THE COLUMBIA SOCIETY FOR COMPARATIVE PHILOSOPHY
Welcomes: TAO JIANG (Rutgers University)
With responses from: ESKE MØLLGAARD (University of Rhode Island)
Please join us at Columbia University’s Religion Department on FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 23rd at 5:30PM for his lecture entitled:
“Between Philosophy and History: The Challenge of Authorship to Classical Chinese Philosophy in the Western Academy”
ABSTRACT: The tension between philosophical and historical inquiries has been a perennial problem. Within the modern academy, the disciplines of philosophy and history are protected by their respective institutional norm and practice, without much need for interaction. However, Chinese philosophy, situated between Sinology and philosophy in the western academy, has encountered extraordinary challenges from both Sinologists (most of whom are historians) and (Western) philosophers. At the root of the difficulty facing Chinese philosophy lies its very legitimacy, torn between the historicist orientation of Sinology and the presentist orientation of mainstream contemporary Western philosophy. Such divergent disciplinary norms have put scholars of Chinese philosophy in a difficult position. On the one hand, they have to defend the philosophical nature, or even the philosophical worthiness, of classical Chinese texts in front of contemporary Western philosophers whose interests tend to be more issue-driven and in the philosophical integrity of ideas, rather than the historicity of ideas. At the same time, these scholars of Chinese philosophy, when dealing with Sinologists, need to justify the basic premise of their philosophical approach to the classics due to the historical ambiguity and compositional instability of these texts.
This presentation focuses a particular aspect of Sinological challenge to the modern project of classical Chinese philosophy through the lens of authorship, using the Zhuangzi as a case study. It explores profoundly troubling philosophical implications for texts whose authorship is in doubt as it undermines the legitimacy of the project of Chinese philosophy, at least in the eyes of many Sinologists. In order to counter such a challenge, I develop a new heuristic model of authorship and textuality in order to carve out a more robust intellectual space for the philosophical discourse on Chinese classics from the dominant historicist Sinological discourse. To do so, I propose a heuristic model to distinguish two sets of scholarly objects operative in Sinology and philosophy respectively, namely original text versus inherited text, historical author versus textual author, and authorial intent versus textual intent. These two sets of scholarly objects are related, at times overlapping but often irreducibly distinct, with the former in the pairs belonging to Sinologists and the latter to philosophers.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 5:30-7:30 pm
Rm. 101, 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University http://goo.gl/maps/zfUKH
UPCOMING COMPARATIVE PHILOSOPHY SEMINAR EVENTS:
October 13: ERIC SCHWITZGEBEL (University of California, Riverside)
November 11: TONGDONG BAI (Fudan University)
December 2: ALEXUS MCLEOD (University of Connecticut)
It’s my great misfortune that I can’t be there. I’d like to hear more about this, and not just because I want to scrutinize rationales for lumping Youzi together with Confucius.
I can see working out a theory of non-authorial meaning based on some specific theory of how a composite text came together, or based on a general convention as to the current practical role of the text. Both factors operate in judicial interpretation of the law. But where we’re ignorant as to how the text came together, and there’s no convention about proper use – then I don’t see quite how to proceed non-arbitrarily.
I suppose I’ve always thought, or assumed, that the philosophers who do the best work interpreting old Western texts are the ones who pay the best attention to historians’ questions. If being “presentist” means not paying attention to historians’ questions, then I’m inclined to think the norms of the profession Philosophy don’t advocate presentism. Granted, in intro-level teaching one does encourage students to engage with e.g. Thales right away, evaluating his proposals, and that kind of looks like presentism. On the other hand, it’s just an exercise; and to get them to engage with him one first asks them to set aside the science they know and try to look through his naive eyes.
I think it’s PJ who argues somewhere that the reason philosophy departments should look at ancient Chinese philosophy even though it doesn’t take the form of theories and arguments, is that philosophers (ethicists?) should survey experience of different kinds, and the old foreign texts present old foreign experience. Maybe such a rationale would on its face favor a zillion things philosophers don’t currently teach, over old Chinese texts, pushing them farther down the queue. Cervantes, Achebe, or Freud. That aside, I wonder if it would particularly disfavor non-authorial texts, for maybe one of these taken as a whole doesn’t quite reflect historical experience, as a mixed fossil skeleton doesn’t quite reflect natural history.
Hi Bill, thank you for your thoughtful reflection. Indeed, it’s too bad that we will not be able to engage each other at the talk. If you are interested, the paper, “The Problem of Authorship and the Project of Chinese Philosophy: ZHUANG Zhou and the Zhuangzi between Sinology and Philosophy in the Western Academy,” was published in Dao (2016) 15: 35-55.
I agree with you that interpreters of classical Chinese philosophy should be familiar with Sinological discussions on the classics. In my paper, I spell out three roles Sinology plays in classical Chinese philosophy: preparer, challenger and jail-breaker. Your observation very much echoes what I call the preparer role. My paper focuses on the challenger role.
For me, the problem with authorship is closely related to the problem of textuality. In other words, what is a text? What holds the text together if its author is in dispute? How should a philosophical interpreter deal with the coherence/incoherence of the text without being able to attribute some kind of intent to the text? etc. Historians have their own approaches to such inquiries, but philosophers should be able to hold their own ground without having to endlessly historicize a problem.
My conclusion is that historians and philosophers essentially engage with different sets of scholarly objects which are rather distinct even though they often overlap, namely, original/inherited texts, historical/textual author, authorial/textual intent. The former in the pair belongs to historians and the latter philosophers. The paper spells out in some detail how this works and addresses some potential concerns.
Anyway, thanks again for sharing your thoughts.
Thank you!! I hadn’t noticed the paper in Dao, because it looked like Zhuangzhi stuff and I haven’t studied the Zhuangzi.
I have read Tao Jiang’s article in Dao. It’s a lot to digest. I find it a very interesting and valuable piece. His starting point is that for philosophers, digging into the original of a hallowed text may only pulverize it into a plurality of vague spirits, looking at which disintegrates your philosophical project.
As an alternative, there is real philosophical value to philosophical interpretation of whole texts that have a longstanding and respected place in a tradition, even if it may be that they arose from many unknown hands perhaps reflecting quite disparate views, over a long period, by currently unknown processes that may have involved much mere accident—even to the extent that many of the sentences of the original may have been altered accidentally or even revised intentionally by people who misunderstood. And by “philosophical interpretation” here we mean something very like what philosophers usually do when they interpret whole texts.
That seems to me right. It leaves open some questions about fine points, which I’ll raise and discuss here in a scattered way. I think they are mostly very hard questions, and surely none of them is news to TJ; I just want to put them on the table. Some may be somewhat addressed in the paper.
1 ___ Burdens of the new approach
The article promises a “new heuristic model of authorship and textuality,” but it might better be described as defending or at least asserting the possibility of such models, and describing an advantage of having them. One can read an “inherited text”
I’m not sure to what extent the idea is that the interpretation of an “inherited text” is supposed to reflect the interpretations and practical roles of the text that have been integral to its high regard. A worry here is that in order to engage in this philosophical interpretation of an early text, a philosopher might have to be familiar with various centuries of Chinese philosophical and interpretive history. And that might be very large Sinological labor.
And if there are multiple kinds of new model, one might want multiple interpretations of a single inherited text. For it seems as though small variations in what model we choose could yield large differences in the substance of the interpretation.
Take the Analects, for example (even setting aside variations in post-Han understandings). One could read it as though each of its remarks (each that is not disputed by another party in the same passage) was made by the same person, whom one could call “Confucius.” Alternately, one could read it as though each of its remarks attributed to Confucius (and each bare unattributed remark that isn’t about him in the third person) was made by person 1, and each of its remarks attributed to Zengzi reflects the views of person 2, etc. These approaches might yield very different interpretations of particular statements.
And then there’s the figure of the Compiler to consider. Are we to suppose intelligent design? If we read the Analects sorted into a different order we would come to different understandings of some of the same statements. A collection can determine a reading by what it foregrounds and what it juxtaposes, and even by whether it groups statements by purported speaker. A collection that simply presented all the “Confucius” statements first, then all the “Yan Yuan” statements, and so on, with the “Youzi” group near the end, would paint a very different picture of the views of Confucius from the picture painted by the traditional arrangement. (See here .)
(I argued in “The Purloined Philosopher” PEW 58.4 that many different kinds of reason suggest that Youzi compiled the first book of the Analects, from authentic statements and his own compositions, partly in order to give the impression that Confucius held his views. One of the reasons is that a number of unique features of Book 1’s selection and arrangement of its 16 statements do give it that effect.)
Thus we might distinguish two senses of the phrase “the Confucius of the Analects,” both distinct from the historical Confucius. One is Confucius as portrayed by the Analects considered as a composition, an object whose arrangement works on readers in certain predictable ways. This “Confucius” held the view of 1.2 as one of his core views. The other is Confucius as portrayed by the aggregate of sayings explicitly or implicitly attributed to him in the Analects, all assumed to be authentically his, and the statements made about him, all considered to be true—considering this aggregate without regard to any order or arrangement. This “Confucius” did not hold the view of 1.2, and did not emphasize the family.
(Also there is the compiler’s question of the grouping of texts, into e.g. the Four Books. Should we read the Analects in light of the Xiaojing and the Kongzi Jiayu, or independently? Should we read those in light of the Analects, or independently?)
And we may ask: since internal analysis of the Analects definitely suggests that by 弟 Youzi meant a virtue whose salient application is in relations outside the family, while (I imagine) most interpreters starting just a few centuries later have taken him to mean subfraternity, how does the new model tell us to read the term in 1.2? On this may hang our new model’s determination as to whether or not “Confucius” emphasized the family.
Another issue is whether, alongside the interpretation of the Analects or the Confucius of the Analects, we are to have an interpretation of the oeuvre of Youzi, the aggregate of the statements attributed to Youzi (and the statements about him) as a distinct and philosophically valuable object, scattered as it is among four or five ancient collections, though the readings of particular statements in the Youzi Oeuvre may differ greatly from the readings of the very same statements in interpretations of the Analects or the Confucius of the Analects.
(Also there is the compiler’s question of the grouping of texts, into e.g. the Four Books. Should we read the Analects in light of the Xiaojing and the Kongzi Jiayu, or independently? Should we read those in light of the Analects, or independently?)
In one place the Kongzi Jiayu represents Youzi as asking a question of Confucius, and receiving a long lesson about the relation between the family and the state. (I think that probably never happened.) How should this passage inform our reading of the Youzi Oeuvre? Should it lead us to read Youzi as a disciple of Confucius, and read the Youzi Oeuvre in that light?
And then we may ask how far we should import the Confucius of the Xiaojing or the Confucius of the Kongzi Jiayu into our reading of the Analects. Does it depend on which set of later interpreters we are privileging?
Of course, we could do all the different kinds of interpreting, generating no end of publications. But: (a) one of the main arguments for the new model is supposed to be that it saves labor for philosophers, while (b) since many of the parameters of the new model are matters of degree, there would seem to be an unlimited number of possible interpretive projects for any given text. Some models may yield philosophically better results than others—different models for different texts. But finding which ones yield philosophically better results is not wildly different from the kind of investigation needed to sort out original authorship—a sinological project for which, indeed, “philosophy is not extra.” Maybe it would make more sense just to aim to interpret the original authors or like-minded groups so far as these can be identified; and as for the significance of a text to a later generation, read that as a separate object whose primary texts are the later texts of that generation.
(Some individual authorial minds may yet be identifiable in ancient texts—the juries are not all in—and these may be worthy of philosophical interpretation.)
2 ___ The discipline of philosophy: its defining kinds of work product
Where Anglo academic philosophy aims to find answers (to big basic unsettled questions about reason, the world, and life) in the form of theories, the Chinese or at least the Confucian tradition may aim at a different kind of verbal work product: sayings for various kinds of individuals to cherish, texts for them to live in, rules for rituals, and conversations with the king.
In the 2014 piece TJ mentions, Rein Raud says,
It doesn’t though. (A) It differs from other academic fields in not claiming to have established any truths special to itself: not necessarily because it can’t establish general truths, but because (I think this is the majority view) once established, a truth would be regarded as having graduated from philosophy. Physics, for example, once it found sufficiently solid conceptual and empirical footing, was no longer a topic of philosophy; though there is room for debate about how much credit philosophy can take for that graduation. And (B) I think academic philosophy aims ultimately at representation-independent truths only in the way that most fields do: not expecting radical or superhuman independence. This is an aim that can be contrasted with the aim of constructing elegant sayings for everyday use (or convenient devices such as the Periodic Table); but Raud’s presentation suggests a grandiose conception that contrasts with the more modest main aims of other academic fields, and I think that’s not correct.
Tao Jiang’s paper sometimes sort of maybe seems to suppose that the kind of interpreting that philosophers commonly do is an instance of philosophy properly so-called. That makes me wonder whether, or to what extent, he is thinking of the philosopher’s essential project as the development of interpreted texts, not as tools toward developing theories that answer the philosophical questions, but rather as the final work product of the academic disciple of philosophy. E.g.:
For the Anglo tradition, reading and interpreting old texts has at bottom the same role as reading and understanding journal articles has for any field. We do it to get input into our philosophizing, and we do it to know what page others are on so we can discuss better. But interpreting isn’t, strictly speaking, an act of philosophy.
( Granted, (a) in academia we casually speak of interpreting Greek philosophy as “doing Greek philosophy,” and (b) one can specialize in interpreting, as one’s main job in a philosophy department (though interpreters who also have directly philosophical specialties are preferred). (c) Like reading journal articles, reading old texts well is a practical part of doing philosophy well: in that sense, interpreting is part of philosophy. Conversely, (d) good interpreting normally involves doing some direct thinking on philosophical questions, and in that sense doing philosophy is part of interpreting. Also, (e) among the core skills of the discipline are those of communicating and understanding when language is not well prepared for the ideas (the normal case in the field); and in that sense there is a great deal of similarity between the collective activity of doing philosophy (even without books) and the activity of interpreting ancient texts. Nevertheless, the two projects are investigations of two radically different sorts of object. Anglo academics tend to think that only one of the projects is properly called philosophy, strictly speaking. Further, the usual view in the profession is that as between the two kinds of question, philosophical and interpretive, the philosophical ones are far more important. Philosophy is the purpose, the real project; and interpretation is its tool. This judgment informs even most interpreters’ conception of their calling, of its point. And people think this judgment should determine which texts, and which features of those texts, get major academic attention from professional philosophy. )
An Anglo philosopher would typically think that insofar as interpreting the Zhuangzi as a whole involves constructing a philosophical system, the philosophical project proper is the construction and defense of the system. That project does not vanish when the Sinologists bring their bad news; it does not lose its object. It did not in principle need the Zhuangzi at all.
We might ask whether steeping oneself in great Interpreted Texts could serve instead of theories. Such steeping might help give an individual or community a decent general orientation to life, but could it serve to found an academic discipline, or to put general orientations on a solid academic basis?
And would there not still be a difference between what the interpreters mainly talk about in working up an interpretation, and what the texts themselves mainly talk about?
Would this conception of philosophy, as aiming to generate salutary interpreted inherited texts, justify tendentious interpretation, in which one’s main reason for putting forth a good reading is simply that it makes the text say better things? Is that kind of project compatible with TJ’s new model?
And how great is the theory-replacing value of steeping oneself in Inherited Texts that rely heavily on false and obsolete assumptions about, say, the basics of proper social organization?
3 ___ The value of tradition’s imprimatur
Western philosophers who interpret old texts focus almost entirely on a very few old texts, from very very few authors (though the pressure to publish widens the net). Apparent weaknesses in the texts are to be approached with great care because of the authors’ demonstrated brilliance—and because we compensate for our philosophical slowness by a certain idolatry of the big names, comparable to an idolatry of big texts.
Tao Jiang defends taking “inherited texts” as interpretive objects partly because the longstanding respect for these texts taken as wholes is some kind of guarantee of sheer philosophical quality. But how much does it guarantee quality? The answer depends on how critical the respecting culture has been, how open to challenges, how free from extraneous motives such as career, etc.
Here’s a challenge: Was the text-as-a-whole long respected because of a mistake: that it expresses the authority of a sage author? Or was the text long respected with the kind of “respect” that is compatible with inventing and propagating a new tendentious interpretation? What do these kinds of respect guarantee?
When one engages in tendentious interpretation, does that mean taking advantage of other people’s respect for the sage? Was that the normal case in the tradition? Or was it rather common knowledge that the text is next of kin to an especially rich Rorschach blot, and we’re just trying to work out a way to use it as an inspiration and mnemonic? Is that what the text has been and should be respected as?
(A different point in favor of interpreting “inherited texts” is that, good or bad, they have been influential: understanding them is important for understanding the broader interpretive object that is the later philosophical tradition.)
4 ___ Swimming in icky waters
In various respects the paper sort of recommends that interpreters say things that are very easily confused with falsehoods: giving interpretations of virtual products of virtual authors. Maybe even virtual (tendentious) interpretations. To a significant extent, the attractiveness (and the value?) of the interpretive results, for their audience, may depend on that confusion on the part of the audience—their mistake about the project as TJ conceives it, to be sure.
An Anglo philosopher needs a certain set of tastes in order to do her work well, including a taste for avoiding falsehood and avoiding misleading; staying out of that neighborhood. That’s big in the self-concept.
Hence the paper’s proposed kind of interpretation is such as might well strike most Anglo philosophers as distasteful, and as the kind of thing they should find distasteful. On a gut level, that’s how I feel about it. Should I? I’m not sure.
Further to “3 ___ The value of tradition’s imprimatur”, and in particular to this question about old texts: “Was the text-as-a-whole long respected because of a mistake: that it expresses the authority of a sage author?”
–or even, I want to add now, simply the mistake that it is the work of an author?
If a text springs from one person, then the impressiveness of one passage is evidence of the value of other passages we do not yet understand, or do not yet understand as valuable. But if a text is an aggregate from unknown sources by unknown processes, how is the impressiveness of one passage (or several passages) evidence about the value of other passages? The presence of some prima facie impressive passages is not evidence of an impressive compiler.
If the tradition mistakenly supposed that the text was the work of one author, the tradition would reasonably but perhaps mistakenly take the presence of several great passages as establishing a presumption that the text is valuable throughout.
This point complicates, but of course does not settle, the question of the value of the tradition’s view that the text is great and worthy of interpretation as though it is authored.
… As I think about it more, I think what in particular makes new-model interpretation distasteful for me personally is that to interpret that way I’d have to be pretending to myself that I were looking at an authored text. I feel I would never have had any interest in studying Chinese philosophy if I had always seen it that way, nor any interest in reading such interpreters. And yet I like puzzles and novels … I suppose the interpretive activity would feel less wrong to me insofar as there were very clear rules of the game. That would make for a sharper cleaner distinction between that game and lying or self-deception.
In “The Intentional Fallacy,” Wimsatt & Beardsley are talking about interpreting literature (in the narrow sense), and especially (I think) about trying to paraphrase it, to report what it says – as we would be doing if we said “In Hamlet, what Shakespeare is really saying is, ‘He who hesitates is lost.’” (And maybe, regarding another work: “At the end, Tony Soprano was shot.”) Wimsatt & Beardsley have a good case regarding literature, better than regarding philosophy. (And an especially good case regarding movies, which are collective products.)
In my Hamlet example, what the interpreter is offering is a statement radically different in kind from the sentences in the text. In the text, indeed, Shakespeare doesn’t exactly say anything at all. (In the Clouds, Aristophanes gives himself a long speech.) But philosophical texts usually offer the same kind of statement that their interpreters offer. Philosophical interpretation typically aims to be something like a clarificatory rewriting, even to capture the views of the author (which she might not have articulated to herself with perfect clarity). When we think we can solve a problem the author couldn’t, we draw the distinction.
Poets, as Plato says in several works—or Socrates, or Plato’s Socrates—work by a kind of inspiration. That’s right on the whole, yes? Story-writers produce interesting stories, based in large part somehow on their immersion in life, or on intriguing but perhaps atypical moments; and their good sensibilities make the stories profound. So it makes sense that, as Plato/Socrates says in the quotation with which Wimsatt & Beardsley begin, poets aren’t good commentators on their works. That’s for reasons that don’t necessarily apply to philosophical writing.
I wrote about some of the issues of Tao Jiang’s paper here, under Oddities #6 and #7 and the last paragraph under #3.
I said that for an interpreter, noticing who the author is and looking at her other works is obviously mandatory. Of course that applies only if there is at least a putative author who can be connected plausibly to other works. Does it apply on the New Model if we are interpreting two distinct texts traditionally associated with the same named “author”?
There’s reading the Zhuangzi as though it had one author, and there’s reading the Zhuangzi as though it had one author who was the Zhuang Zhou named by Sima Qian. For TJ, adding that second bit is very important, for this text and in general. I don’t understand why. What are the benefits? Is it just to locate the text in time and space? Or e.g. to associate the Zhuangzi with the Daodejing? I talk about the costs under #7, and here above.
Oops, after that last asterisk I should have said “#5 and #7.”
(My thought was not that such pretense is essential to new-model interpretation, but rather that it might be essential to my doing it well, because of how I feel my way into a text. I’m not sure.)
Why wouldn’t I have been interested in pursuing Chinese philosophy on that model? For one thing, I tend to think of the history of philosophy as something one pursues chronologically. And the pre-Qin big names are what caught my attention when I was young enough to be caught. That’s how it is for most people, yes?
Why wouldn’t I have been interested in pursuing pre-Qin material on the new model? Well, at the outset it’s a pretty big leap of faith to think that that kind of reading is worthwhile. One wants palpable rewards at each stage. What does the Westerner starting Chinese philosophy with pre-Qin Chinese philosophy get?
She may want to think that she is reading in each case the considered work of a particular person; or in the case of the Analects at least the sentences of a particular person. Publishers encourage her to think so; they understand initial incentives. The new model seems to involve abandoning the hope of identifying the ideas of particular authors.
Further, she may have in mind the idea of a transformative figure of the Axial Age—a Jesus, a Confucius, a Siddhartha Gautama, maybe a Socrates—as though that were a type. Maybe it is. An extremely profound thinker whose views are presumably deeply right in some way and also deeply unique, but quite likely misunderstood because of the paucity of the evidence and because in recent millennia almost all of their interpreters have had massive ulterior motives for their interpretations and for their sorting of the evidence into more and less reliable. Also, one might expect such a thinker’s vision to have a high degree of internal elegance such that one does not need separate evidence for every bit of it; really thoughtful appreciation of a few bits might go a long way. She might think there are exciting possibilities here for a philosopher/historian who is unencumbered by the respective traditions. The new model does not have room for this kind of project.
Our Westerner might at least think she is getting access to really ancient views. Or at least, she may think that in doing an intelligent original interpretation of a large chunk of text she is getting access to the views of at least one person. On the new model, she should refrain from actually thinking so.
Still, on the new model she may hope she is getting possible indirect access to the philosophical views of later interpreters. But she is not yet reading them, and they—is this usually fair?—were mistaken in thinking the text was the work of one person. And those interpreters’ reading of the text may be quite different from the best reading based on the assumption of unified authorship, so that in doing good intelligent reading of the text on the new model she may not be moving toward the views of any interpreters.
So what is the draw?
Of course another possible incentive, no part of anything I’ve said above, is that she may come to the Chinese material with the expectation regarding some particular topic or topics, that Chinese philosophy may do a distinctively good job in that area. There is perhaps some difficulty about combining this incentive with pursuing an original new-model interpretation of a text, as such an activity does not aim precisely at uncovering any views ever held in China.
What first drew me personally to Chinese philosophy was D. C. Lau’s translation of the Daodejing, when I was an undergrad. It’s strikingly beautiful English philosophical poetry; radical, confident, brilliant-seeming, and mysterious. Too bold and beautiful to be as hollow as one might think. Since I thought it was by one person I hoped there was some coherent vision behind it all, something that might be recovered. A tantalizing challenge. When I stopped thinking it was by one person I lost that big hope.
What drew me to the Analects, later, was Youzi’s 1.13a, once I read it in Chinese (which I learned for reasons unrelated to philosophy). But to my mind the Analects never lived up to the promise of that passage – until I divided it into different authors. (Of course I found some other charms in the Confucius material.)
A CLASSROOM EXERCISE
Here’s a proposal for a kind of class assignment (or self-training exercise), inspired by Tao Jiang’s new model for interpretation of pre-Qin texts. I mean the proposal seriously.
We have some book-length pre-Qin texts that came together in unknown ways from unknown sources, reflecting intelligent design to an unknown degree. Reading them as unified texts can be philosophically productive, not least because to do it we have to think up original solutions to apparent problems. But there might be a more efficient way.
We could generate an unlimited number of our own much smaller texts from pre-Qin materials, by deliberate serendipity. For example, we could by a random process generate sets of three or five passages from the Analects—or, say, three passages from the Analects and one chapter or two couplets from the Daodejing—and try to make sense of them as a single text: reading them as an unordered collection of short pieces by one unknown pre-Qin author (or, alternately, as an ordered composition by one author). We could try to interpret this collection as we would interpret such a whole: looking for an elegant idea to account for all the parts, or at least looking for elegant ways to resolve prima facie tensions.
In teaching students how to read the Analects or the Daodejing, one has to train them up to a certain kind of active reading, and this little exercise might be an efficient training method at the beginning of the unit. One could have the class do it two or three times in discussion, then assign other such texticules as individual homework.
Also: presumably we all think somebody should still be trying to sort pre-Qin texts into chunks that were shaped pretty much under the control of a single author or like-minded group. Reasonable sorting of that kind depends partly on philosophically skilled interpretive judgment that is not biased by traditional clumpings and associations (“I am accustomed to seeing these together, so they feel together to me”). How better to learn to overcome such bias than by thoughtful exposure to genuinely random collections and juxtapositions; by experimenting in trying to feel and articulate philosophical coherence (里) in random small collections?
Further, the exercise might be an effective way to stimulate one’s creative imagination about what kinds of views real pre-Qin philosophers might really have held.
Two more thoughts:
I wonder whether there are certain kinds of interpretive argument that are appropriate if we can assume one real author, but not necessarily appropriate on the new model. I’m thinking, for example, of the arguments I make in §C.7 here, where the idea is that toward reading a certain sentence, we look elsewhere in the text to check the supposed author’s stylistic patterns.
I’m not quite sure why I feel this kind of argument might not be appropriate on the new model.
I think a minimal standard of professional ethics or academic probity for the use of the new model is that the interpreter must ensure that a reader, even a casual reader (such as an academic from another field seeking background information), could not mistake the interpreter’s claims for claims about what some historical figure thought. A warning in a footnote or preface, saying that one is going to use the name “Zhuangzi” as a kind of dummy name, would not in fact be enough to prevent misunderstanding. One thing that would suffice would be to design the name itself to prevent the misunderstanding: calling the counterfactually assumed author “Pseudo-Zhuangzi” or “X-Zhuangzi” or something like that.
Here’s another question about what kind of interpretive consideration might be ruled out or in by the “the new model.”
On the model as Tao Jiang lays it out, we are to interpret the old text as though it were written not just “by one person,” but rather as though it were written by a certain named ancient person, the person with whom the text is traditionally associated. I think that’s the idea. But now suppose we discover some new biographical information about that person, unknown to (or ignored by) the tradition, but otherwise prima facie relevant to the interpretation of some parts of the text. Should we take that information into account, on the new model?
Here’s an example of how biographical information can be relevant. In Analects 2.21 and 9.6, Confucius seems to speak of his relations with his father. But we have a largely unchallenged ancient report that Confucius’ father died when he was about two years old. Partly on that basis I have argued (in section D here) that Analects 2.21 should be read as doctrinally empty, not as an indispensable statement of a big core doctrine. This is an important issue for the interpretation of Confucius and the Analects generally.
Suppose this ancient report were unknown to the long Chinese interpretive tradition. Once we discover it, should we take it into account, on the new model?
Alternatively: suppose this ancient report was well known and unchallenged (as I imagine is the case), but that interpreters and commentators simply never mentioned it in connection with the explication of 2.21 or 9.6 (which I suspect is also the case, distressingly). On the “new model,” how should we proceed? Should we suppose that the author’s father died when the author was two years old, or not? (Does it matter whether we ourselves trust the report?) How we answer these questions for the new model could make a big difference to our broad-strokes reading of Confucius or the Analects, on the new model.