Philosophy as an academic discipline
The Japanese word tetsugaku is a translation of “philosophy,” which came into Japan in the Meiji Period. When philosophy came to Japan, it was used as a term to refer to scholarship with a specific discipline (methodology).
There is a historical background in which the way of thinking that originated in Greece was regarded as an object of study, namely as scholarship, in the universities in medieval Europe, and this has been passed down to modern times. The University of Tokyo, Japan’s earliest university, has also established “philosophy” as an academic discipline since the beginning.
In other words, “philosophy” bears the historical burden that only the way of thinking that has a genealogy traced back to Greek scholarship is philosophy.
Accordingly, intellectual activities based on academic procedures after reading various literature such as that by Plato and Aristotle can be properly called “philosophy.” Even today, this is one aspect of philosophy. Philosophy tends to be viewed as an abstruse and impractical discipline in the real world because it is generally difficult to keep up with this academic accumulation.
On the other hand, before philosophy was introduced to Japan, for example, it was not true that thought about the good life did not exist in Japan. This goes for not only Japan, but also China, India and Latin America. It may be different from Europe, but each region has nurtured its own thought.
Greek philosophy, originally, also tackled an essential question concerning the way of life, and in this respect, it is no different from the thought of other regions. It does not mean that only Greek philosophy is privileged compared to thought from other regions. Nor is the thought of Greece directly linked to the philosophy of modern and contemporary Europe. As can be seen from the history of philosophy, the formation of modern European philosophy was greatly influenced by exchanges with the Islamic world in the Middle Ages and the stimulation of Chinese thought during the Age of Enlightenment.
Based on these facts, comparing the thought of various regions is an interesting task that stimulates intellectual curiosity.
For example, comparing Chinese thought, which has had a great influence on the way of thinking of Japanese people since ancient times, with Greek philosophy, is meaningful for both understanding Chinese thought and Greek philosophy.
The “philosophy” that has been nurtured in an organization called a university can be viewed as one of various types of thought and reinterpreted in a broader context. Accordingly, this speculation itself can also be renamed as “philosophy.”
Chinese thought that has a tendency different from Greek philosophy
I am often asked how philosophy and thought are different. As I mentioned earlier, “philosophy” has a specific tradition and historical background in which ways of thinking have been systematized and molded into a certain pattern. The word “thought” is relatively free from that context, but it does not mean there’s no pattern in thoughts. Each culture has its distinctive pattern of thinking. However, such ways of thinking have not always been called “philosophy,” so they are collectively called “thought” for convenience.
We must be careful not to fall into such a cultural essentialism as to judge unilaterally what Greek, Chinese, or Japanese thought is like, and so on. However, we may be able to discern core aspects.
So what was Greek philosophy like? In the first place, it was the intellectual activity of people exploring the nature of things, or principles that made them so. In other words, it had an aspect similar to today’s natural sciences.
Applying such a point of view to human beings, Socrates began to explore the nature of human beings, and what it meant for them to live a good life.
This exploration required dialogue, and through the accumulation of discussions on questions about how people should be, a dialectic was created to reach the truth. In addition, logic such as syllogism developed.
Philosophy that originated in Greece spread mainly in Europe, while thought that originated in China spread to the neighboring regions in Asia.
For example, many people in Japan have learned about Confucius and Confucianism at school. Japan has also been greatly influenced by Chinese thought.
Just as Confucius preached how people should be based on the concept of “humaneness,” Confucianism, which developed from the ideas of Confucius, was thought on how people should live a good life, just like philosophy that originated in Greece.
The difference is that Greek philosophy had a marked tendency to explore the essence of human beings, while Chinese thought turned to political and moral questions. In other words, while the Greek way was to think about how people should live based on thinking about what human beings are in the first place, Chinese thought focused on ideal human beings in relation to society and other people, instead of trying to unambiguously identify what human beings are.
Greece then developed dialectic, which is a demonstrative argument. On the other hand, some say that China developed rhetoric, a form of argument aimed at convincing others.
Of course, logic is also required to convince people. Regarding the exploration of how human beings should be as a question in a society where they live on a daily basis, however, logic is not always given top priority, and various factors in the real world can be involved.
Therefore, a certain moral point of view and its relation to politics were also discussed. As no absolute solution could be found, the persuasiveness of discourse might have been considered more important than rigid logic.
When China, under such a circumstance, introduced a philosophy of Greek origin taking Japan as its model at the end of the 19th century, it began to reflect on its traditional system of thought within the framework of philosophy. They then found similarities with Western philosophy in what the West calls ethics and political philosophy and discovered the strengths of Chinese thought.
Since around 1920, the term “philosophy of life” has come into common use. The Japanese word jinsei-tetsugaku (philosophy of life) is used to mean something like a celebrity’s precept, but in Chinese it means a philosophical search for human life, which is almost the same as the meaning of ethics that seeks how people should live. It became widely argued that traditional Chinese thought rivals or surpasses Western philosophy in terms of “philosophy of life.” In this way, traditional Chinese thought was connected to the tradition of “philosophy” originating from Greece.
After that, materialism became dominant on the Chinese continent ruled by the Communist Party, and those who opposed it escaped from China and went to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States.
However, in the 1980s, partly due to the failure of the Cultural Revolution, some people in mainland China became critical of materialism and began to reflect on the ideas of thinkers and intellectuals who had left China.
I think this has led to a movement to re-appreciate the idea in the era of the Republic of China that defined the strongest point of Chinese thought, especially of Confucianism, as “philosophy of life.”
Philosophical exploration is the exclusive privilege of humans
How people should be and what living a good life means have been considered at a philosophical level not only in Greece and China, but also in various parts of the world.
They have not developed in a closed manner in each region, but they have uniquely developed in accordance with the historical climate of each region while influenced by and influencing the thought of other regions.
Thinking about ethics of our own society or learning the thought of other societies leads to thinking about society’s history and tradition. In other words, such thinking leads us to who we are, and further, what it means to be human.
It tends to be considered in the real world that such thinking and philosophy are unhelpful. Actually, in a society where one faces problems to be dealt with immediately on a daily basis, and one has to choose one from among several options, it is more practical to learn how to deal with it and how to choose one swiftly.
Philosophy considers, for example, “what is the premise for the available option,” and “if the premise is broken, such and such options can be considered.” This may make it difficult to respond quickly and realistically.
But if we can step back from reality, we may be able to increase the possible ways that are ready to hand when we have to make a choice or deal with a new problem.
Rather than expecting such a benefit, I think it is also fun to think about things through a worldview somewhat different from our daily life.
It can be said that people are not only living under the laws of nature like animals, but also living in a humane way through cultural and creative activities. In that sense, it is probably only the privilege of humans to think about what it means to live a good life.
With that in mind, why don’t you read a philosophy book? If it is difficult to read the original book from the beginning, it is good to start with an introductory book.
If you first try to bury yourself in the world of, for example, the Analects, without trying to draw out something useful, you are very likely to find something surprising.
* The information contained herein is current as of September 2021.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.
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