Meet Your Humanities Faculty: Wenjin Liu

Our Spring 2023 tgiFHI series continues with Wenjin Liu, Research Assistant Professor at the Philosophy Department. Here's an interview with Prof. Liu on her research interests, method, and practice.

Can you tell me about your research interests and how they developed for you?

I work primarily on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and have a strong interest in classical Chinese philosophy and comparative philosophy, especially the comparison between classical Greek, Roman and classical Chinese. Regarding ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, I work on substantive forms of human imperfection–such as ignorance and vice–at both individual and collective levels, and mental illnesses. I'm interested in understanding Plato's discussion of their nature, causes and the connection between those forms of imperfection and how he came to see those forms of imperfection play in the period that he was situated in, which was a time of all sorts of social and political instability, war, decline and reconstruction. I'm also interested in understanding Plato’s proposed remedies and measures for preventing those forms of imperfection, because the goal of his philosophy was to propose a model for people to live a happy life both individually and collectively.

Another part of my research is that I'm interested in understanding the continuity and differences between Western and Eastern intellectual traditions at the very beginning of their written records. On the Western side I’m looking at Plato and Aristotle, and on the Eastern side I look at Confucius and Mozi. These philosophers were contemporaries living during the fifth century BCE­, but they developed different schools of thinking in response to all sorts of social-political problems of their time and solutions to those problems. I'm interested in understanding how those thinkers independently came up with answers to those problems and what they identify as the problem of their time. I ask, are there some common problems between the West and East? If so, what are their solutions? If there are some common take aways from those solutions, where does their intuition differ? In the long run, I'm interested in exploring how those ideas can shape our current cultures and values of the East and West, and what lessons we can learn from those ideas in our multicultural and cross-cultural communication and cooperation.

I was born and raised in China. I went to a local high school where I studied classical Chinese literature, which was part of the college entrance exam. There, we read parts of Confucius and Mozi, but we didn't read it in an analytic philosophical way–we read it mostly in historical and literary ways. I was taught to understand those ideas in the development of Chinese intellectual history, and how that writing influenced Chinese literary forms.

I've always been mostly interested in big fundamental questions. Like, what are those people trying to get at? And how those ideas, those questions and their answers can inform us when we think about our life, and how we how we develop from there.

In college, I discovered Greek and Roman philosophy. There wasn't Chinese philosophy offered at the college I went to, but we did have a course on the philosophy of East and West. There was a focused course on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. In that class, the texts I was reading asked similar questions as Chinese texts I was interested in despite the geographical and political differences of those parts of the world. Having been written around the same time, I thought they must have come up with those questions and answered them independently, because there wasn't any concrete evidence about extensive communication between Greece and China at that time.

In graduate school, I did my dissertation on Plato. After I finished my preliminary exam, I had more time to think about connecting my different interests in philosophy. That's when I started thinking more seriously about using analytic and linguistic tools I gained from my training in Greek and Roman philosophy to understand classical Chinese philosophy, and the connection between those two.

Can you tell us about the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

My current research is rooted primarily in contemporary analytic philosophy. I do close readings of the text and logical analysis of the ideas behind the text. I also draw ideas from classics, history, and political theory, both historical and contemporary. To show the contrast and continuity between the East and West, I also read Chinese philosophy and literature.

Recently, I got interested in empirical work in psychology, because I find psychologists always ask brilliant questions. I browse empirical work in psychology just to get inspiration for when I study my primary texts. I also look more broadly at publications like The New Yorker or The New York Times where there is more public discussion–doing so helps me get a sense of what people are interested in and the kinds of problems we are trying to solve.

Can you talk about your research methods? Describe what your day-to-day research practice looks like.

My day-to-day research routine depends on whether I choose to write for a particular amount of time­–days, weeks, months–or if I choose to do more broad research.

When I’m writing, I start my day jotting down my ideas, which can take several hours. After I get tired of that, I look at relevant second literature or at the primary text to corroborate my interpretation. And if I can, I end my writing days by reading broadly. I must admit, though, that my writing days don't always go this way. Sometimes my day just ends with writing, or sometimes I even struggle to write.

When I choose to do broad research, I spend a lot of time reading. For example, this month I’m mostly doing research and reading. I start the day meditating on the big idea of the paper. I also think about what questions need to be answered today and for the month of research. From there, I look at primary and secondary literature depending on the questions I need to answer. For example, today I studied keywords in a primary text by Plato. This was because I had more philological work to do. This included checking every word that occurs in the particular text by Plato I’m working on and asking, “what's the idea?” and how that features in his corpus.

Tell us about your talk. What do you want people to take away from your presentation?

My talk is titled “Political Vice in Plato.” Plato, born not long after the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, witnesses the decline of Athens from a hegemonic power in the Greek world to a city state that struggles to recover its glory in the midst of constant internal quarrels and external threats. His contemporaries often assume that salvaging Athens from its decline crucially involves attending to particular, salient episodes of the decline, for which politicians who are directly involved should be blamed. In this talk, I argue in the Gorgias and the Republic, Plato provides a different perspective to understand not only the decline of Athens but also political problems elsewhere. In his view, a better understanding and treatment of those problems requires us to go beyond particular episodes and agents, which, albeit palpable, are symptoms or products of an underlying structural flaw, namely, political vice. Political vice is a substantive deviation from a city’s normative order. Because of that deviation, a city performs its function—collective human living—poorly. A corrupt culture is the root of political vice. Sustainable political changes should accordingly be mediated via gradual shifts in cultures.

A takeaway I hope people leave with is that when theorizing about our current political problems Plato’s answer is that we not immediately blame current politicians, and that we think more broadly about the origin of our current political institution and the overall culture which shapes generations of politicians and people. I hope this talk will resonate with people, especially considering current political debates.

Can you tell us about classes you're teaching?

In the next semester, I'm going to teach two undergraduate courses. One is on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. This course will be a survey of a major thinkers in the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical tradition, like Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans. I conceive of this course as giving students a broad introduction to the big ideas and methodology of doing history of philosophy. I'm also open to student suggestions about where they find continuity and contrasts between those ancient texts and contemporary discussions. And I’m happy to explore those ideas with students.

The second course is on comparative philosophy of ethics and politics, between the classical Chinese and ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. I imagine this course to be more of a research seminar where I can guide students to do independent research on specific topics. One example could be the structure of humanity or the structure of the human soul and the contrast between Mozi and Plato. Students can also propose ideas for what they want to write their research papers on.

Associated Program(s)