Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Isabel Archer, American Sinology, and a certain Confucian Vagueness


During the last weeks, I have been thinking about how to write my first entry in this blog. Too much work and some kind of reticence held me back for many days. However, after having discovered Alexus McLeod’s thoughts on Proust and Confucius (on his Unpolished Jade Blog), I finally sat down and decided that it would be most appropriate to begin my first entry with a deep (ironical) bow to Henry James’ Isabel Archer…

Why Isabel Archer? Because she gives a wonderful example of the moral and cultural sensitivity we all need of when writing about Chinese philosophy. Also, because her case stands for a certain paradigm of (American/Western) modernity which still influences our thoughts and which, I guess, also motivates us to search for a constructive dialogue with the “Chinese mind”. And, finally, there is Isabel’s intriguing “fear”: her being frightened by Warburton’s offer, of Caspar Goodwood’s persistence, of Gilbert Osmond’s anger, her fear of cultural alienation, her fear of herself – somehow, I believe, this fear inhabits us all, being embedded in a Western cultural/philosophical framework, but being convinced at the same time of the necessity of “opening up”, engaging “the other”. In one word, Isabel Archer could remind us of the deeper tensions and darker forces which are at work today between the different cultural worlds. Certainly, she wouldn’t want us to buy too easily into a narrative of global harmony…

However, writing these lines, the major feeling I want to communicate isn’t fear, but the strong sense of excitement for having been invited to this blog (thanks to the three editors!!). As a German who has been teaching Chinese philosophy at a Taiwanese university for the last three years, my perspective on Chinese thought may be a little different from other contributors; thus, I hope to contribute with some peculiar views from Taiwan and on the Taiwanese philosophy scene. But first and foremost, I am really looking forward to learning from you all!

As you may know, there are a couple of German scholars living here in Taiwan (Fabian Heubel, Mathias Obert, Hans-Rudolf Kantor, Stephan Schmidt, et al.). On the one hand, this fact may reflect the serious obstacles which younger scholars working on Chinese philosophy still encounter in the European academic world; on the other hand, it may also reflect a certain “elective affinity” (Goethe) between German thought (in particular, German Idealism) and Chinese philosophy. There are many ways of translating Confucian sources into modern philosophical languages, but – to many 20th century Chinese thinkers – philosophical idealism à la Kant and Hegel has been the favorite one. Somehow, we Germans seem to be trying to come to grips with this peculiar fact of 20th century reception history. It may also just be another example of the famous Teutonic spirit…

As you all know, European China studies are often (too often) heavily relying on historical criticism and contextual interpretations. American sinologists par contre seem to be exceptionally endowed with the „liberty of action, of choice, of appreciation, of contact“ (to use another Jamesian phrase for Isabel Archer). Maybe due to my particular situation (being embedded in a Chinese context, belonging to a German background, but often responding to the views and languages of American scholars), I have quite contradictory feelings concerning the question of “cultural embeddedness”: on the one hand, I accept the point of view of scholars like Hegel, Gadamer, or Taylor, who all insist on the inescapable contextualness and necessary finitude of any kind of philosophical activity; on the other hand, I feel attracted to stronger modes of systematic/analytical philosophizing (say f.ex. Steve Angle in his new book on sagehood, or say Bernard Williams). Of course, the tension between universalism and particularism/contextualism is a – perhaps the – pivotal problem for comparative studies. But while we are all rightly interested in decontextualizing Chinese philosophy, shouldn’t we be afraid of ending up doing it “just du bout des doigts” like Madame Merle playing Schubert (The Portrait of a Lady, Chapter XVIII)?!

But instead of continuing these random thoughts, I would like to bring up a more technical question: having been working and writing on Zhu Xi 朱熹 for some time, I have to admit the theoretical power of the Kantian framework proposed by Mou Zongsan 牟宗三 (in particular in his major work Xinti yu xingti 心體與性體 which, unfortunately, does not seem to be widely studied in the West). At the same time, however, I am more and more convinced that an Aristotelian framework would do a better job: in particular, I think, the Kantian approach easily leads us to misunderstand the relationship between Neo-Confucianism and Chinese Modernity. Now, take f.ex. a passage like the famous Analects 17.19 (the dialogue between Confucius and Zai Wo 宰我 about the three-year morning period) and read (as I did with my students last week) as additional material an article by Li Minghui 李明輝 in which he defends his Kantian framework (〈《論語》「宰我問三年之喪」章中的倫理學問題〉《傳承與創新:中央研究院中國文哲研究十周年紀念文集》。鍾彩鈞編。1999。頁521-542). It is quite clear that, at least for Zhu Xi, this passage is about the question whether Zai Wo is able to discover its innate liangxin 良心. Thus, I partially agree with Li Minghui: Confucius’ argument (his point about “to be calm” an 安) indeed relies on a certain notion of internality which Zhu Xi has articulated especially well. But I have strong doubts about whether this implies something similar to the Kantian paradigm of subjectivity/practical rationality being free of any particular social/historical content (at this point, the absence of any trace of procedural thought in Confucianism seems to be crucial). In other words: I tend to relate the question of whether Zai Wo’s inner self is “calm” back to the question of his virtuous character (whether he possesses “goodness” ren 仁, which is also what Confucius criticizes him for in the second part of this passage!).

However, I would also argue that  this passage is a particularly good example for why the Neo-Confucian moral self is not easily described/reconstructed in Aristotelian (Virtue Ethics) language either: in the latter account, we have a very technical, clear description of virtue (arete), where the Socratic definition of virtue as techne (expertise) is always implied (any techne must fulfill the conditions of teachability, explicability, coherence, rationality, etc.). However, for Zhu Xi, virtues are much more like states of consciousness, more about the “inner life”, than action-related, and nowhere are virtues described in terms of technai. So, we do not find in his writings a very clear account of f.ex. the relation between the virtues and action, the process of deliberation, or the goals of an action. And the inner life is per definitionem not observable… Which easily leads us to a very vague picture of the virtues, resp. – even worse – an extremely subjectivist account of the Confucian tradition, for which the commitment to this tradition could be more important than the description and analysis of ordinary human life… How can we than “rescue the Confucian ideal from vagueness and baselessness” (May Sim, Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius, p. 130)?!…

This said, I am still very much in favor of the Virtue Ethicist approach to Neo-Confucianism. But somehow I think we have to begin our philosophical work at a very basic level, “very deep down” at the very foundations of Western modernity itself (and, at this point, Kant is indeed inescapable)… This may sound exaggerated, but maybe this final thought could encourage some of you to post your ideas…


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