Reviews of Three Books

Issue 75:4 (2013) of The Review of Politics contains reviews of three recent books in Chinese and comparative philosophy:

  • Doh Chull Shin: Confucianism and Democratization in East Asia. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. x, 366.), reviewed by Albert H. Y. Chen
  • Tongdong Bai: China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom. (London: Zed Books, 2012. Pp. 177.), reviewed by Michael Nylan
  • John A. Rapp: Daoism and Anarchism: Critiques of State Autonomy in Ancient and Modern China. (London: Continuum, 2012. Pp. xi, 292.), reviewed by Edward S. Krebs

Nylan’s review of Bai is relentlessly critical, concluding that:

When all is said and done, this book highlights the enormous chasm that currently exists between Euro-American and PRC scholarship on a great many issues relating to the early empires in China. Tying scholarship so tightly to contemporary politics does not make for careful analyses likely to ameliorate long-standing disputes between the two great continental powers, as is Bai’s ostensible goal. Instead, this book will irritate knowledge- able readers while confirming others in their old prejudices. (p. 679)

It’s surprising to hear that a book as provocative as Bai’s will confirm people’s old prejudices. What Nylan means is that Bai’s picture of early China is based, she says, on a variety of views (e.g., that “zhongguo” means “Middle Kingdom”; she says it means “Central States,” courts once closely allied with the Zhou kings) that critical historians have long since rejected. She also objects to Bai’s characterizing Confucians and Daoists as belonging to schools, and wishes he had attended instead to the many overlaps among the early texts. And so on. Some of her points strike me as accurate and useful; others as tendentious but certainly based in relevant scholarship; and still others veer toward the realm of the “simplistic or unsubstantiated” that she says she finds in Bai’s book. As far as one can tell from the review, Nylan did not find a single thing of value in Bai’s book. I daresay there is an enormous chasm between the largely historical goals of Nylan’s scholarship and the largely philosophical goals of Bai’s. This is not to say that philosophers cannot learn from historians, or vice versa. But there are many challenges, not the least of which is learning to approach one another charitably, mindful of differing objectives and audiences.

8 replies on “Reviews of Three Books”

    • Odd, we have it through Cambridge Journals, which SHOULD avoid the one-year embargo, but the most recent issue I can see is 75.1.

    • Our subscription does the same thing for some reason. If you limit the search parameters to “This Journal” and then search for “Nylan” the review comes up.

    • Thanks, that works for me too.

      Her tone may be snippy, but she makes a lot of good points, and I’m not buying the defense that she’s just a historian who has misunderstood a philosopher’s aims. If you misrepresent the past, a historian is gonna getcha–and it should be possible to produce compelling philosophy without misrepresenting the past.

    • Fair comment. Good points are important even if they are snippy as long as the intent is to get the story right.

  1. Thanks, Steve, for posting these and for offering some perspective on Nylan’s review. I just read the review. I haven’t read Bai’s book, but I’m familiar with some of his other work. Nylan’s uncharitable review, indeed, highlights the chasm between the historical approach and the philosophical approach. I think it also highlights the challenging position of philosophy within the academy when we attempt to work across disciplinary boundaries.

    In doing pre-modern Chinese philosophy, we may be viewed by others as encroaching on the turf of historians, literature specialists, anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, sociologists, political scientists, etc., depending on the scope of our work–each one of whom can potentially criticize us for not being up to date on that field’s literature. And because we are doing philosophy, we also have certain obligations to getting the philosophy correct from the perspective of what our colleagues in Philosophy departments identify as proper philosophy, and so we have to be up-to-date on their work. And beside the historical aspects of fields, in order to make our work relevant, we may have to cross over into contemporary fields, such as law, psychology, cognitive science, etc. On top of this, because we are working in the China field, we should also be aware of relevant contemporary literature written in Chinese (and some would even say in Japanese, perhaps even French and German) in all of these fields. Taken together, that’s a pretty big job, and one can be excused for certain oversights given the pace of literature growth in any one of these fields in English, let alone all of them together in all relevant languages.

    That said, I tend to take uncharitable, discipline-focused reviews such as Nylan’s as a useful reminder of our obligation to get the background scholarship as right as possible whenever our own scholarly endeavors take us outside of pure Chinese philosophy (if there is such a thing). I’m not defending Nylan (or Bai) but am just pointing out, first, the difficulty of living up to the standards of other fields when doing our work, and, second, the obligation to make the attempt nonetheless. (Not that any of the contributors here need the reminder.)

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