Exploring Chinese Thought in a Cross-Cultural Context

—by Chris Fraser

An examination of classical Chinese texts might hold lessons for today’s political functioning and approaches to everyday life.

Although there is no consensus on what global or world philosophy is—or on whether it should indeed count as a discrete subfield—today there seems to be a growing sense in philosophy as a field that we should acknowledge, encourage, and above all seek to learn from research in diverse traditions of thought.

Wilfrid Sellars once characterized philosophy as an enterprise in which we seek to understand how things hang together, in the broadest possible sense. This enterprise can only benefit from greater awareness of different ways of doing philosophy, which may reveal broader perspectives on how things hang together.

My own recent research pursues cross-cultural inquiry along a number of fronts. In one article, I attempt to contribute to the burgeoning field of political epistemology by examining how for one influential early Chinese school of thought—the Mohists—political authority rests partly on epistemic consensus. The Mohists held that legitimate authority and a stable social order could be sustained only if members of a political society identified with its leadership, sharing with them views about which norms should organize social and political life and how these norms should be implemented. If people do not agree with their leaders about the facts pertinent to observing and enforcing the norms, the Mohists thought, they will cease to identify with the government, undermining social unity, and thus the legitimacy of political authority. The Mohists’ stance underscores the vital role of social epistemology in justifying or undermining the legitimacy of political authority. It offers an intriguing perspective from which to consider how fake news, rival accusations of fakeness or misinformation, conspiracy theories, and extreme partisanship can subvert respect for and, ultimately, the functioning of political authority.

Another project in progress explores the relation between moral culture and the effective functioning of social institutions, above all, the law. Chinese political thinkers from the classical period to the Qīng dynasty debated how the functioning of institutions depended on the moral character and cultural commitments of the people entrusted to manage them. Some thinkers—such as Xúnzǐ, in the classical era, or Chén Liàng, in the 12th century—emphasized that law, for example, can function properly only when enforced by officials who possess the appropriate virtues and capacity for discretion. Others—notably the great 17th-century critic Huáng Zōngxī—responded that even in the hands of qualified, virtuous people, laws can prove effective only if when their content has been framed wisely. This roughly 2,000-year-long debate on how shared values and moral character underpin formal institutions helps shed insight on contemporary issues, such as the recent, disastrous collapse of liberal civil society and the rule of law in Hong Kong— my home for 25 years—or the narrowly avoided crisis of democratic governance in the United States on January 6, 2021. The Chinese discourse offers hints as to what we might do to protect and strengthen our political culture even here in Canada today.

A Xunzian epistemology thus has direct points of contact with contemporary epistemology, ethics, and everyday life.

Two other research projects I have underway concern the implications of early Chinese thought for contemporary epistemology and ethics. More than a decade ago I published an article discussing how classical Chinese epistemology did not particularly concern itself with the analysis of knowledge, worries about the illusory nature of perception, or any confirmation that we have knowledge of an external world. Instead, knowledge was treated as the expression of competence in distinguishing and responding to things. Early sources such as Xúnzǐ were especially concerned with how the development and application of such competence required what I called “epistemic conscientiousness” and related virtues. Early Chinese epistemology thus raises issues about the role of virtues such as conscientiousness, diligence, and perseverance, which have become prominent in discussions in contemporary virtue epistemology. In recent work, drawing again on Xúnzǐ, I’ve been looking at how epistemic agency, and thus the capacity for knowledge, rests on a broader capacity for axiological commitment. One interesting implication of a Xunzian view is that we can possess knowledge in a full sense only if we care about and so are committed to getting things right, such that we manifest a second-order, reflexive meticulousness in seeking and applying careful epistemic standards. Another implication is that insofar as we inevitably exercise epistemic agency, and as epistemic agency involves a concern with getting things right, conscientiously seeking to improve our epistemic competence makes for a crucial part of the well-lived life. A Xunzian epistemology thus has direct points of contact with contemporary epistemology, ethics, and everyday life.

Intriguingly, because of the central place of axiological commitment in early Chinese epistemology, epistemic issues become intertwined with questions in ethics and meta-ethics as well. In the original Chinese context, the relevant questions are framed in terms of dào, the way or path by which to conduct personal and social life. A driving question is whether the appropriate dào can be identified and spelled out in some way, such that we can make it a determinate object of learning and discussion. Two prominent early movements, the ancient Mohists and Confucians, both held that dào is a path that can be explicitly signposted. Although the two schools disagreed about the content of dào, they shared the opinion that ancient sages had already mapped it out fairly clearly for the rest of us to follow. By contrast, what we now refer to as the Daoist tradition disagreed that dào could be pinned down in this way. In the classical anthology Zhuāngzǐ, for example, dào is treated as radically protean, indeterminate, and plural. Practically, this means that there can be no “map” by which to follow dào; we need to find our way along it as we go. As an astonishing consequence of this outlook, some passages in the Zhuāngzǐ reject the very idea of morality—understood as specific, identifiable norms or virtues—as a guide to life or dào. To live well and follow dào, we should not seek to be benevolent or to do our duty, for example. Yet these passages also make it clear that dào is not just a matter of anything goes: There is such as thing as better or worse performance of dào, and Zhuāngzǐ discussions make it clear that adept performance of dào is not selfish, but deeply responsive to others’ standpoints and needs. To me, these features make it a fascinating project to try to understand the Zhuangist outlook and explore its significance for contemporary ethical discourse.

The present marks an exciting and rewarding time to be working in cross-cultural philosophy here at the University of Toronto. The resources U of T is devoting to global philosophy are matched by few institutions internationally, and the university’s commitments in this direction benefit tremendously from the Department of Philosophy’s long-standing strengths in history of philosophy, again equalled by only a small handful of institutions. Beyond these points, Toronto itself is today one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, with an incredible mix of cultures, and so we have a large audience of students and members of society primed to appreciate cross-cultural philosophical discussion.

Chris Fraser holds the Richard Charles and Esther Yewpick Lee Chair in Chinese Thought and Culture, a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of East Asian Studies. His research specialization is classical Chinese philosophy, particularly how early Chinese theories of mind, knowledge, and language intersect with issues in contemporary epistemology, action theory, and ethics. Before joining U of T, he was professor and chairperson in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong (2009–2021).