Review of Ziporyn’s Books on Coherence

My review of Brook Ziporyn’s two-volume study of Chinese philosophy through the lens of “coherence” has now been published, and should be available to those with access to Dao. Here’s the first paragraph of the review:

Near the end of the second volume of the two books under review (hereafter referred to as Ironies and Beyond Oneness), Brook Ziporyn says that his goal has been to “provide the power to think a greater number of more greatly differing thoughts…. Truth is important, but it is important only because it makes things so much more interesting” (2/314). No one who reads these books with any charity can deny that he has achieved this goal—in fact, far exceeded it. Ziporyn takes on the deepest issues and most difficult texts from a millennium and a half of Chinese thinking, and offers exciting new ways to make sense of both individual texts and the tradition’s broader concerns. At the core of his account is an idea he labels “coherence,” a category he argues is fundamental in most Chinese thought, and from which “sameness and difference are negotiable, non-ultimate derivatives” (2/2). The term most often used to express coherence, especially in post-Han 漢 dynasty texts, is li 理. The fact that li is more prominent in later texts allows Ziporyn to divide his story into two volumes: the first looks at the idea of coherence as it emerges in Warring States and Han texts, with only tangential attention to li; the second recenters the discussion around li, repeating only a little of the ground covered in the first book as it focuses primarily on Wang Bi 王弼, Guo Xiang 郭象, and both Huayan 華嚴 and Tiantai 天台 Buddhism. Each book can thus be read independently; read together, the argument for the pervasiveness and complexity of perspectives on coherence—and for seeing Chinese Buddhism as in many ways continuous with and further developing themes in indigenous Chinese thinking—is extremely powerful. Whether read separately or together, these two volumes are among the most provocative and tightly-argued works on Chinese philosophy to appear in many years, and richly repay the effort it takes to learn to see through the lens of coherence.

4 thoughts on “Review of Ziporyn’s Books on Coherence

  1. Hi Steve. Great to see some serious engagement with Ziporyn’s work. I’m relatively new to these things and have no academic connections, but at my reading he seems to be genuinely expanding the boundaries of our understanding of classical Chinese philosophy. He also frequently takes things to the very edge of cognitive comprehension, inviting an experiential leap for those so inclined.

    Unfortunately, the price of admission to read your 9 page article is more than I can justify given my means. I suppose you are obliged to leave it exclusively with “Dao”?



    When I informally reviewed these books (on Amazon) I began by saying I didn’t understand the half of them but nonetheless came away with a great deal. At best I am a philosopher-manqué. However, when dealing with works of this nature, and indeed those of Classical Chinese philosophy especially, this might not necessarily be a fatal flaw. If indeed the real point is to get the “intent” and then to forget the words, then an inability to follow the words through the endless permutations of interpretative possibility might in fact be an asset, albeit a concessionary one. The booby prize beats no prize at all, and from the point of view of Daoism, might just be the most valuable prize of all.
    By way of example, Angle addresses Ziporyn’s consideration of the evolving understanding of li, or more correctly the pre-cognitive motivations that underlie these understandings, in terms of the categories of nominalism and realism. This may very well be a valid approach, and may indeed be an important vehicle through which Ziporyn, at least in part, makes his journey through such a broad expanse of Chinese philosophy. But is it the “intent” of this journey?
    I admit to always looking for the bias in Ziporyn’s writing, something always present (to my thinking and, not surprisingly, found to be in agreement with my own thinking), but artfully and scholarly-fully hidden. He’s interested in a great deal more than ideas, I believe, though he never leaves the path of ideas. I find that bias here in his obvious preference for an “ironic coherence”, the sense that makes sense only when it understands that sense in which it is nonsense (like this sentence). Just the chapter headings in Ironies alone suffice to reveal his central thesis: The human mind, and thus philosophy, so desires the sure, fixed and true that it ever-defaults to them despite their being obvious ruses. In the evolution from the non-ironic (the ironic thus being established as the logical norm) to the ironic to the non-ironic again and again we see this inclination to avoid ambiguity and drift. In all of this, “Daoism”, especially as seen in Zhuangzi, stands out as the hinge—the radical statement of our inherent ambiguity and adriftedness that philosophy ceaselessly tries to deny or co-opt.
    Angle essentially tells us the same: “One way to read the entire project is as working out the full implications of the most radical strands of the early Zhuangzi, as well as all the context that is needed to understand these ideas.” Similarly, Ziporyn tells us that his treatment of Tiantai Buddhism in Being and Ambiguity is largely inspired by Zhuangzi: “In the first place, the central epistemological insight on which this work is based can really be credited to Zhuangzi, as I interpret him (controversially, however, among my Sinological colleagues), which very likely had something to do with the fuller development of this position in the classical Tiantai works themselves” (p xx).
    Angle also picks up on Ziporyn’s phenomenological point of departure: “Perhaps the most counterintuitive aspect of Ziporyn’s position is that coherence is somehow prior to or more basic than the distinct, separate items which are said to cohere.” The need for some sense of coherence seems to be innate and unavoidable. Also unavoidable, however, is Zhuangzi’s observation that when something is formed, something is always left out, and that “something” is the most important thing of all since without it we are left with a non-ironic coherence; and that is indeed a most flimsy reed upon which to lean.
    All in all, Angle’s review seems a fair and positive treatment of these two volumes. My only question (and admittedly, my usual question) is whether it has forgotten the words so as to embrace “the most important thing”, the “something left out”. Or, to put it in the frame of Ironies, is it non-ironic or ironic? But this begs the question as to whether scholarship has any real choice but to be non-ironic—even when making a case for the same.

    • Thanks Scott! I think your final thoughts raise an important point that I hadn’t thought about, at least in those terms. Certainly, I am more comfortable — as a scholar and as a person, frankly — with the non-ironic.

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