Is it because western tradition ignores them? Or because they think it's not philosophy, but mysticism? Or because they are afraid of losing ground to a superior thinking?

Ignorance, prejudice or proselytism? Or something else? Or all of them?

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    I believe it has to do with euro-centrism and ancient ways to teach philosophy, where Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are the most important ancient philosophers. Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 0:04
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    What do they teach in China?
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 13:17
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    Please DO NOT care about "ACADEMICS" and their "THINKING", real western philosophers did not ignore anything. Shopenhauer and Nitsche and Leibniz were all fascinated by EAST and USED their ideas heavily.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 15:45
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    I know this, @AsphirDom, but I DO CARE about what goes on in Academy. After all, they are teaching our people how to think. And they can do it better.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 21:59
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    I'd be interested in the source of your broad sweeping assertion. I majored in philosophy 12 years ago and did not find eastern teachings to be lacking.(This is in fact what I did most of my work on). But for a partial answer, I could say: How come I have not a single undergraduate memory of learning about any culture of than "American Injuns", the "US", and European Countries directly related to "US" interests? Your question is standing on top of a 99 story building built on sand wondering why the tower on the roof keeps swaying.
    – dgo
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 22:18

5 Answers 5


Great question. This will be an incomplete and potentially unsatisfying answer, and I will be interested to see other answers, but here are five answers to start with:

  1. There is a historical-sociological sense in which Philosophy, narrowly construed, is a phenomenon of Greek culture and the cultures it influenced. It's a Greek word describing a distinctly Greek cultural activity which influenced and was adopted by many later cultures. But not, I believe, Chinese culture. Just as the word "religion" doesn't apply terribly well to Chinese religion, "Philosophy" at least in this narrow, historical sense, might not be the best way to describe the Chinese intellectual traditions. In other words, one could say that Chinese philosophy has not historically been taught in anglophone philosophy courses because it is not—in this narrow sense—actually philosophy.
  2. That said, many American philosophy departments do teach Chinese philosophy courses. Others do not, but Chinese philosophy is not ignored by American philosophy departments, and I believe it's taught in some Australian ones. I don't have a good perspective on European and Latin American and other departments.
  3. But I recognize that your question was about it being taught in courses not in department curricula. I think a big reason for this is inertia—not ignorance per se, in so far as professors are necessarily ignorant of most knowledge, but simply our tendency to keep on teaching a single, already enormous and expanding tradition. That results from professors not having learned, or not having learned much, about Chinese philosophy, and so not adding it to courses. The narrowness persists through generations of philosophers because we already have so much to keep us busy.
  4. But that raises a question about how well Chinese philosophy even could fit into the existing philosophy courses. Does it conceptualize things in such a different way that it is actually quite hard to place Chinese ideas in debate or discussion with Anglophone philosophy, even if one spends time becoming knowledgeable about the tradition? If so, it would be challenging to add Chinese ideas to an anglophone philosophy course without spending much of the course preparing students on foundational Chinese ideas. The philosophies might be very difficult to put in conversation on some topics. At least some of what I've read suggests that this might be so, but here I plead ignorance!
  5. Finally, I believe there are questions central to anglophone philosophy which Chinese philosophy neither asks nor answers. (I would be delighted to be shown wrong about this.) And so, anglophone philosophy courses on these topics cannot incorporate Chinese philosophy even if more anglophone professors were expert at Chinese philosophy and eager to teach it. For instance, I'm interested in what the best definition of causation is that gives us some guidance about how to reliably distinguish it from correlations. It's a core question in anglophone philosophy. Philosophers teach whole courses on it. I'm not aware of Chinese philosophy asking or answering it.

With all that said, I have long thought that anglophone philosophy could benefit from further engagements not only with Chinese philosophy but also with Indian and other traditions. And there are certainly philosophers currently, actively working on establishing those conversations. So perhaps our ignorance will be diminished somewhat!

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    Main point in your answer is - YES WE ARE IGNORANT :) On the other hand many great philosophers USED eastern ideas and methods. Which again proves that the ACADEMIA and new greatness (new great minds) have nothing in common :)
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 15:49
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    @AsphirDom, Of course we're ignorant about most things! But that doesn't mean we don't do good work on the few things we do know something about. Commented Jan 26, 2014 at 3:37
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    @Rodrigo, No, as Socrates would say, that's an example of causation, not what causation is. And what causation is is not an empty question; it has deep practical implications. It matters, and we've figured out a lot of interesting things about it. Commented Jan 26, 2014 at 3:38
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    Thinking about it all again, I think the West as a whole is collapsing (read Jared Diamond's book), and one of the reasons is in its philosophy. Since China and India have both survived as civilizations for about 5,000 years, I think we MUST understand them, at least in a basic to intermediate level. And I think it applies even beyond the philosophy graduations. We could, as a society, even do less wars, if we get used to think in trans-civilizational terms.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 21:21
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    @Rodgrigo, Even if all of that were right, and it may or may not be, it is not clear that the West's philosophy is the same as what is done in western philosophy courses, which you asked about. Second, it doesn't follow from your observations that philosophy courses are the best or only place to develop this cross-cultural understanding. Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 16:54

I think there are several contributing reasons (as someone who has both published and taught both canonical Western philosophy and Chinese philosophy).

  1. The style of classical Chinese texts does not lend themselves to the same sort of classroom experience. It's a pain in the butt having to explain some of the most important passages in Chinese philosophy and it's hard to see how to do so in a way that can enable students who cannot read Chinese and have not studied the tradition to do the same. Conversely, it's not that hard to get someone able to argue with something Plato says. (Modern philosophy is even easier for us to digest in the West).

  2. The primary corpus of analytic philosophy centers on issues that are only tangentially present in Chinese philosophical discourse (unless we mean the part of contemporary Chinese philosophical discourse focused on these analytic questions). Daoism vs. hermits doesn't have much to do with contemporary philosophy of mind. Classical approaches to philosophy of language questions wind up being pretty difficult to make approachable.

  3. Most Western philosophers do not know enough Chinese philosophy to competently teach it and their training has not set them up for that. They would need to learn background concepts not present in the primary texts and teach through those -- but philosophers tend to prefer going straight to the meat of an argument, so they will probably not put the effort into learning this material.

I don't quite agree with ChristopherE's final claim. In fact, causation matters greatly to the following parts of Chinese philosophy: The I Ching is a book entirely about change, The Daoist texts are about whether there is order in the universe and how change happens, the Neoconfucian Zu Xhi in his consideration of 理 (li "order" -- but not 禮 li "ritual") is considering whether there is order and how it works. Now are any of the things they say meaningful as contributions in contemporary discussions of causation? If not, I lack the competency to say where the fault lies.

I think his first assertion is also quite dubious regarding "philosophy." Chinese philosophy only does not qualify if we insist on the historical connection to Greek culture. A properly edited volume of neoconfucianism or Buddhist logic would be sufficiently similar in argumentation and style with medieval texts on logic or religion.

All of that being said, I did upvote his answer because I think it is a moderately good explanation sans those two points.

  • Hi virmaior, Given that I did frame the first assertion as narrowly concerned with philosophy's origins, is it still dubious? The point parallels the near-consensus among religion scholars that "Chinese religion" is a partial misnomer. There is no religion (narrowly construed) in China, they say, because the concept of religion itself is Western. Also, I've never run into anything Confucian or Daoist about how to distinguish causation from mere correlations. If they discuss that, point me where! More generally, there's not much traditional Chinese phil of science. Cheers. Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 2:50
  • Thanks for your answer. About 1. I think that four to five years in an university is enough time to read at least the (small) book of Buddha, the (also small) Analects and the (smaller yet) Dao De Jing. That's the minimum of China. And as a Huge civilization, I think they deserve it. The same about India (though I'm not there yet). What I think it's really disappointing is people teaching younger students about "universal" philosophy and have no clue about the East at all. What we need are good translations. Or must your students master ancient Greek to argue with Plato?
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 3:00
  • 2. The same way the teachings of Laozi are only tangentially present in western philosophy. Have you read Collapse, from Jared Diamond? It seems to me that we are heading to collapse exactly because of an excess of Western philosophy (Platonic-Christian mostly). But also, most of Laozi translations, done by western/christian thinkers, are more mystic than Laozi probably was (I think he was no mystic at all).
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 3:02
  • 3. If "philo-sophy" means "love for knowledge", then I have two points here: 1) they should WANT to "put the effort into learning this material" if they want to become philosophers (at least in a "universal" - an ancient claim of the West - or "globalized" way), and 2) this is putting us in a vicious circle, isn't it?
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 3:03
  • @ChristopherE, I define religion as a "mythology that don't admit it's a mythology", thus it equals monotheism (at least abrahamic monotheism). So eastern thinking may not be called religious, but may be called mythological (in the same sense that science is a mythology - only a "faster" one).
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 3:12

Chinese philosophy per se might be a bit of a limiter in this question since the question is equally valid applying it to any 'eastern' philosophy, early Indian being another sizeable exclusion.

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    Sure, you're right. I asked about chinese culture and philosophy because that's what I've been studying...
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 21:22

Am studying Ethics at a Chinese University right now we do have courses in contemporary Chinese as well as western philosophies. My professors on western philosophy are all Chinese and its really amazing to discover how much knowledge they have on western philosophy. One thing that caught my attention is the fact that despite their vast and deep knowledge of western philosophies most of them can not read an English text. During my first visit to the library I realised that they have almost every western philosophy textbook translated into Chinese. Not many Chinese textbooks on Chinese philosophy have been translated into western languages. However I respect the fact that Chinese scholars are currently working hard to overcome this imbalance . With the growing number of Chinese students studying in western universities and western students studying here in China I think this question will soon be irrelevant. So the main reason I think was and is still the language barrier.

  • I hope you're right. But I think that ideology (mostly monotheism) is the one to be blamed here. As you can see, Chinese have no problem in learning about other cultures. Monotheists, on the other hand, simply don't want to learn about the others (that's true for the vast majority of them).
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 17:19
  • @Rodrigo - From an historical perspective I suspect you're right. But with theism on the wane one would expect things to change. For me it's not learning about other cultures that's important but learning about philosophy. There is a tremendous ignorance of philosophy in our university faculties, which are stuck in a rut adding footnotes to Plato, and a study of Chinese or Indian philosophy might change this. . .
    – user20253
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 12:09
  • @PeterJ Theism was on the wane for some time, mostly due to Enlightenment. Now, thanks to postmodernity's praise to obscurantism, to muslim growth in Europe, to USA "war on terror" (read: war on Islamist scapegoats), theism is returning fast. And the "West" is defined by its Judeo-Christian base.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 12:20
  • @Rodrigo- Hmm. Maybe you're right. Also, the theists have been busy recruiting in China for a long time now. Indeed. I suspect theism is being encouraged since in its Christian form it has a work-ethic missing from Lao Tsu's;easy-going universe. I wonder sometimes if western states depend on the Christian work-ethic for economic growth. The Biblical 'lilies of the field' passage tends to be forgotten.
    – user20253
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 12:05

Chinese philosophy is poorly understood in the Faculty and this would be both a cause and effect of the lack of study. It is not because it is mysticism because mysticism is philosophy, or can be studied as such. I feel the explanation is partly 'not invented here' syndrome, coupled with the difficulty that if the nondualism that runs through Chinese philosophy is found to be the correct explanation for the world then there will be eggs on many faces in the Academy.

You speculate that it might be 'because they are afraid of losing ground to a superior thinking'. This could be it, but I'm not sure many professional teachers know it well enough to know whether it is superior or not. You also wonder whether it is 'ignorance, prejudice or proselytism? I'd say it is exactly these things.

The failure of scholarship that leads to this situation is a scandal. We have one tradition of philosophy for those who cannot solve philosophical problems and one for those who can, where members of the the former will not study the latter for reasons lost in the mists of time.

It is not just Chinese philosophy that is ignored. It is the entire 'Perennial' philosophy, to which Chinese philosophy makes a significant contribution but which is global and has an even vaster literature. Apparently only people who cannot solve philosophical problems are allowed to teach or be taught in our universities. We praise Wittgenstein for his ignorance and confusion and miss the knowledge and clarity of Lao Tsu. It's a crazy world.

I feel considerable sympathy for students, who may never spot that they have been deprived of any chance of understanding philosophy by censorship and propaganda. It's too big a topic to delve into fully here but your question is a good one and very topical.

Heidegger puts the blame on the loss of the idea of Unity from philosophy that occurred with the Greeks after Socrates. This seems plausible to me. Once we abandon the idea of Unity the best of Chinese philosophy becomes incomprehensible, and history shows that so does philosophy as a whole and the world with it.

  • I do some Chinese philosophy and [Chinese philosophy] is mysticism only applies to a subset of things. I think what's safe to say is that many Western philosophy departments do look down on the methodology of ancient Chinese philosophy but not necessarily the insights or arguments.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 13:25
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    @virmajor - As far as I can tell they rarely know or want to know the insights or arguments. Some individuals do, of course, but these are exceptions. To study Chinese philosophy is to study the whole of philosophy and this includes the Perennial philosophy whether it appears in India, China, Tibet or downtown New York.
    – user20253
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 16:47
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    I have to agree with you. If philosophers were already at a scandal before (as Nietzsche pointed out in the Epilogue of The Antichrist -- suppressed from most translations, btw), now after the sea of lies and obscurantism that is the postmodern movement, they are even worse. All because they felt it was necessary to fight against the Reason that allowed the development of Communism.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 17:16
  • I don’t understand the remark that unity is lost from philosophy. Monism has enjoyed widespread popularity over the last century. Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 18:22
  • @ChristopherE - The problem is that monism is not a doctrine of Unity. Monism is the idea that one substance or entity exists. Non-dualism denies that anything really exists. 'Unity' should not imply a numerical one.but the transcendence of form and number. This is why the word 'one' is not used but rather 'advaita' or 'not-two'. This avoids the danger of implying it is monism. ,.
    – user20253
    Commented Feb 6, 2019 at 10:59

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