There is a sub-field of philosophy called 'comparative philosophy' - it deals with philosophical themes by comparing how those themes were accounted for throughout history by Western and non-Western (for instance - Chinese and Indian) philosophers.

The premise of this sub-field is that there is parallel conception of philosophy in non-Westerns cultures, and thus that it is possible to run a reasonable comparison. However, looking at Classical texts of Chinese philosophers, I find it hard to think of them as parallel conceptually and philosophically to Classical texts of Western philosophers. Hence my questions:

(1) What are the criteria by which we could determine whether some field is philosophy rather than wisdom?

(2) Does it make sense to treat philosophy as merely Western?

3 Answers 3


(1) What are the criteria by which we could determine whether some field is philosophy rather than mere wisdom?

Since philosophy literally means "love of wisdom", the trivial answer to your question is: there are no such criteria because philosophy is the search for wisdom.

I think what you really mean here is more along the lines: How would someone differentiate philosophy from literature, poetry and from mysticism and religious based wisdom?

In this case there is a clear demarcation line: Religious and poetic dispensations of wisdom are always based on a set of starting assumptions (God, revelation, the nature of beauty and truth, ancestral traditions, etc...) which are taken for granted. Their truth is taken as established fact, and no attempt is made to justify or prove them. "Stealing is bad, because God, the river and trees, the ancestors said so,..."

Philosophy at least tries to justify and argue for its set of starting assumptions, before moving on to giving the details and implications of these assumptions. Take for example Kantian ethics: Kant puts considerable effort into justifying his categorical imperative, and arrives at conclusions along the lines of"Based on logic I described, if everybody were allowed to steal freely, society would collapse, and therefore stealing is bad." In this sense, philosophy is more of a method, a way of thinking, than a topic.

To recap: Philosophy tries to have the least amount of assumptions possible, and tries to argue for the validity of those assumptions using logic and reason, before moving on to dispensing wisdom based on those assumptions. Poetry, Literature, Religion and other such forms of Wisdom don't. Similarly to science what makes a field philosophical or not is based on the method used.

(2) Does it make sense to treat philosophy as merely Western?

Based on my answer to (1): No. Some Chinese and Indian schools of thought, have made legitimate attempts at arguing for and justifying their positions, and went beyond just add hoc dispensing of wisdom and maxims. They have used legitimate philosophical methods, and as such count as philosophy.

Buddhism is a prime example: Although considered a religion, the Buddha arrives at the 4 noble truths strictly through observation and logic. That particular aspect of Buddhism is as philosophical as it gets (even if other aspects of it aren't).


I do not think there are any clear criteria by which one could test whether this or that tradition is truly philosophical.

In the West we tend at least in academia to regard Western philosophy somewhat superior to Chinese and Indian philosophies - and maybe the reason for that has to do with implicit criterion you mentioned: how well a text is articulated, how logical it is (logical - in terms of what we Westerns consider logical), and so on.

Nonetheless, having some familiarity with Chinese and Indian philosophical traditions, I can share that they deal too with fundamental questions concerning life, nature, art, and so on, and they are philosophical traditions in at least the sense that they do address philosophical problems. Of course, one can say that poets too as much as artists tackle philosophical problems yet would be reluctant to equate philosophy with either poetry or art.

Within the Western tradition of philosophy the question how to do philosophy is a controversial question, and so one who regards philosophy as merely analytical and rational activity is probable to reject the idea of treating Chinese philosophy as real philosophy.

  • @Sigma Do you consider the maior Upanishads philosophy simply because they address philosophical problems? Also mysticism and speculation address philosophical problems. But they lack argumentation which is comprehensible in an intersubjective manner.
    – Jo Wehler
    Nov 24, 2015 at 21:54
  • I do not consider any discipline as philosophical merely by it pertaining at addressing philosophical questions. As I wrote: "they [Chinese and Indian philosophies] are philosophical traditions in at least the sense that they do address philosophical problems" (Note the 'at least' - it is necessary but not sufficient condition)
    – user18079
    Nov 24, 2015 at 22:21
  • @Sigma And which criteria do you consider sufficient?
    – Jo Wehler
    Nov 24, 2015 at 22:30
  • As wrote I do not think there are clear criteria. Having said that however, the answer given by Alexander S King above, provides some reasonable criterion (as to method of philosophizing).
    – user18079
    Nov 24, 2015 at 23:31

I would say that the reason for your question is a complete failure to grasp what those classical Chinese texts are saying about philosophy. Not just your failure but that of most Western philosophers.

The Tao Te Ching, for instance, explains metaphysical problems completely. The source of Lao Tsu's knowledge is not analysis but this has no bearing on whether it is a philosophical text. His Taoism is called 'philosophical Taoism' to distinguish it from the much later religionised version and this tells us a lot.

As has been said, wisdom is what is sought in philosophy and is not an alternative to it. I have yet to read a mystic who had nothing to say about philosophy that is not immediately relevant to Western thinkers and even to Martian thinkers.

Perhaps you're suggesting that Western philosophy is purely theoretical and conjectural while for the Wisdom traditions this is just skimming the surface of philosophy, and that the difference is so great that they cannot be called by the same name. I'd have some sympathy for this idea but don't see the need for it.

You could say that Western philosophy has an exclusive claim to being purely speculative and so is not the search for wisdom, thus creating a distinction between philosophy and wisdom-seeking, but you cannot say that the search for wisdom is something other than the search for an understanding of philosophy.

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