translating into action, into doing. In early China, one form of doing was the soul-summoning ritual.  Upon the death of a beloved, the bereaved would take to the rooftop to beg their dead to return – ritually pleading, “Come back!” – no matter how impossible one knew this to be.  Because, Xunzi might say, the longing is the thing.  What matters most is not that our dead cannot come back to us but the helpless, hopeless, and most important desire that they could.  The wish too is a fact and it is one of the more exquisite human facts, the felt power of our longings to go on a little longer with those we love.  If we are not to be false to this more important fact, we need somewhere to go with it, to give it its due, and the rooftop seems as good a place as any.  As does the graveyard, digging through layers of rock to make a place that is not a hole.        

As I age and accrue the losses that age brings, philosophers who think their own deaths the most challenging breed in me a certain contempt. People like mine, who historically lacked the leisure for philosophy, have long died stoically themselves but only uneasily bury their own in country cemeteries, graves we’ll also maintain if they are to be maintained.  People like mine do not so much dispose of the dead but hold them in our charge.  And this perhaps works a fundamental difference in consciousness of death.  When I die, my kin will bury me alongside our other dead.  They’ll sing “I’ll Fly Away,” even as I lay manifestly grounded beneath the rocky soil, because announcing that melancholic hope is what we have always done, and done most when we believe it least.  And, at long last, mine will be one more grave alongside which they'll picnic on Decoration Day, perhaps sometimes sparing my grave a lonely word.  In all of this, for me, my own death really figures little.  I’ll not be doing anything in dying my ancestors have not already done.  Its banality is the consolation, if some is needed.

The trouble I discern is that the death that matters to me is not my own.  It does not sit on a distant horizon, nor will its coming be singular.  It will instead come and keep coming, a serial experience belonging to me by way of others I would not lose if I had power. The problem isn’t death, but deaths.  It is not dying, but grave digging, and that requires raw and muscular work too easily lost in philosophy’s most indolent abstractions.  To grieve and mourn, one does not want those who will too ably measure and make tidy life’s alarming collapses.  One wants philosophers who fall apart, who come undone with weeping, talk to graves, and cry out for the return of souls that don’t exist.  One wants those who tarry in the trouble because they feel it and know it has no ready resolution.  If it will ever yield to reason and reflection, these will come late and incompletely, and only after digging is done. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Degenerate Skepticism and the Thieves of Philosophy

An essay presented at a special APA session on what Chinese philosophy can contribute to contemporary philosophy.  There are increasingly many sessions at APA meetings pitched to offer the non-specialist an entry into "non-western" philosophy.  Rarely are these attended by anyone who is not already a specialist in "non-western" philosophy.  The essay here is not about how Chinese philosophy can contribute to contemporary debate.  It is instead a polemic about the folly of this question in the current atmosphere within the discipline.  Full essay below or pdf here.

Degenerate Skepticism and the Thieves of Philosophy
Amy Olberding, University of Oklahoma

Entertaining what early Chinese philosophy might contribute to dialogues in contemporary ethics would, in better circumstances, be the task of many and entail generations of effort.  Such is to say that the categories here contain too much:  Both “early Chinese philosophy” and “contemporary ethics” are territories too vast to map out well in brief remarks.  Moreover, concerted efforts to join the two in dialogue are too scarce to sustain many decisive claims.  Far too few philosophers are acquainted with early Chinese philosophy, so what we have at present largely consists in a handful of specialists, who naturally have their own interests and priorities as philosophers, charged with speaking to and for the significance of a considerable, complex body of materials.  Because of this, remarks about what early Chinese philosophy might add to contemporary debates can only be radically fragmentary and incomplete.  When we advocate for greater acquaintance with Chinese philosophy among our non-specialist peers, we do well to keep this in mind, for in our outreach efforts, we often must put the cart before the horse.
Advocacy for greater attention to Chinese philosophy entails trying to motivate others to recognize its value by advancing our own conclusions about its rich possibilities.  This is as it must be given our circumstances in the profession, but what it risks obscuring is that answering the question here – what early Chinese philosophy might add to contemporary inquiry – would most profit from simple open curiosity on the part of many. We specialists can inform others about what we find enlivening in the materials we study, we can advance what we particularly prize, but we cannot access the far more expansive value that might be found if more would simply bring to bear their own interests and preoccupations.  To the extent that this far richer range of possibilities becomes obscured or muted by what we do here, our efforts may also risk eliding features of our present context that require attention, most significantly the skepticism in which our professional dialogues about non-western philosophies seat.
In venues like this, I think, we must ever emphasize the need for open intellectual curiosity on the part of many because it too often appears in woefully short supply, at least as our professional dialogues regarding “non-western” philosophies can provide measure.  It remains disconcertingly and objectionably acceptable for those wholly unacquainted with Chinese and other “non-western” philosophies to dismiss their value and indeed to dismiss their status as philosophy.  This is evident each time conversation in the profession turns, as it episodically does, to discussing canon and curriculum.  For then commences the predictable, tragicomic burlesque of the untrained and incurious pompously explaining to us, and to the profession at large, why materials they have neither read nor studied cannot, for reasons of philosophical rigor or high disciplinary standards, belong to philosophy.[1]  I hope, albeit uncertainly, that the most outspoken and egregiously sneering participants in these debates are a minority within the discipline, but even if this is right, their effect is significant.  For they render outreach efforts such as we undertake today haunted.
                  I take it as a given the profession’s most skeptical and incurious gatekeepers are not here today.  After all, their judgments regarding the worth of Chinese philosophy are, for them, comfortably, firmly settled:  There is nothing we might say that they will discern a need to know.  Despite their absence, however, their presence is nonetheless felt.  Their ignorant, derisive commentary on our work and materials too easily steers our dialogue.  Thus, for example, read any recent blog commentary on inclusivity and “non-western” traditions and one will find conversation devolving into importunate demands for proof that these traditions warrant attention and count as philosophy.[2]  This endlessly repeated dynamic within the wider profession inevitably inflects our question today.
                  The invitation to remark upon what early Chinese philosophy might contribute to contemporary ethical discourse lodges within the cycle of skeptical professional dialogue on inclusion.  This cycle skews my own attentions, inclining me to think more than I would wish about what might, finally and at long last, settle, or at least chip away at, cynical doubt.  It moves me to think harder than I wish about what they might appreciate and be tempted to like, suffocating my own rich enjoyment of my materials by obliging me to strategically adopt their rather anhedonic skeptical resolve.  So too, given how very few of us in the profession work on “non-western” philosophy, I am uncomfortably aware that status-anxiety can infect what we offer and how we present our work.  Some of our peers would not grant us the status of philosophers – after all, for the most skeptical we are by definition in thrall to the fiction that Chinese philosophy is philosophy – so as we present our work, we have to prove not simply its worth, but our own.  This is why I characterize efforts such as ours here today as haunted.  We inhabit a profession that regularly supplies platform and willing audience to hostile incuriosity and sometimes rank bias.  Nothing I can possibly say about the worth of Chinese philosophy will dispel the skepticism of the most vocal who play an outsized role in our professional dialogues.  Still, considering our situation in the profession awakens in me some Confucian-inspired metaphilosophical reflections.  After all, our present situation is one the Confucians would have found regrettably familiar.
                  In considering the prospects and future of Chinese philosophy within the profession, my thoughts often turn to Confucius himself.  The Confucius I have in mind is not the storied, dignified sage held in the amber of posthumous hagiography, but the perennially and abjectly disappointed advocate peripatetically wandering from state to state in search of willing ears and open minds.  This Confucius knew all too well that when faced with someone indisposed toward learning, even the best tuition cannot help (e.g., Analects 7.8).[3]  So, like this Confucius, perhaps we can sometimes turn truculent and confess impatient irritation.  Confucius, after all, knew that there is little one can do with dried shit if one wants material with which to build (Analects 5.10).  Such is to say that building a more inclusive profession cannot transpire where the material with which we most work, the dialogues given greatest play, are those dictated by the intractably skeptical.  Even if we could move them toward greater toleration of our work, aiming for whatever stingy concessions they might allow sacrifices too much.  In particular, it betrays philosophical ideals we ought protect.  Here too, the Confucians are most useful.
                  The early Confucians were uncommonly committed to the worth of learning.  They were, moreover, adamant about the need for rigorous study to ground reflection.  Thus in one particularly entertaining passage in the Analects, Confucius is found upbraiding himself for having spent a whole day in thoughtful concentration, forgetting to eat or rest.  “I got nothing out of it,” he insists, “and would have been better off devoting the time to learning”  (Analects 15.31).  Even for sage Confucius, thinking, if it be absent careful study and learning, was folly.  In addition to study, the Confucians treated keeping good company as crucial to a person’s development.  Xunzi is especially emphatic on this score, enjoining that we take care in the quality of our community, for whether we will or no, our dispositions will be enormously influenced by them.  He describes a plant with roots that have a pleasant scent, noting that its scent will be altered by its conditions:  “[I]f you soak it in foul water then the gentleman will not draw near it, and the common people will not wear it. This happens not because the original material is not fragrant, but rather because of what it is soaked in” (2-3).[4]  Virtuous people take care in where they dwell, aware that they will learn and develop in accord with what they are “soaked in.”  Most generally, the multiple, various, and emphatic injunctions regarding learning we find among early Confucians commit them to a set of governing values and ideals.  And these values and ideals can be profitably turned toward defending philosophy itself from that which presently undermines and corrupts our practice.
                  We are, in Xunzi’s idiom, “soaked in” an indolent, degenerate form of skepticism in which exercises in doubt perversely unmoored from learning are treated as the philosopher’s art.  Too often professional dialogue appears to harness the philosopher’s storied capacity to engage in stubborn, proof-seeking inquiry to close-minded rebuff of the unfamiliar, to dogmatically oppositional resistance to novelty.  Among the sacrifices these dialogues exact are some of philosophy’s keenest and most significant intellectual values:  curiosity, open-mindedness, epistemic responsibility, and appreciation of genuine expertise.  Without these values to ground skeptical engagement with others, the profession not only betrays deep philosophical ideals but also, not incidentally, abets a host of unexamined biases.  Where judicious skepticism can encourage one to withhold assent where uncertain, it too often features not as a useful heuristic in inquiry but as a substitute for it.  The philosopher, in this shamefully common present iteration, is but a hammer ever hunting nails.  The philosophers most disposed in this way are, as I have already said, not available to our suasion, but they influence and infect the wider population in the discipline.  They can, and I think sometimes do, function as what the early Confucians described as village worthies.
                  The village worthy is characterological type, a perniciously problematic creature who excels at mere seeming.  Confucius describes him as a “thief of virtue” (Analects 17.13).  Mengzi elaborates that village worthies are especially difficult to rebuke or censure for they superficially accord with “current customs” and thereby win approval (Mengzi 7B37).[5]  Moreover, they are not easily shifted, for “they regard themselves as right.”  He cites remarks ascribed to Confucius that condemn the village worthy based on his power to seduce others into confusion.  Confucius says, “I hate that which seems but is not.  I hate weeds out of fear that they will be confused with grain sprouts.  I hate cleverness out of fear that it will be confused with righteousness.  I hate glibness out of fear that it will be confused with faithfulness[…] I hate the village worthies out of fear that they will be confused with those who have Virtue.”  The village worthy is, in short, a counterfeit of the virtuous person, someone who, consciously or not, manipulates the external signs of virtue to appear admirable and thereby secure others’ esteem.
                  Part of what renders the village worthy a potent conceptual device is that unlike standard anglophone methods for framing discussion of virtue as cashed out against vice, against an opposite, here we have a mechanism for discussing that which is unsettlingly close experiential kin to virtue.  The village worthy, that is, will not appear vicious – indeed, his resemblance to the virtuous constitutes the threat he represents.  For unlike the vicious, his adept simulation of something we ought admire can take us in, can tempt us into mistaking the fake for the real, impoverishment for abundance.  He can lead others astray, inclining them to prize superficial trappings of virtue rather than the real thing.  The potency of the village worthy as a conceptual instrument for discussing virtue is quite rich, but I want to adapt the Confucian discussion to focus instead on philosophy and philosophers.
                  Describing what qualities of mind or character constitute a real philosopher is an open question and, at any rate, there neither is, nor likely ever will be consensus on this.  However, I struggle to imagine any plausible account of the philosopher that would not include the characteristics I reference above: curiosity, open-mindedness, epistemic responsibility, and appreciation of genuine expertise.  However, when professional talk turns to what philosophy is and does, it is philosophy’s critical consciousness that is most frequently invoked, its commitment not to indulge in unexamined assumptions and, in what has become a tired professional cliché, its bold readiness to question anything.  So too, philosophers often pride themselves on the manner in which this consciousness is exercised, extolling the philosopher’s plain-speaking agonism and readiness for intellectual combat.  Philosophy, as David Chalmers ruefully suggests, can be mistaken for “Fight Club.”[6] Whether conceptually assaying the philosopher or describing how philosophers conduct themselves, professional discourse gives most play and attention to an aggressively skeptical, critical consciousness, rarely addressing or even invoking the other values I raise.  Perhaps because of this, too many in the profession – those I am ready to call philosophy’s village worthies – appear to treat exercising this consciousness as exhaustive of their intellectual duties, to understand skeptical challenge as all they need to do as philosophers interacting with other philosophers.
                  Philosophy’s village worthy is one who in effect selects out of the qualities that comprise being a philosopher just the most socially arresting, conspicuous, and obvious.  Where one wants to display philosophical acumen to others, win approbation, or signal one’s belonging to the tribe, the shortest and indeed easiest route is to skeptically assail.  This owes in part to our profession’s outsized attention to skeptical facility over other philosophical skills, but it also owes in part to the nature of such exercises relative to what our other skills can afford.  Skeptical exercises readily permit displays of cleverness, in the same way that demolition is easier than construction and far more fantastic to behold.  One must simply find the weak joints and pound rather than undertake any more patiently laborious process, and, not incidentally, every philosophical structure will have some weak joints.  Moreover, the tear down will summon attention in ways more prolonged, incremental, constructive work will not.  Skeptical exercises afford spectacle and win attention; they draw the eye in ways that exercising other qualities will not and likely cannot.
                  The favor we assign exercises of skeptical consciousness in how we describe philosophy and how we behave suppresses adequate recognition of our quieter yet necessary skills.  Consider, for example, how difficult it is to render exercises of curiosity visible.  Being curious entails activities such as reading and study outside one’s natural ken and compass.  It may well not, and often will not, yield products quickly developed and thereby available for others to see.  It is easier to display and render visible qualities such as open-mindedness, epistemic responsibility, and appreciation of genuine expertise.  But how does one do this?  Visibly enacting these values might entail making utterances that appear largely excised from the standard philosopher’s repertoire.  One may need, for example, to confess, “I don’t know,” “I may be wrong,” or “I lack sufficient knowledge to draw a conclusion.”  Where combat is our style and “seeming smart” is extoled, such can amount to baring one’s neck before the blade.[7]  Where a skeptical, critical consciousness is esteemed as primary, exercising these quieter skills may read like failure.  After all, to open-mindedly entertain the novel or to defer to the earned authority of the expert entails keeping skepticism in abeyance, holding one’s critical fire.  Thus it is not simply that these values are more difficult to discern in others, but that overemphasis on a skeptical, critical consciousness ill fits us for enacting or displaying them. 
                  If we understand the philosopher to have great need of the quieter qualities I suggest, we have reason to despair of philosophy’s village worthy, he who treats our purported charge to “question anything” as sanction to assail anything no matter how little he knows or understands it.  Like the Confucian village worthy, his is but a glib, facile, and indolent simulacrum of what we ought to value.  To agonistically “question anything” while bereft of these other values is but philosophical nihilism.  However much it may resemble features we expect philosophers to evince, it is but a weed and we mistake it for grain at our peril.  To practice philosophy well, we do indeed need measures of stubborn effort and doubt, but our doubt must include self-doubt, uncertainty that we have learned and know enough, that we have adequately and well understood, that have heard and listened well.  These species of doubt attach to our quieter values, but we are soaked in an atmosphere in which a cheap and juvenile doubt unmoored from them is what we most often see displayed and lauded.  Moreover, because of this, we permit intellectual vice far more range than we ought.
                  The village worthy’s indolent, degraded skepticism can and indeed has been exercised within the profession in ways that promote reflexive, unthinking acceptance of ideology and bias.  Thus, in what for Asian philosophy specialists is all too familiar, we see, for example, philosophers claiming to have read some piece of our materials and found it wanting.  They thereby perform their skeptical consciousness but in an unreasoning and intellectually irresponsible fashion.  For me at least, upon seeing each new iteration of this phenomenon, I cannot but think of the US Senator who “refuted” global warming by holding up a snowball.  Like this senator, the philosopher denying Asian materials the status of philosophy and proffering his glancing encounter with a fragmentary scrap of “evidence,” is simply manipulating external signs of a commitment to evidence and justification to forward a conclusion he declines to genuinely examine.  Like the senator, philosophy’s village worthy is likely wholly unavailable to rational suasion.  My concern with him, I emphasize, is what he does to the rest of us, to the profession at large. 
                  My prevailing concern with philosophy’s village worthy is the Confucian worry: that the village worthy operates as a corrupting influence on us all.  Unchecked, he distorts our sense of what we ought do and what we ought prize.  He is, in Confucius’ idiom, a thief of philosophy.  In our professional discussions, he hijacks inquiry, his aggressive displays of doubt both constraining the sorts of conversations we are permitted and discouraging the participation of many.  He misleads the impressionable, inclining them to think that his uninformed pugilism and reflexive agonism are “smart” and ought be emulated.  His gaudy self-indulgence in assailing others arrests our collective attention and swamps recognition of the subtle and quiet.  And, perhaps worst, he purports to represent his activity as philosophy itself, as the best we can do and the sum total of our noble charge.  We are, I think, so soaked in his pernicious influence that we rarely challenge him on this. I remain hopeful that he does not represent what most of us prize, but we nonetheless accept him far more than I, put plainly, can understand.  Relative to those who populate philosophy’s marginalized areas, he is rarely challenged in the way we are.  No matter how openly, egregiously, and thoroughly he violates our nobler ideals of our discipline, his status as philosopher is treated as beyond question.
                  Let me draw back from assaying the village worthy and his effect in order to acknowledge the performative tension in what I offer.  My own remarks are more aggressive and agonistic than would well align with the nobler values I describe.  I do aspire to living these values and thus do not typically excoriate peers as village worthies (or at least eschew doing so out loud).  In explanation of my pugilism here, then, let me but offer my own exhaustion and disappointment:  I am too weary and demoralized to be more generous.
After over 20 years in the profession, I tire of the sorts of activities we Asian specialists are obliged to undertake in outreach in a climate that habitually betrays deep philosophical values.  I tire of trying to tell others why they ought credit what we do and consider it philosophy.  I tire of being haunted by the village worthies the profession contentedly tolerates and declines to exorcise, all while many of my own specialist colleagues abandon the discipline for academic departments where they can expect far better.  My exhaustion issues, most of all, from the abject futility of outreach that can only do its work where others do theirs.  Where our non-specialist peers decline to read and study our materials or research, where they cannot summon sufficient curiosity to make their own investigations, telling them what they ought find valuable and useful in Chinese philosophy in venues like this is too often a fool’s game.  If our interlocutors are unpersuaded by what we offer – and the influence of the village worthy is such that they will be well primed for resistance – what then have we established regarding our core question today, the use and interest of Chinese philosophy?  Nothing at all, I insist. 
Assaying what Chinese philosophy might add to our collective understanding is never going to transpire by a handful of specialists doing a bit work in a setting like this.  The value, interest, and insight of Chinese philosophy can no more be established by one panel’s brief remarks than our colleagues down the hall talking Descartes are somehow, in defiance of all credulity and plain good sense, thereby validating the entire compass of western philosophy.  That we marginalized sorts are implicitly and sometimes even explicitly expected to do just this – to prove and legitimate the bona fides of entire traditions – is, finally and at long last, too appalling for me.  So, to the question at hand here on our panel – what can Chinese philosophy add to contemporary philosophy? – I say to my non-specialist peers:  Repudiate the profession’s toleration of intellectual indolence, summon up our discipline’s nobler qualities, and begin looking for yourselves.
Lest my condemnation of the profession’s village worthies be mistaken for condemning a few bad actors, let me render explicit that I accuse the profession as a whole for the damage these worthies do us all and, most particularly, marginalized scholars such as those in my field.  For where the village worthies among us ever cynically agitate against what they find unfamiliar but decline to investigate, they find too little resistance from their “mainstream” peers, from those they will at least credit as fellow philosophers.  Quite the contrary, the entirety of our professional and intellectual structures operate as if the village worthy is correct, as if “non-western” philosophy is not philosophy, not worthy of your attention, not worth teaching your students, not worth securing hires in your departments, not worth publishing in the “best” journals or in your edited volumes.  This is not all the doing of the village worthies, but it does sustain and nurture them.  Whatever complex combination of history, tradition, and inertia produce the radical absence of any “non-western” philosophy from all but a vanishingly few of our professional structures, the result is that the village worthy has the implicit sanction and plentiful cover to engage in his cynical theatrics in confidence that the profession is structurally established to be on his side.  
Let me conclude by abandoning even the modest shreds of optimism, generosity, and noble ideals I have herein invoked and be the cynical demolition artist my time in this profession has trained me to be and treats as acceptable.  The contemporary profession has capitulated to an impoverished, juvenile simulacrum of philosophy itself.  An edifice traditionally erected upon secure foundations of fine ideals including curiosity, open-mindedness, epistemic responsibility, and appreciation of genuine expertise now stands on the sloppy sands of degenerate skeptical self-indulgence.  Worse, it often vainly congratulates itself for just this, treating incurious, ignorant assault on the unfamiliar as the fine art of “questioning anything.”  So let me emulate that lazy creature too many like to call a philosopher and agonistically importune:  If I here overstate the case and exaggerate the indolent, incurious intellectual mire in which the profession is soaked, prove it.  Offer me some evidence to believe otherwise, some reason to think the finer qualities of the philosopher I invoke still exist among philosophers.  However, barring substantial change in both our dialogues and professional structures, I will be what the current profession would have me be:  a person exceptionally difficult to convince, one whose first and dominant impulse will be cynical refusal to believe. 

1.  For multiple examples and discussion of this phenomenon, see Amy Olberding, “Philosophical Exclusion and Conversational Practices,” forthcoming in Philosophy East and West and available on request.
2.  For examples of this, see cited material above.
3.  All citations from the Analects are from Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., The Analects of Confucius:  A Philosophical Translation (NY:  Balantine Books, 1997).  
4.  Eric L. Hutton, trans., Xunzi:  The Complete Text (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2014).
5.  Bryan W. Van Norden, trans.  Mengzi (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishing, 2008).
6.  David Chalmers, “Guidelines for Respectful, Constructive, and Inclusive
Philosophical Discussion,” available here:
7.  On the phenomenon of “seeming smart,” see Eric Schwitzgebel, “On Being Good at Seeming Smart,” available here: