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Bryan W. Van Norden’s Visit to School of Philosophy
Date:2016-09-16  Clicks:150


From May 29th to June 15th, Professor Bryan W. Van Norden of Vassar College visited School of Philosophy and taught philosophical ethics seminar. Van Norden, a leading American scholar on Chinese Philosophy, has a PhD from Stanford University. He is a Professor in the Philosophy Department and also teaches in the Department of Chinese & Japanese at Vassar CollegeHe was also a Guest Professor in the School of Philosophy of Wuhan University.

 Van Norden introduces Confucianism, Mohism, Yang Zhu school, school of names, Daoism, and New Confucianism in this book Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Hackett Publishing 2011). He thinks that Confucianism revolves around benevolence and has five themes: Happiness in the Everyday World, Revivalistic Traditionalism, the Family and Differentiated Love, Ritual and Functionalism, and Ethical Cultivation. Different from moral absolute of Kantian philosophy and Utilitarianism, Confucianism solves practical problems with flexible rules. For example, Confucian has many different answers that are pluralistic in nature.  It embodies the way of solving practical problems with flexible rules when his disciples ask “ what is Ren .”(Analects ,6:22,12:1,12:2,12:3,17:6) The rules of loyalty and filial piety are also flexible and subjective.  Van Norden holds that Confucianism is similar to western virtue ethics, and he compares Confucianism and western virtue ethics with four questions: What is happiness? What virtues do we need to live a happy life? How should we cultivate our moral characters for virtue? What is human nature? The purpose of Confucianism is that everyone is a person with benevolence. Deontology asks us to obey the universal principles.  However, Confucianism uses flexible rules to adapt to specific circumstances with the standard of benevolence. For example, “Kun asked, ‘ If a man’s sister-in-law be drowning, shall he rescue her with his hand?’ Mencius said, ‘He who would not so rescue the drowning woman is a wolf. For males and females not to allow their hands to touch in giving and receiving is the general rule; when a sister-in-law is drowning, to rescue her with the hand is a peculiar exigency.’ ”(Mengzi, 4A:17) “Mencius said, ‘The great man does not think beforehand of his words that they may be sincere, nor of his actions that they may be resolute - he simply speaks and does what is right.’ ”(Mengzi,4B:39) “ Confucius said, ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.’ ”(Analects,13:18) Above these examples show that there is no absolute rules in Confucianism.

Mohism is a kind of consequentialism with absolute moral rules.  Mohists claim that it should not have unnecessary and overelaborate formalities. Universal love is the correct way to treat equally without discrimination. Furthermore, Van Norden holds that there are arguments in Chinese Philosophy and these arguments have the similar structure to the arguments of Western Philosophy. For example, Mozi uses the state-of-nature argument to show that why the governmental system and social structure is rational.  The argument is similar to how Hobbes and Locke investigated the beginning of the identification with the Superior. At first, Mozi supposes what life is like before state. Second, he supposes how life goes after the governmental system and social structure is established.

Yang Zhu school advocates to act according to human nature, which is different from making others happy in Confucianism and Mohism. It is similar to egoism. “Both arguments are acceptable” of Dengxi, “Ten theses” of Hui Shi and “On the White House” of Gong Sunlong, all of which argue for paradoxes with forms of arguments. Furthermore, Van Norden thinks that Daoism also has five themes: Social Ills and Their Solution, Non-action, the Teaching That Is Without Words, The Way, and Mysticism. Among Daoists, Zhuangzi’s thought is similar to skepticism and relativism.  Zhuangzi’s epistemology has several features: that the ability of cognitive subject is limited, that judgments are subjective, and that cognitive objects are uncertain and unspeakable.

Starting with comparing, analyzing and arguing for the similarity between Western Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy, professor Van Norden reinterprets various schools of Chinese Philosophy.  Professor Van Norden also trains and improves thesis writing of students in this way and indicated that doing search on Chinese Philosophy analytically is not the only way, but it would promote research on Chinese Philosophy.

Van Norden trains us to write and to do research during his visit. Students also learn more methods to do research on Chinese Philosophy in English world. We are looking forward to Professor Van Norden’s next visit.