Early Chinese Philosophy

Academic Year: 
Course Description: 

This course introduces the foundational texts of the early Chinese philosophical tradition, from its earliest known beginnings to the systematic metaphysical speculations of early empire (c. 2nd century BCE). Beginning with the Analects of Confucius, we will work through the writings that have come to comprise the early mainstream tradition, as well as those standing outside of it: the Analects of Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Guanzi, Xunzi, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Han Feizi. We will also study recently excavated manuscripts from the Guodian tomb, which have shed dramatic new light on the landscape of thought and moral practice in early China. The course ends with the Huainanzi (c. 140 BCE), an ambitious, encyclopedic treatise that offered a unifying, systematic vision of everything, from the moral and spiritual cultivation of human beings, to statecraft, to the structure and patterns of the terrestrial world and the cosmos.

Thematically, we will examine the distinctive concerns and approaches of each of these texts, particularly as they pertained to ethics and self-cultivation, the socio-political order, and the cosmos. We will address such questions as: What are the norms and patterns that should guide human life, and how do we come to know them? What are the means and ends of self-cultivation? What is virtue and how is it connected to the workings of the mind, body and emotions? We will also consider the early Chinese philosophical tradition in light of contemporary discussions of virtue ethics, alternative approaches to cognition, and the place of nonwestern philosophy in the study of philosophy.

No prior knowledge of Chinese, Chinese philosophy or Chinese history is required. Readings will consist of English translations (mainly from Hackett editions) of source texts, as well as scholarly articles. 

Learning Outcomes: 

1. To achieve an understanding of the main concepts, concerns and positions of major early and medieval Chinese thinkers.
2. To understand how and why the Chinese philosophical tradition came to acquire the distinctive features that it did, and what its particular trajectory might indicate about the formation of other philosophical traditions.
3. To develop ways in which Chinese perspectives and ideas could be brought to bear on current or historical philosophical problems and issues.
4. To develop skills in the analysis and interpretation of texts and to communicate them effectively in writing and in class discussions.


1. Participation (25%)
2. Presentations of readings + corresponding questions for discussion (10%)
3. Final paper presentation (5%)
4. Short essay (20%)
4. Long essay (40%)

1. Participation: Attendance, preparation, and active engagement in class discussions. Students may miss up to one class without penalty. Further absences should be cleared with instructor and made up with a written synopsis and critical reflection on readings.

2. Presentations of readings: Each student will select one class meetings in which to give a short presentation (10-15 minutes). These should include:
a) a statement about major points covered in the texts and their significance
b) highlighting of issues of particular interest/value in these texts
c) presentation of 2-3 questions for further discussion in class.

Please distribute a 1-2 pp handout at the beginning of the class covering the above.

3. Final paper presentations (8-10 mins.)

4. Short essay (1200-1500 words) on a topic of your choice, due on the e-learning site by 5 pm on Tuesday, Oct. 23 (hard copy due in class on Wednesday, Oct. 24). You may do a close analysis/reconstruction of a text or set of texts discussed in class, or else compare the positions of a number of texts or thinkers as responses to shared intellectual predicaments. Alternatively, your paper might try to answer an open-ended question that has come up in class, or resolve a conceptual/historical puzzle raised by your chosen text(s).

5. Long paper (2200-2500 words): Similar description as the short paper but here you are expected to go beyond the summary and reconstruction of positions articulated in the texts, and to articulate an argument that can contribute to our understanding of the texts/thinkers/views more broadly, and their larger significance. In this paper you are welcome (but not required) to engage some secondary sources as well as conduct a more fullfledged comparative analysis based on relevant issues and works you may be familiar with in western philosophy.

This is due by 5 pm on Friday, Dec. 14 (electronic submission and hard copy delivered to my department mailbox).

Successful papers will contain the following elements:
1. Clear and methodical presentation
2. Thoughtful use and analysis of relevant source material
3. Persuasive and compelling argument
4. Engagement of issues of broader conceptual/historical significance
4. Correct grammar and syntax.

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