Practically from their earliest contact with the Orient, Western philosophers have had little understanding of the philosophical traditions of China. In fact their common view was and still is in many places, that all ancient Chinese writing and traditions are not philosophy, but religion or some form of mysticism.
Apart from anything else the strangest thing about this view is, that in all three of the major Chinese philosophies;
there is no God, which is viewed as essential in the traditional western understanding of, and a prerequisite to be, a religion. So while the West has often pointed to China as the great atheist nation they have at the same time tended to lump the huge body of ethical and metaphysical discussion, which goes back at least 4,000 years, into the same basket as mysticism and strange religions.
There is No Homogeneous School of Eastern or Western Philosophy
It is totally inappropriate to talk about Eastern or Western Philosophy as though either one were a homogeneous body of thought. Western Philosophy has many, diverse and assorted streams of Philosophy and so it is with Chinese and Asian Philosophies as well.
What is Philosophy?
So what is philosophy? While philosophers love to debate this question, roughly speaking, philosophy is basically the critical discussion of ethical and metaphysical questions. And generally it is broken down into two major themes: ethics and metaphysics. One deals with the nature of reality and the other deals with how to live.
Philosophy is the skill of articulating views on these particular questions.
But there is more to it than that.
Philosophy involves not just an expression of such a view, but also asking yourself whether that view is right or not? What are the alternatives? Why should I prefer my particular view to the alternatives?
Thus critical discussion plays an integral role in philosophy. And the question for this article is “Does Asian philosophy and Chinese philosophy in particular, satisfy this criteria?”
I believe you cannot read Indian texts or Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist and Confucian teachings and not find the articulation of world views. All these schools of thought deal with ethics and the metaphysical while some are more skewered one way rather than the other, for example Confucius was more concerned with ethical issues while Lau Tzu, who wrote the Tao de Ching, was more interested in the metaphysical issues.
Where you do see a difference and therefore why some Western philosophers point to Eastern philosophy and say “Well, this isn’t really philosophy” is because you don’t find much critical appraisal in the Eastern tradition or at least not in the same style as you do in Western philosophy.
However, I believe that a large part of this conception was due to the fact that, for much of the time since we “discovered” these countries, we have not had access to their traditional literature because so little of it had been translated into English and other European languages. But if you could read Sanskrit you would find you cannot read good texts of Indian philosophy without seeing a lot of critical debates.
There are many schools of Indian philosophy, and for several hundreds, if not thousands of years, they were arguing against each other with very sophisticated philosophical arguments. You’ve only got to read the text to see that.
The Great Divide Between Eastern and Western Philosophy
China is a bit more difficult. That’s because typically Chinese philosophy is written in a different way. In fact if there is a divide between world philosophies, it’s not in the Euphrates (separating Asia from Europe, the river originates in Turkey and ends in the Persian Gulf), it’s in the Himalayas.
Once you get over differences of style, Indian philosophy is written very much like Western philosophy.
Not so Chinese philosophy. The arguments are put in a different way. Often they proceed by analogy, so you’ll get someone arguing for a position in Chinese philosophy by giving you examples, analogies and metaphors.
These are things that you do find in Western philosophy as well, they are a perfectly well recognised form of argument, but you get a lot more of them in Chinese philosophy than you do in Western philosophy.
But any student of Ancient Chinese philosophers will soon see that these guys do argue with each other. There are many famous debates between the different schools of neo-Confucianism, between the Taoists and the Confucians, and so on.
If you would like to read more about the type of debate that went on in Ancient China, I recommend my article Confucius on Moral Action and Human Nature which looks at the debate and contra philosophical arguments that went on over hundreds of years as the Chinese philosophers developed their philosophy of moral action and human nature.