I'm a undergraduate student in an eastern country. And I'm interested in contemporary "western" philosophy. But to graduate, I'm forced to take some "eastern philosophy" course like Buddihism or Confuciannism. During the class, hearing what instructor said, I seriously doubt this is philosophy.

As I have learned before, philosophy must be compatible with modern scientific facts. But notions like "ki" (気) or "yin and yang" (陰陽) can't be compatible with science.

What I would like to know is whether you the westerners really think so-called "eastern philosophy" is philosophy.

  • This question seems somewhat related to your question: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/24676/…
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 4:53
  • 11
    Separately, where did you learn "philosophy must be compatible with modern scientific facts"?
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 4:55
  • For example, arguing like Decartes that there're two totally different substances is not considered as a serious philosophical argument.
    – Darae-Uri
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 5:03
  • 3
    Really? I've used Descartes' Meditations many times to teach university classes in both the USA and Japan. I take the arguments seriously even if I think he's wrong.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 5:19
  • 1
    I think that Saying I was influenced by something is different from that something is really true. As i mentioned above, Decartes's mind body theory of dualism is clearly wrong. But many contemporary philsophers who were interested in philosophy of mind was influenced by Decartes since the problem of mind-body causation was brought by him. So, in historical context, Decartes's philsophy of mind is still meaningful. But in philsophical point, is there any meaning about it? Likewise, I know that many people who studided so-called "eastern philosophy" do that in historical not philsophical point.
    – Darae-Uri
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 6:01

7 Answers 7


Philosophy is in substantial part an exercise in learning from the history of thought, and throughout history many people who had a substantial impact on human thought also held a lot of beliefs that we now know (with a high degree of confidence) are wrong. Mostly it's science that has pointed out just how wrong the wrong parts are, but not exclusively.

So if the question is whether there were lots of interesting developments in Eastern thought, the answer is of course yes--these range from the justification of morality to the nature of the universe.

That said, there are a lot of ways to teach such things which make it rather dubious as philosophy. For instance, if a course teaches you about qi, but not about the interesting consequences for and debates about how you view life and morality, then it's skipping the philosophically interesting part. If the instructor says that qi is real and implies that you're required to believe so, that's not a philosophy course, that's indoctrination. And a lot of people, both Western and Eastern, tend to use the word "philosophy" informally to mean "don't challenge me on these beliefs that I use to justify what I do, no matter how unsupported they are, or I'll get angry".

But if the instructors are actually trying to teach philosophy (and why wouldn't they?), there's plenty of material.

If you're averse to non-scientific thinking, I'd recommend Confucianism over most everything else. It has a pretty high ratio of canny observations about human nature to unfounded speculation about the nature of the universe.

  • haha I too do not so much favor the word philosophy being used so often. Why not instead deep thinkers, great thinkers?? And I think your observation about Confucianism is right. Ex Yan Yuang 願淵12link
    – user13955
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 20:25
  • 15, "The Master said, "By extensively studying all learning, and keeping himself under the restraint of the rules of propriety, one may thus likewise not err from what is right." The last part, "what is right" is in my translation ( 70 years old ) translated as the righteous path ( probably same with Heaven's law ). And what is Heaven sir? Uhm....
    – user13955
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 20:31
  • My first part of speech is not directed to this site. Kindly be reminded. I tried to mean, I agree with Kerr.
    – user13955
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 20:35
  • @Kentaro Tomono Philosophy is already a moderate term. Means only a friend of thought. "Deep thinking" or "great thinkers" is too presumptuous. It's anti-philosophical to regard oneself a great thinker because you underestimate the complexity and difficulties of knowledge.
    – John Am
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 12:16

There is-- there has always been --controversy over what counts and qualifies as philosophy, but under generally accepted Western definitions, philosophers such as Confucius, Lao Tzu and the Buddha are no more outliers than philosophers such as Aristotle, Kierkegaard or Berkeley in the West.

Claims such as "all philosophy must be compatible with modern science" or "all philosophy must be rational" are the claims of specific schools of philosophical thought, and are not universally accepted, even in the West.

I'd also shy away from the claim that yin-yang and qi "can't" be compatible with science. Many concepts that originated in one or another folk tradition eventually gave birth to scientifically reputable descendents --for instance the medieval superstition called alchemy was a direct ancestor of modern chemistry.

  • But saying alchemy was a direct ancestor of modern chem doesn't entails that what alchemists say is really true. What is really meaningful in alchemy is not the essential of it but the byproduct of it. Such eastern "philosopher"s says the definitions of that notion-yin and yang and qi(for my country, we call it "ki") very vaguely. For me, those notions sound like ether to modern physics. Just out of date.
    – Darae-Uri
    Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 16:54
  • At one time it was popular to connect the Tao with modern physics (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tao_of_Physics, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dancing_Wu_Li_Masters) but that effort has since faded. Nevertheless, it seems a bit presumptuous to assume that a concept that has thrived for several thousands of years might not yet prove to have some scientific worth, even if as yet undiscovered. Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 1:41

Positivism is a philosophy that demands that the philosophical project aligns itself with the scientific one; it's modern avatar is the Analytic tradition which is somewhat more accommodating.

but it isn't the only one possible; given what you say about science it appears that this is the philosophy you would like to study.

There's a strong current of Eastern philosophy in German Idealism - Schopenhauer explicitly, Leibniz was in contact with Jesuits in China and the influence of Japanese philosophy on Heidegger is only now being uncovered.

Much earlier, there is the influence of Islamic philosophy in the West which main conduit was the Aristotelianism of Avverroes - by his study of the metaphysics of space and time; also Avicennas floating man argument stimulated that of Descartes.


My answer is written from the viewpoint of a Westener, who has some background in Western philosophy and knows a bit about Hinduism, mostly from an academic context.

The well-known streams from Indian philosophy – Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Purva Mimamsa, Yoga, Vedanta - have in common the presupposition of the Vedas as authoritative shruti (astika). They are grouped into schools. Each school perpetuates its tradition by commenting the Vedas and often their own school precursors. The most well-known commentators of this kind are Shankara and Ramanuja from the Vedanta school. The schools often reject the Veda interpretation of the other schools.

This grouping into schools resembles the Western medieval organisations of theological schools (scholasticism) with their continued commentaries. This kind of Indian thinking can be compared to the so called “Christian Philosophy”. Its method is not philosophical in the strict sense of an open-ended thinking. Thinking is not primarily critical but affirmative. The goal is to interpret the given texts of an authoritative source and to defend the tradition of the own school.

After the period of the Upanishads we know from two countermovements against the Brahminical tradition, namely Jainism and Buddhism. Both movements do not presuppose the Vedas (nastika). But also the latter convictions like the six schools above acccept the concepts of Karma and Moksha as a matter of course. They consider release from the cycle of rebirth the highest goal for mankind.

The only school which released itself from all named presuppositions is the Charvaka school. The Charvakas brought fresh thoughts into the discussion like the value of observation or the questioning of theism. Probably one can compare their issues with issues of the Ionian philosophers of nature. And their emphasis on observation reminds one to the empiricism of David Hume.

All philosophical streams considered so far were active long before the investigations of modern science. Hence they could not include this broader horizon of knowledge, e.g. they could not draw conclusions from the results of current physics, psychology, biology or neurosicence. At best, their basis was precise observation of phenomena from every day life and adding some general speculations.

On the other hand, in Western philosophy we observe a strong impact of Newtonian physics to the philosophy of Kant and presently some joint work of cognitive scientists and neuroscientists. I do not know about similar developments in Indian philosophy. I am sceptical whether Indian philosophy fullfills the strict standards concerning definition, terminology and argumentation of e.g., Western analytical philosophy or Western philosophy of science. But I would like to learn which alternative standards are valid for Indian philosophy.

I found helpful the following secondary sources:

  • Audi, Robert: The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 3rd edition, 2015. Keyword: Indian philosophy.
  • Dasgupta, Surendranath: A History of Indian Philosophy, Vol.1, 1922
  • Ganeri, Jornadon: Philosophy in Classical India. 2009

Concerning the philosophical content of yin and yang you may compare from philosophy beta:

What do we learn about the sun when applying the yin and yang viewpoint?

and as an example:

Chinese Philosophy: the yin aspects of the sun

My personal opinion: Concerning terms like ki (japan) or brahman, atman (sanskrit) I often ask myself whether people in modern times use these terms as empty formulas. They project into these terms all what they consider fundamental, of high value and important. So one cannot fix a precise philosophical meaning of these terms.


It depends on what you consider philosophy to be. Philosophy has always had a sticky definition. Consider for instance that what we now call science was in the past a branch of philosophy. So you'll have to try to lock down the definition and accept the fact that even that definition may not be fully adequate.

If we take the Wiki page's definition of philosophy, we get:

Philosophy is the study of the general and fundamental nature of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.

Under this view, Eastern Philosophy definitely qualifies as a philosophy. For instance, Buddhism alone studies all the above and the following Buddhist topics touch upon them:

  • dharmas
  • skandhas
  • sunyata
  • anatta
  • dependent co-arising
  • non-attachment

Further, in many Buddhist schools there's a sustained critique of language, a critique that at times sounds almost Wittgenstenian.

You can also find parallels with Western philosophical views. For instance, compare anatta with Hume's views on the self, or the skhandas, dharmas or sunyatta on Bundle Theory.

And that's just Buddhism.

Having said all that, there is reason to be skeptical of the extent to which one can all Eastern Philosophy a Philosophy. Eastern Philosophy often aims towards soteriological (salvation) ends, and as such is less concerned with speculation about the nature of existence and more with practice to transform one's life. Further, there's a strong anti-rationalist streak in many Eastern Philosophical schools -- Zen Koans come to mind.


For another point of view, consider the last chapter of Minima Moralia by Adorno:

At the end. – The only philosophy which would still be accountable in the face of despair, would be the attempt to consider all things, as they would be portrayed from the standpoint of redemption. Cognition has no other light than that which shines from redemption out upon the world; all else exhausts itself in post-construction and remains a piece of technics. Perspectives must be produced which set the world beside itself, alienated from itself, revealing its cracks and fissures, as needy and distorted as it will one day lay there in the messianic light. To win such perspectives without caprice or violence, wholly by the feel for objects, this alone is what thinking is all about. It is the simplest of all things, because the condition irrefutably call for such cognitions, indeed because completed negativity, once it comes fully into view, shoots [zusammenschiesst] into the mirror-writing of its opposite. But it is also that which is totally impossible, because it presupposes a standpoint at a remove, were it even the tiniest bit, from the bane [Bannkreis] of the existent; meanwhile every possible cognition must not only be wrested from that which is, in order to be binding, but for that very reason is stricken with the same distortedness and neediness which it intends to escape. The more passionately thought seals itself off from its conditional being for the sake of what is unconditional, the more unconsciously, and thereby catastrophically, it falls into the world. It must comprehend even its own impossibility for the sake of possibility. In relation to the demand thereby imposed on it, the question concerning the reality or non-reality of redemption is however almost inconsequential.

Available here, no. 153

Considering this every description must be used and is useful in philosophy, may it be scientific or not.

  • 1
    I doubt Adorno would accept mystic thought or ghost stories as useful for Philosophy. Secularization of thought is a very important step in philosophical thought.
    – John Am
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 11:39
  • Minima moralia is a special book written in "exile" and in a crucial period of the author's life. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minima_Moralia
    – John Am
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 11:47
  • Useful as a negative, it is. And since dialectics is a main theme, even if it does not hold it helps to construct the thing we call truth positively, rejecting some connotations basically thinkable.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 11:48
  • Ok i accept useful as a negative.
    – John Am
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 11:49

What I would like to know is whether you the westerners really think so-called "eastern philosophy" is philosophy.

Hey I can answer that cos it's opinion based. I'm just a HPS graduate, but

  1. Even if it's complete bunk due to advances in science, it is still philosophy - just dead philosophy.

  2. I totally agree that philosophy cannot reject at least the empirical findings of science. That was an explicit given in my classes anyway: I think everyone just rolled their eyes at the idea. Of course that does challenge Buddhist philosophy, because e.g. the Abhidharma does IIRC describe the make-up of physical things, not just mind. Much of it though, like memories of past lives, is no more challenged by science than old Western philosophy. Of course there has been research into supposed ESP phenomena, but we can surely assume there has also been some into Christian "miracles".

If you're "religious" you have to take the rough with the smooth: e.g. assume a few unsupported claims (Jesus was resurrected, Buddha knew past lives) reject anything else outlandish and hope / show that the rest of it (Jesus' moral teachings, the benefits of meditation) can be argued for.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .