A Conversation with Hiu Chuk Winnie Sung

In October 2021, Will Cailes, Thomas Spiteri, Jack Hawke and Jessica Sophia Ralph interviewed Hiu Chuk Winnie Sung for UPJA’s Conversations from the Region. A series of discussions that invites philosophers from or based in Australasia to share their student and academic experiences. The segment looks into what inspires people to study philosophy, how they pursue their philosophical interests, and gives our audiences a better idea of philosophy as an undergraduate.

Will Cailes: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Winnie. To start, perhaps you could introduce yourself: what are your philosophical interests? What are you working on at the moment?

I am an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Nanyang Technological University. I am interested in early Confucian thought and philosophy of mind. With regard to early Confucian thought, my main focus has always been on pre-Qin Confucian Xunzi’s thought. In the past 15 years or so, I have been trying to understand and explicate the text Xunzi. My articles on Xunzi are all connected, and they are hopefully leading up to a plausible interpretation of Xunzi’s views on human nature, moral agency, and moral knowledge. 

I am also interested in early Confucian moral psychology, in particular the early Confucian conceptions of certain emotional states. In recent years, I have been exploring topics such as the heart/mind “that is unable to bear to harm others” (loosely translated as “sympathy”), “yuan” (loosely translated as “resentment”), “giving others one’s most informed and honest advice” (loosely translated as “loyalty”), and “appearance-only hypocrisy.” These projects are smaller stand-alone projects. They are meant to shed light on certain psychological phenomena that we all experience, or can at least relate to in our everyday lives, but are not so much the focus of contemporary analytic philosophy. Having worked on a few topics, I started to vaguely see a pattern emerging from the early Confucian discussions of these psychological states. So, I might eventually bring these topics together and tease out certain central ethical concerns in early Confucian thought. 

With regard to philosophy of mind, I am interested in self-knowledge and how our capacity as self-conscious rational agents is related to self-knowledge. Unlike those who adopt the standard transparency account, I worry that it is precisely because we are self-conscious rational agents that we might not have knowledge of our own beliefs. 

Will Cailes: What initially drew you to study philosophy?

For my undergraduate studies, I was first enrolled in the International Relations specialist program. The program required students to take some philosophy courses. I didn’t have a good idea what Philosophy courses were about. After my first philosophy courses, I realised that many of the questions studied in Philosophy were the questions I had been asking myself. The activity of philosophising is one that I very much identify and feel familiar with. 

Will Cailes: What was the philosophical culture like as a student in Canada? Tell us about your most memorable class – has anything changed since then?

I was studying Philosophy at the University of Toronto in the early 2000s. UofT’s undergraduate programme was huge; the Philosophy department was huge. I was a young international undergraduate student. I just attended classes, completed assignments, and graduated. I was often one of the very few, if not the only, Chinese student in a given philosophy class. I never talked to any other Philosophy undergraduates.

An undergraduate Winnie in front of her college: Innis College, University of Toronto, (Toronto, Canada 2006)

My friends were all from Hong Kong and Taiwan who were enrolled in other programs. So I am not able to comment on the philosophical culture, as I wasn’t really part of it. When I attended the convocation, I didn’t know a single person in my program. At that time, I took it for granted. I just assumed that Caucasians wouldn’t talk to someone like me, who is a “fresh off the boat”, not a Canadian-born Chinese. I wasn’t thinking anything about race or culture at that time. I just thought it’s because English was my second language and it’s my problem that my English is not native level. It’s only till recent years I started reflecting on this experience and feel sad about it. I was too young at that time and didn’t know what a rewarding undergraduate experience was supposed to be like.

There are three classes that are very memorable. Professor Vincent Shen’s Introduction to Chinese Philosophy opened the door to Chinese Philosophy for me. It quite significantly changed my study and career plans. Professor Thomas Hurka’s class on normative ethics was also important to me. He discussed the core topics in normative ethics in an extremely engaging way. There weren’t any handouts or PowerPoints in that class, but I still remember a lot of the things he said and even the questions from students. Professor David Dyzenhaus’s class made an impact on my teaching. Although I didn’t go on to study more philosophy of law, Professor Dyzenhaus’s style of philosophizing with students in class was memorable. The pace of the course feels quite slow. He would often pause to think. But we also got a lot covered in the courses and I learnt about many interesting legal cases. 

Thomas Spiteri: As an undergraduate, what perception did you have of philosophy as a field, and what did you most struggle with? Do you have any advice for students?

When I was an undergraduate, I realised Philosophy is a very diverse field. UofT offered a wide range of courses for undergraduates to take. The program I took provided a lot of flexibility, and there weren’t many specific required courses that I had to take. So I filled out the credit requirements with courses that I thought I was most interested in: Chinese Philosophy, ethics, and philosophy of law. In hindsight, I wish I had taken other courses like Philosophy of Mind, Epistemology, and Metaphysics. I think it is important for undergraduate students to get a sense of philosophy’s breadth and take a variety of courses from different sub-disciplines. 

Academically, I think I struggled the most with writing. English is not my first language. And philosophical writing is so different from writing essays for other courses. In the beginning when I received low grades, I did not know whether the problem was with my English, or with my philosophical writing, or both. So whenever there was an essay due, I was too busy worrying about my English instead of thinking carefully about the philosophical question. I wish I could re-write all these undergraduate essays now. My own voice wasn’t really there in these essays. I was too focused on the language bit. If I could go back in time, I would be bolder and just express my view, and then come back and tidy up the language. I would advise the same for students in English-language institutions whose native language is not English. When working on an essay, it might help to first focus on thinking about and addressing the philosophical problems instead of worrying about the quality of my writing. 

Graduation day, University of Toronto 2006

Thomas Spiteri: You have completed PhDs in two philosophical traditions — Chinese Philosophy at The University of New South Wales and Analytical Philosophy at University College London — that are often treated as being distinct. There are two questions we have related to this. First, how did you find the transition between the two traditions? And do you find that these traditions are as distinct as they are generally perceived to be?

The transition between these two traditions was very difficult for me. I wanted to do a second PhD in analytic philosophy because I wanted to integrate the two traditions in the long run. I am not trying to compare two philosophical traditions and say what similarities or differences they have. Instead, I am interested in analyzing philosophical questions and I believe that there are many insights from Chinese philosophy that can be integrated into a philosophically rigorous discussion.

I thought that I needed to have a deeper understanding of analytic philosophy before I could meaningfully bring the two traditions together. I needed to understand what problems gripped analytic philosophers, how they approached the problems, what gaps there are in the existing literature, what’s not mentioned etc. When I began my studies at UCL, I decided to bracket everything I studied in Chinese Philosophy and start afresh. I did not like imposing analytic philosophical frameworks on Chinese philosophical frameworks. So I thought I also should not impose Chinese philosophical frameworks on analytic philosophical frameworks. 

Taken in Sydney, Australia, 2006, during her first PhD

As it turned out, I found that these two frameworks are able to operate completely independently. I did not need Chinese Philosophy to understand analytic philosophy, and vice versa. There are some deep structural differences between their fundamental conceptual frameworks. This does not mean that there’s no hope for integrating the two traditions. Both frameworks, after all, have similar concerns and are used to address similar problems. Still, what this means is that good integrative studies are extremely challenging and requires quite solid and systematic training. 

I sometimes like to think of it as bringing Western Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine together. They are quite distinct. Even for some basic terms such as “liver”, “kidneys”, they mean quite different things in different traditions. But they both seek to treat the same problems. If a patient describes certain symptoms that she is experiencing, practitioners in both traditions can at least recognize and understand the patient and can also relate one symptom to a cluster of other symptoms. Chinese chemist Tu Youyou, for example studied the sweet wormwood that was used for thousands of years in China to treat fever. She eventually managed to isolate an active compound in the sweet wormwood extracts to treat malaria. What I hope to do in comparative studies is similar in some sense. I am looking for my “sweet wormwood.” Certain prominent ideas that have been discussed for thousands of years in Chinese Philosophy give me a direction. They point me in a certain direction where I can analyze more and hopefully, I can use the analytic method to extract some substantial philosophical insight from these ideas and then use it to address or fill in some gaps in existing philosophical discussion. 

Thomas Spiteri: Building upon this, some people in the analytical tradition believe that areas like Chinese philosophy and Indian philosophy should be considered part of regional, religious, or ethnic studies, because they are not ‘logical’ or rigorous enough. What do you think of such views?

This goes back to my earlier point about some deep structural differences between different philosophical frameworks. It is difficult to match concepts when these concepts arise from radically different linguistic, social, cultural, and religious backgrounds. If the term “Philosophy” is reserved for certain commonly accepted ways of studying certain problems in an academic discipline, then traditional Chinese Philosophy might not fit the description of “Philosophy” because that discipline did not exist in China until the 19th century. But similarly, if we were to present analytic philosophy to, say, Zhu Xi, he also might not consider analytic philosophy as what he called li xue理學 in his academy. My guess is that analytic philosophers won’t be too bothered that their studies won’t count as li xue. What matters is the philosophical problems being raised and addressed. Chinese Philosophy from ancient to pre-Qing China was developed in its own soil. It might not fit our modern institutionalised understanding of philosophy as an academic discipline. But it does not mean that ideas from other traditions that adopt different conceptual frameworks cannot make a significant contribution to philosophy. These thinkers dealt with similar human experiences, concerns, and problems. They were theorising about them and offering their own solutions to them. We can continue, in the discipline of Philosophy, to study these thinkers’ ideas and develop the insights that are still relevant to us today.

Jack Hawke: “溫良恭儉讓” —  temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous — are values from the Analects which have been taught as attributes of the ideal gentleman (“君子“) in classical Chinese education. However, this phrase now has a negative connotation meaning uncritical or uncombative. For example, Mao famously said that ‘Revolution is not a dinner party…it cannot be so ‘溫良恭儉讓’.” Similarly, Taiwan’s former president Ma Ying-jeou had been criticised as too “溫良恭儉讓” as to have weakened the standing of his own government. In light of this example, there appears to be a disconnect between the historical and contemporary understandings of Confucian philosophy. Why do you think this has occurred and what are the ramifications for studying Chinese philosophy and Chinese culture?

溫良恭儉讓 are five very complex concepts in Confucian thought. Each one of these will probably take up a whole book for us to trace the connotations, its usages in other texts, the philosophical implications, different Confucians’ views on it and its importance. But once these five concepts were summarised and passed down in a slogan form, it is too easy for people to interpret the way they want to and understand them in a superficial sense. And I think this is not a problem unique to Chinese philosophical traditions. In any tradition, there must be some disconnect between the historical and contemporary understandings. When ideas are passed down in words, they open room for interpretation. Even a law that was passed a year ago might be interpreted differently by different people. It is important to have a group of experts who devote their time and effort to attending closely to the texts and trying to understand these texts as faithfully as possible and passing their findings down to later generations so that the later generations can on one hand preserve the intellectual tradition and on the other develop the good insights. It is worrisome when a community no longer knows who the experts are. This makes it even harder for lay people to identify which interpretations are straying too much from the original meaning. 

Jack Hawke: Hong Kong has a reputation for having a thriving philosophy scene in the Chinese-speaking world, and for being one of the great places to study philosophy in both English and Chinese. Considering current political developments, there have been worries that Hong Kong is becoming a less open environment for academic research and study, especially for a discipline like philosophy where intellectual freedom is regarded as of paramount importance. What are your thoughts on this?

I am not sure if I am in a position to answer because I left Hong Kong when I was a teenager. I have only been following news from the outside. Perhaps I can talk about two brief academic experiences I had in Hong Kong. I was an exchange student for two semesters in 2007 and a research assistant professor for one semester in 2011. Both visits were at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The impact of two visits were monumental on my academic life. I had never had such rigorous and frequent discussions about Chinese philosophy with so many people in one institution. There were many academic visitors passing by for talks, workshops, guest lecturers, and conferences. 

The CUHK department and the New Asia College have a strong sense of heritage and piety. The scholars and students there saw it as their duty to understand the texts as faithfully as possible and preserve the tradition. The New Asia College of CUHK was founded in 1949 by a group of scholars who wanted to preserve traditional Chinese culture. They fled to Hong Kong because they needed a space that would allow them to maintain intellectual honesty and integrity, which is essential to research. I hope that that space they found and carved out for others will never shrink, only expand. 

Jack Hawke: What are your hopes for the future of philosophy and philosophers’ work?

I personally hope to see more systematic work. I think the pressure to publish has incentivized many smaller, stand-alone papers. I hope that universities will understand that good philosophical research takes time. I hope the field can be more patient with philosophers and give them more time to brood over their ideas and build their systems. I also hope to see more genuine attempts to learn from and engage with different philosophical traditions.

Jack Hawke: Why do you think there is still a high degree of underrepresentation of some groups in philosophy and do you think this is changing?

I think it is changing but changing quite slowly. It is good that we are starting to have more awareness and discussions about racial and gender representations. But I think it will take longer for underrepresented cultural groups to be represented more. Take Hollywood’s casting of Asian actors as an example. They are more aware of the importance of casting actors of color now. But the people of color they ended up casting are usually the people who speak perfect English and are very familiar with Anglo-American cultural norms and expectations. I think in Philosophy, there are some unspoken norms that are Anglo-American. It could just be me, but I think if I were writing a paper and wanted to give a simple example of someone’s celebrating their birthday, I would write something like, “Suppose John is going to buy a cake for his daughter’s birthday” instead of “Suppose Lili is going to buy noodles for his daughter’s birthday”,  even though I grew up having noodles on my birthdays and there are many Chinese fathers whose names are Lili. I would worry that the reviewer does not know why there are noodles involved for a birthday. And you can easily think of many other examples. Or if you do a quick search of the use of Christmas as an example in philosophical works compared with the use of Diwali as an example, the results should be quite telling. There are just a lot more examples that involve Christmas. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using Christmas as an example. My point is just that there is a lot of people from different cultural groups who are conducting English-language philosophical studies. They might perceive some peer pressure and unspoken dominant cultural norms. They might want to make things easier and more “comfortable” for the readers. And they therefore self-edit what they take to be the non-essential parts of their works to fit the dominant cultural group’s expectations. The underrepresentation of cultural backgrounds and practices are in some ways more difficult to detect than the underrepresentation of the color and gender of a person, therefore making it more challenging to address.

“Chinese Philosophy from ancient to pre-Qing China was developed in its own soil. It might not fit our modern institutionalised understanding of philosophy as an academic discipline. But it does not mean that ideas from other traditions that adopt different conceptual frameworks cannot make a significant contribution to philosophy.”

Jessica Sophie Ralph: What is the biggest misconception people have about being a philosopher?

I think non-philosophers tend to think philosophers are working on something mysterious and profound that they cannot understand. They do not know that they are often philosophizing. 

Jessica Sophia Ralph: Can you tell us about a book or paper that had a particularly profound effect on your intellectual development? 

It is very difficult to name just one. There are simply too many good and powerful philosophical works. If I have to name one, then it is probably Tang Junyi’s Rensheng zhi tiyan 人生之體驗.

Jessica Sophia Ralph: What recommendations do you have for someone interested in studying philosophy in Chinese?

Winnie’s first academic conference at the International Society for Chinese Philosophy conference.
Wuhan, China 2007

I never properly studied philosophy in Chinese so it is difficult for me to answer. But just based on my experience of reading Chinese-language philosophical works and talking to philosophers in Chinese, I think those who know the Chinese language have to be particularly careful with the classical Chinese terms that they think they know. For example, when they see the word xin 心 (heart/mind) or yu 欲 (desire), they might think they already know these terms and stop short of digging more about their etymologies and connotations. But the xin and yu we refer to in the modern Chinese context could be very different from how they were used in the early Chinese context. Those who know the Chinese language will have to work harder to question their assumptions. 

And for those who want to study analytic philosophy in Chinese, the challenge will be that there are no suitable Chinese translations for many concepts, even the very prominent ones, in analytic philosophy, such as “mind”, “event”, and “essence”. One will need some level of mastery of the Chinese language to land on the best translations possible.  

Jessica Sophia Ralph: What is the most controversial philosophical stance you hold?

I am not sure whether other people think the following are controversial ideas, but I think I am deviating from the common views somewhat.

In Chinese philosophy: I think Xunzi thinks that the heart/mind (xin) naturally has problematic inclinations. 

In analytic philosophy: It is precisely because we are rational agents that we might not know our own beliefs. 

Thank you, Winnie Sung.

To see more of Sung’s work, please visit her PhilPeople profile here.