Philosophy undergraduates, Harisan Nasir and Ng Ling Xuan sat down for an interview with Associate Professor Franklin Perkins. They talked about philosophy, grad school, house fires, and Bruce Lee.
NYPR: What prompted you to become a philosopher?
Prof. Franklin Perkins: I was always interested in reading a lot and in ideas and so in college I double majored in English literature and philosophy and liked them both. When it came to going to graduate school, I thought about what kind of writing I most wanted to do; in terms of reading, I probably preferred to read literature over philosophy, or at least I did then. But I didn’t like writing about literature as much as I liked writing about philosophy. And I was better at philosophy too. So that decided for me about going to graduate school for philosophy. But going back further, like many philosophy students, I liked to argue, and I had very strong views about religion and politics, especially, when I was in High School. So, I would often argue with people.
I eventually became skeptical of my liking to argue, feeling that it was a bit egotistical, like just wanting to win arguments. And so I became more interested in trying to get other perspectives. That shifted my direction towards the history of philosophy first, and then toward Asian philosophy. I became less focused on winning arguments and building up a philosophical position and more on trying to look at things in different ways.
With graduate school, it was somewhat accidental. I was the first person in my family to go to college. My father is a carpenter and I just didn’t see being a professor as a realistic thing for me. Even halfway through graduate school I still couldn’t imagine that I was going to be a professor. I just thought it would be fun to go and be with a bunch of people interested in philosophy and read philosophy for a few more years, and then figure out what I wanted to do later.
NYPR: It must have been fun!
Perkins: I found it really fun. For some reason it wasn’t so busy or intense. I don’t know if that is typical for philosophy or not. I know people in other disciplines who spend all their time reading. In grad school, we worked hard, but we still had quite a bit of time. We would usually go out to a bar and talk about philosophy. To put all these people together from all around who were all really interested in philosophy was great fun.
NYPR: When did you first become interested in non-Western traditions?
Perkins: I started studying karate and jujitsu in the 8th grade, when I was 13 or 14 years old. I can’t remember if I was already interested in Asian culture, but that got me more interested in it. In middle school, I read some books on Samurai ethics as it applied to the martial arts.
NYPR: I guess that kind of influenced your Daoist philosophy. I mean, thinking about Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do, and being “like water”.
Perkins: Yeah! That and “the finger points at the moon, don’t look at the finger, look at the moon”. That led me to read more. I read the Laozi in high school. And I read the Dhammapada. I really liked Aldous Huxley at the time, particularly in my senior year of high school. He has a book called the Perennial Philosophy. It’s basically an anthology of global mysticism, divided into different aspects. He compiles quotes from the Laozi and probably from the Zhuangzi, Indian materials, particularly Vedanta, and a lot of Christian mysticism. So I was interested in that line of thinking from High School.
Doing martial arts partly influenced me to study Chinese in university. I had done Latin in high school, but I wanted to learn a language that would be more useful. I thought I’d study Japanese or Chinese, but at that time in university no one was studying Chinese, so I chose that. I was at Vanderbilt University and there was a visiting professor who taught a course in Chinese philosophy. He didn’t know Chinese or have much training in Chinese philosophy, and we used a popular but terrible translation of the Laozi (by Stephen Mitchell), but the professor was a really interesting thinker.
We read the Zhuangzi, which I love — it was my first time reading the Zhuangzi — and we read Confucius and Mencius. So I gained a little more appreciation of Confucianism. So that course had a big impact on me. My Chinese language teacher was from Taiwan. He was very old school, so all we ever did was read out loud. We never freely spoke at all. He would ask if we understood and we would just say, “yes”.
NYPR: That’s sounds so mechanical…
Perkins: Right, so I did that for four years but I still couldn’t communicate at all. I thought that my years of study would be wasted time unless I went to Asia and tried to speak the language. I happened to meet a Chinese student who told me I could probably get a job at a university in China teaching English, and so she gave me 7 envelopes addressed in Chinese. I had no idea where I was sending them, but I just put my CV in these envelopes and mailed them. I then got a job in Beijing at Foreign Affairs College (外交学院) and taught English the year after university. I loved being in China, and so I wanted to keep involved with China and Chinese culture.
NYPR: And more recently?
Perkins: There weren’t many places to study Chinese philosophy for graduate school. I would have liked to have studied it, but I didn’t think there was a good option. I was also interested in Foucault and French philosophy at the time, and so I went to Penn State, which was very strong in Continental philosophy. I then got interested in modern philosophy and was working on Descartes and Leibniz. A significant shift came through a conversation with a Hegel professor I was friends with, who said something along the lines of: “in theory it’s good that you’re interested in Chinese philosophy, but I just don’t think it would address any of the philosophical issues that I am interested in.” He was talking about his own interests, but it made me reflect on my own motivations. I was reading Descartes, examining the relationship between thinking and the thing that thinks. It was all centred on subjectivity, and Chinese philosophy had very little to say about that. If I had read Buddhist philosophy there would have been a lot on those issues, but I didn’t know enough about that at the time. And so I thought, why am I reading Chinese philosophy while working on all these issues that have no connection to it? I realised I was reading the Chinese philosophy because it helped me in thinking about how to live and it was forming my world view. Regarding my academic research, I realized that however I answered the questions I was examining, it was not going to make much difference in my life. So I decided I should switch my research to what was actually more relevant and meaningful to me. And that was the final step in turning toward Chinese philosophy.
I think the biggest change since then is that I have come to a more comparative approach within the past ten years or so. There are also practical changes, as I’ve learned to read classical Chinese well and that increased the amount of materials I could access. So there are scholarly things that changed just because I have gained more skills. But the most significant shift has been in trying to think through ways of bringing traditions into dialogue with each other.
NYPR: Has being in NTU changed things for you?
Perkins: My first year here, I was here as a visiting professor, and I was assigned to teach a class that was called Perennial Issues of Philosophy: East and West. It was suggested that I use a textbook rather than primary texts, as I had done before, but I couldn’t find a suitable comparative textbook in the time. One of my colleagues said he used an introductory textbook that had a little section on Buddhism, and then he just added extra Chinese philosophy materials for the students to read. I did that, but when I started to prepare the class I saw a major problem. The issues themselves were too skewed toward the peculiarities of Western philosophy. There was a whole chapter on free will, which was of little interest in China or India. There was a philosophy of religion chapter that was almost all concerned with proofs for the existence of God. So I ended up having to reflect on how the problems these western philosophers were talking about could be framed as a larger issues with cross-cultural relevance.
With the problem of free will, I shifted toward thinking about motivation and choice. I ended up talking about Mencius on emotions as a kind of spontaneous responsiveness. For proofs for the existence of god, I ended up talking about how things might arise in the first place. I brought in Daoist materials on things spontaneously arising from the Dao. The experience made me focus on how to frame philosophical issues so as to create a fair dialogue. To ask Chinese philosophy to address free will is not a fair dialogue. It’s not something they were interested in. But if you frame it around how we make choices or around motivation, I think Chinese views are more plausible than the belief in a radically free will. So that experience has shaped my research in a few different ways.
NYPR: If your house was on fire, which philosophy book would you save and why?
Perkins: That’s hard because the question emphasises the materiality of the books. A lot of people have books they had in grad school. They have tons of notes in them and they are really attached to them, but I don’t have much like that. On that level, taking the question literally, I might grab a ridiculous book like the Mengzi Zhengyi 孟子正义, a long commentary on Mencius that I spent every day reading for three or four months. That was my first experience truly learning to read Classical Chinese and it has lots of notes in it from that time.
If the point of the question is more like, if you were stranded on an island what book would you want to have, it would be the Zhuangzi. I think you could read it longer than almost any other book and still keep finding new things. The Complete Works of Plato would be a pretty high choice for the same reason. Another one might be Spinoza’s Ethics. It’s one of my favourite philosophy books but I no longer have that many significance questions about it. With the Zhuangzi and Plato, you could read them endlessly.
NYPR: Well, do you believe there is a genuine divide between Western and Eastern Philosophy?
Perkins: That’s a difficult question. I’ve thought about this question of cultural difference for years and I think philosophers haven’t considered it enough. The problem is that I do believe there are systematic differences in the philosophies of different cultures, that they have different world views. At the same time, you can’t get around the fact that it is not so difficult to understand these texts. There will be misunderstandings, for sure, but you can give Zhuangzi to an American undergraduate, and much of it will make sense and speak to them. So it isn’t as difficult to understand across the divide as one would expect if cultures are radically different.
There is some way in which philosophical issues should come from experience. Some become far removed from experience, so they don’t directly matter for how we live. But philosophy should be grounded in experience, and so we should be able to trace a philosophical issue back to the experience that give rise to it. Assuming humans are fairly similar in their experience, which I think is the case, that gives some ground for comparison. So in my book Heaven and Earth are not Humane, there is the idea that we have an ethical code and it seems like the natural world does not follow that moral code. That is a basic conflict, and so the question for me is how we go about thinking that conflict. In the Western context, it’s about the problem of evil and how we can maintain that God is good. In the Chinese context, it goes in different directions. So I think there is something universal or common in human experience in recognising that things don’t happen in ways that we think they should happen. Even so, I still think that at a deeper philosophical level of thinking, there will be systematic differences that make it difficult to mix ideas together. That is why I would focus on finding distinctive perspectives but rooted in some common problems.
NYPR: Speaking of common problems, you published works recently on Leibniz and The Existence of Philosophy in China. Do you think there is a trend in bridging the gap between Eastern and Western traditions?
Perkins: I think there is. In places that primarily teach undergraduates, the trend has been slowly going towards including more Asian philosophy. But amongst ranked philosophy departments that teach graduate students, there has been almost no movement in that direction. So it is a strange situation in which there are almost as many jobs as there are trained people. There are just not many places training students for the jobs. This year, though, there are already four jobs in “Non-Western” philosophy advertised at places that would train graduate students. I’m not certain it is a trend, since it only started this year, but I am hopeful.
There are some reasons for it. There has been a certain power structure that has dominated much of philosophy through ranking systems that work to narrow down what counts as serous philosophy, but for various reasons, that seems to be breaking down. Publications coming from the American Philosophical Association have been advocating more diversity in philosophy, as have various blogs. The New York Times has a philosophy column (the “Stone”) that has been very pluralistic in content, including Continental philosophy, some Asian Philosophy, and some arguments against philosophy’s exclusion of other cultures. The influential Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy decided to include specific entries within Chinese Philosophy. I wrote one on Chinese Metaphysics. All of these things have been putting pressure on the field.
NYPR: In NTU, where we have a kind of diverse curriculum, it’s quite hard to imagine a Philosophy course without Chinese Philosophy. With respect to the article by Jay Garfield, do you think the curriculum in Asia is sufficiently broad to include enough philosophical perspectives?
Perkins: It’s a little hard to say because they are much broader in terms of cultural diversity than programs in the U.S. or Europe. That was one of the reasons why I came to Singapore. My previous work was always shaped by the need to justify the existence and significance of Chinese Philosophy. I came to Singapore because I wanted to go somewhere where I could just do Chinese Philosophy without worrying about convincing other professors or students that it was worthwhile. In that way, the departments in Asia are very much ahead. But I think philosophy ultimately should be representative of the world. If I were designing curriculums, I would make them no more than half Western Philosophy, with the rest as a mix of other cultural perspectives. In that regard, I think programs in Asia are still not global enough.
NYPR: Do you find these traditions complementary or do you find difficulties in bringing these ideas together?
Perkins: There are difficulties in bringing them together. One way is to take problems of Western philosophy and show how Chinese philosophy can give a different perspective. But this will make the relevance of Chinese philosophy quite narrow. So to really bring the ideas together, you need to have a much broader sense of what the questions and problems are. And that runs against the main trend in the discipline of Philosophy, which is to get narrower and more precise on the questions. It’s remarkable that (in the U.S.) the ease with which students engage with Chinese philosophy is inversely proportionate to how much philosophy they have studied. In introductory classes, students are more interested in things like Zhuangzi and Mencius, for example. As they major in Philosophy and study more and more of Western Philosophy, they will still take a Chinese philosophy class. But as the questions in Philosophy get narrower with more philosophical training, it gets harder and harder to see how Chinese Philosophy is addressing those issues. That is the deep problem: philosophers need to be open to asking different kinds of questions.
NYPR: How do you sustain the mental stamina to engage in rigorous philosophical work?
Perkins: That’s a funny question. I have people asking me that, even professors. I write quite a lot. The truth is that I just like it. People have said that I have a lot of discipline, but I don’t. It’s just my personality. From when I was quite young, the thing I wanted to do most is to read. I have gone through my whole life having to restrain that and I make myself be more active to go out and do things. So I guess academia perfectly uses my natural tendencies. That’s lucky for me, I guess. I was joking with someone that I probably have something like Attention Excessive Disorder. I am just able to wake up and start working and work into the night. I don’t do it as much as I’ve gotten older. It’s not healthy to work all the time. Every year, my goal is to work less.
I think as an undergraduate, if you feel like you have to force yourself to do readings, then graduate school is probably not a good choice. It’s a little hard to say, since if the readings are not something you’re interested in, you might have to force yourself. That doesn’t happen for me now, since I only read the stuff that I more or less want to read, and same for writing.
NYPR: Speaking of graduate school, what advice would you give to undergraduates intending to pursue an academic career in philosophy?
Perkins: The biggest advice would be that you should only do it if you think it is worth doing even if you don’t become a professor. The market is so tight right now that there’s no guarantee that anyone can get a job as a professor. It used to be that if you got into a top-ranked graduate programme you could pretty much count on getting a job, but that is not the case now.
Even if you do get a job, you can’t usually choose where you want to work. I know a lot of people who work in places that they don’t like but they would rather be in academia than live where they want. Other people live away from their partner for years and only get to spend the summers or vacations together, because they have jobs in different places. In some cases, people become so attached to the idea of being a professor that they end up not living such good lives overall. If you can go to grad school and not obsess with the idea that the only thing you can do is be a professor, it gives you much more freedom. That’s also why I think you shouldn’t borrow much money to go into graduate school, because there’s no guarantee that you will make much money when you finish.
NYPR: For undergraduates wanting to become philosophers, what are the 5 books you think they absolutely must read?
Perkins: That’s a hard question. I think there are some that are not the most philosophically stimulating but you must absolutely have read. One such book is Descartes’ Meditations. It is a must-read, but not in the top 5 in terms of its philosophical value now. I would definitely include a good amount of Plato’s dialogues, if not the Complete Works. I would put the Zhuangzi on the list of top 5, and Heidegger’s Being and Time, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (Verses on The Middle Way). That would be five. Spinoza’s Ethics and the Mencius would also be pretty high on my list.
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