Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

A Report on “Philosophy of the Past: Early Chinese Philosophy in Context”

Philosophy of the Past: Early Chinese Philosophy in Context

Report by:

Tom Mazanec, Kay Duffy

On a chilly late-winter morning, as the sun pierced through leafless tree branches and the dotted snowscape melted into auguries of spring, a small band of scholars met in Princeton University’s Jones Hall to discuss methods for studying early Chinese philosophy.[1] Organized by two Princeton graduate students, Mercedes Valmisa and Sara Vantournhout, the conference drew approximately twenty-five attendees to hear four main presentations and several hours of lively debate. Martin Kern (Princeton) served as moderator for presentations by Carine Defoort (KU Leuven), Jane Geaney (University of Richmond), Mark Csikszentmihalyi (University of California, Berkeley), and Paul Goldin (University of Pennsylvania) on topics ranging across a wide variety of early texts, employing four distinct methodologies.

Carine Defoort, “Thinking Mozi in Contexts: on Sun Yirang’s Clarifying Commentary on the Mozi

The morning began with Carine Defoort on the construction of our current understanding of Mozi. In nearly every modern study, Mozi is associated with ten theses (e.g., “Inclusive Care” and “Rejecting Aggression”).[2] However, these ten theses (taken from chapter titles of the Mozi and the “Lu Wen” fragment) were not identified as such until the late 19th century, by the late Qing scholar Sun Yirang. Defoort’s argument was strengthened by comments from Mark Csikszentmihalyi and Paul Goldin that the Mozi was preserved in the Daoist canon until the 15th century, and that his status as a logician was first articulated by Liang Qichao and Hu Shi in the early 20th century.

Especially helpful was Defoort’s theoretical framework, which adopted Hannah Arendt’s distinction between “thinking” and “knowing” (from The Life of the Mind). Thinking is self-reflexive, uncertain, and an end in itself; knowing aims toward objectivity and certainty, and is a means to the end of creating facts. Defoort stressed that every scholar does some of both, and that both are worthy goals of inquiry. During the discussion, a debate erupted on whether placing a text in its context was more characteristic of thinking or knowing. The topic remained unresolved, as coffee had arrived.

Jane Geaney, “The Prehistory of a Metalinguistic Term: Implicit Assumptions about Yi in Early Chinese Texts”

For the mid-morning session, Jane Geaney presented one part of her current book project on the development of yi 義 (duty, dutifulness, propriety, moral appropriateness, moral rightness) as a meta-linguistic term. Drawing on an enormous database of pre-imperial Chinese texts, Geaney argued that in the early period yi is conceptualized as external in contrast to ren 仁 (kindness, humaneness, benevolence), which is conceptualized as internal. Yi and ren form a mutually reinforcing binary pair, with each typically defined against the other in spatial terms. This new understanding of ren and yi was then used to reinterpret the debate between Mencius and Gaozi in Mencius 6.A.4, with Geaney arguing that Gaozi’s position was in fact the more common one. Thus, Mencius’ project is to be understood as a radical intervention in which the internal is seen as the basis for the external, rather than its complementary opposite.

In terms of methodology, Geaney’s most important contribution to the discussion was to note that her use of databases is not a neutral act. Her digital-philology approach involves a conscious decontextualization in order to produce new ways of understanding early texts. Unfortunately, very little of the ensuing discussion focused on the pros and cons of Geaney’s methodology. Instead, the discussion circled around the ethical implications of this new definition of yi, questions which Geaney declined to address, on the grounds that they weren’t related to her larger project of yi as a meta-linguistic term.

Mark Csikszentmihalyi, “Cherry Picking in the Forest of Scholars: On the Methodological Implications of Different Models of Text Formation in the Study of Early China”

After a long and leisurely lunch, full of idle conversation and free and easy wandering about campus, the workshop resumed with Mark Csikszentmihalyi’s presentation. Readers, he argued, create consistency by selectively engaging passages from their texts, a thesis illustrated by examining various interpretations of the famous “butterfly dream” of Zhuangzi, chapter 2. Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates that the contradictory interpretations of Herbert Giles (1889) and Guo Xiang (early 4th cent CE) can both be justified via reference to parallels in the same chapter of the Zhuangzi. This despite the fact that Giles is roundly maligned as an Orientalist (e.g., by Hans-Georg Moeller) while Guo is seen as an authoritative early commentator. Cherry-picking is necessary to create consistency within a text. Assuming a certain degree of consistency is necessary to interpretation.

Paul Goldin objected to the “rigidly historicist” nature of the argument, while Martin Kern shifted attention from the reader to the author (or Foucault’s author-function) as the agent of consistency.[3] Csikszentmihalyi positioned himself against Herbert Fingarette’s Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (1972), arguing that Fingarette (and other self-described “philosophers”) are using early texts to construct modern philosophies, but that they attribute their new ideas to major thinkers of distant past. Tao Jiang (Rutgers) and Csikszentmihalyi, while applauding Fingarette’s work, forcefully argued that he should recognize where the 5th century BCE ends and where the 21st century CE begins.[4] As Martin Kern pointed out, the question we need to start asking is, what is at stake in the claim to antiquity?

Paul Goldin, “Non-deductive Argumentation in Classical Chinese Philosophy”

For the final presentation of the day, Paul Goldin presented a list of types of non-deductive argumentation in Masters texts. Less an argument and more a typology, Goldin highlighted paradox, analogy, and appeal to example/anecdote as the three main modes of reasoning. Aside from a few examples in Mozi (such as “Inclusive Care”), very few early Chinese arguments can be restated as propositional logic. Instead, most assume the reader’s active participation in interpretation. Thus, Goldin concluded that Chinese philosophy is more context-specific than its Western counterparts, requiring, like other Chinese arts, the cultivation of connoisseurship.

Of course, as Michael Davis (Princeton Theological Seminary) and others pointed out, non-deductive argumentation has a very strong presence in the Western philosophical tradition, and thus should not be claimed as a uniquely “Chinese” form of reasoning. Moreover, Goldin’s typology is by no means definitive, as Kern and Goldin himself noted. There remained hope that further research could be used to develop the work of Christoph Harbsmeier (University of Oslo), especially his Thesaurus Linguae Sericae.

Mercedes Valmisa and Sara Vantournhout, Concluding Remarks

The workshop concluded with brief remarks from its two organizers, Valmisa and Vantournhout. The two were pleased by the diversity of methodologies employed by the four presenters and for the rich discussions which emerged throughout the day. On the other hand, they noted that the central questions of the Call for Papers (e.g., “What is a context?”) remain unaddressed.

General Observations

The papers which most explicitly addressed methodology, and thus generated the most productive discussions, were Carine Defoort’s and Mark Csikszentmihalyi’s. Both highlighted the dangers of mistaking modern readings for inherent meanings in ancient text. The papers by Csikszentmihalyi and Jane Geaney emphasized the necessity of selecting contexts: one can always fault an interpretation for not taking in one’s own pet theory – no one is capable of addressing every context equally. Hence the risks of talking past one another.

While the four papers presented a range of methodologies, the tone of the workshop remained stubbornly sinological. Questions of textual history, rhetoric, and history took center stage, while other questions (e.g., the ethical and philosophical implications of these texts) remained untouched. This approach reflects the interests of the organizers, their selection of speakers, and of Princeton’s Department of East Asian Studies as a whole. A few of the attendees were more closely aligned with “philosophy” than “sinology,” such as Tao Jiang and Andrew Lambert (Western New England University). Their presence led to productive discussions during breaks. We believe that the workshop would have been greatly enriched by the addition of at least one self-described philosopher among the presenters.

Valmisa and Vantournhout are to be applauded for their organization. The day’s leisurely schedule left much time for discussion and conviviality, those spaces between knowing where thinking takes place.

Tom Mazanec is a graduate student in the Department of East Asian Studies and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities at Princeton University. He is currently working on a dissertation on Buddhist poetry of the Late Tang.

Kay Duffy is a graduate student in the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University working on medieval Chinese literature.


[1] “Early China,” at its most general level, designates the time period prior to the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 CE. When used to describe “philosophy” or “thought,” it often refers to the “Masters” texts (Analects, Mencius, Zhuangzi, etc.) understood to have taken shape during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE).

[2] Cf. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Mozi

[3] It is our opinion that Csikszentmihalyi’s conclusion more closely resembles Stanley Fish in Is There a Text in This Class?, especially the essay “Interpreting the ‘Variorum’” (1976/1982) that it does Michel Foucault’s in “What Is an Author?” (1969). That is, the texts themselves, inasmuch as they are meaningful bodies of language, are constructed by “interpretive communities” which change gradually over time. The difference between Csikszentmihalyi and Fish is that where the latter ends on a bleak note, the former holds out hope that new methodologies can break us free of the commentarial tradition.

[4] One philosopher roundly applauded for clearly stating his goals was Bryan Van Norden (Vassar College).

February 25th, 2014 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Methodology, Sinology | 8 comments

8 Responses to A Report on “Philosophy of the Past: Early Chinese Philosophy in Context”

  1. Steve Angle says:

    Many thanks to Tom and Ky for this splendid report! Others who would like to file similar reports from other events are hereby encouraged to contact Manyul or myself!

  2. Paul R. Goldin says:

    Can’t say I recall that the Thesaurus Linguae Sericae ever came up, but otherwise I consider this a fair and accurate report.

    I agree that the discussion could have benefited from the presence of more philosophers.

    • Paul R. Goldin says:

      Oh, I do see one statement in the summary that I have to challenge:

      “Thus, Goldin concluded that Chinese philosophy is more context-specific than its Western counterparts, requiring, like other Chinese arts, the cultivation of connoisseurship.”

      I didn’t make any such comparison between Chinese philosophy and “its Western counterparts”–and wouldn’t have done so, since I think it’s just as dangerous to generalize about Western philosophy as it is about Chinese philosophy. The passage that I think Tom and Kay have in mind is the final paragraph of my paper:

      “One consequence is that Chinese philosophy tends to demand a high level of interpretive participation from its audience. Perhaps this is what Confucius meant when he said, “I begin with one corner, and if [a student] cannot return with the other three corners, I do not repeat myself” 舉一隅不以三隅反,則不復也 (Analects 7.8). If the strength of deductive argumentation is supposed to be that it yields correct inferences regardless of circumstance–modus tollens is as valid in Dallas as in Krasnoyarsk–then it follows that deductive argumentation yields the same results regardless of the audience’s mood, receptiveness, perspective, and so on. By contrast, an audience presented with a statement like “Only after the year has grown cold does one know that the pine and cypress are the last to wither” must ponder it sympathetically–or else derive little, if any, benefit from it. Nor is the meaning that one discovers necessarily identical at every juncture of one’s life. In one’s youth, the statement about the pine and cypress could mean one thing; as one matures, gains experience, and compares it to other opinions one has encountered, it could take on previously unimagined dimensions. Chinese philosophy, like literature, painting, or music, requires connoisseurship. If we lack the taste–even more so if we exempt ourselves from the task of developing it–we will miss most of what Chinese philosophy has to offer.”

      It’s possible to say that Chinese philosophy demands a high degree of interpretive participation from the audience without making categorical claims about Western philosophy in the process.

  3. Hwa Yeong Wang says:

    Many thanks to Tom and Kay! I appreciate your effort to make a great report and to share it with us. I could find a part that will contribute to my dissertation.

  4. Re: Csikszentmihalyi’s presentation
    I especially like “Cherry-picking is necessary to create consistency within a text” and his point about modern philosophers using the ancient texts to construct modern philosophies, despite attributing them to the ancients. Of course, this is very Chinese of them. ;-)

  5. Michael Ing says:

    Thank you for this report.

  6. Jane Geaney says:

    Sorry this is rather belated…I want to thank Tom and Kay for their report and give credit to Paul Goldin for an idea that might seem like it was mine. In response to my paper, Paul made a case that we should understand Mencius’ project as a radical intervention. That is an interesting idea, but it is not something I’m prepared to claim based on my research. My method—which could be described as decontextualizing uses of yi and then re-contextualizing them in relation to a larger corpus of texts—allows me to highlight the association of yi with internality in the Mengzi and the Mo Jing, in contrast to the association of yi with externality in other texts. I find vague indications in the Mengzi and the Mo Jing of a possible awareness of some of the kinds of thinking that, I argue, might lie behind the general tendency to associate yi with externality. But my method does not support drawing a conclusion about Mencius, the person, being fully aware of the ideas of his opponents, and deciding to go against the crowd. I made a more cautious argument about the Mengzi passages conveying the impression of a lack of interest in understanding the opponents’ views (hence Kay and Tom’s reference to “talking past each other”). I’m eager to see new questions and methods applied in the study of Early China, so I appreciate Tom and Kay’s suggestion that we might benefit from more discussion about the pros and cons of such a method.

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