Chinese Thought by Roel Sterckx review – The TLS

The first translation into a European language of the sayings of Confucius (the Analects), bore the title Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, “Confucius, the Chinese Philosopher” (1687). The Jesuits who translated this book were not the only ones who regarded it as obvious that there is philosophy in China. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz exclaimed, “Certainly [the Chinese] surpass us (though it is almost shameful to confess this) in practical philosophy, that is, in the precepts of ethics and politics adapted to the present life and the use of mortals”, as Franklin Perkins quotes him in Leibniz and China: A commerce of light. Another major figure of the German Enlightenment, Christian Wolff (1679–1754), caused quite a scandal by arguing that Confucius illustrates that it is possible to have ethics without a belief in God. In France, one of the advisers to the court of Louis XV, François Quesnay (1694–1774), took inspiration from Chinese accounts of how the sage-king Shun “ruled by non-action” in formulating the doctrine of laissez-faire.

However, 200 years later it is almost impossible to study Chinese philosophy in any undergraduate or graduate philosophy department in Europe or the anglophone world. Mainstream philosophers today assume that there simply never was any indigenous Chinese philosophy, or if there was it was never anything more than “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie”, as the late US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said with disgust, when a majority opinion had the poor taste to cite Confucius. What led to this change?
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