Prof. Carine Defoort
Professor of Sinology at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven)
Carine Defoort is Professor of Sinology at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium. She received an M.A. in Sinology (1983) and in Philosophy (1993) from KU Leuven, an M.A. in Philosophy (1990) from the University of Hawaii (USA), and a Ph.D. in Sinology (1993) from KU Leuven. She also studied Chinese philosophy at National Taiwan University (1984–86). She is the editor of Contemporary Chinese Thought (Taylor & Francis, since 1997) and corresponding editor for Europe of China Review International (University of Hawaii, since 1994).
Her primary field of interest is early Chinese thought. Her doctoral dissertation on the Heguanzi (Pheasant Cap Master) was published in English (1997) and Chinese (2000). She co-edited recently The Mozi as an Evolving Text: Different Voices in Early Chinese Thought (2013), and earlier volumes on Mencius, Xunzi, and Mozi in Dutch. Her research has mainly focused on topics such as regicide, the power of naming, abdication, benefit, and the weighing metaphor. A secondary field of interest is the modern period in which early Chinese thought was interpreted, and its influence on our current understanding of the masters-texts. Research topics in this field have been debates concerning “legitimacy of Chinese philosophy,” Fu Sinian, and the modern portrayals of Mozi and Yang Zhu.
As the 23rd incumbent of the Tang Chun-I Visiting Professorship, Professor Defoort will offer a public lecture on “Methodological Reflections on the Study of Chinese Philosophy,” presenting a philosophical reading of Chinese masters that is neither constructive nor destructive, but results from an exercise in mental fasting and active oblivion. Additionally, she will offer a four-week seminar on “Modern Creation of Pre-Modern Philosophers: Mozi, Mengzi, and Yang Zhu,” tracing the historical contingency of these figures’ current portrayal. Finally, she will offer a departmental seminar on the absence of Chinese philosophy at European philosophy departments today.
Fasting the Mind, Sitting in Oblivion: Methodological Reflections on the Study of Chinese Philosophy
Research in academia has to be played according to the rules of the respective disciplines, but in philosophy these very rules should also be called into question. This is all the more so when unfamiliar topics such as ancient Chinese ideas enter the field. This lecture proposes “mental fasting” as one possible philosophical exercise. Instead of constructing or deconstructing the philosophical systems attributed to early Chinese masters, we linger at the consequences of seeing and temporarily relinquishing the historically contingent frameworks that constitute their current portrayals. Instead of leading to any new certainty, this lingering may loosen the rigidity of our own assumptions and allow novel interpretations to emerge. This exercise concerns emotions and attitudes as much as information and data.
I distinguish three interconnected layers in academic debates or research: on the top, there is contention in terms of knowledge: facts, theories, hypotheses, etc. Below that level are usually unacknowledged, but nevertheless influential, emotions. On the bottom lies an infinite realm of tenuous reality or unshaped potential. I argue that a more explicit recognition and appreciation of the two lower levels—the sensitivities that are involved as well as our overwhelming ignorance about the object of study—would benefit research in Chinese philosophy.
As an illustration of this three-layered reality—certainties, emotions, and ignorance—I analyze in detail the response of Liu Xiaogan (2015) to Esther Klein’s Zhuangzi paper (2010). My target is not these two specific scholars, but the common phenomenon in academia that they illustrate.
“Chinese Philosophy” at European Universities: A Threefold Utopia
The question of whether or not Chinese thought can be called “philosophy,” and as a result ought to be taught at Philosophy departments in the West, has hitherto failed to lead to any conclusion and even to a meaningful debate. I have argued in the past that the futility of rational arguments in this matter is related to our emotional attachment to entities that fall beyond our contrøl, such as the institutions where we are trained, and that, like a family, shape our views on a subconscious level. This lecture explores the academic institutions in Europe, which differ considerably from the Anglo-Saxon world. The case-study focuses upon the University of Leuven (Belgium) and, more specifically, on two disciplines: History and Philosophy. The History department shows that the academic exclusion of China is the result of not just a Western philosophical bias, but also of a more specifically European one. Despite differences within Europe and ongoing evolutions, I believe that this case-study lays bare the profoundly Eurocentric framework in which China (like most other non-Western) regions is being neglected.