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The Comparative Philosophy Seminar seeks to advance constructive philosophical projects by bringing together scholars with training in diverse areas of Asian (mostly Buddhist) thought and Western Philosophy. Comparison in this context is not employed to loan authority to one set of obscure discoveries by revealing its resonances with the works of others, deemed less obscure. Nor does it sociologize philosophy in search of general laws of human cultural and intellectual development. Rather, the intent is to explicate, and employ, the fullness of an expanded philosophical toolset—and see how that works. The seminar ordinarily invites respondents who are versed in the relevant field of philosophical inquiry, but who are not necessarily specialists in Asian thought. In order to facilitate an ongoing conversation, seminar meetings for a given year are loosely organized around a very general theme, which speakers are asked to address when possible. In past years, the themes have been “Personal Identity” (2007–2008) and “Meta-Ethics” (2008–2009).

Allison Aitken

Jonathan C. Gold

Hagop Sarkissian

Cole Fishman

Meeting Schedule

09/15/2023 716 Philosophy Hall, Columbia University
5:00 PM
War and Shame –A Debate on the Appropriate Response to Insults between the Confucians and their Interlocutors
Jing Hu, Concordia University, Canada
Speaker Link Abstract


What is an appropriate response to humiliating treatments such as insults? This question is not only relevant to today’s discourse but has also piqued the curiosity of thinkers in classical Chinese philosophy. The Warring States period debate regarding whether one’s inner sense of shame can shield one from insulting situations and from experiencing shame is frequently presented as a one-sided narrative that focuses on the Confucian texts. Meanwhile, the views of their rival thinkers, such as the Daoist, legalist, or much-neglected Songzi (3rd century BCE), are rarely the focus of attention. This paper brings Songzi, a key player in the debate of emotions as responses to external triggers, into the picture and restores the historical intellectual discourse over the topic of what constitutes an appropriate response to humiliating situations such as insults. More importantly, I point out the philosophical significance of this debate, namely how Songzi prompts Xunzi to respond to an ambiguity within the Confucian doctrine: The early Confucians appear to think that an individual’s internal virtues can isolate and shield one from hostile external stimuli while also maintaining that the external environment impacts one’s moral cultivation and moral life in significant ways. Xunzi’s strategic move, I argue, is to give credit to both an inner sense of shame and the function of external stimuli in inducing negative emotions, thus making an important philosophical concession compared to Confucius and Mencius.

Respondent: Nalei Chen, New York University

10/13/2023 716 Philosophy Hall, Columbia University
5:30 PM
Buddhist Analyses of the Unconscious Construction of our Collective ‘Life-Worlds’
William Waldron , Middlebury College
Speaker Link Abstract


Yogācāra Buddhists articulated in the 3-5th c. CE India an explicit model of how we collectively, yet mostly unconsciously, construct our shared social realities, our cultures. These “worlds” are supported by cognitive processes informed by cultural influences occurring outside our conscious awareness, in the “store-house consciousness” (ālaya-vijñāna). Through development and socialization, we come to identify with these cultural norms, thinking “I am this” and “this is mine.” Moreover, and in agreement with cognitive scientists, Yogācārins argue that humans have developed to be “innate essentialists,” so that we imagine that our constructed social and cultural identities have their own essential, intrinsic characteristics, set apart from all others, generating the “us/them” dichotomies that underlie conflicts between groups. We can counteract these harmful patterns, Yogācārins say, by analyzing how our social and cultural “realities” are collectively constructed, and by showing how—through logical, psychological, and contemplative exercises—we may weaken our unreflective, knee-jerk reaction to different peoples and cultures, and thereby foster more tolerance, empathy and understanding for all beings. In sum, Yogācāra Buddhism offers a rigorous and nuanced analysis of the origins of our prejudices and a set of methods to overcome them, rooted in ancient traditions yet relevant to contemporary issues.

Respondent: Jonathan Gold, Princeton University

5:00 PM

David Wong, Duke University
Speaker Link

5:00 PM

Stephen Angle, Wesleyan University
Speaker Link