Welcome to The Chinese Room.

This shiny new blog takes its name from a famous thought experiment in Philosophy. In his 1980 article “Minds, Brains, and Programs,” American philosopher John Searle imagines a “Chinese room” — a room in which a non-Chinese speaker sits and follows written instructions that allow him to interact in Chinese with folks outside of the room. For the time being, let’s ignore the details of the thought experiment, and what Searle thinks it proves. I’ll talk about both of these things in the months ahead. For now, it’s enough to know that this thought experiment is super famous among philosophers, AI researchers, etc., and that it trades on communication between an English-speaker and one or more Chinese-speakers.

Now, I am not a philosopher of mind, but I am a philosopher. I teach Philosophy, mostly history of philosophy and philosophy of sex/gender, at University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Late in 2011, a summer school program run by Sinoway International Education Group invited me to teach Philosophy in Nanjing, China in the summer of 2012. Frankly, I was kind of freaked out because I’m actually pretty provincial and have never done anything so exciting. But then I thought: “Hey! I’ve never done anything so exciting! It’s time to change that.” So, I accepted the offer. I’m going to bring my family with me and we’re going to have A Big Adventure.

I’m going to teach two courses in Nanjing: Introduction to Philosophy and Modern Philosophy. As professors always do, I designed these courses by adapting similar courses that I’ve already taught. Now, when I teach Introduction to Philosophy in Canada, I always teach Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment. But, as I prepared the syllabus for my new course, I worried about teaching this material in China. Why was I worried? Well, because I don’t think Searle treats Chinese very respectfully. In the article, he sometimes describes Chinese characters as “squiggles” and “squoggles”. And, frankly, I think that his whole reason for choosing Chinese as the language of communication in the thought experiment was that he regarded it as a hopelessly foreign language. This all made me feel a little uncomfortable. “I can’t teach the Chinese Room in China,” I thought to myself. And then, I realized that if it’s true that I can’t teach the Chinese Room in China, then I ought not to be teaching it in Canada either. That’s when I realized that I had to teach the Chinese Room in China. (I started to realize a bunch of other stuff too, but I’ll save that for another post.)

After this epiphany about why I absolutely must teach the Chinese Room in China, and why this is the most exciting thing ever, I would go to parties and talk and talk and talk about why I absolutely must teach the Chinese Room in China, and why this is the most exciting thing ever. …Whereupon a very wise woman told me, “Yes. And you’re going to blog about it. Every day. And it will be awesome.” And I believed her.

Besides, the world needs more blogs. …doesn’t it?

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