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What’s New in… Chinese Philosophy

Anja Steinbauer on modern developments in an ancient philosophical tradition.

Many thinkers of our time believe that ‘globalisation’, “the process whereby the population of the world is increasingly bonded into a single society”, has become a defining aspect of today’s world, and that it is therefore necessary to take account of this fact in our philosophising.

Frogs in Wells

Having to face new, foreign, or simply different ways of thought is not an exclusively 20th Century experience: “You cannot put charcoal and ice in the same container,” once declared an 12th Century Chinese scholar, passionately arguing that two contending traditions of thought – in this case Buddhism and Confucianism – could by no means exist side by side. Political considerations aside, such a vehement display of intolerance seems an unfortunate response to a widened philosophical playing field.

Another extreme reaction, this time by a contemporary academic, is Samuel Huntington’s idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’. Claiming that “conflict between civilisations will be the latest phase in the evolution of conflict in the modern world”, he predicts that in this new situation “the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural”. This scenario of necessary conflicts concerns philosophy, which may be seen as part of culture, or as reflecting aspects of culture.

A brighter outlook is taken by those thinkers who see the global situation as a positive challenge to design new philosophical projects and redefine philosophical parameters. Some areas of philosophy seem to demand a global outlook more than others, moral philosophy being one of them. Examples are the attempts to establish a global ethics, as well as the increased interest in value inquiry on a global level.

Even talking about a global situation at all requires us to look beyond our own tradition. We can go about this in a number of different ways: One choice is to focus on differences between philosophical outlooks, which frequently entails the conclusion that different ways of thought are incommensurable, often a case for cultural relativism. Another to focus on similarities, an attitude which may be rendered as ‘universalism’. – Or we can simply ignore the philosophical ‘other’ and carry on as if they didn’t exist.

Doing just this would amount to an attitude which is portrayed by the Chinese proverb ‘the Frog in the Well’, based on a story taken from one of the most important works in classical Chinese philosophy. In it, a very self-important little frog boasts about the magnificence of his habitat, a well, to a turtle which has come from the ocean. The little welldweller ends up confused and insecure when being told about the greatness of the ocean, of which it had been quite unaware. Here was a fulfilled and happy frog, content with his own picture of the world, and there seems to be no reason to puncture his complacency. But does not precisely the enterprise of philosophy itself require us to look beyond the confines of our own horizons?

Why on Earth Chinese Philosophy?

The question is of course whether we can ever avoid philosophical ‘wells’. Perhaps not. But we must recognise the existence of wells other than our own, and it certainly doesn’t do any harm jumping into one or the other of them, and adopting a new perspective for a while. – There is nothing more refreshing, to say the least. Even the highly sceptical Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who was much aware of the inadequacy of any philosophy to give an apt picture of the world, agrees that it is useful to temporarily reside in a ‘lodging place’, a particular intellectual position, in order to speak and communicate about the world at all. Though we are of course likely to end up with another partial and therefore ultimately flawed perspective, the flexibility of the exercise as such is instructive and inspiring.

Some would argue that strictly speaking there may not even be anything like ‘philosophy’ in cultural contexts other than the Western. It depends on what you are looking for: Whoever reads Chinese philosophy with the expectation of finding ideas which neatly fit into a Western pattern will be disappointed: try and fit Chinese thought into a Western straightjacket, and you will get very little out of it indeed. In any case, China has more to offer than just one simple, uniform fashion of approaching philosophical problems.

Though we cannot expect Chinese philosophy to fit Western parameters, in reading it we come across interesting philosophical concepts, some of which may strike us as strangely familiar from the Western context but argued and derived from a different perspective. A.C. Graham, one of the greatest experts in the field of Chinese philosophy, whose sensitivity to both language and philosophical contents I greatly admire, became fascinated with Chinese philosophy as it provided a new angle on certain philosophical problems with which he had been struggling, such as the is-ought gap. He explains his interest in Chinese philosophy thus: “Taking Chinese thought seriously is not simply a matter of acknowledging the rationality of some of it (and perhaps denying the name ‘philosophy’ to the rest), nor of discovering something valuable to oneself in the poetry of Lao-tzu (Laozi) or the diagrams of the Yi. Its study constantly involves one in important contemporary issues in moral philosophy, the philosophy and history of science, the deconstruction of established conceptual schemes, the problems of relating thought to linguistic structure, and correlative thinking to logic.”

Searching for the Dao or what is commonly called ‘Chinese Philosophy’

It seems a widespread view that most of Chinese thought can be neatly folded into small piles and fitted into three drawers:Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, or at least certain variations of it. Such an attempted cleaning-up job in Chinese thought will, as in most philosophical contexts, have messy consequences: none of the drawers will close properly, bits and pieces will be left lying around. Classifications such as ‘Confucianism’ and ‘Daoism’ are largely due to historical pigeonholing. Though many Chinese thinkers would have seen themselves as following a tradition, few of them would have agreed with being labelled as belonging to one or other ‘school’ of philosophy. Furthermore, many of the concepts exploited by the classical thinkers either go back to earlier times or are shared by most of them, yet are given distinctly different meanings in each philosophical context. The most prominent example is the ‘Dao’ (Tao), which in all traditions of thought is the term denoting the proper course of human action. What this actually means has been subject to millennia of fierce debate.

The first great period of Chinese philosophical activity coincides with the later part of the Zhou Dynasty (c.500-221B.C.), a time in which the old feudal order collapsed and existing social patterns disintegrated under the pressure of constant political conflicts and wars. The wish for stability and the need to introduce an efficient social structure brought about a wealth of different schools of thought. Confucius is the name that usually springs to mind when Chinese philosophy is mentioned. Though all kinds of more or less witty aphorisms are lightheartedly attributed to him in the prepackaged form of the notorious phrase “Confucius say..”, very few people actually go to the trouble of finding out what Confucius really said. Not only Confucius but also the later philosophers Mencius and Xunzi, though very different in their outlooks, are subsumed under what is regarded as classical Confucianism. It devised an ethic resting on the most deep-seated social bonds, kinship and custom, the community being modelled on the family. On the level of the individual, it relates the idea of an attitude of ‘humane-ness’ or ‘benevolence’ towards other people to the idea of ‘proper conduct’. Morality was also at the philosophical focus of the Mohist philosophers, whose central ethical concept is sometimes translated as ‘universal love’, or ‘concern for everyone’, accomplished by judging all issues on the basis of utility. Legalism presented a rational political philosophy, with the techniques to organise a great empire and largely homogenise culture throughout it. Some of the early Chinese thinkers, whose concern rested in particular with the formulation and analysis of rational argumentation, are often called Logicians or Sophists. An example is Gongsun Long (3rd C. B.C.) who in one famous piece of writing developed a meticulous and complex argument to prove that “A white horse is not a horse.” Yin-Yang cosmology introduced a ‘protoscience’, which sees man in the context of a cosmos modelled on community. Finally, Daoism includes a number of philosophies relating the individual directly to the cosmos. Philosophers as diverse in style and outlook as Laozi and Zhuangzi are subsumed under this term. While Laozi’s poetic work Daodejing (Tao-te-ching) seeks to inspire its readers to participate in the spontaneous processes of the cosmos, it also includes a political message: how to survive at times of political unrest. Zhuangzi employed his wit and philosophical acuteness to shake the very fundamentals of our thought which we frequently simply take for granted, such as morality, logical analysis, even reason itself.

At the end of the era of disunity, Confucianism became the doctrine of the new ruling class. Most of the rival schools disappeared, with the exception of Daoism. From the first centuries A.D., however, its hitherto unassailable position was threatened by the advent and spread of Buddhism, which introduced a more sophisticated metaphysical system than anything that had been developed in China. Its influence proved inescapable even to those who rejected it, and finally stimulated Confucian thinkers, the Neo- Confucians to approach new subject areas and to philosophise in new ways. The Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) in particular was a time of vibrant philosophical activity, including many sycretist tendencies. As A.C. Graham puts it: “The great achievement of the Neo-Confucians was to create a system in which all the old concepts have a place, treating all concrete things as modifications of ether (qi) out of which they condense, and the Way (Dao), heaven and the nature as different aspects of a single principle (li) by which things are united.”.

Developments in Daoism include the emergence of a religious Daoism, which, though very different from philosophical Daoism cannot be responsibly seen as completely detached from it. Many of the historic ideas are discussed again today. Take Confucianism: while some critics talk about the present in terms of a ‘post-Confucian’ era, others optimistically see an age of ‘New Confucianism’ (as opposed to the earlier ‘Neo-Confucianism’) gloriously rising like a phoenix from the ashes of tradition. Traditional thought – though rejected by many who chose to exclusively look to the West – is being re-assessed in the light of the present, is creatively re-moulded to respond to the problems of our time, and is used as a starting-point to philosophise afresh.

Chinese Philosophy in China

Different, often diametrically opposed, interpretations and re-evaluations of the Chinese philosophical tradition and its socio-political implications have been ping-ponged around the intellectual scene for many decades. Particularly at the beginning of this century, ‘Confucianism’ received bad press from most sides. Acting as the placeholder for traditional culture, it was held responsible for China’s inadequacy in meeting Western military and economic as well as cultural challenges. One of the most brilliant minds of the political and cultural movement of the 1920’s, the writer Lu Xun, went so far as to liken Confucians to man-eaters. Contrary to the anti-Confucian liberalists of the May Fourth Movement, the philosopher Xu Fuguan (1903-1982) conducted research into connections which he believe to exist between the spirit of the Confucian tradition and political democracy. A different view was taken by Qian Mu (1895-1990), a prominent historian of ideas: he saw Confucian society as strictly hierarchical, as ‘vertically’ structured, though, at the same time not only allowing but encouraging social mobility. Over a number of decades China officially turned its back on Confucianism. In 1984, however, a sure sign of change was the establishment of the Confucius Foundation.

Broadly speaking, New Confucian thinkers advocate the Confucian tradition on two grounds: Firstly, they believe that Confucianism has a positive contribution to make to the present day Chinese, perhaps even world-wide, situation. Secondly, they feel that Confucianism is an essential part of Chinese culture, for which reason it cannot simply be shed or dismissed – being Chinese ultimately also means being inextricably linked to and moulded by one’s Confucian heritage.

Some of the best modern Chinese thinkers never cease to amaze me with their impressive grasp of at least aspects of different traditions of thought.

An example is Xiong Shili (1885-1968) whose philosophical approach is inspired by the Buddhism of the Chinese Weishi School but who is regarded as one of the pioneers of the New Confucian movement. Formative influences on his thought are diverse: they include Chinese sources such as the Yijing (or I-Ching, often translated as the ‘Book of Changes’), Song Dynasty Neo-Confucianism, as well as Western thinkers such as Kant, Hegel and Bergson. Other examples of thinkers who, though firmly rooted in their own tradition, display a similar virtuosity in philosophising across cultural boundaries include some of the second generation New Confucians such as Tang Junyi (1909-78) and Mou Zongsan (1909-95), as well as a number of contemporary thinkers.

Another indicator of a renewed interest in the philosophical traditions of the past is the emergence of specialised research bodies such as the Mohism Society of China at Shandong University, involving a number of famous Chinese scholars, such as Fei Xiaotong, Zhang Dainian and Ren Jiyu. However, philosophy does not simply become a dead object of study but is seen as living thought, intended for practical application: The stated objective of the society is to encourage “studies of Mohism” at an international level and “develop the Mohist spirit”. – The implied hope is that Mohism with its ethical and social principles may have a valuable contribution to make to real life, not just to the egos of scholars of philosophy.

Chinese philosophers have an interest in exploring all areas of Western philosophy, and introducing its thought to China. However, they seem to be feeling more of an affinity with the Continental than the analytic tradition. Though agreeing with this, Prof. Ouyang Kang, Dean of the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University, explains that “on the one hand, the influences of Heidegger, Husserl, Cassirer, Weber; Gadamer, Habermas etc. and their ideas are still greatly increasing, on the other hand, the political and ethical ideas of Rawls, MacIntyre, Nozick, etc. are also attracting the attention of Chinese readers.” - An impressive list, and indeed, the interests of Chinese thinkers today are as diverse as philosophy itself.

Inspired by Western ideas, some Chinese philosophers try to take a new angle on their own tradition. A theme which I have seen tentatively re-emerging over the years is feminism: Chinese and Korean women philosophers wonder whether there is any way of reconciling aspects of Chinese, in particular Confucian, thought with feminist ideas. – The conclusion they usually to come to seems to be no. However, the answer never seems to be a final one, and though it is by no means a central philosophical topic, the question is posed again and again. Such a project becomes a philosophically interesting one when traditional thought is not straightforwardly dismissed because it fails to fit modern patterns, but instead is used creatively to explore new avenues for the changed intellectual and ethical requirements of the present.

Some fascinating developments in the study of Daoism have been impelled by archaeological discoveries, which have shed new light on interpretations of earlier texts. Most important Daoist manuscripts were discovered in Dunhuang earlier this century, a smaller corpus of writings was found in Mawangdui in 1973. A comprehensive reference work to the Dunhuang documents was created by Ôfuchi Ninji. As a result of Chinese, as well as Japanese, scholarship, several editions and reproductions of the Mawangdui manuscripts are in existence.

One of the leading authorities on the subject is Qing Xitai (Sichuan University), whose book on the history of Daoism has been very influential. More research on Daoism is being carried out by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and new publications on the subject appear frequently.

While the interest in philosophical Daoism may remain confined to universities and research institutions, popular interest in some aspects of Daoist lifestyles, such as longevity techniques, experienced a high especially in the China of the 1980’s.

I have not mentioned developments in Chinese Marxism, on which I cannot claim any expertise. Where the paths of philosophy and ideology cross, a minefield of fair and unfair challenges to both tends to open up. Tiptoeing through this minefield would explode the confines of this article.

Chinese Philosophy elsewhere

“I am inclined to believe that the [Chinese] writers, especially the ancient ones, make much sense”, thus a distinguished Western scholar who had an intense interest in Chinese thought: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Many Western thinkers after him have felt inspired by the Chinese tradition, and the specialised study of Chinese culture has long been fruitful outside China.

Daoism has fascinated a number of great scholars. An excellent overview of studies in Daoism conducted in Western languages is Anna Seidel’s ‘Chronicle of Taoist Studies in the West 1950-1990’, covering hundreds of works concerned with all aspects of Daoism, including its history, study of source material, its diverse application in Chinese culture, Daoist religion, as well as the relation between Daoism and Buddhism.

In 1976 a number of scholars, first in Paris and then also in Würzburg and Zürich, dedicated themselves to the mammoth undertaking of arranging a descriptive catalogue to the Daozang, the vast Daoist canon. More recently, Japanese sinologists have also made substantial contributions, in particular Yoshinobu Sakade, a member of the Research Group for New Materials for the Study of Chinese Science at the Research Institute for Humanistic Studies at Kyoto University. The extent and nature of Japanese scholarship on Daoism is outlined in the works of T.H. Barrett. A Documentation Centre for Daoism has been set up at the Sorbonne.

Scholars such as Isabelle Robinet, Catherine Despeux and Livia Kohn have undertaken intensive research into different aspects of Daoism, such as techniques of ‘nourishing the vital principle’. Other important scholars of Daoism include pioneers in the field such as Henri Maspero – his Taoism is still a classic – as well as Max Kaltenmark, Rolf Stein, and Kaltenmark’s former students Kristofer Schipper and Michael Strickman.

Reflecting years of thorough research is Joseph Needham’s multi-volume investigation of Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 2 of which is dedicated to ideas of a philosophical nature. The study as a whole shows the rich spirit of inventiveness in China, and may be seen to indicate what seems to be true for much of Chinese thought, particularly of the early period: namely, that problem-solving without useful purpose was seen as an extraneous frippery.

Interesting new readings of Confucius have enriched the field of study in recent years, in particular the interpretations of Herbert Fingarette, Roger Ames and David Hall. Thomas Metzger in his fascinating book Escape from Predicament examines strands of thought in Neo- and New Confucianism relating to the emergence of political culture.

And if you believe that Confucianism has remained a mere object of academic study in the West, while its philosophical application continues as an incestuously Chinese enterprise, then get this: Since 1985 a number of eminent scholars at Boston University have been talking about a new form of Confucianism – ‘Boston Confucianism’.

Ice and Charcoal

The philosopher Mou Zongsan explains, that in dealing with the thought of other cultures we must learn to respect differences in “the nature of scholarship”, as well as in “the nature of the historical era”. He regards philosophy as the “directional pointer of cultural development”: philosophy has to do with who we are and from which cultural and historical angle we pose and approach philosophical problems. When we seriously engage with the thought of other traditions we might discover much about them, but perhaps also about ourselves.

© A. Steinbauer 1999

Anja Steinbauer is currently completing her PhD on aspects of contemporary Chinese philosophy at Hamburg University, and is President of Philosophy For All.


Finding out more

As an introduction to Chinese philosophy, I recommend A.C. Graham’s book Disputers of the Tao (LaSalle: Open Court, 1989).

Anja Steinbauer is an editor of Philosophy Now and is happy to answer your questions on Chinese philosophy. You can email her on anja.steinbauer@philosophynow.demon.co.uk

There are evening courses for the general public on Chinese Philosophy at City University in London. Call 5432798245789

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