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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).

Professor Jonathan C. Gold

Professor Hagop Sarkissian

Verena Meyer

Meeting dates and locations are subject to change. Please confirm details with the seminar rapporteur.

Meeting Schedule

09/20/2019 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University
5:30 PM
Justin Tiwald, San Francisco State University


This paper is on the topic of deliberative autonomy in (primarily) post-classical Chinese moral epistemology. By “deliberative autonomy,” I mean the epistemic state or achievement in which one’s ethical views or beliefs are those that seem right to oneself and are based on reasons or considerations that one understands for oneself. This is to be contrasted with holding a view or belief based primarily on the authority or expertise of others, without seeing for oneself that the view is correct or why it is correct.
The Chinese philosophical tradition is rich in discussion of the nature, value, and function of deliberative autonomy, having much to say both in its defense and against it. I will focus my discussion by looking more closely at what Neo-Confucians have said about a particular term of art, zide 自得 (“getting it oneself”). I translate and discuss some passages on “getting it oneself” in the works and recorded lessons of influential Song, Ming, and Qing Confucians, note different types of deliberative autonomy implied by these passages, and discuss Wm. Theodore de Bary’s famous explication of “getting it oneself.” I consider whether the premium these Confucians placed on zide has the implications for liberal education that de Bary proposes and describe how proponents of zide could respond to formidable and important Xunzian arguments for deference to traditions and expertise.

Respondent: Katja Vogt, Columbia University

10/11/2019 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University
5:30 PM
Richard Kim, Loyola University, Chicago


The philosophical and psychological literature on well-being tend to focus on the prudential value of positive emotions such as pleasure, joy, or gratitude. But how do the negative emotions such as grief fit into our understanding of well-being? It is often assumed that negative emotions are intrinsically bad far us and that we should work toward eliminating them, especially from the perspective of our own well-being.

In this presentation I want to question this assumption by drawing on the ideas of Zhuangzi (a prominent early Daoist thinker from the 4th Century BCE) to argue that negative emotions are not intrinsically bad for us, and that their prudential value or disvalue is context dependent. Zhuangzi's outlook, with his focus on the flexibility of perspectives and living according to our natural, spontaneous inclinations, gives us reason to reconsider the role of negative emotions in our lives and how we might think about them in a more constructive way.

Respondent: Christopher Gowans, Fordham University

11/08/2019 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University
5:30 PM
Sungmoon Kim, City University of Hong Kong


Recently, a group of scholars has challenged the moral legitimacy of Confucian democracy from a liberal philosophical standpoint. According to these scholars, including political liberals and moderate perfectionists, any attempt to create a Confucian democratic theory inevitably confronts a dilemma—let us call this the pluralism dilemma—with the following two horns: (a) a free society is characterized by the plurality of mutually incompatible, often conflicting, moral, philosophical, and religious doctrines that guide an individual’s conception of the good life and a truly democratic theory is required to accommodate as many reasonable conceptions of the good and comprehensive doctrines as possible and (b) a Confucian democratic theory gives a privileged normative standing to Confucianism over other competing comprehensive doctrines. This paper defends Confucian democracy against this pluralism challenge by articulating its political purpose and constitutional structure, which are commonly dismissed in the critics’ analytical frameworks.

Respondent: Omar Dahbour, Hunter College & the Graduate Center, CUNY

12/06/2019 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University
5:30 PM
The Immortal Spirit in Classical Chinese Aesthetic
Paul R. Goldin, University of Pennsylvania


This will be the third (and, time permitting, some material from the fourth) of a series of lectures that I aim to write up formally as a book. We will begin with a brief review of the most familiar theory of Chinese aesthetics: works of art are the products of sensitive human beings who cannot suppress their sincere responses to emotional stimuli. If art is understood as a sincere statement of this kind by a great genius, it stands to reason that, by correctly interpreting the work, one can communicate with that genius's mind (xin 心) even after his or her death--and, likewise, that an artist today can communicate with audiences yet unborn. Art is thus timeless and offers the possibility of incorporeal immortality. If there is extra time, I will also survey two interrelated phenomena that I call meta-criticism and meta-writing (since there are no technical terms for them in Chinese). Meta-criticism, i.e. criticism of criticism, is a major feature of Chinese theories about art. Meta-criticism must be related to meta-writing, or the practice of writing about writing while exemplifying the very styles and techniques that one recommends: for example, artfully rhyming a couplet about rhyming.

Respondent: Sandra Shapshay, Hunter College, CUNY

01/24/2020 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University
5:30 PM
Dependence, Autonomy, and the Varieties of Relationship
Aaron Stalnaker, Indiana University


This talk places master-student relations in the context of Confucian social theory, focusing on issues of obedience, remonstration, and respect for different sorts of authorities. I survey early Confucian accounts of the good society centered on role relations, personal development, and flourishing, both individual and communal. I then examine the question of autonomy within these relationships, looking closely at remonstration, obedience, and disobedience. The talk concludes with a broader discussion of human dependence, placing Confucian conceptions in dialogue with Eva Feder Kittay, Martha Fineman, and Alasdair MacIntyre. All three, like the Confucians, see dependency relations as central to human life and the problems of politics, in sharp contrast to most liberal views that imagine a social contract between autonomous, free, and equal individuals. Confucians view extreme dependence as a special case of the pervasive interdependence of all human beings on each other, with family relations serving in many respects as the model for other relations.

Despite contemporary American resistance to dependence as servile (and thus incompatible with freedom and autonomy), dysfunctional, or lazy, it is an essential condition of human life. None of us could flourish or even survive without care, assistance, and cooperation from others, especially in childhood and old age but also throughout the whole lifespan. As these Confucians argue, dependence on other people is socially and individually good: it satisfies our strong desires for connection to others, as well as many of our other desires, through the practices supported and wealth produced and distributed through efficient, just social cooperation.

Furthermore, despite contemporary American suspicions to the contrary, deference to experts and even to other social authorities is often good. In the case of students, it provides the most effective path to cultivating one’s own autonomy. And general social deference smooths social relations and helps society function, as long as people perform their role-specific duties well. Early Rú accounts of the varieties of authority, as well as the ritual propriety appropriate to different sorts of hierarchically ordered relations, help us to see that deference is quite different from objectionable obsequiousness or lack of judgment.

Respondent: Timothy Connolly, East Stroudsburg University

02/28/2020 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University
5:30 PM
What Kind of an Illusion is the Illusion of Self?
Karsten Struhl, John Jay College, CUNY


To extinguish dukkha requires that we be able to extinguish the illusion of self. For that reason both early and later forms of Buddhism developed a set of arguments to demonstrate that the idea of the self is an illusion. I will begin this talk with a brief review of some of the arguments, but I will then proceed to show that these arguments are not themselves sufficient to dispel the illusion. Even if we find the arguments convincing, the illusion of self does not disappear, because it does not exist only or even primarily on the cognitive level; at its core, it is more like an optical illusion or a mirage than a belief.

An illusion is not something which does not exist but is something which is not what it appears to be. As recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology demonstrate, what exists is not a self but what Thomas Metzinger has called the “phenomenal self model,” a model that is the result of unconscious and multiple brain processes (there is no center of the brain which produces them), a model which creates a feeling of “mineness” and a sense of being a unified and coherent agent. These brain processes have evolved, because they serve a useful and necessary purpose – to make it possible for the human organism to navigate physical and social reality. The first implication of this is that extinguishing the illusion of self requires a special kind of meditative practice – e.g., vipassana. The second is that while it is possible to dispel the illusion through careful attention, the illusion reappears as soon as the meditative attention is no longer operative. As a corollary of the second implication, I want to argue that even enlightened individuals, insofar as they must continue to interact with others and take account of physical reality, must oscillate between a no-self perspective and a phenomenal self perspective.

Respondent: Kin Cheung, Moravian College

03/27/2020 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University
5:30 PM
meeting cancelled

05/01/2020 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University
5:30 PM

Sin yee Chan, University of Vermont