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Podcast transcript: Peace Corps philosopher in China: Author Peter Vernezze, Socrates in Sichuan

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AMY POTTHAST: Philosophy isn't generally thought of as a cross-cultural tool, but for Peter Vernezze, who left a position as philosophy professor at a U.S. university to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer, philosophy is exactly that. Over the course of his two years of service in China, Professor Vernezze set up and took notes on philosophical chats between his students. From their discussions emerged a host of unique insights into the philosophical suppositions underpinning the values and concerns of contemporary Chinese students.

In this podcast, Idealist's Amy Potthast chats with Professor Vernezze about what philosophy is, how philosophical thinking can re-contextualize different cultures, including one's own, and why Chinese philosophy, in particular, is important. A former Peace Corps volunteer in China, herself, Amy's own experience with Chinese thought yields a fruitful discussion with Professor Vernezze on what Westerners can learn from China.

AMY: Peter welcome to the show.

PETER VERNEZZE: Great. Thanks for having me.

AMY: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us about your experiences in China, talking with students about philosophy. So I was hoping you could start by introducing yourself and what you do.

PETER VERNEZZE: Okay. I'm a professor. And I taught for fifteen years at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah and then I took a two year leave of absence to go into the Peace Corps. One of the things Peace Corps has you do in addition to the teaching English, oral English,  I also developed a sort of side group, a philosophy group,  that met every other week usually and discussed various philosophical topics. And that became the basis for this book, Socrates in Sichuan.

AMY: Okay, so I will confess at the very beginning of this that I have never like philosophy, I've never understood philosophy. I don't understand the boundaries of it. It just seems like vague conversations about everyday things.

And so reading your book about philosophy in the context of China was so eye-opening for me because I get China. And when you see China through this lens of philosophy it gets so quickly at some of the core things that are different between us culturally that it just seemed like a really amazing tool to use in a cross-cultural context. And I finally feel like I understand what philosophy is. So anyway would you mind in a nutshell explaining what philosophy is?

PETER VERNEZZE: Yeah, this is the way I always explain it to my intro class the first day when I teach introduction to philosophy. So I say philosophy is all these things in between it's things about which there aren't really any absolute answers, things like, "What is a good work of art?"; "What is a just war?"; "What is the right thing to do?"

Generally speaking the history of thought has shown us, there are not absolute answers about these issues. But these are issues, which we as humans can't but help argue.

And with respect to China, I think you're right, the thing I think is if you want to understand any culture you need to understand its underlying philosophical propositions, its underlying philosophy, at least it gives you another angle on that culture and a deeper sense of that culture.

And I think that's especially true with China where you have 5,000 years of history thinking and talking about these things. So I am glad to hear you talking because I think it does give an angle into China, into contemporary China, that is often overlooked, where as philosophy can provide that insight.

AMY: So yeah, I was thinking, in my experience, I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I left in 2000. I had students, as you did, and we had conversations that probaly dealt with the same issues that you talked about in your philosophy chats, I feel like it just took me longer to get there, to understand...

And when I realized how differently we were viewing the world, it came as a surprise to me, whereas the way you were setting up your philosophy discussion group it sounds like the whole point was to sort of tease out these differences and to have lively discussions that point out how differently we see the world.

PETER VERNEZZE: Yeah, you know, certainly the differences became the most obvious and probably the most I wrote about in the book because I think that provides the most interesting material through which to view China.

AMY: Okay. So I was thinking that maybe you could describe the philosophy discussion group itself and maybe start out by discussing what inspired you to start the discussion group, but then talk about what happened at a philosophy discussion group, how did you set it up and what kind of things did you talk about?

PETER VERNEZZE: Sure. Well, as you know, the Peace Corps, in addition to our teaching, they ask us to do some secondary projects, things that get us into the community that we're in, in different ways. So as I was looking for a secondary project, I tried various ones that didn't really go over very well and then I started thinking about my own discipline of philosophy and there is a book called Socrates Cafe by an American philosopher, Christopher Phillips, in which he went around the country setting up impromptu philosophy groups where people through all walks of life could talk about these issues, which I just described philosophy as being, things like, truth, justice and meaning.

So I thought that would be an interesting thing to do over in China. It would not only serve the purpose of the Peace Corps but I thought it would really help me understand my students because I wasn't getting all I wanted to out of the class. In the Chinese classroom, it's a pretty scripted affair, they don't generally go off the cuff on these issues, they like to stick to script.

And I had to really set up a separate space outside the classroom and then get the right sort of students there who are interested in discussing these things, and I think I was able to do that. So what we would do is... we would meet at a coffee house, we had three different venues the two years, and we would discuss a particular topic. Some of the topics in the book, What is truth? What is a good marriage? What is the meaning of life? What is the good education? And they would have the topic in advance.

I would usually give a little preview of the topic, introduce it, and talk about maybe some of the history in Western thought and then just open the floor up to discussion. And that's where things could take off, or things could fall flat. More often than not, they took off, which made for a lot of really interesting evenings and really I think allowed me to see China in a way I would've never been able to see it without that discussion group.

AMY: And the conversations were taking place in English, so did that shape the kind of students who felt comfortable not only attending, but also really participating?

PETER VERNEZZE: Sure. Sure. Invariably. Although, I taught English, so it was mostly advertised to the English students, the better ones would do  most of the talking. Although, over the course of the two years, it attracted a wide variety of students but we did develop, I would say, a core of students who would do most of the talking, or would lead the discussion, or could be counted on to really engage the issue. But a lot of the students would come to practice their English, as you know, Chinese will try to find any excuse to do, is to practice their English.

AMY: Okay. Another question I had is related to the kind of top down structure of Chinese society and so, you're a foreigner, you're an instructor, you're the leader of this discussion-group, and you also have, whether you like it or not, this sort of western philosophical perspective and I'm wondering about just the tension that's there between the students and their perspective and the sort of Chinese way of wanting to concede that the leader is right in a situation.

PETER VERNEZZE: Yeah there's two things.

Not only wanting to concede that the leader is right, and for the most part, I stayed out of the conversation as much as possible, or would try to direct questions.

The other thing I talk about Richard Nisbetts' book, The Geography of Thought, which is an amazing book to kind of talk about these cultural differences. The Chinese reluctance to argue, to debate, and Nisbetts, in his book contrasts that with the western style, which he thought developed out of a very particular Greek culture, which was more independent and could have argument going on.

Whereas Chinese culture, his claim is, it developed in close knit communities, farming communities, where the culture couldn't abide by constant arguments.

AMY: Yeah, where harmony and stability were not only the goal but were the method too.

PETER VERNEZZE: Yeah, and that's his claim about why we have this culture in China still today and generally in the East. And that's certainly true. So you had to, sometimes spur them on to disagree or to give their own point of view, when the other person always has some sort of relevance to what they're saying, even when they think that they are wrong.

So they disagreed in a very gracious way, which I thought and I say in the book, is something that we can all learn from in the West, the way our own culture is sort of fragmented, even when they disagree they try to maintain the other persons dignity and say, well there's something there. So that, which you hear about in Chinese society, this harmony,  was there in the discussion group as well, that as I said is I think one of the more praiseworthy things that we could take away from the discussion. I think that's something we've lost. Or maybe we never had as in the way people comment, political dialogue is completely breaking down today.

We've lost that ability to find a common ground and to debate in a humane way.

AMY: Yeah, you're right, it's actually all about losing face for the other side.


AMY: Did this style of debate influence the way you returned to the United States and taught philosophy, or engaged in philosophical discussion at home? Did you find yourself yielding great points to the other side before making your own point?

PETER VERNEZZE: Yeah, I think I did, I gained a great respect for finding common ground and that was one thing I thought we need to do as a society. So I really did come back realizing this course of moderation is one that we as a culture really need to embody. So I think I did come away actually changed, not only as a result of that discussion group but from two years in China because you see this value embodied throughout the whole culture.

AMY: I'm wondering, you know we view China from a particular lens in the United States, where for example, just one example, we think of the one child policy is a limitation on freedom...


AMY: ...But I was surprised when I was talking with my students and understanding the one child policy within the context of everything else within recent Chinese history and how Chinese themselves more or less embrace the policy, when you step a few steps closer to what Chinese people are thinking on the ground. Like, I think I was surprised most just how differently we think about things, like sometimes it felt just completely 180, and just how over-arching some of our views are, but was there anything that struck you as particularly surprising?

PETER VERNEZZE: One that comes to mind is, abortion, probably because we talking about the one child policy, that abortion is much more common there.

I think the background [in the United States] for those who support abortion rights, [they] don't see the fetus as a human being... and so it's not murder.

Surprisingly my [Chinese] students, and it was mostly female students as you know — that's who most of the English majors are — saw the fetus as a human being, but thought that the — and this sort of does go back to the one child policy — but that there is a greater social good, it's not merely about my own fulfillment, it's society can't handle this over population, it's putting the society first.

And again, that's something that China is a lot better at doing than we Americans, where it is always, "I, I, I."

They, as you said, they don't see it as a sacrifice to have only one child, they, at least see it first in the larger social context that this is something society requires. We can't all have as many children otherwise society would collapse. All of them I think saw the overpopulation as the main problem that China had to deal with so they were willing to put their own personal needs above that.

AMY: I think that's a really great example and it sort of brings right to the forefront the kind of collectivist nature of Chinese society and its not just about conforming, it's about recognizing that their are bigger need than your own.

PETER VERNEZZE: Yeah, we in the west have trouble seeing the Chinese stance on human rights and I think that's because we see human rights in the concept of a western view of the truth, in which there is an absolute truth going back to ancient Greece, going back to Christianity, where we have absolute truth outside of humanity and you don't have this view of the truth in China. So understanding the philosophical background behind the Chinese view of human rights comes from a very different view of the truth than we have in the West. I think you can clear up a lot of misunderstandings or wasted arguments about the nature of what is human rights.

AMY: So have you had such kind of rich conversations with your students in the United States? How would you compare your college students in the U.S. with your college students in China in talking about philosophy or in any way?

PETER VERNEZZE: Well, I think college students are inherently curious and love talking about these sorts of issues. So I think I could have the same or I have had, teaching philosophy you get involved in a lot of philosophical discussions.

I didn't teach philosophy in China except outside of this little enclave outside of this little philosophical discussion group.

But the discussion group had all the characteristics of a discussion in a philosophy class when I teach in the States, except for some different presuppositions and bringing different things to the table.

It's just students, human beings trying to figure out these issues of the ultimate nature of life and truth and justice and morality. So and bringing their human reason to bear on this thing so its the same sorts of conversations you would have with a philosophy discussion group, an intro class in America as you had in this philosophy group in China, the same sorts of concerns and interest coming out of the same sorts of curiosity.

AMY: Did the philosophy creep in to your English language courses at all when you were in Sichuan?

PETER VERNEZZE: Yeah, I would often try to look for a way to bring philosophical issues into the discussion and had a couple lesson plans. For example, one of the things in one of my favorite oral English classes was give them a moral dilemma to come up with and discuss because that gives them something to discuss. Moral dilemmas are great things to generate conversation.

AMY: Yeah, I could see that because they would probably even forget at some point that they were struggling or whatever with English and really just focus on content and getting their points across.

So when people think about Peace Corps service for better or for worse they're thinking about building latrines or, digging ditches, or living in huts, like I'm sure people have lots of stereotypes about what Peace Corps service is, and teaching English in China is what the Chinese government invited you to do. But in terms of this secondary project, how did this contribute to your students and their development and what did they get out of it?

PETER VERNEZZE: Yeah, I think a couple of things.

It became a course in western thought so I think those who showed up a lot got to understand the western view on a lot of issues, but I think more importantly, they got to develop a skill that is not given a lot of prominence in Chinese society, that is the skill of arguing, and debating a point and even disagreeing with someone.

So I think the students got better at that and I saw it over the course of two years, the students who showed up over and over again got to appreciate the process of philosophy.

And I remember one of the sessions ending and one of the students who was rather new wanting to know what the answer was to the question we were discussing and one of the students who had been there awhile said, "that's not the point, the point isn't to get the answer, the point is to have this discussion."

And I thought, that's really seeing it. That's come a long way! When you don't have to see this as coming up with an answer, which is what the Chinese want to know, what's the answer to the question, what's going to be on the test? These students, the one who showed up got to appreciate the process of argument and discussion and hopefully that is something that makes them better at a lot of things.

AMY: When you went to China what was your grounding of Eastern philosophy and specifically Chinese philosophy? And did you get more of an education from listening to your students? Did you feel like they were pretty grounded in that stuff, or, or no?

PETER VERNEZZE: I don't think they knew the academic side of things, the textual stuff, but just by virtue of growing up in China, by being Chinese I got to see the connection and a feel for Chinese philosophy in a way I never had. Back in the States, knowing Chinese philosophy was in my head I might say, but there, you got to see philosophy is a living thing.

AMY: I really appreciate not just getting to chat with you right now but getting to read your book, just that you wrote it is extremely helpful I think and I hope that people read it, Socrates and Sichuan, Chinese Students and the Search for Truth, Justice and the Chinese Way. Yeah, reading the book just gave me so many things to think about, not just remembering my own experiences but it really made philosophy itself accessible to me.

PETER VERNEZZE: I just hope that it gives people an interest in China. I think China is the most important relationship America has going forward and so much can happen when two cultures misunderstand each other. The most important thing we need to do is understand China and not to see them as "other," but to try to understand where they are coming from and how we can coexist. And that's really why I wrote the book.

Of course, part of the Peace Corps goal is to bring back what you know about the country you served in, back to America. And I think everyone who serves feels that, but I just feel especially important for China. We have a chance to get China right. It's still early.

But we need to understand, and as I said the best way to understand the culture is to understand the underlying philosophical suppositions, where they are coming from. So I hope the book can introduce people to China. This book lets the Chinese people speak. It's not me speaking. I kind of edit it once and awhile and give some context, but you get to see how these Chinese students see the world and this is the up and coming generation so I hope students are not only going to look at this book as a way, but use a lot of sources and understand China, we need to get this right as a nation going forward, we have time to get this right.

AMY: Well, thank you Peter so much and best of luck to you.

PETER VERNEZZE: Thanks, thanks, it was great, I enjoy talking about the book.

AMY POTTHAST: Find a copy of Socrates in Sichuan at a bookstore near you, or order it online from Learn more about the Peace Corps at

I'm Amy Potthast, thanks for listening. To find more good things to do, go to Today's show was produced with the help of our intern Millicent Zimdars. If you have enjoyed our podcast, please show our support by going to iTunes and leaving a review and a rating of this podcast and others that you liked. You can also send us feedback to