Monday, January 8, 2007

The Legitimacy of Chinese Philosophy (1)

The Legitimacy of Chinese Philosophy, Part III
Contemporary Chinese Thought, vol. 37, no. 3, Spring 2006.

Editors' Introduction (Carine Defoort & Ge Zhaoguang)
Modern Construction and Explanatory Models of the History of Philosophy (Zhao Dunhua)
A False But Meaningful Issue: A Reading of the "Legitimacy Issue in Chinese Philosophy" (Yu Wujin)
On the New Round of Comparative Studies of Chinese and Western Philosophical Types (Yu Xuanmeng)
Reflections on the Legitimacy of the Discipline of Chinese Philosophy Under the Discursive Hegemony of the West (Li Jinglin)
The Legitimacy of the Discussions on the "Legitimacy" of "Chinese Philosophy" (Hu Jun)
Western Discourse and Shadows in the Legitimacy Crisis of Chinese Philosophy (Qiao Qingju)
The Legitimacy and Consciousness of Chinese Philosophy: An Analysis of the Issue of the Legitimacy of Chinese Philosophy (Chen Renren)
The "Legitimacy" of Chinese Philosophy (Wei Changbao)

A body of thought preoccupied by its identity crisis is in deep trouble. All non-Western civilizations that have undergone disruption through contact with the imperial West and have faced the problems of modernization have endured such a crisis. In some cases, the very discipline of "philosophy" is inaugurated and defined by this crisis, the most extreme case being African Philosophy. Chinese philosophy has a respected literary tradition dating back thousands of years, yet it too faced this crisis, and judging from recent writings in the field, has yet to resolve it.

Paradoxically, no indigenous development in a formally defined non-western philosophical tradition, no matter how nationalistic it may purport to be, proceeds without collusion with Western interests. This has been true ever since Western incursions into China and India yielded ideological alliances with the religious traditions most congenial to the interests of the West. The most recent wave of irrationalism can be loosely termed postmodernism, and it has given a whole new lease on life to all the obscurantist intellectual ambitions of the irrationalist wings of the nations, cultures, and political movements of the world.

There are numerous linkages of Western philosophical interests with Chinese philosophy. There is a long-standing preoccupation with Eastern mysticism which more recently comes under the rubric of New Age thought. A more recent academic wrinkle is the cross-breeding of hermeneutics and deconstruction with Taoism and Confucianism, and there persists a long-standing collusion of these Chinese philosophies with the less fashionable but apparently still alive-and-kicking process philosophy initiated by Alfred North Whitehead. Such collusions have become intensified with the rage of globalization, the ideological effects of which I have termed "globalization gone bad".

This symposium on The Legitimacy of Chinese Philosophy is not quite so egregious, yet it seems to reflect a conceptual impasse. Almost all (if not all) of the participants in this Part III of the discussion are stationed in the People's Republic of China and are apparently locked into a struggle with China's premodern doctrines, its previous commitment to Marxism, the challenges of globalization, and the dilemma of cultural identity.

"Chinese philosophy" has come to be dismissed or lauded as non-philosophy by Western commentators. Hegel's comments against Chinese philosophy as non-systematic and non-conceptual in content are cited by several authors. (Zhao, 5; Yu Wujin, 22; Yu Xuanmeng, 40; Chen, 77) But Chinese philosophy is praised for those very same reasons by no less than Jacques Derrida, when he visited China in 2002: "China has no philosophy, only thought." Derrida considered Western philosophy to be logocentric, which he opposed, and thus demoting it to the status of "writing", could not have been happier in his ignorance than to praise Chinese philosophy as non-philosophical. (Zhao, 5, 7; Chen, 78, 86)

As a discipline, the history of Chinese philosophy dates from the 1920s and the efforts of Chinese scholars such as Feng Youlan and Hu Shi. Later, the Stalinist model was imported from the USSR and imposed on Chinese history of philosophy. "Western discursive hegemony" can not be faulted, as all modern people must evaluate all philosophies with appropriate modern tools of analysis. Western philosophy is said to be predicated on the Metaphysics of Being, but one should not be hasty in judging Chinese philosophy if it does not appear to fit this model. Just because the Chinese language lacks the copula and doesn't name the category of "being", one should not assume a lack of systematicity. Nor should Chinese philosophy be deemed lacking in focus on philosophical questions, just because the hermeneutical models applied to it did not find what they sought.

On the other hand, one should be wary of an emphasis on Chinese particularity and assertions of the universality of the particular. A proper model can be found in the example of the Jews. The strong cultural identity of Jews notwithstanding, it did not become "an obstacle to the creation of universal theories." Jewish thinkers "never made 'Jewish characteristics' the objective of their theories, but instead sought universal truths that were everywhere applicable." (Zhao, 17)

Yu Wujin summarizes shoddy scholarly practices (27) and enumerates four negative factors in traditional ways of thinking (28-29):

(1) empiricism factor (inability to consider fundamental epistemological problems beyond sensory experience, as did Kant and Husserl);

(2) psychologizing factor (Confucian ethics based on psychological premises);

(3) cavemanship factor (basing arguments only on evidence consistent with preconceived positions);

(4) pragmatism factor (lack of interest in abstract concepts and categories and the issue of truth, and excessive concern with usefulness).

Yu Wujin upbraids the Chinese for lagging behind in logic and linguistic analysis.

Yu Xuanmeng insists that Chinese philosophy must free itself of dependence on Western philosophy. Ancient Chinese philosophers were almost all known as sages. This is quite different from the Western preoccupation with ontology, which also pervades ethics and separates the latter from the personal wisdom of the philosopher. This has become the pretext for dismissing China's age-old preoccupation with the right way to live.

Li addresses the issue of disciplinary paradigms. The founders of the historiography of Chinese philosophy, Hu Shi and Feng Youlan, organized their research along the paradigms of Western philosophy. Feng found the Chinese emphasis to be self-cultivation, but he found an approximate equivalent to Western philosophy in yi li zhi xue (the learning of meaning and principle). (43) Zhang Dainian (1937) sought a universal philosophy of which he saw Chinese philosophy and others as subcategories. Li deems this 'universal philosophy' an empty category. Li finds Jin Yuelin's conception more complex. (44) Prior to 1949, Chinese philosophical research was characterized by (1) free choice in interpretive principles, (2) immersion of scholars in traditional thought. Between 1949 and 1979 a rigid Marxist model was mandatory. The cumulative effect of extrinsic assessments and the treatment of philosophies as an abstract battle of tendencies drained the life of the traditions being studied. (47-48) Since 1979, research has become more open and pluralist.

Li attempts to rethink the relation of particular to universal, finding the universal in the individual and particular. (51). The interpretive process (between Chinese and Western thought) needs to be bidirectional. The academic relationship between fen (division) and tong (commonality) needs to be balanced. The Confucian tradition knew the principle "seek knowledge at all levels" but tied this quest to human relationships and practice. It would be a mistake to sever this connection (56-57) Li even brings in Heidegger and Jaspers to justify his position! (58) Heidegger referred to the crisis brought on by technology and to Chinese thought, but rejected the possibility of importing Eastern world views to solve the spiritual crisis of the West. Heidegger asserted: "Thought can only be changed by means of thought that has the same origins and missions." And: "There is still only one God who can bring us salvation." (58)

Another nail in the coffin of the Nazi philosopher, if you ask me. This position reminds me of another fascist thinker, Carl Jung.

Li sees promise for a philosophical convergence between the two civilizations in the contemporary emphasis on hermeneutics. (60) I think I'm going to be sick.

Hu begins with a basic problem: there is an inherent presumption in impartially assessing the philosophical value of traditional Chinese thought, as the very language of philosophical arbitration prejudges the issue. The term "philosophy" was imported into China in the 1890s. It presupposed a disciplinary division of scholarship hitherto absent in China. Just as China did not have "philosophy", it also did not have "economics", "biology", etc. China had no such disciplines. But neither did Socrates. It should not be assumed that, lacking disciplines, China simply lacked an investment in the subject matters those disciplines study. There is also no point in seeking purism. The modern Chinese language itself reflects the penetration of modern modes of discourse into Chinese culture, and thus modern Chinese offers no privileged entryway into traditional Chinese thought.

Qiao sees the radical changes in Chinese culture in the 20th century as the logical outcome of the Opium War. Chinese thought was uprooted as a living tradition and turned into a detached object of study. This was a traumatic development for traditionally minded scholars. All research conducted in the history of Chinese philosophy is essentially comparative research in Chinese and Western philosophy. Without this, the weaknesses (logic and epistemology) and strengths of Chinese philosophy (social philosophy and moral practice) could never have been assessed. While using Western philosophy as a backdrop may diminish the stature of Chinese philosophy, it need not always be so. (Mou Zongsan judged Wang Yangming superior to Kant.) (72) No matter how much nationalistically minded philosophers might wish to shake the allegedly hegemonic discourse of the West, it can't be done, because without it, contemporary Chinese would not be able to understand Chinese philosophy. A return to traditional intellectual tools is no longer feasible. (73)

Chen contrasts the judgments of Hegel and Derrida. The history of academic study of Chinese philosophy is briefly recounted, from the establishment of a school and then department of Chinese philosophy in Beijing (1914, 1919), the works of Hu Shi (1919) and Feng Youlan (1930s), to the establishment of the Marxist paradigm based on Soviet textbooks. In 1955 Zhang Dainian initiated a promising line of research into "the categories and system of traditional Chinese philosophy", which did not get the opportunity to bear fruit until the 1980s. (79) This was an effort to correct forced interpretations of Chinese philosophy. Two key articles in 2001 and 2002 raised the question of the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy. Ge Zhaoguang completed a two-volume History of Chinese Thought, using the term "thought" as less restrictive and forced than "philosophy". (80) The backdrop to the whole issue was the sense of Western superiority with which China adopted Western learning. The term for "philosophy" (zhexue) was introduced in 1874 by the Japanese scholar Nishi Amane and was adopted in China in 1905. Hu Shi's work on Chinese philosophy created an impression as if it were written by a Westerner. After China opened up again in the 1980s new perspectives on both Western culture and Marxism (including Western Marxism) were in the making.

The social problems of contemporary China and those of Western society have stimulated a resurgence of respectful consideration of traditional Chinese academic values. Two factors are adduced:

(1) recognition of the flaws of Western society, Western engagement with postmodernism and Eastern wisdom, encouraging a Chinese return to tradition as a cultural resource (cf. contemporary neo-Confucianism);

(2) strengthening of local consciousness in the age of globalization. (83)

Western philosophy itself has no universal standard for what constitutes philosophical legitimacy, hence Chinese philosophy need not be doubted in this regard, and certainly it was guided by a love of wisdom. Hence, it is worthwhile pursuing a national tradition while remaining open to other influences.

Wei finds that after a century of the existence of Chinese philosophy as a formal academic field of study, notwithstanding its dependency and legitimacy issues, Chinese philosophy is making a comeback, with much to contribute. The way forward is for China to create its own philosophical paradigm, and maintain the subjectivity and indigenous perspective of Chinese philosophy while incorporating Western philosophy.

This hollow rhetoric, devoid of specifics as to what is ultimately philosophically valuable, suggests what is sterile about this entire debate. Occasionally there are brief suggestions of the specific areas in which Chinese philosophy (or "thought") is held to be weak or strong, but there is no convincing treatment of what in the past is worth preserving, or how we are supposed to assess it in any event given what we know now. Whether a pro or con position on "Chinese philosophy" is taken, all of this discussion revolves around the commensurability of the Western and Chinese traditions. In spite of the tendency for focus on disciplinarity to reduce to pedantic distinctions, that need not happen if the distinctions reveal something intrinsic to the systems of thought involved. Yet for all this deliberation, the essential intrinsic questions remain untouched.


The Dead End of African Philosophy: Which Way Out?
Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (1)
The Tao of Brecht
Taoism & the Tao of Bourgeois Philosophy (review of J. J. Clarke, The Tao of the West)
Occultism, Eastern Mysticism, Fascism, & Countercultures: Selected Bibliography
Holistic Thought, New Age Obscurantism, Occultism, the Sciences, & Fascism
The Graphic Figure and the Philosophical Abstraction by Ion Banu
Secularism, science and the Right” (Review of Meera Nanda, The Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva)



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