I’ve heard a number of times over the years, from various sources both within and outside of the world of Chinese philosophy, that Chinese philosophical thought represents an “alternative” philosophical tradition, very different from “our own”, and that we are conceptually barred from coming to a full understanding of this tradition, that we will always be looking through the misconceptions, in some sense or another, of the western tradition. Roger Ames and David Hall endorsed something like this view, on the basis of cultural difference (while admittedly still maintaining that understanding the Chinese tradition at some level is possible). At the extreme there is Alasdair MacIntyre’s problem of incommensurability that threatens to undermine the possibility of understanding alternative traditions at all. What all of these views seem to assume, however, is that western scholars are in the position of having to translate Chinese philosophical concepts into concepts we more readily understand, concepts from western thinkers.
I’m not sure this why this should be the case. For most of us westerners who study Chinese philosophy, we have spent a reasonable portion of our lives engaged in the study of Chinese thought and language. Why think that the Chinese philosophical tradition has not thus become, for us, more familiar than the western tradition with which we are supposed to be so closely aligned? In my own case, for example—I have spent far more time studying Confucius than Plato, more time thinking about Zhuangzi and Wang Chong than Mill or Kant. Shouldn’t it be expected that I understand the thought of the Chinese figures better than I do that of the western figures? Why, then, think that I am prone to interpret the Chinese thinkers through the lens of western philosophical concepts pulled from Plato or Kant, rather than vice versa? Shouldn’t we rather expect that we scholars of Chinese philosophy might instead misinterpret western philosophers like Plato or Kant by understanding them through the interpretive lens of the Chinese thinkers?
As far as I can tell, there are (at least) a couple of different positions that ground the view that western scholars are denied full understanding of Chinese thought (hopefully readers can locate some others we can discuss in the comments): 1) linguistic determinism—the Chinese philosophers used a very different language to do philosophy, one that is in essential ways different from English and other western languages. Since we were born and raised speaking English primarily (or other western languages), this limits how we can understand philosophy done in Chinese. 2) cultural determinism—the Chinese people today were born and raised in a culture shaped by the Chinese philosophical tradition, and thus they are in a position to more easily understand key concepts of the tradition, in a way westerners, who were born and raised in a very different culture, are not.
Both of these positions seem problematic to me. Concerning 1), even if this position were true (which entails that there can be no translation from Chinese into English that will give a reader a fully accurate understanding of a Chinese philosophical concept, argument, etc.), I don’t see how it applies to us, namely western scholars of Chinese thought. We know the Chinese language and read the Chinese philosophical texts in Chinese. Don’t we then have the linguistic apparatus to understand the Chinese tradition on its own terms? If we have effectively learned the Chinese language, then it is not the case that when we read sentences such as 克己復禮，為仁也 , we immediately engage in a process of mental translation, so that we see the words as “turning away from the self and returning to ritual is achieving humanity.” Indeed, this is the kind of thing that shows that one does not yet have a very good understanding of the language. When one achieves facility in a language, they don’t need to translate.
Concerning 2), it’s unclear to me that we really do imbibe esoteric philosophical concepts through our cultural milieu. As anyone who has tried to teach both western and Chinese philosophy to undergraduates can attest, westerners (or at least Americans) with no exposure to philosophy don’t seem to naturally understand Plato, Aristotle, or Mill any better than they do Confucius, Mozi, or Han Feizi (and I’ve found this to be the case with the Chinese students I’ve taught as well. They don’t have any more special insight into Mencius than they do into Aquinas). If this is the case, shouldn’t those of us westerners who have spent a decent portion of our lives studying Chinese philosophical thought be expected not only to understand the Chinese thinkers better than we understand their western counterparts, but to also understand them better than most uninitiated Chinese, just as a Chinese Kant scholar ought to be expected to know the Sage of Konigsberg far better than most westerners, including non-Kant scholars?