Berthrong's Question

One of the things I just read (on my list of “things I should read before I run into this person at a conference”) is John Berthrong‘s “Boston Confucianism: The Third Wave of Global Confucianism” (Journal of Ecumenical Studies 40, nos. 1-2 (Winter-Spring 2003): 26-47). In it, Berthrong discusses at length questions about “the contested definition of Confucianism” (26) and the extent to which Confucianism can be “a portable intellectual tradition in Boston as well as Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Kyoto, and Tokyo” (ibid). At the end of the piece, he asks an intriguing question:

…wherever the Confucian Dao was seriously entertained as a philosophical and religious teaching, it was studied assiduously in the classical Chinese written language. The great Ruist scholars of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam all wrote in classical Chinese. The question before the modern Confucian community is whether there can be a Ruist movement without a mastery of the communication medium of classical Chinese. …Can a person who does not read classical Chinese be said to be a part of the Confucian Way? If not, why not? Or, if so, why so? This is an important question that should engage anyone interested in the revival of Confucianism in the twenty-first century. …[It] will be up to the Confucian community of scholars to give a reasoned answer to the question of the necessity of linguistic competence for membership as a real twenty-first-century Ruist scholar. (46-7)

Well, I’m not sure I’m a Confucian or a Ruist scholar — though I write about Confucianism/Ruism — but this seems like an interesting question to try to answer. By the way, this is tangentially relevant to Fingarette-palooza, since Fingarette is one of Berthrong’s examples, along with Robert Neville, of contemporary philosophers who “have written important works about Confucian thought” (38) but who were not “trained formally as a Sinologist although each relied on the best scholarship about Chinese thought available in their times” (ibid). Not only that — Berthrong adds more strongly that they “wrote works that often illuminated Confucianism more insightfully than did professional students of the history of Chinese thought” (39).

What say ye?

12 replies on “Berthrong's Question”

  1. Sounds like at least two questions here. Do you have to read classical Chinese to produce illuminating scholarship about the ru? And, do you have to read classical Chinese in order to count as ru? I’m inclined to say these questions get different answers.

  2. Interesting questions! For the moment, let me just note the following conference, to be held May 1-2 at Rutgers University:

    East Asian Confucianisms: Interactions and Innovations

    Here’s a description:

    The main focus of the conference will be on the interactions between Confucian traditions in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam and the innovations that resulted from the exchange of ideas among Confucian scholars across national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. A major concern of the conference is the question whether these interchanges among East Asian Confucianists has led to the formation of a “Confucian community” and a system of thought that transcended national traditions. Despite the generally supra-national character of Confucianism in East Asia, local conditions did impact on the development of regional Confucian traditions. Therefore, the term “East Asian Confucianisms” perhaps can be used to highlight the fact that Confucianism, especially in the early modern period, represented a shared intellectual tradition across East Asia with regionally specific modifications. It is hoped that through such an approach the conference will afford the opportunity to ask new questions and clarify the historical outline of the development of Confucianism in East Asia. Furthermore, it is also hoped that the re-conceptualization of “East Asian Confucianisms” may shed light on their prospects and possible contributions to the dialogue among world cultures in the 21st century.

    For more information, see:

  3. The term “Ruist movement” seems to be a bit of a tricky one.

    What marked the early Confucian writers and their followers in east Asia during China’s cultural hegemony was a desire not just to research, think and write about Ru, but to promote Confucianism as a social practice. The term “movement” to me implies this sort of sociopolitical agenda. For this socially active Confucianism, I’m not sure any level of insight or important philosophical work is necessary. It might demand a certain level of effort and commitment to Confucian texts as part of the social education program, but it seems plausible that students could spend their time studying modern Chinese or English translations. Confucian texts aren’t like the Qur’an, after all.

    For philosophical research and discussion, the language barrier shouldn’t be any more of a problem than it is for other philosophers, Bible scholars, or other text-based practices.

  4. Great post.

    This is just an initial thought. One way to make Confucianism more portable is to engage in more problems-based discussions. The analogous example I think of is Gregory Vlastos’ paper on Plato’s Third Man Argument– a very specialized discussion of a very specific problem in Plato that was nonetheless important enough to non-specialists to merit responses from major mainstream figures like Wilfred Sellars and Peter Geach. The Third Man problem is “portable” in that it takes only a couple of minutes to explain to a trained philosopher, and after that the heated debate can begin– which means you can take it with you more or less anywhere. At least from what others have told me, it was papers like this one by Vlastos that led to the incorporation of Ancient Greek philosophy into mainstream analytic departments.

    I realize that there are already a number of specialists in Chinese Philosophy who have a like approach. But I guess the question I would be interested to hear others’ views on is, what are some similiarly portable problems we can get from Confucian texts?

  5. Hey All,

    Interesting perspectives. It feels to me like there are two issues, too. The first may seem less problematic — at least for answering Berthrong — though I’m inclined to think it’s slightly more complicated:

    A. Does a person need to know classical Chinese to be a “practicing Confucian”?

    I think Phil and Dan both broach this as one distinct construal of Berthrong’s question. I’m not so sure that an answer to it is so clearly distinct from the answer to this:

    B. Does a person need to know classical Chinese to contribute, as a scholar, to understanding Confucianism better philosophically?

    I think actually that a strong version — and one with lots of historical precedent — of “practicing Confucian” actually includes within it the idea of being a scholarly contributor to understanding its texts and viewpoints philosophically. So, I think the answer to A and B can be treated at the same time. (Though some will be interested in B without being invested in any kind of answer to A, someone interested in A, in the strong version of “practicing Confucian,” should also have to answer B.) I think I want to distinguish either of them from the following, however:

    C. Does a person have to know classical Chinese to produce high quality historical, or sinological scholarship, about Confucianism?

    C is a bit uninteresting because it seems to me the answer is just clearly affirmative, based on the insertion of “sinological.” The standards of sinology are less disputable here than those of philosophy.

    So, the interesting question for me would be B. And I’m inclined to answer, not so straightforwardly, that knowing classical Chinese is very important — nearly essential (if that admits of degrees). That is because the relying on “the best scholarship about Chinese thought available in their times” (Berthrong’s phrase) is problematic, largely because judgments about “the best scholarship” in a given time can be highly contentious. It may be that there is a hegemonic interpretive scheme at some given time, one that holds sway because of institutional controls of various sorts, but relying on that threatens to make the unwitting scholar merely a kind of stooge for the empire, as it were.

    Here’s an entirely hypothetical scenario of the sort I imagine: Some philosopher who is highly regarded in Western ethical theory works on Mencius and produces an interesting and influential reading of Mencius’s moral psychology, one that has some relevance to a general philosophical dispute about weakness of will, say. However, that philosopher does not read classical Chinese; her readings instead are based on how she understands Mencius through the work done on Mencius by a majority of scholars writing in English. Most or all of those scholars, however, are the product of an institution and a set of senior scholars whose particular reading of Mencius, though contestable, is often presented as a matter of fact as the only credible reading.

    I find this bothersome. Of course, knowledge of classical Chinese might not have any effect either — by hypothesis (on my little scenario) there are plenty of Chinese reading scholars who’ve signed on to the hegemonic interpretation.

    Anyway, some thoughts I had about the issue…

  6. Manyul,

    Re: B (or a variant thereof)

    I know very little Greek and rely on English translations of Aristotle and Plato. Now especially as regard to the latter, there are various translations/interpretations and interpreters (the latter in the hermeneutic sense and sometimes making their own translations, sometimes relying on well-known translations/interpretations of others), some perhaps hegemonic in different periods, but certainly there’s been little consensus on many key Platonic doctrines/ideas, and “Platonism” itself tends to go in and out of favor (it seems there’s few folks today who, like the late Iris Murdoch, tend to identify with Platonic thought in general, indeed, contemporary references to same tend toward the platitudinous). Nonetheless, I have my favorite interpretations/interpreters (T.K. Seung, Gonzalez, Nussbaum, sometimes Annas, Bobonich; and consult Vlastos, although I often disagree with his readings/interpretation) and rely on them when discussing Platonic ideas. Now while I don’t make claims to originality or creativity with regard to either philosopher, am I thereby prevented from helping others come to some sort of philosophical understanding of Aristotle or Plato? And might it not still be possible that I could say something original or creative in any case? Is it not possible for me, as an academic, to contribute to understanding, say, Aristotle’s Politics or Ethics, or Platonic dialogues, better philosophically? I would think as long as the translations/interpretations one relies on are relatively free of egregious errors or “howlers” then one’s lack of proficiency in Greek, while not the best of all worlds, is not necessarily determinative when it comes to the possibility that one might have something of philosophical merit to contribute. And thus in the case of classical Chinese thought….

  7. Hi Patrick,

    My sense of the two fields is that they differ, at least in terms of degree, with respect to these issues. Maybe that means I don’t quite agree with Phil and Tim (above) that a good analogous case for Chinese philosophy is ancient Greek philosophy — at least not at this point in the scholarship. I feel like with ancient Greek phil, there are more things that can be taken for granted by those of us who, even if we’ve had a little Greek, rely on translations and secondary scholarship for the most part. Might that make me a stooge for hegemonic forces unknown to me? If so, my original point stands. If not, then this current qualifier stands. So, I feel relatively safe here.

    The difference of degree in the two fields might be the product of less “agenda-driven” trends in scholarship about the ancient Greeks, though now that I’ve said that, I suppose there are Straussians, and who all, to worry about. Or maybe there is something to the differences in genre of the primary philosophical texts in the two traditions that makes for the greater difficulty of interpretation in the case of the Chinese? I’d welcome more insight from others here.

    Changing currents ever so slightly: I do like to sit with a Loeb Library edition so I can at least glance at what’s going on in the Greek text, while reading the translation on the other side of the open page. I think that is why a lot of people who have had some Chinese like the Legge volumes, which seem modeled on something similar to the Loeb texts.

    Let me repeat, however, that I don’t completely rule out valuable contributions to understanding Chinese philosophy by someone who is not trained at all or trained very little, in classical Chinese. I just have some relatively tentative ideas right now about the limits to that.

  8. Hi All,

    I would agree that there is clearly a level at which the (classical) chinese language is not necessary in order to attain a degree of familiarity with Confucian or other Chinese philosophical thought through the ages.

    But, one can argue that there’s a sliding scale here, where stronger language abilities perhaps bring greater prospects of novel insight. Where an individual scholar chooses to positions herself in this regard, however, is a different kettle of fish…

    One reason I offer this view is because of the quite different interpretations of the same classical texts that have been produced in the English language circles in the last twenty years. I mean interpretations at a general level about what the texts are about, and how the major themes or concepts are to be understood, which have implications for how particualr passages are understood or debates conducted: the background assumptions that come to mind as the text is read profoundly affect how the text is understood, and as they change so does the text’s meaning (eg, is the Analects pre-philosophical, an assertion of customary morality, or is it the beginning of a substantial rethinking of how to live? etc).

    I’m not a Greek scholar, and I’d be interested to know about the extent to which there is dispute over such ‘big picture’ questions regarding the texts.

    This worry points to the value of hermeneutical engagement with a set of texts from the period, using each to gain insight into what a particular text was ‘saying’ (relying the assumption that the texts were addressing each other). And since many of these texts are not available in English there’s at least a prima facie historical reason for reading classical Chinese. And of course, even if all the texts were available in English, the same problem might still apply.

    A second reason might be given, which is much less plain. And that concerns the account of ‘meaning’ that one is working when trying to derive meaning from such alien texts. One can read the texts treating the langauge (and writers) as imbued with a strong sense of the logical implication generated by the sense of a language. Concepts or propositions float free of the language but are pointed to by the words. After clarifying the meaning of a sufficiently large number of sentences of a text, one can establish the position of the text and so relate it to some relevant problem and compare it to positions found in other texts and traditions. But it’s not clear that the texts yield sufficiently clear ‘meaning’ in this sense, or that they were written to persuade in such a discoursive fashion.
    With regard to how to derive meaning from the texts much has been written on the pictographical quality of graphs and radicals and their contribution to meaning. One could argue that the more aware one is of such factors, the better placed one is to indentify intriguing links and suggestions in the text. Similarly, work on the importance of syntactical structure, parallelisms, and the role that associative or imagistic thinking and punning play in generating the meaning of characters and sentences seems very important to gaining insight in the meaning of texts.

    Of course, it’s not necessarily helpful to remove all the furniture from the room in a Cartesian manner before reading the texts; building on existing interpretations is important. Still, the vagueness or the nuances of the text often get in the way of clear and unambigious truth-sensitve propositions. And while that’s a little inconvenient, it might just be the way the texts are.

    So the second argument for working with the original language is just that it allows one to engage directly with these issues. If these worries (whose exact significance is disputed) are bracketed on one side, the (english) texts sometimes feel surprisingly straightforward…until one meets a scholar with radically different views of the same text and all one can do is be struck at how wrong they are…..

  9. Ooh, lots of exciting ideas!

    Manyul’s idea that Chinese philosophy is different to Greek philosophy makes sense to me if it’s framed as one of time: there’s been hundreds of years of research into the Greeks, and some basics have been sorted out. While there was textual research in late dynastic China, philosophical research into early Chinese texts is a recent development. Wait another 100 (50? 20?) years, and it will be more possible to do Chinese philosophy working from translations.

    But I think several comments have suggested that there might be an intrinsic difference between the two fields, as opposed to a historical contingent difference.

    Manyul: “maybe there is something to the differences in genre of the primary philosophical texts in the two traditions that makes for the greater difficulty of interpretation in the case of the Chinese?”

    Stephen: “some of our -zi texts pretty much look like fragmenta collections all by themselves, and no realistic authorial attribution is forthcoming.”

    Andy: “it’s not clear that the texts yield sufficiently clear ‘meaning’ in this sense”

    My immediate reaction is to think there might be three ways in which a text might be difficult:
    (a) we lack the background to understand it
    (b) it doesn’t form sustained philosophical arguments in the way we expect
    (c) the language isn’t clear because classical Chinese is highly abbreviated, not a full representation of the spoken language

    All of these seem possible, but I don’t see how any of them would be mitigated by learning classical Chinese. If we don’t know the background, then we don’t know it, and learning Chinese won’t help; if we do know it, it can be explained in English. If there are no sustained philosophical arguments, then the text probably isn’t philosophically interesting – it’d be like the Yi Jing. (Incidentally – why does the composite nature of the Zhuangzi bother us more than a that of a modern philosophy paper with two authors?) And if the language isn’t clear to a professional translator of classical Chinese texts, why would it be any clearer to me?

    So, I find it hard to imagine what kind of features a text could have that would make it *intrinsically* difficult to engage with it in translation. But on the other hand, I wonder about the motivation of a person who wants to engage with a text without learning its language. It would be difficult to be a philosopher without using Greek ideas; but if you want to study ancient philosophy, it would be a given that you’d learn Greek. Similarly, you could be someone working in the Confucian tradition without classical Chinese, but it would be odd to try to study classical Chinese philosophy without learning the language.

    I also want to respond to Stephen when he said “for someone like Xunzi, scholarship in all the minutiae of the texts and rituals really is critical for the success of the Ru enterprise.” I get that, but would the minutiae of the texts have to be read in the original language? Is the Analects like the Qur’an? I also think that this statement and Manyul’s “a strong version…of “practicing Confucian” actually includes within it the idea of being a scholarly contributor” rather ignore Confucianism as a social tradition. Sure, all the famous Confucians are ones who made scholarly contributions; but what about the unknown Confucians? As Stephen says, early Confucians were “activist” – which means they wanted to affect the practices of people who would never even read their texts, let alone engage with them in a scholarly way. Confucianism can survive as a dead tradition through the work of philosopher-scholars; but the “Ru enterprise” surely needs more than that? Could I go so far as to say it needs non-scholars (i.e. non-readers of classical Chinese), or it will have failed to be a program that informs practices throughout society?

  10. Leaving aside the issue of political vs. academic Confucianism for a moment, the last few comments seem to be saying that the current English-language (and presumably modern Chinese-language) scholarship about early Confucian texts is not sufficiently mature to support real philosophical work without reading the original texts themselves.

    But there are hints from Stephen and Andy that they think this problem might not be fixable – it’s not a historical contingency that not enough work has been done yet, but a feature of the texts themselves that it is not possible to establish a basic understanding like we have with the Greek philosophers. I’d like to address this idea.

    First, what kind of texts would raise this kind of interpretation problem? It seems to me that there are three kinds of reasons why a text would be impossible to interpret authoritatively.
    (a) We don’t know the cultural background – I find it hard to believe that this holds in this case.
    (b) The texts don’t carry philosophical meaning in the way we expect them to because they’re “fragmenta collections”. If this were true, then the texts wouldn’t be of great philosophical interest, would they? They’d be like the Yi Jing. But many texts do seem to contain examples of sustained philosophical argument; and multiple authorship is not assumed to imply any lack of coherence in modern scholarship.
    (c) The language of the texts is underdetermined. If the language of the texts is a reasonable representation of a natural (spoken) language, then they can be understood. But some texts are written in highly literary form which may require extensive knowledge of both the culture and literary forms to interpret.

    All of those seem to be possible arguments, but none of them implies that knowing Classical Chinese would help. If the cultural knowledge is gone, it’s gone, no matter how much Chinese you read. If the texts aren’t fully comprehensible, then they won’t be any more comprehensible to you than to a translator.

    So this kind of argument doesn’t seem very applicable to the current question. Manyul’s point seems more relevant: there simply hasn’t been enough work done yet on the early texts to establish baseline readings, so a scholar in this field needs to be engaging with the texts. In a hundred years (or even 20?), the situation may be different.

    Finally, I’m interested in Stephen’s suggestion than “for someone like Xunzi, scholarship in all the minutiae of the texts and rituals really is critical for the success of the Ru enterprise.”

    I can see that knowledge of the texts would be crucial for some/all Confucian schools, but why would it have to be in the original language? I mentioned he Qur’an earlier – surely Confucius’s words aren’t going to be taken as a holy text (especially as he didn’t personally write them). Back in the dynastic period, Classical Chinese was the international language of culture and scholarship, in part because of China’s hegemony; that’s no longer the case, so it’s no longer a given that you’d read the texts in the original. To insist on it now seems to be not much more than cultural chauvinism. Cultural chauvinism might be an inalienable part of Confucianism, but if so, it’s always going to be a minority interest…

  11. (Apologies to Phil — somehow his comments got classified as spam by my spam robot (bad robot!). So, it looks like Phil repeats a few things in his second attempt, #13. But I de-spammed both his comments since they’re slightly different, and both very interesting.)

  12. Yeah sorry about that – I’m in Shanghai, have to work through a proxy to get to you, so I was worried that the first version (comment 13) had been eaten by the internets.

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