There’s a debate, of sorts, raging about whether the likes of Confucius should be considered ‘philosophy’. The debate was occasioned by a piece in Aeon, which was itself a response to a widely discussed NYT op ed by Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield. To be blunt, I think the Aeon article is pretty bad, and the idea that nothing worth calling philosophy exists outside the tradition begun by Plato (who inherited a tradition, actually) rather obviously silly. The piece’s flaws have been amply demonstrated by others, so I won’t belabor that particular point. The debate has raised some interesting questions though.
Is it worth asking what makes something ‘philosophy’ and trying to answer in such a way that we have clear identity conditions? I doubt it, and I doubt it can be done in any interesting and non-question begging way. Still, the Aeon article is right about one thing: not everything wise and good is philosophy. I think there’s a lot of wisdom—and philosophical insight—to be found in The Godfather films. So why would I not count those as philosophy while I will count Mencius, for example?
The answers has to do with the immediacy and explicitness with which Mencius—and the long tradition of interpreting, criticizing, expanding, and applying his thought that has carried on for 2000 plus years—addresses recognizably philosophical issues. I published a paper in the, ahem, Journal of Chinese Philosophy where I draw on Mencius and Martha Nussbaum to consider some questions regarding human nature and morality. That Mencius is Chinese and Nussbaum American is not unimportant, but it is largely incidental to the philosophical argument I’m trying to make—I draw on two thinkers with a lot to say on the matter, and that’s about it. If Nussbaum is a philosopher in talking about these things how can we not count Mencius as a philosopher as well?
One more point: what makes drawing on Mencius worth while is not diversity for its own sake, but the very interesting fact that Mencius and Nussbaum draw on sets of conceptual resources that only partly overlap—the space of possible philosophical moves is expanded when we look beyond Plato’s heirs. Hence the value of comparative philosophy.