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Philosophy has roots in both the eastern and the western world. Undoubtedly, there is a big difference between the two. Eastern traditions are more prescriptive and religious and less formal. Western traditions are devoted to the formal and structural aspects of truth, reason and argumentation. However, why is western philosophy more popular in most universities around the world? Would you say that eastern philosophy is not respected because it is less rigorous and analytic compared to the western thought?

There are few, if any, journals devoted to the eastern thought. There are also few "Asian or eastern" philosophers who are internationally recognized like most western thinkers. In fact, when we talk about the branches of philosophy, we always discuss the western branches of philosophy as if it is the only philosophical tradition we have.

What if, for example, I would like to focus exclusively on eastern philosophy. Will I be taken seriously in the philosophical community? In other words, is there still a place in the 21st century for an eastern philosopher?

  • Somewhat related – Drux Sep 25 '14 at 14:39
  • In each of your questions, you have left out a critical piece of information: the subject. "Are there any recognized modern...?" Recognized by whom? "Is eastern philosophy taken seriously...?" By whom? Such things lead you to tenuous conclusion: "Would you say that eastern philosophy is not respected because...?" Respected by whom? "In fact, when we talk about the branches of philosophy, we always discuss the western branches of philosophy as if it is the only philosophical tradition we have." This is possibly true: first define the we. – prash Sep 25 '14 at 21:16
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I'm not really sure where you are getting your info, but there are several problems in what you are saying.

First, the claim "Philosophy has roots in both the eastern and the western world" has some issues or at least some important ambiguities. On the one hand, philosophy can be taken to refer to a specific endeavor of the Greeks in which case the rooting in the East is dubious. On the other hand, it can mean more generally something like "asking the big questions" in which case the idea that it has roots seems kind of questionable. It would then happen wherever people are.

Second, you're confusing the topics that people study with their competencies and specializations. So for instance, Stephen C. Angle, Roger Ames, Henry Rosemont, and Edward Slingerland are "European or western" by ethnicity but study Asian thought. Conversely, Jaegwon Kim is of Korean ethnicity but studies metaphysics. David Wong is Chinese American and studies Chinese philosophy inter alia. Tu Weiming both is Chinese and studies Chinese philosophy. There's nothing magically genetic about having a particular specialization. (though, one cultural aid is being able to speak the language or have familiarity with how that culture thinks).

Third, I wouldn't say "eastern philosophy is not respected because it is less rigorous and analytic compared to the western thought?" I would instead ask what you mean by eastern -- which I take you probably mean Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese philosophy. And then I would agree that it is less "analytic" insofar as that's a historical method of doing philosophy (though many current programs in China are very analytic). But I haven't met anyone who openly says Chinese philosophy or Japanese philosophy are less "rigorous" (I pick those two because I study those two in addition to Modern philosophy). And I think beyond "not respecting," the more common attitude is slight intrigue mixed with inadequate time to study things outside one's own specialization...

Fourth, for journals related to Eastern philosophy, I can think of four off the top of my head: Philosophy East and West, Dao, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, and the Journal of Japanese Philosophy. There's also a few journals devoted entirely to the topic of comparative philosophy which tends to produce East-West comparison articles. I know that listing is missing some. Sure, there are more journals for Western philosophy by a long mile, but it's also more accessible and has a longer history of academic study in the West.


Now to your personal questions, if you want to study only Eastern philosophy, you won't be teaching in a philosophy department. You might teach in a religion department but not a philosophy department. The reason is that philosophy is a discipline with methods, jargon, and standards. The jargon we use is mostly derived from Western philosophy. You won't magically be able to use it just from reading the Dao De Jing and nearly all of the secondary literature in English is conversant with some Western tradition (whether it is pragmatism, thomism, or contemporary philosophy of mind).

Again, here the hinge is what you mean by "eastern philosopher." If you want to do what we call "philosophy," you cannot only do Eastern thought. If you want to be "eastern" as in belonging to an Asian race or ethnicity, then that's immaterial to philosophy. Your closest bet as a place to study is the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

tl;dr - no, there's not some conspiracy against Eastern philosophy; it's less read because it's less understood not because it's hated; if you want to be in philosophy, you cannot just study Eastern philosophy

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This is one of the most crucial questions I have encountered on Philosophy.SE, and indicates an admirable consciousness about the structural bias in Western mainstream academia. It's a fact that while philosophy according to the Western narrative and experience is taught and studied almost all across the world, eastern wisdom/philosophies are much less widely studied in the West.

So for all the good reasons I decided to dedicate time to write a comprehensive answer to this, however it demanded delving into critical history of modern Western civilization which falls into disciplines such as Postcolonialist studies and criticism of the western Orientalist culture via critical discourse analysis, hence the length of my post and a large section of it having to touch upon these fields which are not directly relevant to the study of philosophy but the sociopolitical origins of Western philosophical discourse.

The Sociopolitical Factor

An important factor is the historically disadvantaged sociopolitical situation of Eastern countries who should've been, otherwise, promoting and representing their own philosophical/cultural heritage in the world.

It is important to note that over the last century most Asian countries have been under repressive political, economic and military dominance of Western powers such as the British, American or Communist *empires who have been always enforcing their own ideology and culture over the conquered nations. Ask yourself for example, why a lot of people in India speak English as their first language and are forgetting their own native tongue, or why Turks abandoned their own alphabet, etc. Examples and indications of the strong influence of Western colonialism over indigenous cultures are too obvious around the world and too numerous to list.

As a real example, my country Iran and its indigenous traditional culture went under the attacks of Western secular academia and culture during the reign of Western-backed secular Pahlavi Monarchy. A lot of our tradition sciences and wisdom (e.g. Islamic traditional medicine, religious seminaries as our traditional academic institutions, etc) were repressed and marginalized under the influence of colonialist interests that became state policy of Pahlavis. But thankfully there have been an academic resurgence of interest in our traditional thoughts following the glorious Islamic Revolution of 1979 since when Iranian traditional thinkers have also been making advances in active representation in world academia.

* Although Communism as a political government emerged in Russia, it owes itself entirely to the West, both in terms of theory (based on Marxism) and political success. For the evidence of the latter part read: Non Dare Call It Conspiracy by Garry Allen.

Western Cultural Attitude towards East

The other important factor is the phenomenon of Eurocentrism which have permeated all levels of modern Western civilization including academia. It's a general cultural mentality expressed:

... in terms of dualisms such as civilized/barbaric or advanced/backward, developed/undeveloped, core/periphery, implying “evolutionary schemas through which societies inevitably progress” supposedly with a remnant of an “underlying presumption of a [supposedly] superior white Western self as referent of analysis”

Following the so-called Enlightenment in 18th Century Europe and subsequently the Industrial Revolution underpinned by technological booms of the 19th century, Western man came to view itself as a superior, ‘advanced’ civilization over the traditional cultures who were lagging behind only in technological progress. This was while Eastern culture, specifically, great contributions of muslim philosophers and scientists during the Islamic Golden Age, had a major and consequential role in the rise of science in modern Europe, admitted by learned and fair-minded Orientalists such as Robert Briffault who wrote in his The Making of History:

[T]here is not a single aspect of European growth in which the decisive influence of Islamic Culture is not traceable, nowhere is it so clear and momentous as in the genesis of that power which constitutes the permanent distinctive force of the modern world, and the supreme source of its victory, natural science and the scientific spirit... The debt of our science to that of the Arabs does not consist in startling discoveries or revolutionary theories, science owes a great deal more to Arab culture, it owes its existence. (pp.190-191)

However, despite the fact that muslims’ approach to sciences was holistic and all sciences were regarded as a part of religious wisdom, in West, science was approached with a disregard to the unifying metaphysical principles that works to direct scientific endeavor towards transcendental truth both in practice and theory. (Closely relevant to this idea is my answer here to a question on quantitative vs. qualitative philosophy).

Eurocentrism was first scholarly examined by Edward Said, a Palestinian American thinker notable for his book Orientalism * in which he analyzes “the cultural representations that are the basis of Orientalism, a term he redefined to refer to the West's patronizing perceptions and depictions of Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies—"the East".” Therefore the thesis of Orientalism is

the existence of a "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture", which derives from Western culture's long tradition of false and romanticized images of Asia, in general, and the Middle East, in particular. That such perceptions, and the consequent cultural representations, have served, and continue to serve, as implicit justifications for the colonial and imperialist ambitions of the European powers and of the U.S. Source

* A more detailed review of Said's Orientalism Thesis can be read here.

The Prevalent Epistemological Attitude of the West

Apart from these important sociopshycological factors, one can argue that philosophical thoughts of the European Enlightenment themselves had an important role in alienating Western Civilization from Eastern philosophies. Important developments in philosophical/epistemological thought during Renaissance and Enlightenment contributed to the formation of a general culture that shies away from religious, intuitive and mystical approaches to truth (important features of many eastern philosophies) and considers them to be dogmatic, unverifiable or mythical.

The Catholic theology that contradicted many scientific findings, and the failure of "Rationalists" such as Desecrate to successfully account for theological beliefs led to the Kantian conclusion that even metaphysics is beyond human cognition, which precipitated the alienation from intangible/transcendental realities culminating in the intellectual infatuation with Empiricism since early 20th century.

So your suggestion is to a large degree true that the reason eastern philosophies are not popularly discussed in western Academia is because of the general epistemological distaste for intuitive thoughts whose known proponents (to the Western academia at least, as we will see) have mainly discussed their ideas via descriptive imagery.

However, not only it is wrong to assume that descriptively-discussed intuitive thought is necessarily mythical or even unverifiable, it's also a typical Eurocentric ignorance that all Eastern philosophies have been exclusively discussed descriptively.

My Experience of the Largely Neglected but Uniquely Rich and Revolutionary Muslim Philosophy

As a theist muslim, gifted to be born and living in Islamic Republic Iran, I have had the opportunity to study, along with the works of most western philosophers, the eastern Islamic philosophical schools and traditions, and have been deeply fascinated with the superb contributions of Muslim thinkers, philosophers, poets and mystics who have provided humanity with a colorful and rich treasure of wisdom that has sadly gone similarly unheeded by mainstream western academia.

Open to all human intellectual heritage, I have also found a lot of brilliant wisdom in Eastern philosophies such as Taoism and Buddhism, and while central/eastern Asian philosophies are descriptive rather than analytic, I can still 'see' many truthful pearls of wisdom in them that offer close parallels to my established religious and philosophical beliefs.

As for the methodological distinction you made which is a widely held assumption among modern mainstream philosophical thought, it is to some extent true that Western Thought throughout its modern history has been mainly focused on structural and analytic thinking (that itself being a fundamental imperfection as I explained on the qualiquantitative vs qualitative here) in contrast to many Eastern philosophies that adopt a descriptive method of discussion and rely mainly on intuitive inquiry to truth.

However while there's been little attention or practice of the intuitive method in modern mainstream thinking, but both traditions have been dearly regarded and applied by muslim thinkers throughout the history of muslim thinking.

Al-Farabi (10th century) for example was the first and very seminal muslim thinker and polymath who adopted and expanded on the Greek philosophies. He built upon the Neoplatonic tradition which reconciled reasoned thinking with mystical experience by logically substantiating mystical statements. Al-Farabi working following this tradition managed to provide a philosophical explanation for the phenomena of Divine Revelation via Gabriel in his theory of human intellect. (Read this as a good exposition).

Generally, in contrast to the Western experience, where religious, intuitive and logical thought traditions increasingly diverged and their respective proponents became increasingly alienated from one another, all along the history of muslim thought, there has been a distinct current of muslim theist thinkers who did not dismissed any thinking traditions in favor of the other.

Instead of dismissing all religious wisdom as unverifiable dogma, they considered statements of religious revelation as sources of intellectual inspiration and subjects of deep philosophical contemplation.

Mulla Sadra (17th century AD) the last most prominent muslim philosopher represents the apex of muslim evolutionary thinking. As a poet, mystic, theologian and meta-physician with a fervent faith in Islam, well versed in all thought traditions of his past and contemporary history, he succeeded in fully achieving what Suhrewardi (12th century, the founder of muslim tradition of Illuminationism) had only attempted: synthesizing all valid theories and truthful wisdoms from past philosophical, mystical and religious sources into a consistent philosophical school which he called "Transcendent Philosophy."

Mulla Sadra was a strict observant muslim with a close affinity with intuitive experience and at the same time was a strong adherent to rigorous logical thinking. By establishing his Transcendent Philosophy, He practically demonstrated that religious faith, intuitive insight and philosophically inquiry are not dichotomous or disjunctive, that they go hand in hand and complement and nourish each other until finding their proper place in a lofty holistic philosophy.

Among the topics and problems he addressed and effectively solved in his philosophy are an ingenious logical proof for the Sufi descriptive belief in Unity of Existence, proving motion as a universal inherent change in the material plane of existence and its the fourth dimension (the philosophical equivalent of what Einstein proved via natural science centuries later), proving the incorporeal nature of human imagination (whereas muslim philosophers had only considered human intellect to be incorporeal until then) enabling him to philosophically explain the nature of Barzakh in Islamic Eschatology, and other stages of human posthumous life (a scientific exposition can be read here); the nature and different levels of beauty and pleasures therefrom (sensual, imaginal and spiritual) etc.

Some Sources and Resources

Therefore if you are interested in philosophies that unite reason and intuition you may want to study muslim philosophy in particular, for which purpose I recommend you the works of Henry Corbin, perhaps the first Western philosopher who for the first time "opened the eyes of the West, about the existence of a completely unknown world: the deep spirituality of the great mystics and Shiite philosophy developed in East Muslim world, particularly in Iran, after the death Averroes." or among living authorities on Islamic Metaphysics and Mysticism, William Chittick and Seyyed Hussein Nasr who currently lecture at American academies.

As for the first introductory read on muslim philosophy, you may want to start by Philosophical Instructions by Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi, who has written one of the most erudite and comprehensive text books on the topic ever translated to English language.

Here is also the website for Sadra Foundation in Iran, an institute dedicated to exploration and introduction of the personality and thoughts of Mulla Sadra, this unique genius of philosophy, mysticism and spiritual enlightenment in history.

  • I've only just come across Nasr & Corbin; given Saids critique I've wondered whether there is room for a book calling itself Occidentalism - looking at the reception of Western cultural and philosophical tropes in the East – Mozibur Ullah Sep 27 '14 at 19:21
  • @MoziburUllah, Could be. Have you ever heard of the term Westoxication. It is a concept coined by Iranian intellectuals critical of Western influence. Here is a good exposition of the concept and its pioneers. – infatuated Sep 28 '14 at 3:27
  • I haven't; thanks for the reference; do you happen to know what the etymology of Gharbzadegi is out of interest? – Mozibur Ullah Sep 28 '14 at 14:16
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    @MoziburUllah, yes, but wasn't the etymology explained in the Wiki? But anyhow, it's a Persian noun composed of 'gharb' meaning 'west' and 'zadegi' meaning 'being plagued', "infatuated", 'preoccupied', or more literally 'struck'. Westoxciation is though a common translation. – infatuated Sep 28 '14 at 15:11
  • yes; but not through the words that make it up as a compound – Mozibur Ullah Sep 28 '14 at 18:06
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Eastern philosophy is less studied in the West for the same reasons that Western philosophy is less studied in the East; you study what your father taught you (personally or as a culture) studied and he was taught what his father taught him.

University departments are broken up into taxonomic systems that reflect the way the Western mind has been looking and analyzing the world for hundreds of years now. A non-philosophical example - If you have rheumatism or arthritis you go to a joint doctor, because they were originally thought to be joint conditions, and joint doctors learned about them. Over the last 20 years they are now thought to be conditions similar or brought on by allergies - but you still can't got to an allergist for either condition - because joint doctors are taught about it, not allergists.

Eastern philosophy did not follow Plato and Socrates; in the East philosophy and religion are interchangeable. When encountered by Western scholars, it was put into religious studies, because that's how it fit the Western taxonomic classification system of thinking. If it's not Plato or Socrates, or Western, it can't be philosophy.

There is very rigorous logical argumentation in the East. Vedic Sanskrit scholars have had it for thousands of years. They don't care to translate into English. They don't care if Western philosophers recognize them or not. They think you should study Sanskrit first for 20 years to understand their argumentation.

A very good source who studied both Eastern and Western philosophy in depth is Sri Aurobindo.

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    "Eastern philosophy is less studied in the West for the same reasons that Western philosophy is less studied in the East" As an easterner I can safely say this is untrue. – infatuated Sep 25 '14 at 16:06
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    Yes, an exception is the Muslim tradition. My answer was in reference to Far East traditions, not Near East. If the Muslim world had not kept Plato and Socrates alive, there would be no Plato or Socrates in the West. – Swami Vishwananda Sep 26 '14 at 8:19
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    An interesting correlative here is that 'African art' was seen ethographically in the Europe until Picasso saw it as art; which directly led to his famous picture Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon. – Mozibur Ullah Sep 27 '14 at 9:39
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Philosophy has roots in both the eastern and the western world.

This is undoubtably true; simply because of the commerce of civilisations means also the commerce of ideas; Diogenes Laertius specifically had to rebut non-Greek roots of Philosophy in his book The Lives of Philosophers; and one notices the very strong influence of the presocratics on Plato, almost all that lived in and around the mediterranean coast.

Jay Garfield, a Western Philosopher wrote:

People in our profession are still happy to treat Western philosophy as the “core” of the discipline, and as the umarked case. So, for instance, a course that addresses only classical Greek philosophy can be comfortably titled “Ancient Philosophy,” not “Ancient Western Philosophy,” and a course in metaphysics can be counted on to ignore all non-Western metaphysics…. It is simply irrational to ignore most of world philosophy in the pursuit of truth, and immoral to relegate any literature not written by Europeans as somehow beneath our dignity to read.

But he also notes that after applying to graduate school:

The philosophy letter , however, arrived with an ominous warning from the APA advising any prospective graduate student in philosophy not to attend, as there were no jobs to be had on graduation.

One deduces from this that it isn't just Eastern Philosophy that is not ' respected' in the wider culture but philosophy per se.

Eastern traditions are more prescriptive and religious and less formal. Western traditions are devoted to the formal and structural aspects of truth, reason and argumentation.

Amartya Sen in his book The Argumentative Indian points out that the India has one of the longest continuous traditions of philosophical materialism - the nyaya school; there is also a schism in Western Philosophy between the 'literary' continental and the 'mathematical' analytical styles; the commitment should not be to just rigour but also to significance.

However, why is western philosophy more popular in most universities around the world?

Colonialism; plus the dominance of the Western paradigm - in the same way, for example, that Greek culture was transmitted in the Hellenic World after Alexanders campaign - consider the Greco-Buddhist art in Gandara; or Buddhist Dharma after Ashoka.

Would you say that eastern philosophy is not respected because it is less rigorous and analytic compared to the western thought?

Possibly; Western thought rightly or wrongly is tied to Western technology; the rise of which has 'levelled' the world according to Hannah Arendt; and one can point to the lack of this tie as one reason for it not to be 'respected'.

There are issues of course to do wth access to primary and secondary literature - he barrier of language; plus the alleigance one has to the coodinates of ones own native tradition.

  • Very good points! I wrote my own answer where some of your points were also expounded upon. I know you may be interested specially in my resource section. – infatuated Sep 26 '14 at 14:19
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The people we think of as nihilists in the West are often people attempting to integrate themes from longstanding Eastern traditions. To my mind the late Eleatics are attempting to integrate the Hindu notion of reality as deception. The Empiricists are actually not leaning toward science, but elements of Taoism and a form of Buddhist detachment. Even Plato's seemingly highly original notion of anamnesis is a refined form of something already considered obvious in traditions that presume reincarnation.

In the next bumper crop of philosophies people like Schopenhauer and Nietsche were ashamed at how little traction things they found obvious in Eastern philosophies gained in the West. Neitsche made a point of quoting Sanskrit and Schopenhauer tried to attribute most of this thought to Buddhist philosophers. But it largely came to nought. We end up declaring those great thinkers' principles as 'nothing' quite literally, classifying them as 'nihilists' in overview courses. (Someone of the period said accusatorily "In the Western history of philosophy there is one page for all the Hindus and a half a page of footnotes for each German graduate-school tutor (Privatdozent).")

My reaction to this is to pull out Wittgenstein (or Kuhn, if you like), and assume that successful Eastern and Western philosophies fall into two different language games (scientific paradigms), so that the value of Eastern philosophy seems neutral or empty to those playing the other game. I would suppose that likewise the entire analytic tradition seems like a non-contributing thread to the East. (Perhaps "That may be interesting, but it is really a branch of math and not philosophy.")

This may be because we have a habit in the West of labeling Eastern philosophies as religious, while excluding them rigorously from our own theological tradition. There may be a range of games that run from hard-core theology through the sweet-spot of the Eastern philosophical tradition to the center of the Western one, and we are left with, for instance Taoism, as neither-fish-nor-fowl. We end up declaring Sextus Empiricus nihilistic, or remapping him onto something completely alien to his real intent, like scientific materialism.

This would then be a fertile place for integration, but largely invisible to those with less revolutionary (game-remapping) aims. So we see it happen occasionally, without gaining real traction.

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    'are attempting to integrate the Hindu notion of reality as deception' - a reference to Maya. Maya is not illusion as it is popularly interpreted. Maya is real, yet it is not real. It is real in the Real is behind it and gives it it's appearance of reality. That which is real in Maya is the Reality in and through Maya, yet the Reality is never seen and hence that which is seen is unreal, and it has no real independent existence of itself but is dependent upon the real for its existence. Maya then is a paradox; real yet not real, an illusion yet not an illusion. – Swami Vishwananda Sep 26 '14 at 8:36
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    @SwamiVishwananda OK, and the Eleatics would say motion is real and is not real, in that it is present, but impossible, it is the same paradox. I really do think they were borrowing this concept, and giving it a typically Attic Greek language-and-math obsessed twist. If you read the Parmenides, he seems clear on the real-but-unreal sense in which what he is saying is true. And I think Plato has Socrates cop to the idea that anamnesis and Form is meant to be taken in a similar way. – jobermark Sep 26 '14 at 18:56
  • Are you sure that is right about Maya? Rather than saying reality is 'deceptive', one can say at least that that there is more to it than meets the eye; the point I'm making is that 'deception' has pejorative over-tones – Mozibur Ullah Sep 27 '14 at 9:25
  • @MoziburUllah As the first note points out it is more of a deception than an illusion, we are not wrong about it, we are misled into being satisfied with it (or disappointed for that matter). It comes back into the West with the Gnostics, who choose to see it as deception, purposeful interference Got puts between himself and the unenlightened man. I think a lot of Hindu theologies see it as kind of adversitive as well. And then it returns again, as I see it, with Kant asserting the inaccessibility of the noumenal world. As I see it there is not a word that is a real winner. – jobermark Sep 27 '14 at 16:41
  • Seeing this in Kant points up what I am saying, it is not the part of Kant that Westerners applaud, it is the part we wince at. (And the whole Gnostic project is something Western philosophers often wince at.) The same idea, offered in much the same spirit, is seen as helpful to the East, and somehow shady to the West. – jobermark Sep 27 '14 at 16:43

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