Song Reviews Li, “A History of Classical Chinese Thought” (Lambert, trans.)

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2020.06.17 View this Review Online   View Other NDPR Reviews

Li Zehou, A History of Classical Chinese Thought, Andrew Lambert (tr., intr.), Routledge, 2020, 353pp., $160.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780367230128.

Reviewed by Bin Song, Washington College

It is a daunting task for me to review Li Zehou’s work, not least because while born in and always philosophizing about the same land, Li had entered his intellectual heyday in the 1980s when I was not yet a teenager. While reading Li’s work using Andrew Lambert’s stellar translation, I repeatedly asked myself: what is the difference between him and me regarding the approach to doing comparative Chinese philosophy? Why is there such a difference? What can I learn from him? And what inspirations can Li’s work generate globally.  Since there are English resources[1]that introduce Li’s thought, I won’t dwell on those questions. Instead, I will critique Li’s philosophy as presented in this book.

One big difference between Li and me[2] is that I am no longer sympathetic toward any grand narrative of Chinese history and philosophy. By “grand narrative,” I mean the effort to find objective rules through studying all of Chinese history in order to provide insights for guiding China’s transition to modernity. Li grand narrative differs from that of other Marxism-influenced thinkers in his mainly adopting Marx’s earlier thought on humanized nature, rather than Marx’s full-blown historical determinism and theory of class struggle. Li creates his own concept of cultural-psychological formation to argue that once certain traits of Chinese philosophies were created out of human praxes materialized in some historical periods, they could be “sedimented” (Li’s term) in Chinese people’s general cultural-psychological consciousness, attaining a degree of stability and inflexibility. Therefore, when pondering the viable path towards China’s modernization, Li thinks that this cultural-psychological formation should be taken as an underlying real historical force, in tandem with technologies, modes of production, economic institutions and other fundamental material powers identified by Marxism. In this sense, compared with the orthodox Marxism prevalent in the time of his writing, Li grants more autonomy to human individuals, and treats part of the so-called superstructure of a society as no less important than its economic basis.

Even if Li’s thought was a significant innovation on the orthodox Marxism of the time, I still view him as creating a grand narrative. His narrative is distinctive because he discovered another objective historical rule, termed the cultural-psychological formation, but this new discovery was still made largely using Marxism’s method of historical materialism, and served the same grand nationalistic goal. My suspicions about this type of grand narrative in the study of comparative Chinese philosophy derives from three major points.

First, Li’s work pivots around a typology of human thought conducted via a broad survey of selected Chinese thinkers and an even broader comparison with non-Chinese thoughts. For instance, in contrast with the Christian-Greek Western culture depicted as one of “guilt” coupled with a highly intellectual attitude towards nature and human beings, Li describes the cultural-psychological formation of Chinese people as constituting a culture of “delight” guided by a “pragmatic rationality” committed to human relationships and this-worldly happiness (xviii, 215, 220). Li thinks that this feature was first systemized in Confucius’s thought, incorporated by many other schools of thought in history, and eventually sedimented  as a stable trait of Chinese culture in general.

My major issues with this sort of typological study are how we, as a scholarly community, debate these generalizations, and how far our debate can advance the related scholarship as a collective body of human knowledge aimed to solve common problems of human life in specific contexts. More concretely, suppose that scholars were to raise objection to Li’s generalizations, objections based on evidence within Chinese philosophies, how would Li defend himself? He could conceivably respond that such evidence was not prevalent enough to ground major characteristics of Chinese thought. However, how can we decide whether a characteristic is common to a majority or minority in Chinese cultural history? If we define “majority” in a purely quantitative sense, then, we need to do a social survey to ask all living China-born or Chinese-speaking people questions about their thought on contested points in those generalizations; or we can digitize the whole body of available historical literature pertaining to those generalizations and analyze whether certain views prevailed or not. Apart from the issue of the viability of doing so, I seriously doubt whether Li or any other philosopher would accept this approach, since whether a set of quantified “particles of thought” can adequately represent a thinker’s or a group of people’s philosophical mindset remains highly uncertain.

An alternative approach to identifying a majority characteristic of human thought in a given history is to take a selected topic of research and assess the characteristic’s influence, rather than its quantitative prevalence. For example, Li could argue that characterizing the dominant Confucian culture in China as one of delight coupled with pragmatic rationality helps to explain why it did not develop those distinctive traits of Western culture, and why the historical encounter of China with the West has proceeded in a specific manner. I have two issues with this qualitative approach to defining major features of Chinese thought. First, any contrary evidence that cannot be used to highlight the contrast between so-called Chinese and Western thought will be readily denounced by the comparativist as irrelevant, which will make those grand generalizations essentially non-debatable. Second, it requires a method other than the hermeneutics of philosophical texts to explain how a set of philosophical ideas has an impact on the actual unfolding of Chinese history in its varying periods and contexts. In other words, if the so-called cultural-psychological formation identified by Li can indeed be counted as a real historical force functioning as a “cause” of historical events, much more work needs to be done beyond a very finely crafted intellectual history of classical Chinese thought. I come back to this methodological point of historical study later when I compare Li with Max Weber.

In a word, I am suspicious of scholarship on comparative Chinese thought which is decisively structured by a typological method. Based on the reasons given above, I think the seemingly objective and scientific nature of typological study is hardly defensible in the area of humanities in general, and in the realm of comparative philosophy in particular. Generalizations may be inevitable for reading philosophical texts, but they had better be treated as temporary, or even subservient heuristic tools, the efficacy of which depends upon how they can help readers attend to details, diversifications, dynamics, and rigorously identified problems in the rich history of cultural interactions and human lives. I do not disapprove of generalization as such, but I do remain doubtful about generalization as one dominant motif of a study of comparative philosophy.

Second, if we look into the cultural-psychological formation, per se, generalized by Li through his reading of classical Chinese philosophical texts, we find that it coheres extraordinarily with itself, and almost intuitively serves his broader purpose of providing historical explanations regarding China’s encounter with the West. In brief, a metaphysical commitment of this formation to “no transcendent ontology” (319) grounds an aesthetical feeling of “delight” towards this “one world” (xvii) as a whole, and the aesthetics furthermore conditions an ethical attitude of optimism and pragmatic reasoning towards human life here and now rooted in the cherished value of human relationships to the well-being of individuals. These traits of Chinese thought are seen as aiming for “sageliness within” at the individual level, while in politics they entail a vision of virtuous leadership and coordinated social management characterized as “sageliness without” (118, 276).

Nevertheless, my second concern is precisely about why the generalized cultural-psychological consciousness could be this coherent. The relationship among each mentioned dimension of Chinese thought is actually much more diverse, with certain cases contrasted sharply with each other. For instance, even if we can admit that no transcendent ontology is common to all classical Chinese thought (which, however, remains highly controversial in current scholarship), different schools of thought or varying thinkers can have a very different aesthetic feeling (such as the Confucian delight, the Daoist coolness, or the Buddhist bitterness, to name a few) towards the world as a whole. Even if entertaining the same positive feeling towards the world, ethicists have vastly different understandings of human nature, showcased, for example, in the debate about human nature between Mencius and Xunzi in the Confucian tradition. Again, even if agreeing that human nature is essentially good, scholar-officials who actively pursued politics may have drastically different policy tendencies as indicated by all the in-fighting among Confucian ministers in history. However, I guess Li would respond to my objections by saying that his generalization is about mainstream classical Chinese thought, and that everything else lies on the margin. That said, let us go back to the majority issues I raised above: who decides the mainstream? How can it be done? And for what legitimate purpose does this need to be done? In particular, why is this mainstream a coherent whole, rather than an incoherent or semi-coherent cloud of ideas vulnerable to further organization and adaptation? Without a detailed answer to each of these questions, I’m inclined to think that what Li furnishes is simply another construction of classical Chinese thought per his own interest, which is hardly debatable from the perspective of public scholarship.

Since the concept of cultural-psychological formation is also intended by Li, as a Chinese philosopher, to guide his participation in global philosophical conversations (260-263), I take with a grain of salt that we need such a coherently self-defined image of “Chinese thought” for that reason. Contemporary philosophers enjoy the advantage of historical hindsight. Through hindsight we can find that many aspects of classical Chinese thought cannot be unambiguously valued as either true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, advanced or antiquated vis-à-vis its Western counterparts. For instance, the all-interconnected worldview featured in the theory of Yin-Yang and Five Phases, formed during the Han Dynasty, may be unsuitable for abstract logical thinking entailed by the formation of mechanistic modern science. However, the emphasis of the theory upon holism and process makes it a stellar candidate for reconfiguring the scientific model that humans need to use today in various life and social sciences such as biology, medicine, and economics. Given the deeply ambiguous nature of classical Chinese thought, what aspect of it needs to be highlighted by a comparativist in order to present a coherent philosophical interpretation of it to converse with other parts of the world? The answer depends on the concrete common issues the intended scholarly community is tackling, and whether the comparative insights can be constructed as contestable human knowledge according to rigorously defined research methodologies. Because of this, I feel quite uneasy whenever I am labeled a “Chinese philosopher” or an expert on Chinese philosophy in varying academic venues, since what is “Chinese” and how to construct “Chinese” in any philosophical endeavor are challenges a comparativist needs to face.

The two critiques I offered so far can be boiled down to this: without a further defense of one’s starting research interest and a corresponding clarification of how broad cultural generalizations contribute to a fallible and improvable piece of knowledge, we cannot decide which aspects of Chinese thought are the mainstream and whether this mainstream coheres with itself in face of the extremely diverse, complicated, and ambiguous nature of classical Chinese thought. Nevertheless, supposing that the traits identified by Li are all based on sound interpretations of classical Chinese thought, and are indeed its mainstream, we are still uncertain about how such a constructed cultural-psychological formation can explain the unfolding of historical events. This leads to my final critique of Li’s thought.

There is a major difficulty for Li’s claim that the formation is a real, sedimented historical force functioning as a cause of historical events. His argument doesn’t account for how the envisioned causal relationship plays out in concrete historical situations. Now, consider Weber’s work on the origin of capitalism, which is widely accepted by sociologists as having furnished a robust methodology to prove the causal role of ideas in social events. In his argument that the Protestant ethic is a cause of modern capitalist economy, Weber does not treat the ethic straightforwardly as one element in the superstructure of a society which can have a reverse influence towards the economic basis, a framework of Marxism that Li adopts. Instead, the ethic is seen as an “ideal type” which a sociologist constructs for the purpose of further causal analysis. In order to prove that such an ideal type can indeed cause a social event, the sociologist in question needs first to confirm the correspondence between it and the actual mentality of human agents involved in the social event. Accordingly, Weber connects his analysis of the Protestant ethic to the spirit of capitalism manifested by a capitalist workforce’s mindset. Secondly, the sociologist needs to locate a social mechanism to explain how ideas in humans’ minds can be transformed into materialized human behaviors conducive to the organization of the social event. In Weber’s work, this second moment of argument focuses upon the role of “pastoral care” provided by Protestant churches to the capitalistic workforce.[3]

We do not find any similar analysis of the key concept of cultural-psychological formation in Li’s work. Instead, Li presents the content of this formation through interpreting classical Chinese philosophical texts, and talks of how it functions as a historical cause in China in a very broad way. As a result, readers may remain confused about how the constructed formation works concretely in social realities. Li might respond that Weber’s method of sociology has gone beyond the normal purview of a philosopher’s work on the history of ideas. I surely agree that sociologists can be inspired by Li’s concept, and then continue to explore the causal role of classical Chinese thought using Weber’s methodology. However, since Li adopts Marxism’s historical materialism as a framework of his philosophy and treats the concept of cultural-psychological formation as intrinsically causal, I don’t think an emphasis upon the disciplinary boundary between philosophy and sociology is a significant defense.

This said, I ask my readers not to think, given my critique, that I did not learn anything from Li. I sincerely admire his spirit of free and original thinking that is so rare in the works of Chinese scholars in his generation. From a global perspective, the concept of cultural-psychological formation may not be as exciting as many of the concepts (e.g., feeling as the root state, anthropo-historical ontology, and human praxis as the foundation of aesthetic experience) that Li elaborates in his other books. Most importantly, we now have a new, very well-crafted and well-translated general history of classical Chinese thought, which is truly exciting!


Lambert, Andrew. (forthcoming) “Li Zehou: Synthesizing Kongzi, Marx, and Kant.” The Dao Companion to Contemporary New Confucian Philosophy. David Elstein, ed. Springer Press.

Rošker, Jana S. (2020) “Enriching the Chinese Intellectual Legacy: A Review of Li Zehou’s ‘A History of Classical Chinese Thought’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (12): 1-7.

Song, Bin. (2018) “Confucianism, Gapponshugi, and the Spirit of Japanese Capitalism.” Confucian Academy, 2018 (4): 176-188.

Yang, C.K. (1968) “Introduction.” The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism. Trans. Hans H. Gerth. Free Press: i-xxix.

[1] Lambert (forthcoming) and Rošker (2020) include the most recent introduction to Li’s thought with extensive references to available English resources.

[2] I think the difference also registers for many peers of mine in the field of comparative Chinese philosophy, so the difference is not only individual, but generational. However, it is hard to speak on behalf of a generation without more organized reviews of peer-philosophers’ work, so I merely speak for myself in this review.

[3] Yang (1968) analyzes the structure of Weber’s argument, and I apply this structure to discussing the role of the Confucian ethic in Japan’s modernization in Song (2018).


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