25 August 2017: Philosopher and public intellectual named the second Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor

By Yip Jie Ying | Image by Jessica Sam

Renowned philosopher and public intellectual Bryan Van Norden has recently been named the Visiting Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor at Yale-NUS College. The Professorship is supported by the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, one of the College’s Founding Benefactors.

“I am deeply honoured to take up the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professorship. The temple has long been known for its commitment to the community, which is very much in the spirit of its namesake, Guan Yin (Kwan Im), the Bodhisattva of compassion”, says Professor Van Norden, who currently teaches in the Division of Humanities.

While in college, Professor Van Norden studied Chinese language while majoring in philosophy, with the intention of applying to law school after graduation. He did so well in his philosophy courses that his professors encouraged him to instead pursue a doctorate in philosophy, although it was alongside comments that there was no such thing as Chinese philosophy. To prove them wrong, Professor Van Norden entered graduate school with the specific purpose of specialising in Chinese philosophy and he has not looked back since.

Professor Van Norden’s research interest is well in line with the College’s curriculum model, combining the best of the East and West.

“In my teaching and research, I try to bring Chinese and Western philosophy into dialogue. The benefits of this dialogue undeniably flow both ways. Greater familiarity with Western philosophy allows students of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism to appreciate more clearly the distinctiveness of the Chinese tradition. At the same time, Chinese philosophy offers challenging and original views on topics such as personal identity, ethical cultivation and the nature of knowledge, all of which can enrich Western philosophy,” shared Professor Van Norden.

An active public intellectual, Professor Van Norden has published a number of award-winning articles on American politics and international relations. “My interest in comparative philosophy and my engagement as a public intellectual intersect in my latest book, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, in which I argue that Western philosophy departments are indefensibly narrow for ignoring philosophy in the East Asian, South Asian, African, Islamic and Indigenous American traditions. As I argue in the book, the ethnocentrism that leads US philosophy departments to assume that all philosophy begins with the Greeks is intimately related to the unfortunate racism and nationalism that we increasingly see in politics around the world,” he elaborated.

To date, Professor Van Norden has taught for more than 20 years at Vassar College in the United States. “It is a great school, but I am the only philosopher there who researches or teaches philosophy outside the Anglo-European mainstream,” he said, adding that “Yale-NUS is distinctive for its multicultural approach to education. I expect to learn a great deal from my colleagues, especially about Indian philosophy.”

Having recently moved to Singapore, Professor Van Norden is grateful for the myriad experiences he has had throughout his life, particularly as he now settles into a new environment. “I was born in a town in Pennsylvania with a population of around 10,000 and am now a professor in a city of over five million on the other side of the world. I feel very blessed to have had so many wonderful opportunities and experiences,” he reflected.

This semester, Professor Van Norden will be part of the teaching team for Philosophy and Political Thought, which forms part of the College’s Common Curriculum. Next semester, he will be conducting a course on Neo-Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism.