Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Hall and Ames–"Postmodern"?

A comment on Van Norden’s uses of the term postmodern in Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy:

Van Norden often refers to the approach that Roger Ames and David Hall take toward Chinese texts as “postmodern.” Based on Van Norden’s own depiction of postmodernism, there’s something puzzling in this tendency. Here is Van Norden on postmodernism:

“The term has been in use since the early twentieth century and is used by different thinkers in different ways in different intellectual disciplines. However, one of the most influential characterizations was given by Jean-Francois Lyotard, who described it as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’ I take him to mean the following. A narrative is any account or story, such as evolutionary theory. A metanarrative is a story about why a particular narrative is justified, or why we ought to believe it. …However, postmodernism’s ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ means not believing that any metanarrative is justified. In other words, one does not regard as objectively warranted any claims to truth.” (VECECP, 3)

Here are a couple of central snippets (can snippets be central?) from Ames’ and Hall’s “Apologia” for their approach in Thinking Through Confucius:

“We have openly resorted to a method which we shall term (before our critics, with less constructive intent, have a chance to do so) ‘cross-cultural anachronism.’ That is to say, we have sought to understand the thinking of Confucius by recourse to issues originating within contemporary Western philosophic culture, issues which Confucius may well have not explicitly entertained. Although this method has required frequent resort to anachronistic references, our ultimate aim has been to provide the grounds for arriving at a more accurate picture of Confucius’ thinking independent of such reference.” (TTC, 7; emphasis added)

“We wish to challenge the understanding of Confucius’ Analects as a mere repository of culture-bound ethical norms relevant to the origin and development of classical Chinese culture, and to promote the relevance of his vision as a potential participant in present philosophic conversations.” (TTC, 6; emphasis added)

It doesn’t seem very clear that Ames and Hall are postmodern in the sense Van Norden identifies as influential. If anything, the two desiderata of historical accuracy and relevance expressed by them seem to make their project very much like Van Norden’s, at least in aim. But maybe there are aspects of Ames and Hall that are postmodern in some other sense than Lyotard’s. Van Norden hints at another sense in this comment:

“…the post modernists [such as Ames and Hall] are right that any faithful interpretation of Ruism will not attribute to it any sort of Cartesianism. Ruists are not metaphysical dualists, nor are they epistemological foundationalists. …It is certainly true that Ruism is not ‘modernist,’ but this does not entail that it is ‘postmodernist.’ Readings of the original texts that make it seem that Ruists advocate creativity unconstrained by human nature, Heaven, and tradition seem very forced to me. Furthermore, precisely because the postmodern interpretation of Ruism renders it so similar to Rortian pragmatism, it offers nothing inspiringly new to contemporary debates. Finally, if our choices are between modernism, postmodernism, and a hermeneutic approach, I find the third the most promising.” (VECECP, 324-5)

I have two thoughts here. First, it seems like Van Norden is being unhelpfully loose, terminologically. He doesn’t mean that Ames and Hall are themselves postmodern in their approach (maybe he thinks this, but that doesn’t seem to be his point here). He means that they attribute to the early Chinese views that are characterizable as postmodernist–Ames and Hall’s interpretation “renders” Ruism “so similar to Rortian pragmatism.” But then, second, it seems like Van Norden should distinguish Rortian pragmatism from Lyotard’s postmodernism. Unless I’m mistaken, Rorty’s view is not that we should be incredulous toward any metanarrative, but that we should be incredulous toward thinking of the metanarrative as somehow providing non-contingent, “externally objective” grounding, grounding that could serve us in some (modernist) foundationalist sense. Nonetheless, a metanarrative can serve us with the right sense of our own historical contingency and its relationship to the metanarrative. In that sense, Rorty’s view is postmodern–in rejecting foundationalism; but I don’t think in that sense Rorty’s view is any different from what Van Norden glosses in the following footnote as the “hermeneutic” approach to philosophy that he favors:

“By ‘hermeneutics’ here I mean not just the position of H-G. Gadamer…but rather the broad range of positions that agree with postmodernism in rejecting Cartesian foundationalism but seek to retain the ideal of philosophical progress through dialogue and constructive argumentation.” (VECECP, 325 fn.4)

That doesn’t seem very different from Rortian pragmatism but maybe someone who knows Rorty’s views better can correct me.

In any case, on the Ames and Hall approach, the pragmatism template is self-consciously applied to early Chinese texts because they think it helps to make the text, particularly certain terms, more coherent in an overall reading of the text. I’m not sure why it is cogent criticism of the approach that it doesn’t provide anything “inspiringly new to contemporary debates.” That makes it seem like if you can’t make an ancient text seem inspiringly interesting to contemporary debates, then your interpretation is no good.

Comments welcome!

June 8th, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics | one comment

One Response to Hall and Ames–"Postmodern"?

  1. Bill Haines says:

    Manyul, that’s a very interesting post; it helps sort things out for me.

    This comment is a little off-target, because it is not about Hall and Ames; it’s about Van Norden and Lyotard. As Van Norden points out, Lyotard doesn’t own the word ‘postmodern’. But he owns the idea that to be postmodern is to be incredulous toward “metanarratives”, and I think Van Norden is a little off-target about what Lyotard means. Here’s how Lyotard introduces the terms ‘metanarrative’ and ‘postmodern’ near the beginning of “The Postmodern Condition”:

    “Science has always been in conflict with narratives. Judged by the yardstick of science, the majority of them prove to be fables. But to the extent that science does not restrict itself to stating useful regularities and seeks the truth, it is obliged to legitimate the rules of its own game. It then produces a discourse of legitimation with respect to its own status, a discourse called philosophy. I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth. For example, the rule of consensus between the sender and addressee of a statement with truth-value is deemed acceptable if it is cast in terms of a possible unanimity between rational minds: this is the Enlightenment narrative, in which the hero of knowledge works toward a good ethico-political end – universal peace. As can be seen from this example, if a metanarrative implying a philosophy of history is used to legitimate knowledge, questions are raised concerning the validity of the institutions governing the social bond: these must be legitimated as well. Thus justice is consigned to the grand narrative in the same way as truth.
    “Simplifying to the extreme, I define *postmodern* as incredulity toward metanarratives.”

    Van Norden reports Lyotard’s term ‘metanarrative’ this way: “A metanarrative is a story about why a particular narrative is justified, or why we ought to believe it.” I think this report is accurate in saying that a metanarrative is a narrative that is relevant to justification, but I think the report is inaccurate on four other counts. For Lyotard, a metanarrative is (a) global or “grand,” (b) not “about” a particular lesser narrative, (c) putatively legitimating of more than just narratives, and (d) putatively legitimating in a broader sense than just supporting belief.

    Van Norden seems to change his view of the term a few lines later, when he adds that “postmodernism’s ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ means not believing that *any* metanarrative is justified. In other words, one does not regard as objectively warranted any claims to truth.” Here Lyotard’s idea that a metanarrative supports things other than narratives has come in. And another idea has come in, but I’m not sure which of these ideas it is: (i) no claim to truth can be objective without being grounded in a metanarrative, (ii) nobody can think there are objective claims to truth without relying on a metanarrative, (iii) nobody can think there are objective claims to truth without recognizing her reliance on a metanarrative, (iv) any putative justification, not just a narrative (or grand narrative) justification, counts as a “metanarrative”.

    Maybe Van Norden is relying on one of these because he thinks it is true or because he attributes it to Lyotard or to others.


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