At the SACP, South Asian (Indian, Tibetan) and East Asian (Chinese, Japanese) thought both have a central place, with Western thought on the margins. At the vast majority of philosophy conferences, Western thought has a central place, with both South and East Asian thought on the margins. I say this not to complain about the general marginal status of Asian philosophy; that’s not news. Rather, I’m increasingly beginning to wonder whether there is anything to “Asian philosophy” at all.
SACP members often lament that the South Asianists and the East Asianists don’t talk to each other much. Douglas Berger, a thoughtful and erudite scholar I had the pleasure of meeting at the SACP, recently started the interesting email list ASIAN-THOUGHT-L with a main objective of encouraging cross-Asian discussion. My own categories on this site are organized the same way. But does all of this make any sense?
In terms of areas of concern, at least, South Asian and East Asian philosophical thought each seem much closer to the West than they are to each other. (“Western” philosophy here refers to the stream of thought originating in Greece, including the Islamic world.) South Asian thought is preeminently concerned with psychology, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, and transcending the everyrday world, which have all been topics of central concern in the West since Plato – but are relatively little discussed in East Asia. East Asian thought, in turn, is concerned above all with politics, human relationships and social ethics – major concerns in the West but less so in South Asia.
The obvious constant between South and East Asia, of course, is Buddhism. But Buddhism here starts to look like the exception that proves the rule, for Buddhist thought changes drastically as it enters East Asia. East Asian Buddhist thinkers were much more concerned with worldly affairs and politics than their South Asian predecessors had been, and the elaborate structures of South Asian theoretical philosophies got dramatically pared down in systems like Ch’an/Zen.
So is it worth talking about Asian philosophy at all? Perhaps only as a move in intellectual politics – joining forces to carve out a space for philosophical reflection that is not Western. As for my categories, well, they seem a fitting organization for now given how much I talk about Buddhism. But I could imagine changing them on these grounds on the future.
EDIT: “a main objective of encouraging cross-Asian discussion” was originally “a main objective of encourage cross-Asian discussion.” That’s what I get for trying to blog on a layover.