Studying Chinese Philosophy

A few bits of advice for undergraduates interested in Chinese philosophy and for those considering pursuing graduate study in the future.

  • If you want to get a good grasp of Chinese philosophy, and perhaps prepare for graduate study, it's crucial to establish a background in mainstream philosophy as well. You want to acquire some familiarity with contemporary ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophical psychology. A grounding in logic and philosophy of language will also be useful. So if Chinese philosophy is your major interest, I strongly advise that you choose philosophy as your major. If you attend an undergraduate institution where Chinese philosophy is taught only in the East Asian Studies Department or the History Department, not the Philosophy Department, major in philosophy anyway. Try to make special arrangements for your Chinese philosophy courses to count as part of your work in the philosophy major; if that isn't possible, study Chinese thought as a supplement to your major in philosophy.

  • To study Chinese philosophy in any depth at all, you need to learn to read classical Chinese. Few if any translations of Chinese philosophical works are reliable enough for you to really understand what's going on in the texts. Many—including a number of prominent translations by famous scholars—are notoriously inaccurate. If you are genuinely interested in Chinese thought, take a few courses in the Chinese language, including classical Chinese. You'll be happy you did.

  • Try to learn to approach Chinese thought "philosophically" rather than only "scholastically." Much of the secondary literature in this still quite young field is devoted to what I call "scholastic" research, such as presenting interpretations of the texts or arguing whether so-and-so's reading of some detail of such-and-such a text is correct. This sort of research is indispensable in providing a foundation for further studies. But don't confine yourself to such purely scholastic work. Learn to identify deeper philosophical issues—be they issues specific to Chinese thought or more general philosophical concerns—and draw on the Chinese sources to address these issues in interesting ways.