Attempts to understand Chinese philosophy as philosophy have a unique history.1 It can be investigated in the context of Western philosophy or from the perspective of Chinese philosophy itself.
Mainstream Western philosophy, beginning with Hegel, does not properly situate Chinese philosophy. In Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel mentions Chinese philosophy but does not incorporate it into his definition of what counts as philosophy. In his view, Kongzi (“Confucius”) (d. 479 BCE) is “China’s major philosopher,” but his thought is merely common-sense ethics: “In his thought, there is no analytic philosophy at all.” Although, says Hegel, the Yijing 易经 (“Book of Changes”) involves abstract ideas, it is not profound, it arrests at thinking of the most superficial.2
After Hegel, it seems that the mainstream Western philosophical understanding of Chinese philosophy continued as before. For major Western philosophers, Chinese philosophy never appeared on the horizon. One notices this in the courses offered in the philosophy departments of famous Western universities today: the most prestigious universities in Europe and North America, including Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, Cambridge and more, do not have Chinese philosophy as part of their curriculum. In these universities Chinese philosophy can be found only in departments such as East Asia, Religious Studies, History, and others that are not philosophy. This phenomenon again suggests that, in comparison to its Western counterpart, Chinese philosophy is not considered philosophy in the genuine sense.
On the other hand, once philosophy had taken the form of an academic discipline in modern China, it inspired a number of different arguments about how to understand it. The question “Is Chinese philosophy a philosophy?” has become a source of controversy. Here we ought to mention the phrase “Explain China through China.” The original meaning of this direction is to explain Chinese learning through Chinese scholarship. According to this view, when one employs the concept of philosophy to explain Chinese thought, one is already approaching the subject through a Western framework. Such an argument is based on the premise that philosophy is distinctly Western, and that therefore using the concept and term to analyze Chinese thought will cause the loss of the original form and meaning of the subject.
In the rather extreme discourse of explaining China through China, we find a certain tendency: first to reconstruct philosophy as the history of philosophy; then to reconstruct the history of philosophy as intellectual history, and finally to reconstruct intellectual history as academic history. Contained in this pattern of reconstruction is the question of whether Chinese philosophy can be a modern academic discipline. These competing contexts create an unavoidable problem for basic efforts to understand Chinese philosophy.