Philosophy » Ancient Philosophy

The best books on World Philosophy

recommended by Bryan Van Norden

Interview by Nigel Warburton

The study of philosophy in the Western world is often parochial, and limited to the study of the Anglo-European tradition. It's time to widen our focus, advises the author and philosopher Bryan Van Norden. Here he selects five foundational texts of philosophical traditions worldwide.

  • 1

    Republic
    by Plato

  • 2

    A Treatise Of Human Nature
    by David Hume

  • 3

    Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries
    by Mengzi

  • 4

    Zhuangzi
    by Zhuangzi

  • 5

    The Bodhicaryāvatāra
    by Śāntideva

The study of philosophy in the Western world is often parochial, and limited to the study of the Anglo-European tradition. It's time to widen our focus, advises the author and philosopher Bryan Van Norden. Here he selects five foundational texts of philosophical traditions worldwide.

Bryan Van Norden

Bryan W Van Norden is Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, chair professor in the school of philosophy at Wuhan University in China, and professor of philosophy at Vassar College in the United States. Van Norden has published nine books on Chinese and comparative philosophy, and is the recipient of Fulbright, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mellon fellowships. Van Norden has also been honoured as one of the United States' 300 best professors by the Princeton Review.

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Before we get to your choice of five books on world philosophy, perhaps we could put this topic in context by discussing your recent book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto.

That book grew out of an editorial that Jay Garfield and I published in the New York Times. Jay, who teaches philosophy at Smith College, has been saying for years, half-jokingly, that philosophy departments in the United States that don’t teach anything outside the mainstream canon should change their names to ‘Departments of Anglo-European Philosophy’ to reflect how parochial they are. I suggested that we co-write an editorial beginning with this ‘modest proposal’, as a way of drawing attention to the sad fact that very few US philosophy departments teach any Chinese, Indian, African or indigenous philosophy. We didn’t think that we’d get too much of a response, but it turned out to be one of the most controversial editorials that the Times has published. We were also struck by how vituperative many of the comments were.

There was a surprising amount of opposition to the angle you took.

Yes, it was a very heated response, and one that reflected immense ignorance. One person said: ‘There is a particular school of thought that caught fire, broke cultural boundaries, and laid the foundation of modern science. Does anyone want to fly in a plane built with non-Western math?’ That person had apparently never heard of Arabic numerals. Someone else said: ‘There’s a reason that Europe leaped ahead of the rest of the world. I do not believe that we should sacrifice that merely because of an ooshy gooshy need to pretend that all cultures are equally advanced.’

“It was a very heated response, and one that reflected immense ignorance”

As a result of the controversy, Jay and I were invited by Columbia University Press to write a book developing the topic in more detail. Jay was too busy to co-write the book, but he very generously wrote a foreword to what became Taking Back Philosophy. The book provides detailed examples of the rich philosophical traditions that exist outside the Anglo-European mainstream. It also discusses the history of ethnocentrism in the West and points out that Western philosophers used to be much more open-minded in accepting Chinese, Indian, African and other kinds of philosophy, but they began to be less so after the rise of pseudoscientific racism, which was correlated with the rise of Western imperialism.

That’s fascinating. So the modern reluctance of Western philosophy departments to be cosmopolitan may be partly the legacy of racist pseudoscience?

I think there really is a connection. I draw on some research that other scholars, such as Peter K J Park, have done, which points out that through most of the 18th century the only views taken seriously in philosophy textbooks in Europe were that philosophy originated in India, and from India came to Greece; or philosophy originated in Africa, and from Africa it came to Greece; or that philosophy independently originated in both India and Africa, which both gave it to Greece. Nobody thought that philosophy originated in Greece. Then, towards the end of the 18th century, the idea developed that philosophy only developed in Greece, and people like Kant explicitly said that no one who wasn’t white was even capable of philosophy. From that point on, the notion that there was Indian, or Chinese, or African philosophy just dropped out of the textbooks.

But do you really want to claim that your contemporary philosophical colleagues are racist, and that this is the only reason they reject philosophy outside the Anglo-European tradition?

Jay Garfield made a great observation about this issue in the foreword to Taking Back Philosophy. He pointed out that he and I often have the experience of being told by other philosophers, ‘there is no such thing as Indian philosophy,’ or, ‘there is no such thing as Chinese philosophy.’ We then typically ask our colleagues which Indian or Chinese thinkers they’ve read, and you would be absolutely stunned by how many times they respond with something like, ‘Oh, I’ve never actually read any of it, but isn’t it all just about fortune cookies or sitting around staring at a wall?’

“Kant explicitly said that no one who wasn’t white was even capable of philosophy”

If it doesn’t occur to you that there is Indian, or Chinese, or African, or indigenous American philosophy because you never encountered it in your graduate school education or in journals that you read, this is simply ignorance, but it is ignorance that is due to structural racism that has kept these topics out of the curriculum. Furthermore, if you are confronted by a philosophically-trained colleague who informs you that there is legitimate and interesting philosophy in these traditions, and who will gladly provide you with things to read on these topics, but your response is to deny a priori, without investigation, that there could be any philosophy in other cultures—this is more than mere ignorance. It is the result of having internalised the structural racism in the educational system.

So, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, whatever the ultimate source of these ideas, it is now true that there’s a post-Enlightenment tradition that tells a story about philosophy’s origins in ancient Greece. This story has a certain degree of plausibility in terms of coherence, and does go much beyond Europe for source materials. What’s wrong with teaching that as Western philosophy?

Part of what’s wrong with it is that we live in an increasingly multicultural world and it’s important to understand the ideas and the philosophies that motivate people in other parts of that world. So, for good or for ill, Xi Jinping, the current president of China, and now perhaps president for life, is really pushing Confucianism as a serious public philosophy in China. So, it behooves people who are interested in international affairs, or doing business with China, or just trying to understand another country, to know what Confucianism is, what it has it meant in the Chinese tradition, whether it is consistent with democracy, and the other kind of issues that would naturally come up if you studied Confucianism as a system of thought.

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Also, there’s a lot of very interesting philosophy outside the Western tradition. If you had a department that only studied ancient Greek philosophy, it would be studying something very interesting, but it would be a very limited programme. So, likewise, if you have a department that only studies Anglo-European philosophy, it is studying something valuable, but there are a lot of things that don’t happen to be in that tradition. Beyond that, contemporary philosophy has a serious diversity problem. As philosophers Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel pointed out in a 2016 editorial in The Los Angeles Times, contemporary philosophy in the English-speaking world is overwhelmingly male and white, and it’s very plausible that a significant part of this has to do with the fact that philosophy often appears to be nothing but a temple built to celebrate the achievements of white males. Pointing out that philosophy is something that people from all over the world have done in different social contexts helps to make it more appealing to an increasingly multicultural United States.

Philosophy departments rarely have many people able to read non-Western philosophy in the original languages. To teach Chinese philosophy, ideally, you want somebody who can read the texts in the original language. There aren’t many scholars like that in place now. So even with the best will in the world, if tomorrow you waved your wand and the curriculum changed, it’s not clear that it would be possible to teach at the appropriate level across the board like that.

I think it’s right that we need more top philosophy departments that have people who can work with texts in the original Chinese or Sanskrit. But we can’t allow that to be an excuse for the status quo to continue. In fact, there are enough philosophers who read Chinese and Sanskrit well that we could literally double overnight the number of US philosophy departments that teach these two traditions. And remember that it’s very common for people to teach at the undergraduate level without necessarily knowing the original languages of all the texts they teach: many people teach Plato well without knowing the original Greek, or Descartes without knowing Latin or French; likewise there are good translations available of Indian philosophical works and Chinese philosophical works, translations that are good enough for people to teach them at an undergraduate level without needing to know the original languages.

“Philosophy often appears nothing but a temple built to celebrate the achievements of white males”

It’s also worth keeping in mind that, when Thomas Aquinas fought in the 13th century to get Aristotle back into the European philosophical curriculum, the knowledge of ancient Greek was almost dead in the West. Aquinas himself, one of the greatest expositors of Aristotle, did not read Greek. He had to rely on translations of Aristotle into Latin by William of Moerbeke. He still did pretty well for himself!

Let’s talk about your five book choices.

I tried to pick five books from across at least three different traditions. I came up with two books from the European tradition, one from the Indian tradition, and two from the Chinese tradition. They’re books with very different philosophical perspectives. Why don’t we start with Plato’s Republic, which was composed in the 4th century BCE. Like the other books on this list, it’s very readable even if you aren’t a professional philosopher. Take the story of ‘The Ring of Gyges,’ which raises the question of whether you would continue to act like a good person if you had a ring of invisibility that let you get away with doing whatever you wanted to do. That’s a fascinating thought experiment that anybody can appreciate.

I’ve also noticed that whomever I’ve explained Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ to, their eyes have brightened and they’ve been intrigued by it—even people who don’t think they’re interested in philosophy. As you know, the Allegory of the Cave suggests that we’re all just like prisoners in a cave looking at shadows on the wall, mistaking them for reality, and we need to be released from the chains of conventional knowledge so that we can turn around, go out into the sun, and see what the world is actually like. This very powerful image has inspired a surprisingly wide range of people. Martin Luther King Jr. refers to it in his political and philosophical writings, and George Lucas was clearly influenced by it in his early science-fiction movie THX 1138.

I’d imagine The Matrix was directly influenced by it as well.

I think it was, yes. The Republic is a work that combines a political philosophy, a view of the virtues, a philosophical psychology, and an epistemology (a theory of knowledge), which emphasises our ability to understand the world through a rational critique of common sense. That’s a very distinctive way of looking at the world that’s had an immense influence on many people, including religious thinkers in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, as well as the originators of modern science. People often forget that Galileo was deeply influenced by Platonic ideas.

It strikes me as an amazing act of imagination in an early democracy to present a radical critique of democracy and suggest as an alternative, a utopia that consists of a hierarchy which puts philosophers at the top. It was also revolutionary to suggest that there could be a world in which there was nothing to stop women occupying positions of power. Some of those thought experiments and visualisations of ideas that you’ve mentioned are very striking. Plato was obviously an extraordinary thinker and writer.

Absolutely. There’s just so much going on in the Republic. We have a critique of democracy and how it decays, which some people have said is very relevant to understanding contemporary political events in the United States. Andrew Sullivan wrote a fascinating piece in New York Magazine looking at what Plato would say about the 2016 presidential election, and how Plato might diagnose the rise of Trump. Whether you agree with the exact analysis or not, Plato does raise serious questions about the nature of democratic governments and the weaknesses that a democratic form of government is prone to. Even if, like me, you are still a fan of democracy, we should listen carefully to Plato’s critiques, which after all are based on his actual experience of the abuses of a democratic government in Athens.

And at the core of that was the idea that if you want people to govern you, they should be experts in governing, not people who are chosen by lot or by people who are swayed by irrelevant factors.

Exactly. Plato also presented an image of how a society can decay from a timocracy, a society based on a conception of honour, into a more slavish society dedicated to the satisfaction of material desires, in which the successful businessperson is the model for the kind of person you want to be. From there society decays to a tyranny as a strongman promises to come in and to fix all of the problems that have been left by the competing factions in previous governments — that’s frighteningly prescient in some ways.

What’s your second book choice?

The next book from the European tradition that I selected is David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, published in instalments between 1738-1740. It was hard deciding which book from the European tradition to pick second, but Hume gives such a radically different view of the world from Plato that I think he provides a great contrast. And, again, this book is remarkably readable.

How is he different from Plato?

In the Treatise we get a conception of knowledge as fundamentally based on what our senses tell us. We go from Plato warning us that trusting your senses is like being someone trapped in a cave taking shadows for reality, to Hume who says there’s nothing to know except those sensory impressions. Hume then sets about giving us an account of how everything that would count as real knowledge can be seen to come from immediate sensory ‘impressions,’ or from ‘ideas,’ which for Hume are just faint copies of impressions. Notice that, for Plato, the Greek term that we render as ‘idea’ refers to what’s ultimately real, while particular physical things are imperfect copies of these ideas, and our sensory experiences are like shadows of the physical things. Hume inverts this. For Hume, the experience you have of, say, a chair, that sensory impression, is the most vivid thing you have any access to; your ideas are just faint copies of that. He attempts to explain how all knowledge can come out of these vivid impressions and their faint copies in our ideas.

I was intrigued that you chose the Treatise rather than his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding because, famously, the Treatise ‘fell dead-born from the press’ as Hume put it; hardly anyone read it. He re-wrote the key ideas in the form of the two Enquiries and these became very popular in the 18th century, because he took the time to change the way that he expressed his thoughts so that they could reach a wider audience.

There are certainly much pithier and catchier formulations of Hume’s views in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. But the thing I like in the Treatise is that you find in this one book a comprehensive picture of how everything fits together: the epistemology (the theory of how you know things), the account of human motivations, and the theory of ethics are all rolled in together, and you are led to see how these are part of a coherent whole. Part of what’s interesting about both Plato and Hume is that, despite being very different philosophers, they both give you a comprehensive worldview in which all the pieces interlock. That’s a very exciting thing to understand when you finally appreciate it in either thinker.

And in terms of what we’re talking about here, world philosophies, there are interesting parallels between Hume’s thoughts about the self, how introspection doesn’t reveal an essential continuing self, and Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism. Alison Gopnik has even suggested there might be a causal explanation for that, since Hume might have had contact with Jesuit writings about Buddhism when he was living in the French town of La Flèche. Whether or not that’s true, there are strong parallels between what emerges from Hume’s introspection and his quest for finding, through evidence of the senses, some kind of persistent core to his being and the lack of that, in his experience, and the Buddhist notion of ‘no self.’

That’s one of the fascinating things about Hume. He challenges us and says: ‘When I introspect, all I see are particular impressions and ideas. I don’t introspect and see a self that has those impressions or ideas.’ He has a challenging account of general issues of identity. I love to go with students through things Hume discusses, such as: ‘Under what conditions do we say that a river is the same river even though it may change course, or say a building is the same building even though it may have been hit by lightning, burnt down, and rebuilt.’ We treat it like it’s the same river or the same building despite these changes, or a sound may go on for a while, stop, and then recur, but we treat it like the same sound. Hume points out that we have these conventions about when we identify something as the same, but it’s not because we can identify some kind of underlying reality that is constant among those things; we just group experiences in certain ways. Hume says, well, why not think about the self in the same way? It’s a very powerful critique of the strong view of the self that you get in people like René Descartes, who is Hume’s immediate target, but then also going back to Plato himself, who thinks that you have an immaterial soul which is your self, and one that can be reincarnated across multiple lives.

But it’s also often read as part of Hume’s general attack on religious thinking, because a central belief of many religions is that there is this enduring-soul thing, which doesn’t change, which is there from birth and continues after death, may have been there from before birth, and he can’t find that empirically even though other people claim to be able to taste it in themselves, as it were. Hume was renowned as an enemy of organised religion, and known as ‘The Great Infidel,’ but also as a very severe critic of philosophers of religion and their arguments for the existence of God. Particularly in his posthumous work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he just tore these arguments apart it seems to me. So it’s possible to read his inability to find an enduring self as in part an empirical argument against the notion of the Christian soul.

We see intimations in Hume of the view that was explicitly formulated later in the logical positivists of the 20th century: that metaphysical claims are not so much false as utterly meaningless. I’ll often ask my students, “What would your ‘idea’ of God be according to Hume?” Since ideas, according to Hume, are just faint copies of impressions, if you tried to form an idea of God, all you could have was an idea that you constructed out of pieces of sensory experiences. But the classic conception of God—which we find in Descartes and Aquinas, for example—is a being that, although it may manifest itself in sensory things like a burning bush, transcends any of those sensory experiences. So I think there’s actually a hint in Hume that you couldn’t even form a coherent idea of God, because God is not supposed to be something you can experience through the senses. A Humean might have to say that the statement ‘God exists’ is like Lewis Carroll’s ‘the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe’. It’s not false; it’s simply meaningless.

I suppose that’s why some philosophers like Descartes fall back on the ontological argument for the existence of God, because most of the empirically-based arguments, like the design argument, don’t lead to the conclusions that religious philosophers have assumed that they do.

I think it is helpful here to remind ourselves that, in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume introduces what has become known as ‘Hume’s fork’: the notion that there is a sharp distinction between relations of ideas and matters of fact, and that relations of ideas can never establish a matter of fact. For example, I know just by thinking that a cube has six sides, because that is part of the idea of a cube, but I don’t know whether there are actually any cubes in the world without using my senses to look and see. If Hume is right, the ontological argument, which is supposed to be just based on the idea of what God is, can’t work, because it’s attempting to establish a matter of fact about the universe based merely on ideas. I don’t think Hume came up with this particular empiricist theory in order to defeat religion; he was just led from his understanding of how modern science works to a position that traced all knowledge to sensory impressions. However, the consequence is that it is then going to be hard to believe in either the soul or God as these concepts are understood in the Abrahamic traditions.

You’ve chosen Plato’s Republic and Hume’s Treatise, two unquestionably great books in the history of Western philosophy. They would be on most philosophers’ list of the greatest 20 books, for sure, but probably in the top five of many too. Now, the other books that you’ve chosen are much more consistent with your take on world philosophy and the absences, the gaps, as it’s taught in Western universities. Could you take us through the first of these books, a book which is going to be new to some readers of this interview.

One of the books I recommend is the eponymous Mengzi. Mengzi lived in China during the 4th century BCE. Although he never met Confucius himself (who died in the early 5th century BCE), Mengzi defended and elaborated upon Confucius’ ideas. He’s most famous for his claim that ‘human nature is good’. What he means by that claim is that humans have innate but incipient tendencies toward virtuous behaviour, motivation and perception. These innate tendencies manifest from time to time, like in our spontaneous compassion for a suffering animal. However, Mengzi stresses that these tendencies are merely incipient: he compares them to sprouts of a plant in that just as a sprout of a plant needs to be cultivated in order to develop into the full grown plant, so do these sprouts of virtue need to be cultivated to develop into full grown virtues. Part of what is interesting about this is that many modern philosophers, including Hume, tend to talk as if our moral inclinations are fixed. Hume says in the Treatise, for example, that we have sympathy or compassion for others, but he doesn’t say how you would extend it or strengthen it. In contrast, Mengzi argues that we can actually become better people through various activities, and that a kind of ethical transformation is possible. That emphasis on ethical cultivation has, for the most part, been ignored in recent Western ethical discussions.

That makes him sound a bit like Aristotle. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics discusses virtues, the importance of moral education, and the need to cultivate virtues so that people develop as the kind of people who will react appropriately in trigger situations.

I think there are some interesting similarities between the Confucians and the Aristotelians in that they are both, broadly speaking, giving versions of virtue ethics. But the differences are also very important and suggest some significant alternatives. For one thing, Aristotle says that we become virtuous through habituation: we become just by performing just acts, courageous by performing courageous acts, et cetera. Now, although I’m a fan of Aristotle, there’s a bit of a mystery about how habituation is supposed to create virtues in individuals who are, according to Aristotle, not by nature disposed toward virtue. Mengzi’s would answer, ‘Well, the reason you can cultivate virtue in people is they already have an active but incipient tendency toward it, which you can harness and develop.’ Without that, it would be impossible to cultivate virtue. In addition, Mengzi says to one of his philosophical interlocutors, who presents a position that is similar to Aristotle’s: ‘if our nature isn’t good, isn’t ethical cultivation a matter of destroying or warping our nature? Why should anyone want to have their nature warped?’ Mengzi believes that becoming virtuous isn’t a matter of warping our nature because our nature is actively disposed towards goodness; it just needs a healthy environment, like the sprout of a plant needs a healthy environment to reach its full capacity. So, that’s one respect in which Mengzi’s view is different from Aristotle’s, and I’d say Mengzi’s view is more plausible than Aristotle’s on this point.

A second difference is that Mengzi has a distinct conception of the cardinal virtues. In the West, the most common view of the cardinal virtues goes back to Plato’s Republic: you have wisdom, justice, courage and moderation. Mengzi gives us a very intuitive alternative list of four cardinal virtues: benevolence, which is manifested in compassion for other human beings; righteousness, which is manifested in the sense of shame which motivates you to avoid doing actions which would involve compromising your integrity, especially in the face of temptation; wisdom, which is an executive virtue involved in achieving your goals and evaluating the character of others you interact with; and propriety, which is a matter of humility and also ease in social contexts. It’s a very plausible list. I find it easy to explain to students why these are the central virtues that encompass the other lesser virtues, whereas it requires some ingenuity to figure out where benevolence, which certainly seems like a virtue, fits into Plato’s list. So that’s another way in which we can learn from Mengzi things that aren’t present in the Western virtue ethics tradition.

“Reflective Western philosophers often forget the importance in their own lives of their romantic and familial relationships”

A third thing we can learn from Mengzi has to do with the ‘end’ or goal of human life. When I talk to colleagues who are Aristotelians, I often ask them, ‘What do you think is the highest good humans can achieve in life?’ Being good Aristotelians, they’ll say either: ‘Well, it’s theoretical contemplation as Aristotle suggests in book ten of the Nicomachean Ethics’, or they’ll say, ‘it’s political activity for the good of the community, as Aristotle seems to suggest in book one of the Nicomachean Ethics’. Next I’ll say, ‘What about your family? What about your spouse and your children?’ and they’ll usually look embarrassed and say, ‘Oh, well, yes, they’re important too, I suppose’. The fact that reflective Western philosophers often forget the importance in their own lives of their romantic and familial relationships illustrates that there’s not really a clear space in Aristotle’s view for the intrinsic value of these relationships.

In contrast, Confucians like Mengzi will say that being a loving parent, or child, or sibling, or even just a friend is an intrinsically valuable relationship, and that these are essential components of living well. It’s good to consider the possibility that Mengzi is right that being in a family might in itself be an intrinsic good, as opposed to what seems to be the Aristotelian view, which is that the family is a tool for producing and maintaining philosophers like Aristotle; or the view in Plato’s Republic, which is that in the ideal state the philosopher kings and queens would keep all their spouses in common and all their children in common, and thereby eliminate the biological family unit.

That’s a very attractive part of the Mengzi’s account. But isn’t it true that he also sees the family as the place where virtuous education takes place?

Yes, he thinks that it’s by loving others in the family that we first learn compassion or benevolence, and it’s by respecting others in the family that we first learn integrity or righteousness. So the family is the nursery for virtue as well. And then what you do is extend the compassion from members of your family to other people. Without that, he says, it’s not possible to genuinely show compassion. In a memorable aphorism, he says that you have to treat the young members of your own family as young ones should be treated, but then extend that to the young of other people’s families. Respect the elders of your family like elders should be respected, but then extend that to the elders of other people’s families.

Do we know if Mengzi had a family of his own?

There is a tradition that he did, and there’s a fun story about that. Supposedly, he got married when he was young and he walked in on his wife when she was in an embarrassing or unattractive posture (out of delicacy, the text is a bit vague about exactly what she was doing). Mengzi ran out and announced he was going to divorce her. Mengzi’s mother overheard this and said: ‘I have heard that correct etiquette is that you knock before entering a room, so it is you who is at fault, not your wife,’ at which point Mengzi admitted that he was the one in the wrong.

The reason I asked about the family was because it seems to be a kind of empirical observation that families are the places where people learn about emotion and respect, as well as resolving conflict and surviving alongside other people. Certainly, contemporary psychology and attachment theory put huge emphasis on early experience within the family as shaping factors for the kinds of people we’re going to be and how we can function with other people. It’s almost a given now. The family is a topic that’s quite rarely discussed in Western philosophy, though. I think Rousseau is one of the few examples of a philosopher who talks about the sorts of relations that happen between adults and children, and children and children.

One thing I say only half-jokingly with my students is that very often philosophy in China will come up with something, and then Western philosophy catches up 2,000 or so years later. The ethical importance of the family is something that Confucians understood a long time ago, which Western philosophers are only now catching up with, in part due to feminist care ethics like those of Nel Noddings and Carol Gilligan and insights from developmental psychologists like Martin Hoffman.

I can see how Mengzi’s ideas could easily feed into a moral philosophy course. It would be very stimulating in an introductory moral philosophy course to introduce some of those ideas and I think they would find a resonance there.

Absolutely! I also wanted to mention that Mengzi had a critique of a contemporary consequentialist school in his writing. Most people miss it, but the very opening passage in the Mengzi is almost certainly a critique of a kind of profit- or benefit-based version of consequentialism. Mengzi meets a ruler and the ruler says, ‘I suppose you come with advice about how to profit my state?’ and Mengzi replies, ‘Why must you even talk about profit? If you emphasise profit, your councillors will emphasise profit, and they will seek for the profit of their families, and if they do that then the people who are underneath them will seek their own individual profit, and soon everybody will be competing for profit and taking advantage of one another; whereas if you just emphasise benevolence and righteousness everybody will show compassion and will have of integrity.’ Mengzi thinks that the emphasis on profit, even if at the highest levels it’s an emphasis on profit for the group, is ultimately self-undermining because it makes people think in overly narrow terms. It’s interesting in that it seems to anticipate the view that in some way consequentialism is self-effacing or self-defeating, which again was a fairly late idea in the development of Western critiques of consequentialism.

It could be read as an attack on capitalism as well, by the sound of it?

An interesting question is the extent to which Confucianism is or is not consistent with capitalism. Countries in east Asia with a Confucian heritage, including South Korea, Japan and China—which is now only nominally communist—have done remarkably well with capitalist systems, but traditionally Confucians have emphasised that only a petty person is concerned with profit; a genuinely virtuous person is concerned with righteousness and benevolence instead.

What’s your next choice?

My next recommendation is also an eponymous text from 4th century BCE. China, the Zhuangzi. If you read Zhuangzi carefully it’s clear that, although he never mentions Mengzi by name, he’s read him and he’s giving a critique of his ideas. There are several translations of Zhuangzi that each have their own strengths and weaknesses. I’m suggesting the one by Burton Watson, which is one of the most beautiful ones. Students always fall in love with Zhuangzi. It’s a philosophical work that makes its points through a combination of explicit arguments, very intriguing short stories, and poetry. One of Zhuangzi’s most interesting philosophical arguments is a kind of regress argument for scepticism. He says: ‘Suppose you and I are arguing and I win the argument.’ He doesn’t specify what counts as winning an argument, but I think that’s part of the genius of his account: you can specify whatever conception of ‘winning’ you wish.

So Zhuangzi asks, ‘Well, does the fact that I won the argument mean that I’m right and you’re wrong?’ The idea is that we cannot think that winning an argument guarantees that the conclusion is correct, because we know of cases where people ‘win’ arguments that we think they shouldn’t have won, where the other person simply couldn’t think of a response on the fly, or the audience or judge shouldn’t have been persuaded by the argument. But then Zhuangzi says: ‘So all we know in an argument is who wins according to some criteria. That doesn’t show us who is right. And we don’t have access to anything except different criteria for judging that someone has or hasn’t won an argument, which in each case will be inadequate to establish what’s actually right.’

He continues: ‘I suppose we could get a third person to determine whether or not I’m really right or you’re really right, but now the problem is we’ve just pushed it back one level because we can ask whether this person should have been convinced. We can’t say that for sure because third parties can also be wrong in judging who won an argument.’ So, he’s suggesting that nothing that humans do in debate could ever give you a really compelling reason for believing that we’d arrived at the truth. It’s a very powerful sceptical argument.

It sounds like Jacques Derrida to me.

It also reminds me of some of the arguments the ancient Sceptics gave, a version of one of their infinite regress arguments.

To take issue with that, though, surely some criteria are better than others for determining who’s won an argument. You gave the example of somebody not thinking of a counter-argument, but that’s very different from someone thinking they’ve used a good counter-argument when actually they’ve just used one that doesn’t counter it or could be easily answered. There must be a hierarchy of criteria, there must be some techniques in argument that are better than others, and some examples of people attempting to use them which are better than others, mustn’t there?

I’m not ultimately convinced by Zhuangzi. I’m not a sceptic myself, but it is a powerful argument. Think about it this way: imagine we’re watching an argument between somebody who believes in intelligent design or creationism, and someone who believes in evolutionary theory. Consider two outcomes: suppose the person who believes in intelligent design wins the argument by whatever criteria – they silence the other person, or they’ve convinced most people in the audience, or they correctly applied some set of rational standards. The epistemological condition of the person who believes in intelligent design is this: they believe the debater they agree with has correctly applied all the relevant standards of evidence and they have further corroboration of that in the fact that they’ve either silenced their opponent, or they’ve convinced people in the audience. However, you and I think that the advocate of evolutionary theory did not deserve to lose the argument, and the advocate of intelligent design is mistaken.

Now consider a second outcome: suppose the person we agreed with at the start of the argument, who advocated evolutionary theory, had won the argument. We would now be in exactly the same epistemological situation that the advocate of intelligent design was in the former case. We’d say, yes, the person who won applied all of the rational standards correctly and we have further corroboration for the correctness of our account because they silenced their opponent or convinced the audience. However, most advocates of intelligent design will think that the advocate of intelligent design did not deserve to lose the argument, and they will continue to believe in intelligent design. Notice that, in this second case, we advocates of evolutionary theory are in the same epistemological situation that the advocate of intelligent design was in the first case. But we thought that the advocate of intelligent design in the first case was mistaken. So there’s no way internally to distinguish our epistemological situation from the epistemological situation of someone who we agree is mistaken. All we ever know in any argument is who ‘won’ the argument, by some criteria of winning. But we all know of cases in which someone ‘wins’ an argument even though we think they are mistaken. So there is no non-question-begging way to infer from winning an argument to being correct.

How does Zhuangzi avoid the charge of hypocrisy in that he uses an argument to convince us of this?

Great question! One way of reading Zhuangzi is as using rational argumentation to undermine rational argumentation, but then also using language in other imaginative ways to reorient us towards a different way of seeing the world, other than a way in which we think language accurately describes the world.

So that’s his negative vision: he’s kind of a sceptic about the use of language to argue to conclusions. What is his positive take on philosophy? Presumably he’s got more than just a sceptical stance.

He does. There is a powerful image early on in the Zhuangzi of a butcher who carves up an animal carcass and does it so skilfully and so quickly that a noble person who’s watching just says: ‘I didn’t know skill could reach this height.’ The butcher responds: ‘What I care about is ‘the Way,’ which goes beyond mere skill.’ He continues: ‘I follow the natural pattern of the ox as I carve it, and as a result my blade never dulls because it always goes right in between the bones without ever striking anything and getting dulled.’ This suggests an image of going through life such that you spontaneously respond to the structure of the world around you, but you don’t do it by arriving at conclusions through argument; you do it by getting better at spontaneously responding to the structure of the world like a butcher who has, after years of practice, learned to effortlessly carve an ox carcass.

“You don’t do it by arriving at conclusions through argument; you do it by getting better at spontaneously responding to the structure of the world”

Incidentally, I mentioned that Zhuangzi is often a critic of Mengzi—one of Mengzi’s most famous examples is of a ruler who shows his compassion by sparing an ox being led to slaughter, and Mengzi says that the compassion the king showed by sparing the ox proves that he has the innate disposition toward benevolence. Mengzi then adds: ‘and this is why gentlemen never go into the kitchen.’ The implication is that if you’re really tender-hearted, you can’t stand to see animals being slaughtered. So who does Zhuangzi pick as an example of the ideal person? That butcher in the kitchen slaughtering and carving up the animal! It’s by going into the kitchen and watching that butcher slaughter the animal that the ruler in Zhuangzi’s story learns what you should really do, instead of just chatting with Mengzi up in the courtyard while someone else does the dirty work.

But in terms of the message of Zhuangzi’s story, following the Way involves a sensitivity to what’s before you and a subtle response to it that’s learned over time so you acquire this great skill. Now that seems to be consistent with what you said about Mengzi’s moral philosophy, which is about getting better at living through being brought up in the family in the right sort of way. You acquire skills. It’s not about calculation, it’s about response to circumstances, so Zhuangzi and Mengzi don’t seem completely at odds?

You are in good company in making that suggestion. There have been philosophers in the Chinese tradition who have said that ultimately Confucianism and Daoism are consistent. Similarly, my colleague Ted Slingerland has emphasised that both Confucianism and Daoism embrace the ideal of wuwei, spontaneous action that is perfectly responsive to the situation. As a result, both have to deal with the paradox that you have to self-consciously cultivate the ability to respond unselfconsciously. Despite these important similarities, much of the Zhuangzi seems to be critiques or parodies of the things that Mengzi says. For example, Confucians regard mourning for the deaths of loved ones as both natural and an ethical obligation. But in the Zhuangzi there are several famous stories of people dying and their loved ones not performing any funeral rituals for them. Instead, the survivors just embrace their death with a kind of joy.

“If you really saw the way the universe is, you’d transcend ordinary social conventions like mourning for the dead, or fear of your own death”

In one story a man dies and his friends are just happily singing over the body when one of Confucius’ disciples comes and upbraids them for not performing the proper funeral rituals. The disciple goes back to Confucius and says, ‘Oh you wouldn’t believe these people, they’re just terrible,’ but Confucius expresses admiration for them, saying, ‘I should have known better than to send you to help them. They wander beyond the six directions of space; I wander within it. I’m just scarred by heaven with benevolence and righteousness and cannot escape them.’ So Zhuangzi is appropriating Confucius as a mouthpiece here to express his own view that if you really saw the way the universe is, you’d transcend ordinary social conventions about things like mourning for the dead, or even fear of your own death. Things such as mourning (which the actual Confucius thought is natural when loved ones pass away), or even concern for your own life and death, are attachments that you can escape, if you realise they’re just imposed on you by society. They’re not things that are part of the Way.

That’s interesting, because a caricature of ancient Chinese philosophy is that it’s inherently conservative, and over-respectful of tradition and past generations, and looking backwards instead of forwards. But these sound like quite radical ideas that you’re talking about.

Yes, they are. Mengzi was living in a time of brutal civil war, and so the suggestion that ‘human nature is good’ was in itself radical. His proposal for how to govern was also radical because Mengzi said the keys to governing are compassion and integrity on the part of rulers, in contrast to thinkers of his era who advocated realpolitik in foreign affairs and severe punishments in domestic affairs. Zhuangzi, too, as you point out, was very willing to question common sense and traditional practices. My colleague Paul Kjellberg likes to emphasise a very interesting but gruesome image in the Zhuangzi: in the middle of the night a woman who’s a leper gives birth and she quickly grabs a torch and comes back to make sure that the baby does not look like her. The point of the story seems to be: why do we want our children to be like us? Maybe we should rather want our children not to be like us.

It seems to me that some of examples you’ve given are interestingly open to multiple interpretations, and that this is a kind of ‘showing’ rather than ‘saying’ that we find in thinkers like Kierkegaard, or Nietzsche, or Wittgenstein.

Precisely. Richard Rorty tried to capture this distinction by saying that Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein are ‘edifying’ philosophers, in contrast with ‘systematic’ philosophers like Plato and Hume. I think Zhuangzi is also best understood as edifying rather than systematic. Systematic philosophers construct and defend coherent worldviews; edifying philosophers seek to undermine philosophical systems in general, without trying to supplant them with a new system. Of course, there is a legitimate question about whether this is a coherent project. Isn’t the practice of ‘undermining all systems’ itself a system? But even if we are not edifying philosophers ourselves, we can learn a lot by reflecting upon the critiques that philosophers like Zhuangzi and Nietzsche offer of systematic thought.

What’s your fifth book choice?

The last book I’m recommending is the Bodhicaryāvatāra by the Indian philosopher Shantideva (Śāntideva), who lived in the 8th century CE.

That’s quite an off-putting title, what does that mean?

It’s ‘The Introduction to the Way of Enlightenment’, or ‘The Way of the Enlightened Person’. Despite the intimidating title, it’s actually a readable introduction to a certain kind of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. It’s rhetorically constructed in a really ingenious way: Shantideva leads you from encouragement to pursue enlightenment, through the various virtues that you need to cultivate in order to become an enlightened person, and then gradually, in chapters eight and nine, gives a really fascinating philosophical account of why the enlightened person will have compassion for the suffering of others. Shantideva presents an anti-substantialist view, arguing that there are no selves: there is suffering but the suffering doesn’t belong to any individual selves. So we have a reason to alleviate suffering, because suffering is undesirable, but we have no reason to prefer the alleviation of ‘our own’ suffering to the alleviation of the suffering of ‘others’ because there isn’t any distinction, ultimately, between our selves and the selves of others.

He gives a series of interesting arguments in support of these surprising conclusions. For example, he says: “Look, if you say that I shouldn’t be concerned about the suffering of another person because I don’t currently feel his suffering, why should I be concerned about ‘my own’ suffering tomorrow, because I don’t currently feel my suffering of tomorrow? Yet I do feel I ought to alleviate the suffering that ‘I’ am going to feel tomorrow.” He also argues that the ways in which we usually conceive of the self are illusory, by parallelism with other cases where we conventionally talk about something even though we recognise that ultimately it is not real.

“Shantideva presents an anti-substantialist view, arguing that there are no selves”

For instance, we talk about getting in ‘the line’ at the theatre, but when we think about it carefully we recognise that a line of people is not real. Intuitively, we might think of the people in the line as real, but we admit that the line is not a separate metaphysical entity on top of the people. Likewise, we talk about ‘armies,’ but an army isn’t real. The soldiers in the army we might think of as real, but the army isn’t a separate metaphysical entity on top of those soldiers. Then he applies these insights to the self: imagine your mental states over time. You could think of them as being in a sequence, and our tendency is to say: “here’s a sequence of mental events and I am what ‘has’ that sequence of mental events.” But the ‘I’ isn’t real; just the mental events are real. There isn’t an ‘I’ on top of or behind the mental events. You aren’t real any more than there is a line above or behind the people whom we describe as ‘in line.’

Likewise, at any one instant, there’s a collection of mental states and physical states that we conventionally refer to as ‘I’ or as our ‘self’. But that collection isn’t a real thing on top of the individual physical and mental states; it’s just a convenient way for labelling them. There isn’t a metaphysically distinct ‘I’ in addition to the physical and mental states any more than there is a metaphysically distinct ‘army’ in addition to the soldiers in the army. Shantideva’s ethical claim is that, once you realise that there is no self, that it’s just as illusory as a line or an army, you’ll recognise there’s no reason to prefer the alleviation of the suffering of this particular sequence of mental states or this particular arbitrary collection of physical and mental states over those of another.

In a lot of ways, what Shantideva is doing is discovering more than a millennium earlier things that Derek Parfit argued for much later in the Western tradition. Shantideva undermined the conception of individual selves as a way of arguing in favour of a kind of universal compassion. But he did this not just through philosophical arguments, but also by presenting a theory of the human virtues and a theory of the order in which you need to go through them to achieve this understanding, which is both theoretical but also motivational.

I can see how intellectually that might work, but emotionally, as the kind of animals that we are, there are strong evolutionary drives to self-protection, not just in the present but projecting into the future. You see that your hand isn’t burning at the moment, but you don’t reach out and grab the hot plate because you’re conditioned to avoid that future pain.

The Buddhists acknowledge that they’re asking you to engage in a radical restructuring of your motivations and your affective attitudes. They’re very conscious of that. They say we need to distinguish between merely saying that you believe something and actually fully believing it. Part of the goal of the book is to show you the path by which you gradually get to the point where these philosophical arguments are not only intellectually compelling, but also motivationally efficacious.

This brings us back around to Hume’s Treatise again. As you noted earlier, Hume has a critique of the self that is very reminiscent of some Buddhist arguments, and we might expect this to lead him to a radical re-envisioning of our motivations and moral commitments. However, Hume famously says that ‘reflections very refined and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us,’ because after a few hours of dining, playing backgammon, and chatting with his friends ‘these speculations… appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous.’ In contrast, Buddhist philosophers suggest that it is possible to make their metaphysical conclusions become increasingly lively and persuasive.

How does the Bodhicaryāvatāra teach you to achieve this?

The Bodhicaryāvatāra itself is not primarily a practical handbook for meditation. It is more a philosophical account of the states that you’re going to develop in sequence as you get closer and closer to the ideal of absolute understanding, in which you perceive and respond appropriately to a world where there aren’t any selves. But there is a rich Buddhist literature on the details of ethical cultivation. An important part of it is precisely refusing to give in to the Humean temptation to wallow in our conventional passions and beliefs. When asked why he was not finishing his well-received History of England, Hume remarked: ‘I’m too old, too fat, too lazy, and too rich.’ This comment is charmingly frank, but it clearly does not illustrate the mindset that we would find in a Buddhist monk or nun seeking enlightenment.

Is there not a tension between achieving that degree of impersonality and still demonstrating compassion? Who is it who feels the compassion?

Shantideva actually discusses this. I think it’s a fascinating move, but the reader has to decide for themselves whether the argument is convincing. Shantideva says there are two levels of truth: there’s conventional truth and there’s ultimate truth. An example of a conventional truth would be something like ‘there’s a long line to get into the theatre,’ or ‘the Seventh Army has been mobilised.’ These are conventional truths because there isn’t a metaphysical entity ‘the Seventh Army,’ and there isn’t a metaphysical entity ‘the line’, but they’re useful things to say. Similarly, Shantideva claims that in order to speak in ordinary language you’re going to have to say things like, “‘You’ are going to have to cultivate compassion” and “‘you’ should alleviate ‘her’ suffering.” However, at the level of ultimate truth, we’re going to have to leave these verbal formulations behind. All verbal formulations try to isolate individuals as the referents of the substantive terms in the sentence, but according to Shantideva, there ultimately aren’t separate selves that could be the referents of the terms in the sentence.

So it’s like the ladder that Wittgenstein talks about, which you throw away once you’ve reached understanding of what he’s trying to show you?

Exactly, and when Buddhism arrived in China it had a fascinating and productive dialogue with Daoism. Zen Buddhism, for example, is in many ways a synthesis of Indian Buddhism with Chinese Daoism. Zhuangzi uses a metaphor to describe what also became the Zen Buddhist view of language: ‘A rabbit trap is for catching rabbits. Once you’ve caught the rabbit you can forget the trap. Words are for getting what they point to. Once you’ve gotten what they point to you can forget the words. Where can I find someone who’s forgotten words, so that I can have a word with him?’ This is almost exactly the simile that Wittgenstein uses in the Tractatus, where he says that his propositions are ‘elucidatory’ yet ‘senseless,’ so that one must use them to climb out of confusion, but then ‘so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it’.

The Daoist work that most people in the West are familiar with is The Classic of the Way and Virtue, attributed to Laozi. It famously says, ‘Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know,’ and this is very reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s admonition, ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.’ All of these works are expressing the view that we’re trying to get at something that is beyond the words, so we’re ultimately going to have to let go of the words. However, that doesn’t mean we’re going to sit there in silence. Wittgenstein wrote both the Tractatus and the Investigations, after all, and Zhuangzi, Laozi, and Shantideva have books attributed to them. We’re going to use words while knowing that they’re merely tools for getting us to an understanding for which the words themselves are inadequate.

Those sound like five fascinating books. Is there anything else you’d like to share in closing?

Just this: in today’s brief discussion we’ve seen that Mengzi offers a conception of human nature, the virtues, and ethical cultivation that is a plausible alternative to Aristotle. Zhuangzi offers challenging sceptical arguments, as well as a view about the limitations of language that is reminiscent of Wittgenstein. Shantideva offers anti-substantialist arguments about the self that rival those of Hume and Parfit. I give further examples of vibrant Chinese and Indian philosophical debates in my book, Taking Back Philosophy. If a contemporary Western philosopher looks seriously at any of these examples and still claims, “Well, that isn’t ‘real’ philosophy,” I can only accuse them of professional incompetence.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

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Bryan Van Norden

Bryan W Van Norden is Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, chair professor in the school of philosophy at Wuhan University in China, and professor of philosophy at Vassar College in the United States. Van Norden has published nine books on Chinese and comparative philosophy, and is the recipient of Fulbright, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mellon fellowships. Van Norden has also been honoured as one of the United States' 300 best professors by the Princeton Review.