SCPKU faculty fellow reflects on philosophy-focused transcultural collaborations

Thomas Sheehan, Stanford Professor of Religious Studies, shares with SCPKU intern Nathalie Chun his experience as a faculty fellow at the Stanford Center at Peking University (SCPKU) this summer.  His three-week academic residence at SCPKU focused on the study of phenomenology and Heidegger in China. 


My first question is: why did you choose to come to China?

Thomas Sheehan: This is my third time here in China; the previous times I’ve come to visit my son or to teach. But this time I’ve really come here to learn and interact with Chinese scholars. I’ve talked to professors and students from universities all over China and this has meant that I have established contacts with superb scholars here.


So far, what has been your general impression of the study of phenomenology and Heidegger in China?

TS: There’s been a long tradition, at least in the 20th Century, of the study of phenomenology and Heidegger. Many Chinese professors went to Germany in the 1930s to study with Heidegger and they brought back his works and translated his major works into Chinese quite early on. So there’s been a tradition that has led to a level of scholarship that is really quite good. These scholars read German, French, English and obviously Chinese and are conversant with all of the contemporary literature. The only problem is people across the Pacific don’t know about their work and that’s what I’d like to promote.


You mentioned that you have come to learn from the professors and students. What do you think has been the most interesting thing that you’ve learnt from interacting with them?

TS: The new and exciting thing for me has been to see how Chinese philosophy professors are trying to conjugate elements of Heidegger’s philosophy with Chinese tradition of Daoism for example. Heidegger himself was interested in that, and I knew about that in a vague sort of way, but its really quite alive here.


You’ve mentioned how eager you are to continue this sort of interactions; can you expand more on your plans for the future?

TS: We have some concrete plans that I hope will be realized already next year. My first is the following: a two-day video conference conducted at SCPKU between Chinese and American scholars (who will gather at Stanford). The Centre has extraordinary video facilities for conferencing, while I’ve never done this before; I think we will try to make something happen in spring of next year. Secondly there’s a conference on Phenomenology here at PKU in May that I hope to attend. And thirdly, personally, I would like to have the opportunity to teach. I’ve very happy that Tsinghua University has invited me to teach a short course next spring.


Do you think this sort of cross-cultural dialogue can be creating a new way to look at philosophy for the future? Do you think this could be the future for philosophy and academia?

TS: Speaking of philosophy, we can only profit by being in touch with Chinese scholars. How many thousands of years of tradition does China have and I myself am generally ignorant of that. My interests in Western philosophy have reached their peak and I would really like to devote my later years to this kind of cross-cultural dialogue in philosophy. I personally could only learn, and my colleagues as well.

On the broader question of inter-cultural exchange, I’m convinced that we need more soft power exchange because I’ve seen how excited Chinese youth and professors are about the opening up of China while also preserving their Chinese characteristics and traditions. I like that very much. Anything that my colleagues and I can do to learn about and contribute to a soft power exchange will only be for the better.