“The Development of Chinese Philosophy in Recent 30 Years: Retrospect and Prospect”

sponsored by ISCP and Wuhan University

June 24-27, 2010


Applying Creative Hermeneutics to Chinese Philosophy

in American Academia: The Path to Globalization


Sandra A. Wawrytko, Ph.D.

  Department of Philosophy, San Diego State University

San Diego, California U.S.A.





What role can, must, Chinese philosophy play in the world today? In what ways can it contribute to global culture? I will argue that it need not be confined to the status of a cultural artifact, but rather offers the prospect of ongoing relevance.

Before we survey the road ahead, we must acknowledgement where we have been, how far we have come. Please indulge my autobiographical excursion in tracing back the past thirty years of Chinese Philosophy’s journey in American academia, which parallels the trajectory of my own professional career. Just as Kong Zi set his mind on learning at the age of 15 (Lun Yu 2:4:iv), around the same age I set my mind on philosophy, after reading Plato’s Republic in my Latin class. However, as a female undergraduate student in a field dominated by males I soon experienced a sense of alienation. Sanctioned by the overwhelmingly negative characteristics found in many esteemed philosophers, from Aristotle to Hegel and Schopenhauer, misogyny was condoned and the innate inferiority of women was accepted as established fact.[1] Since I was not willing to remain in a discipline that marginalized my existence as a matter of principle, I sought out alternative views of the feminine. Venturing beyond the confines of the philosophy curriculum, I encountered the yin-based philosophy of Daoism in a religion class.

Although I was determined to pursue my interests in comparative philosophy as a graduate student, in the 1970s few philosophy departments offered such resources. So I settled for a solid grounding in Amero-eurocentric philosophy at a highly ranked campus. When I decided to focus my dissertation on Lao Zi and Spinoza, I met resistance.[2] Fortunately several faculty members were willing to trust my ability to complete the project. Only after I successfully had my oral defense did the chair of committee reveal how stiff the opposition to my proposal had been.

Fast forward to my teaching career. Seeking a more receptive environment for pursuing Asian thought, I relocated to California from the Midwest. Friends had  warned me about going to “Lala Land,” where they feared I soon be spending all my time meditating on the beach. Indeed there was evidence of non-Western philosophy on the coast, but of questionable quality. One lecturer at my campus proudly added Buddhism to her Introduction to Philosophy class, but her chosen text was the Platonic reverie, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  A tenured professor, and avowed Aristotelian ex-priest, had taken an interest in Chinese Philosophy. When he decided to add a class to the curriculum, he seemed to assume that an understanding of Chinese history or culture was irrelevant to interpreting the ancient texts.   

My first ten years or so were spent offering the standard curriculum, especially Introduction to Logic.  Undaunted by the restrictive venue, I added a closing section to my classes on Asian logic. After inundating the students with well-ordered Aristotelian categories and the pristine certainties of propositional logic we concluded with the unexpected Chinese logic of Xun Zi and the devastating iconoclasm of reformed logician Nāgārjuna. A similar interweaving of comparative views was added to introduction classes on values and metaphysics/epistemology. Then for another decade or so I divided my time between Philosophy and Asian Studies, which allowed for an exclusive Asian focus in some classes. Returning to Philosophy on a full-time basis, I have been able to expand the curriculum further with new classes on Buddhist Philosophy (353), topics in Asian Philosophies (565) and Asian-focused graduate seminars. On a campus with more than 30,000 students I remain the sole officially recognized expert on Chinese philosophy and am routinely introduced by my colleagues as the department’s Asianist.

My own experience is but a microcosm. How has Chinese Philosophy fared in the profession as a whole? At the 2010 Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association there were a number of presentations in this area. However almost all were relegated to the periphery, shunted to late night sessions sponsored by specialized groups. The APA encourages our participation, but is it out of respect for our contributions to the discipline or simply a way to increase the number of participants? How many plenary sessions have been graced by philosophers doing Chinese Philosophy? How many members engaged in Chinese Philosophy have been invited to present their papers? There is now an APA Newsletter on Asian- and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies, but the same can be said for more limited special interests such as Computers, the Black Experience, and Medicine, among others.

Have we been trying too hard to fit into the template established by Amero-eurocentric practitioners? Some have argued that because the very term philosophy is derived from Greek roots Plato and Aristotle have a copyright on the notion, thus we must play by their rules or we don’t get to play at all.  It is no coincidence that the forms of Chinese Philosophy most likely to be encountered in professional publications or conferences derive from the Confucian and Neo-Confucian traditions. Metaphysics and epistemology are generally avoided here, and in the “soft” field of ethics more flexibility is allowed.[3] Those poetically-inclined Daoists are much more difficult for Amero-euro- centric philosophers to fathom, while Buddhist philosophers are most often redirected to the confines of religion.


Stuck at the Crossroads


The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place. But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. . . . diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems.[4]


The challenge of globalizing philosophy begins by reconsidering what constitutes Philosophy—not as a mere remnant of ancient Greek culture, but as a longstanding human activity practiced in diverse cultures. Amero-eurocentric philosophy gets stuck on such issues as free will vs. determinism, good vs. evil. However these imagined dilemmas are rarely addressed in Chinese philosophy, which is more likely to fixate on tensions between loyalties to family and state.  

Such a reconsideration is not only timely, but essential. As a professional discipline, philosophy seemingly has reached an impasse. For decades it has been wandering in a labyrinth riddled with blind passages, including the miasma of Logical Positivism, the post-mortem of Post-Modernism and the self-defeating demise of Derridean Deconstruction. In some departments it has been reduced to the philosophy of x (technology, religion, medical ethics, science, logic, etc.). The Emperor has no clothes![5] Thus we must first consider what philosophy is, looking beyond the narrow definitions of Amero-eurocentric assumptions. For example:


       “the science which considers truth”—Aristotle


       “All philosophy lies in two words, sustain and abstain.” –Epictetus


       “Philosophy is its time comprehended in thought.” –Hegel


Then we have the stereotypical views of philosophy that have undermined its credibility outside academia:


       “There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.”—Cicero


       “an unusually ingenuous attempt to think fallaciously.”—Bertrand Russell


       “unintelligible answers to insoluble problems”—Henry Brooks Adams


Indeed, we can trace a long line of philosophers inside the European tradition who have been disenchanted by its epistemological posturings. Hence, for Pyrrho (360-275 b.c.e.) the true philosopher was the true skeptic—we don’t even know we don’t know. René Descartes (1596-1650) provisionally applied the method of universal doubt (Meditations on First Philosophy), while David Hume (1711-1776) concluded that “all knowledge degenerates into probability” (A Treatise of Human Nature).  Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) retreated to language, first as a set of global propositions (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and later as a game (Philosophical Investigations).

       When some of the most highly recognized professional philosophers were confronted with the question, “What have we learned from philosophy in the 20th century?” at the 1998 World Congress of Philosophy, their responses were deeply disappointing.[6] W. V. O. Quine dodged the question and its implications, stating “I’m going to have to pass.” Peter Strawson “became obsessed by the use of the word “we” and whether it was meant to be considered in a collective or individual sense; “If it’s the former, the possibility of any reply seems remote. And if it’s the latter, there is no shortage of replies.” Donald Davidson was equally evasive, merely noting how “very American” philosophy had been in the 20th century then clarifying “To be honest, it was mostly Harvard.” The sole woman in the group, Majorie Greene, also was bothered by the phrasing of the question, focusing on both “we” and “learned,” then asked “Why is it important to do mathematical logic? Why?” This led to a condemnation of Cartesian dualism as well as its namesake, Descartes: “The only true statement he made was that he was born in 1596,” which she stated was also open to debate. Her attacks continued further afield; “Heidegger was evil and we ought to forget him” while ethics is “just minding everyone’s business.” Karl-Otto Apel fondly recalled the good old days of neo-Kantian abstraction, now dismissed as “nonsense” in the wake of linguistic philosophy, concluding “The only philosophical thinking left is et cetera.” Seyyed Hossein Nasr offered the only acknowledgement of cultural diversity, noting “I take it this means American philosophy.” His advice was to adopt a more open-minded approach to the neglected philosophies of India, China, Japan and Islam as a means to recover one’s own tradition’s “quest for truth and meaning.”

       Such verbal sparring plays into another stereotype indulged in by journalist Terry McDermott when he described the philosophical activity of philosophy professor John Searle (University of California, Berkeley) as “boxing with words, a slugfest of minds” in which “the goal is to beat the other guy’s brains out. The object is to win.”[7] As we all are well aware, the original meaning of the Greek term for philosophy derives from the love (philia) of wisdom (sophia, embodied as a goddess). Must love be an extreme sport??? Following Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) analysis, we can trace this state of affairs back to “The Problem of Socrates”:


I recognized Socrates and Plato to be symptoms of degeneration. . . . Socrates’ decadence is suggested . . . by the hypertrophy of the logical faculty. . . . One chooses dialectic only when one has no other means. . . . It can only be self-defense for those who no longer have other weapons. . . . he discovered a new kind of agon [contest; competition] . . . . He introduced a variation into the wrestling match. . . . It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence when they are merely waging war against it.[8]


Globalizing Chinese philosophy means globalizing philosophy as a discipline, including globalizing its methodologies. There is more than one way to elicit meaning and to explore reality. Certainly there is precedent for philosophical diversity. Despite his antipathy toward the arts, Plato’s allegories vividly illustrate his philosophical points. We have come to accept Nietzsche’s Three Metamorphoses in Also Sprach Zarathustra, so why isn’t the same validity ascribed to Lao Zi’s poetic images? Smug-and-satisfied camels (including Platonists, Aristotelians, Cartesians, Kantians, and Hegelians) continue to schlep the burden of the “great minds” of the past. In response, rebellious lions (such as Nihilists, Existentialists, Post-Modernists, and Deconstructionists) rage against the past, while still trapped by what Nietzsche calls “chain-fever.” In fact, today’s lions are merely camels in disguise, self-deluded camels who continue to carry the burdens/icons of their chosen Masters, all the while proclaiming their iconoclasm.

Nietzsche’s solution, of course, lies with the child—“innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’”[9] Fang Dongmei方東美 (1899-1977) understood this fully, and thus compared doing Chinese Philosophy is like flying a kite:


The  whole cosmic power of creativity [is] . . . displayed in the thin thread  as well as the free spirit of the philosopher in the image of the butterfly. . . . For anyone who wants to engage in the system-building of philosophy, there can be no better way than imitating the child of the story flying a kite, firmly and steadily—besides taking a flight in the air. Though unable to mount up to spaces on high, surely one feels the wondrous, all-propelling cosmic creative forces at work through the very delicate thin thread within one’s firm grasp! [10]


In revisioning Philosophy, we would do well to heed the words of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855):


What philosophers say about Reality is often as disappointing as a sign you see in a shop window, which reads Pressing Done Here. If you brought your clothes to be pressed, you would be fooled; for the sign is only for sale.[11]


Speech has been disconnected from meaning for too long. It is time for us to be productive once again, to deliver on our claims. Chinese Philosophy has many worthy suggestions to offer. How can we draw them forth in a form accessible to our changing world?




The next question involves how Chinese Philosophy might nurture the globalizing process by applying itself to real world problems, thereby abandoning the ‘true world’ that Nietzsche descries as a fable in his aptly titled “The History of an Error.”[12] How can we engage our fellow philosophers and our students in the vibrant dynamic that is Chinese Philosophy? How can we invite or lure in those conditioned by Amero-eurocentric assumptions so they might broaden their horizons and perhaps show the philosophical fly the way out of its self-created fly-bottle?

       Over the past three decades I have explored a methodology paralleling the Creative Hermeneutics of Charles Wei-hsun Fu偉勳 (1933-1996). These researches have yielded concrete suggestions for ways in which Chinese philosophical resources can address persistent challenges and conundrums in the discipline of philosophy. We need to follow the step-by-step process outlined by Dr. Fu, beginning with 1) textual criticism (what did the original text or author say?). We then proceed to 2) a contextual analysis (what did the text intend to say?), followed by 3) comparative analyses of the assumed intentions (what might the text have intended to say?).  The first three stages reflect stereotypical scholarly investigations, equally applicable for a museum curator who deals with the dead past. To address a living tradition we must push forward to stages 4 and 5. Uncovering the deep structure of Chinese philosophy requires us to explore 4) the best possible means of facilitating communication of its message (what should they have said?). We thus take on the role of an adept translator of the original message who is able and willing to rise above cognitive literalism in rendering that message.[13] Most risky of all is the final stage aimed at 5) conveying the contemporary relevance of Chinese philosophy, which constitutes what Dr. Fu has called a “creative inheritance” of the original message (what must we say now on their behalf?). Only then will Chinese Philosophy be able to extend its reach into the twenty-first century, becoming a global philosophy unleashed from any temporal or geographical limitations.

What would such a discussion of Chinese philosophy look like? In my own teaching I am adamant about demonstrating to my students that Chinese philosophy need not function as an exotic, tangentially interesting and largely irrelevant collection of museum pieces. Three distinctive philosophies deeply-rooted in Chinese tradition can be paired with three pressing topics—Confucianism and Feminism; Daoism and Ecology; Buddhism and Post-Modern Science. Most recently the ongoing economic crisis has provided an opportunity to undertake a sweeping critique of the very values that have created the crisis and offer alternatives from Chinese philosophical sources. Through these cases we can sample methodologies that expand the possibilities for all forms of philosophy, not just Chinese Philosophy, in the twenty-first century and beyond. 


Confucianism and Feminism[14]  


Even those who grudgingly admit the manifest wisdom of Kong Zi have charged Confucianism with obsolescence, casting it as a mere vestige of feudalism unworthy of scholarly attention.  Debates have raged amongst feminist philosophers in particular over whether they can in good conscience take Kong Zi seriously, as they critique the sexist consequences of Confucian philosophy’s entrenched position within Chinese culture. 

       How then can Confucianism speak eloquently and convincingly to a person of the  twenty-first, or any future century, about the human condition? To validate the continuing relevance of Kong Zi and his philosophy, we must confront a long-neglected fact: no philosophical doctrine can have a legitimate claim to universality if 51% of the human race—constituted by women—is excluded from its scope, or relegated to a merely minor, solely supportive role. If women as a group have no potential for realizing the Profound Person or jun-zi ideal, how can that ideal presume to carry cosmopolitan force?

       Creative Hermeneutics is invaluable here, for it allows us to move beyond the sexist swamp of Kong Zi’s own time period (stages 1 through 3) by focusing on what he should have said (a clear, unequivocal statement about women’s potential) and what he must say in our present temporal and cultural contexts.  Nor need this require a violation of his inherent philosophical principles and position. Drawing on textual evidence of his openness to change in response to changing conditions,[15] we can make a good case that he would be open to expanding the parameters of the ideal type, the jun zi, to include women. The explicit espousal of meritocracy further mandates such a move—if the criminal acts of one’s parent do not constitute grounds for exclusion why should gender, when both lie beyond an individual’s control? This is quite consistent with the Da Xue’s egalitarian pronouncement that “From the Son of Heaven to the common people, all must take cultivation of the self as the root.” (Jing, 6)


Daoism and Ecology[16]


A Daoist approach is sorely needed in the face of mounting ecological crises. Philosophically we could point to Plato as setting the stage for Global Warming. The Divided Line in the Republic privileges the Noumena over the Phenomena, thereby relegating Nature to the status of a mere reflection of Reality. As a result, environmental issues were deemed ultimately inconsequential in comparison to the “true world” of the forms, the Platonic Ideas. While the latter are deconstructed and denounced by Nietzsche in “The History of an Error,”[17] he characterizes the noumenal fixation as merely “useless and superfluous.” Today we must recognize fixation on the “true world” as counterproductive and dangerous.

       To reverse our estrangement from the full range of reality, both egotistical aggressive action, weiand passive inaction bu-wei不為must be supplanted by non-artificial interaction wei-wu-wei為無為. Thus we can recognize our intimate interconnection to the natural environment, as well as the survival value of being in harmony with Dao, flowing with zi-ran自然 . Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi alike suggest significant areas for productive engagement by unthinking the needless complications imposed by cunning intellect, and undoing the damage that follows from those dysfunctional assumptions:      


   the Dao of Heaven reduces what is excessive,

   supplements what is deficient;

   the Dao of Humanity functions contrariwise:

   it further reduces what is already deficient,

   thereby offering it to the excessive. (Dao De Jing, chapter 77)[18]


       Harvard biologists E. O. Wilson has coined the word Biophilia to reflect a similar philosophy—innate love (philia) for life (bios) that bestows evolutionary advantage from interacting with Nature. It is reflected in a human preference for natural setting, ranging from a room with a view to parks, gardens, and outings in Nature. Contemporary Korean poet Ko Un manifests a Daoistic sensibility when he describes “the dance that comes out of the union of humans and nature. It is the harmony of the human experience in nature . . . out of which music, dance, and poetry emerge. . . . This concept has vanished from modern education.“[19]

       These Daoist lessons can then be related to real life cases such as doomed environmental manipulation (biocontrol) and the inherent hazards of multi-tasking. Viable solutions also are offered, as in this creative translation of chapter 19 of the Dao De Jing:


   Discard human artifice, abandon profit—

   corrupt CEOs, polluters, and toxic dumps will cease to exist.


It is worth noting that primal Confucian philosophy resonates with green thinking. The following passage from the Da Xue (大學) is very thought-provoking for American students:


19. There is a great Dao for the production of wealth: the producers are many, but the consumers are few; the producers produce quickly, but the consumers consume slowly. Thus, there is always sufficient wealth.


23. The State profits not from profits, but from what is right.[20]


       Perhaps the most riveting example is a comparison of two water control systems—Dujiangyan in Sichuan province circa 250 b.c.e and the levee system in New Orleans.  Despite thousands of years of technological advances at their disposal, the Army corps of Engineers could not keep New Orleans safe from Hurricane Katrina. Li Bing’s philosophy of going under to “dredge the sand deeper and build the dam lower” has proven to be the wisest and most efficient in the end simply because it is the most natural.


Buddhism and Post-Modern Science[21]


As scientists delve ever deeper into the subatomic quantum world and out into the farthest reaches of outer space searching for the ground of reality, they are increasingly forced to face the fact of primal emptiness.  Yet, the western philosophical tradition is ill-equipped to address emptiness.  It is more than timely that emptiness be taken seriously by the global philosophical community, just as it has by a select group of post-modern scientists. 

       Emptiness has proven to be much more than an idiosyncratic notion common among philosophies of an Asian persuasion, such as the Buddhist philosopher Hui-neng. The Sixth Patriarch adeptly applied the deconstructive methodology of the Diamond Sūtra to his own Chan philosophy. He questioned our assumed relationship to reality, especially as upheld by his fellow Buddhist practitioners. More specifically, Hui-neng deconstructs our fixations on ideas or concepts (nian ), forms (xiang ), and finally on abiding or fixation itself (zhu ). Without (wu ) these fixations we are liberated from the confines of mere thought, liberated from materialism, and liberated from even the concept of liberation (emptying emptiness).

       Hence Hui-neng proclaims, “let the past be dead.”[22]        No longer held in thrall to conceptual or perceptual reification/thingification, the philosopher stops going in circles, like the yak in love with its own tail (our distinguished group from the World Congress of Philosophy?). Accordingly, we no longer disappoint Kierkegaard by offering misleading claims concerning reality.


Epistemological Underpinnings of the Current Economic Crisis


As pundits and intellectuals are scurrying about hoping to deliver the definitive analysis of what went wrong in our once booming, and now busted, economy, an incredible opportunity has opened for Chinese Philosophy to display its wisdom. I first began to think along these lines when I encountered an unexpected article in an unexpected source —Jerry Z. Muller’s “Our Epistemological Depression” (January 29, 2009) in The American: The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute.[23] Muller rails against “misaligned incentives and the fog created by opacity and pseudo-objectivity . . . . the attempt to substitute abstract and quantitative knowledge for concrete and qualitative knowledge.” In short, the underlying epistemology generated its own, ultimately self-defeating, virtual reality.

       Like Muller, I would argue that the economic situation is a symptom or manifestation of a sweeping system failure, the failure of faulty philosophical assumptions. The real question is, what dysfunctional system are we talking about? David Leonhardt, economics columnists for the New York Times, blames “the laissez-faire philosophy that has been ascendant for most of the last three decades,” whose principles “were elevated to the status of religious scripture, with Alan Greenspan as high priest.”[24] The antidote suggested by Robert J. Barbera (The Cost of Capitalism) is “an enlightened synthesis” that does not subscribe to a view of human beings as “coldly rational, utility-maximizing beings.”

       There are seeds of wisdom in the foregoing observations, but they lack a sustaining philosophical soil to germinate and grow, a broader context of supporting meanings. It is here that Chinese Philosophy has much to impart. Consider the following statements from notably non-philosophical, but very contemporary, sources:[25]


 “Don’t make the person feel powerless; empower them to make their own decisions.”[26]


The message becomes much richer and solid when placed in the context of Daoist philosophy, specifically the Sage’s wu-wei leadership. Though often misrepresented as a form of laissez-faire philosophy, Lao Zi’s Daoist principles are much more radical. In chapter 17 of the Dao De Jing he describes the yin behavior of the Daoist Sage:


When the task is accomplished and the work completed,

The subjects all say: “We have done it ourselves—so naturally (zi-ran)!”


People “need to learn what it’s like to get up every morning and get to that job and help someone with something.”[27]


Excellent advice—but what does it really require for implementation? Chan Buddhism’s insistence on self-reliance and its merging of wisdom with compassion. It is, in fact, a concise description of the Bodhisattva Path grounded in pratitya-samutpada. 


“most of all . . . realize there is more to be done than just [intellectually] educating their children”[28]


The relevance of re-evaluating our unexamined social and cultural values is seen in a questioning of what constitutes true education. The key Confucian text, the Da Xue 大學, usually translated as The Great Learning, also may be rendered as Adult Education. Although the Eight Threads begin with (1) the investigation of things and (2) expansion of knowledge, these are followed by (3) fostering sincere intentions and (4) recognizing one’s emotional and intellectual limits. Only then is self-cultivation possible, leading to harmonization of the family, healing the state, and a placid world.


       As the U.S. continues to struggle with the devastation wrought by the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the epistemological implications here should not be overlooked. A deep-seated, blind faith in technology obviously has led to unwise efforts to defy the limitations of Nature. Human power, political power, economic power, intellectual power have all proven to be powerless when confronted with overwhelming power (de) of Dao. Cunning intellect has been exposed as ineffective, a manifestation of hubris and human over-reach, at odds with reality. Physicist Richard Feynman concurs with Daoist wisdom: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”[29]




When modernization was confused and conflated with westernization in the twentieth century, it provoked many destabilizing trends. This epistemological error should not be repeated in the twenty-first century. Globalization need not entail reductionism. Why should Chinese Philosophy need to prove it can fit the Amero-eurocentric template of philosophizing, when the validity of that template itself is suspect? Writing from the vantage point of psychology, Professor Anthony J. Marsella voices similar concerns:


There is a growing international recognition that North American and Western European scientific and professional psychology is a “cultural construction.” . . . The recognition is not new, but it is growing in proportion and consequence. In my opinion, this recognition needs to be nurtured and sustained given the changing political, economic, and cultural power-shifts occurring in the world. I say, let us learn, understand, and respect the many different psychologies of the world rather than accept as dogma the psychology of the West that has dominated education and practice for so many decades.[30]


While Marsella wisely points to the political and moral consequences of ignoring conceptual imperialism,  we must add to these the social, ecological, and even economic consequences sketched briefly above. Dysfunctional epistemologies and metaphysics do matter, and not just to philosophers!

       The profession of philosophy in America today, which continues to be enmeshed in the aftermath of “the true world” template, seems to be emulating the Titanic on course to hit the iceberg of Reality, fixated on the surface while oblivious to the underlying depths. Like the Titanic, it has been warned of what is ahead by numerous philosophers, but has chosen to disregard the impending disaster. Many continue to rearrange the deck chairs oblivious to the impending demise, or, like the Titanic’s orchestra, provide a musical accompaniment as Philosophy sinks into a watery grave. However, we need not book passage on this doomed vessel. We can abjure the temptations of its impressive size, highly-flaunted technology, and ostentatious accoutrements. The critical crossroads can be transformed from a place of frustration to a meeting place (as suggested by Professor Vincent Shen), a venue for a true meeting of minds.

       I would like to close with a contemporary example of Creative Hermeneutics that was self-selected by students in my Buddhist Philosophy class, Spring 2010. On the final examination they were asked to identify the most upāyic image from the many we had sampled in class, that is, the image that most skillfully conveyed the underlying message of Buddhist philosophy. The overwhelming choice was a poem by the Pulitzer Prize winning American poet and environmentalist Gary Synder, entitled “Avocado.” Living in California all the students could readily relate to the evocative image, which challenged them to draw a connection with the Buddhist concepts we had been discussing all semester. The fluctuating relationship to the avocado also resonated with their own experiences. Synder may not be a philosopher himself, but he did more than provide a misleading sign—he did not renege on his promise to point out reality:


The Dharma is like an Avocado!

Some parts so ripe you can’t believe it,

But it’s good.

And other places hard and green

Without much flavor,

Pleasing those who like their eggs well-cooked.


And the skin is thin,

The great big round seed

In the middle,

Is your own Original Nature-

Pure and smooth,

Almost nobody ever splits it open

Or ever tries to see

If it will grow.


Hard and slippery,

It looks like

You should plant it—but then

It shoots out thru the fingers--

gets away.[31]






[1] In the days prior to affirmative action, faculty did not need to hide their sexist views. At my first interview with the graduate advisor he asked if I would be specializing in Ethics or Aesthetics, the only two fields of philosophy which were within the limited range of the female mind. He was quite astounded when I declared my preference for metaphysics. Subsequently he refused to provide the same assistance offered to male graduates in finding a job because in his mind my true vocation was marriage (although at the time I was not even engaged).   


2 “The Philosophical Systematization of a ‘Feminine’ Perspective in terms of Taoism’s ‘Tao Te Ching’ and the Works of Spinoza,” subsequently published as The Undercurrent of Feminine Philosophy in Eastern and Western Thought.


3  Consider, for example, the preponderance of topics related to Confucianism and morality at the 16th Conference of the International Society for Chinese Philosophy, Towards the World: Philosophical Dialogue and Cultural Conversation, held at Fu Jen University, July, 2009.


[4]  Professor Scott E. Page (Political Science and Economics, University of Michigan), The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).


[5]  The taint of irrelevancy is spreading in academic philosophy. In April 2010 the administration of Middlesex University, UK decided to close all programs in Philosophy (recognized for concentration on modern European philosophy), citing financial considerations. Similar threats of closure have been circulated in the United States as budgetary concerns escalate.


[6]  Sarah Boxer, “At the End of a Century of Philosophizing, the Answer is Don’t Ask,” New York Times, August 15, 1998.


[7]  Terry McDermott, “No Limits Hinder UC Thinker,” Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1999, A23.


[8]  Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 474-75, 477-78.


[9]  Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Three Metamorphoses,” included in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 137-39.


[10] Fang, The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy. See also Chinese Philosophy: Its Spirit and Its Development,  Prologue.


[11] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, trans. Walter Lowrie (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), Volume I, 31. In his letters to aesthete A, the self-avowed non-philosopher, ethically-oriented B observes “What unites you [with the philosophers] is that life comes to a stop. To the philosopher world history is concluded, and he mediates. . . . the philosopher, he is outside, he is not in the game, he sits and grows old listening to the songs of long ago”; Vol. II, 175-76.


[12] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, included in Kaufmann, 485-86.


[13] Buddhism has a longstanding tradition of hermeneutics particularly relevant to this stage. The four rules of Buddhist textual interpretation include emphasizing the doctrine over its propounder, the spirit over the word, meaning over interpretation, and direct wisdom over discursive consciousness. See Étienne Lamotte, “The Assessment of Textual Interpretation in Buddhism” in Buddhist Hermeneutics, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1988), 11-27.


[14] See Sandra A. Wawrytko, “Kong Zi as Feminist: Confucian Self-cultivation in a Contemporary Context,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 27, Issue 2 (2000), 171-86 ; reprinted in Classical & Medieval Literature Criticism, vol 63, ed. Jelena Krstovic (Blackwell Publishing, 2004).


[15] For example,  in the Lun Yu Analects Kong Zi expresses a willingness to modify the Li in accordance with changing conditions (9:3) and does not advocate stubbornly clinging to past traditions (2:23).


[16] See Sandra A. Wawrytko, “The Viability (Dao) and Virtuosity (De) of Daoist Ecology: Reversion (Fu) as Renewal,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Vol 32, Issue 1, March 2005, 89-103.


[17] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols Or, How One Philosophizes With a Hammer, in The Portable Nietzsche, 485-86.


[18] Fu and Wawrytko trans., included in Sandra A. Wawrytko, Chinese Philosophy in Cultural Context: Selected Readings from Essential Sources (Montezuma Publishing, 2007), 143.

[19][18] Patricia Donegan, “Human Nature Itself is Poetic: An Interview,” Manoa, Vol 18, #1, 2006.

[20][19] Commentary, chapter 10 of the Da Xue; trans. by Fu and Wawrytko Wawrytko, Chinese Philosophy, 228.


[21] See Sandra A. Wawrytko, “Chinese Philosophy’s Resonance with Post-Modern Science: Chan Insights on Emptiness from Master Hui-neng,” International Journal for Comparative Philosophy and Culture, Vol. I, No. 1 (Spring 2002), online—

http://www.thomehfang.com/suncrates4/8huineng.htm and also



[22] Hui-neng, The Platform Sutra, trans. A. F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam, included in The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng (Berkeley: Shambala, 1969), 44. “Within each thought, do not revisit past states”; Hsing YunThe Rabbit’s Horn: A Commentary on the Platform Sutra (Los Angeles: Buddha’s Light Publishing, 2010), 109.


[23] The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), founded in 1943, is a conservative think tank whose members were very influential in setting the agenda for George W. Bush’s White House.


[24] David Leonhardt, “Theory and Morality in the New Economy,” New York Times Book Review, August 23, 2009.


[25] Paul Sullivan, “Wealth Matters—Teaching Work Values To Children of Wealth,” New York Times Business section, May 29, 2010, B1,6.


[26] Todd M. Morgan, senior managing director at Bel Air Investment Advisors, quoted by Sullivan, 6.


[27] Debbie Cox, managing director at J. P. Morgan Private Bank in Dallas, quoted by Sullivan, 6.


[28] Sullivan, 6.


[29] Quoted by Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Our Fix-It Faith and the Oil Spill” New York Times, May 28, 2010.


[30] Anthony J. Marsella, “Some Reflections on Potential Abuses of Psychology’s Knowledge and Practices,” Psychological Studies (March 2009) 54:23–27. Professor Marsella identified ten assumptions that have emerged from history as the uncontested reality of Western Europe and North America. A reality to be imposed on the rest of the world.” These range from reductionism and scientism to materialism and objectivity.


[31] Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New York: New Directions, 1974), 61.