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Studies in Chinese Philosophy , by A.C. Graham

Studies In Chinese Philosophy And Philosophical Literature - A.C. Graham



I was previously familiar with the Welsh sinologist A.C. Graham (1919-1991) through his excellent translations in Poems of the Late Tang, but it turns out that he was much more the philosopher than poet. Graham wrote a few original books on philosophical matters, as well as a number of books that closely examine classic Chinese philosophical thought. Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (1986) is a collection of essays Graham published in academic journals for specialists but which I, a non-sinologist quite incapable of reading Chinese, found riveting. Yes, riveting!


Just as I read about other cultures for their own intrinsic interest, I am also interested in the critical reflections these throw back on my own culture. Even the as yet superficial familiarity with aspects of Chinese philosophy I have acquired to date has opened my eyes to tacit assumptions made in Western thought. And this is not an unusual phenomenon; as Graham writes in his Introduction:


It hardly needs saying that a Westerner can never be as fully at home in the traditional Chinese world-picture as in his own. However far he penetrates he never ceases to impose Western presuppositions, and from time to time awaken to one of them with an astonished "How could I have failed to see that?". ... Later, as he finds his bearings, he comes to appreciate that if in his own tradition there seem to be arguments with no missing links or grounds it is because he and the philosopher ask the same questions from the same unspoken assumptions, and that in Chinese arguments too the gaps fill in when the questions and assumptions are rightly identified. ... One learns to distrust any interpretation which credits the Chinese with too obvious a fallacy. The concepts are different, perhaps even the categories behind them, but the implicit logic is the same.


In these essays Graham brings this expectant openness to a number of classic texts, resulting in some very convincing insights. He also brings to bear upon these texts techniques of textual criticism that have been applied to writings such as the Bible and the Homeric epics; apparently sinologists were a bit slow to employ these tools, though they have made up for it a little, for example demonstrating that the Chuang-tzu, one of the central texts of Taoism, is a patchwork of pieces written at different times by various authors, like the Bible.(*) 


Since there are nine essays in this collection - too many to discuss individually -  I shall concentrate my discussion on the two which cast particularly interesting reflections back at Western philosophy.


In the late 4th century BCE Mencius famously declared human nature to be good, but Confucians continued arguing the matter for one and one-half millenia, taking all conceivable positions. However, in the 12th century the matter was settled, at least among Confucians. In "What Was New in the Ch'eng-Chu Theory of Human Nature?" Graham sees in this event one of the paradigm shifts Thomas Kuhn theorized as occurring in the history of Western science, where an endlessly debated problem becomes definitively solved by a change of perspective. Looking closer into the philosophical bases of the transition from "is" to "ought" in the post-Kantian West and in Sung China, he focuses on the Western assumption that all reasoning has to be detached from the spontaneous, which is thought to function only as emotion biasing judgment. This places the highly artificial model of an ideally rational agent (which is also an essential component of the currently dominant theories of economics) at the core of Western philosophical ethics. But in China:


It is a commonplace that in all other schools [other than the pre-Han Sophists and Later Mohists] reason is practical, confined within the same limits as it is with ourselves in the conduct of ordinary life; rationality does not, as in Western philosophy since the Greeks, expand until in theory it permeates universally, throughout all that is spontaneous even in the reasoner himself.


The Chinese, like everybody else, are constantly torn by conflicting urges and desires, but most Chinese philosophers do not suppress these in favor of received ethical laws or abstract reason. From the Chung yung:


Before pleasure in or anger against, grief or joy, emerge, one speaks of the 'Mean'; when, emerging, all accord with measure, one speaks of 'Harmony'. The 'Mean' is the ultimate root of the world, 'Harmony' is the universal way of the world.


The neo-Confucians found this root in li, the pattern or law underlying all of the universe. If one understands li, then one's spontaneous urges are in complete accord with this Harmony. For the Taoists the same is true of those who follow the Way (which is significantly less disciplined than the way of the Confucian sage). In fact, the founder of orthodox neo-Confucianism, Chu Hsi, asserted that one does not truly know until one spontaneously does what is right. The relationship in Chinese thought between reason/knowledge and spontaneity is examined at length in this essay.(**)


After these musings Graham reviews briefly the Ch'eng-Chu theory of human nature and explains the nature of the paradigm shift. Elsewhere in this book Graham returns to the Chinese concept of human nature, but this time at the other end of its development. In "The Background of the Mencian Theory of Human Nature" he describes the varying views of the matter before Mencius, then what Mencius thought, and finally the debates between Mencius and his contemporary critics.


But, instead of that essay or the others which examine important philosophical ideas in their historical and cultural context, and certainly not the three very technical exercises of textual criticism which I could do little more than skim (though it is interesting to see the sorts of reasoning and evidence sinologists use in their version of textual criticism), I'd like to say a few words about his other cross-cultural essay " 'Being' in Western Philosophy Compared With Shih/Fei and Yu/Wu in Chinese Philosophy."


Although Benjamin Lee Whorf's linguistic theory of the strict correlation between language and thought/perception has fallen out of favor for an extreme universalism which I would not be surprised to see eventually fall by the wayside, everyone who knows more than one language suspects that there is no exact isomorphism between any two languages. The history and development of a people are encoded in their language, and peoples of different languages/cultures/histories do not see things in quite the same manner. Granted, cultures which interact often and intensely have more in common than those that don't. But the Chinese philosophical tradition developed in a manner almost completely independent of the Western philosophical tradition. Moreover, Chinese is not in the Indo-European family of languages. 


In particular, Chinese does not possess an equivalent for the verb "to be." In fact, it appears that only in the Indo-European language family do such equivalents exist, whereas in all other languages the many functions served by "to be" are sharply distinguished. According to Graham, classical Chinese has at least six sets of words and constructions, several of which have other functions outside of the scope of "to be," which handle the various functions of "to be." In light of the centrality of the associated concept "Being" in Western metaphysics, what consequences have these facts for the working categories and mutual understanding of Western and Chinese philosophy?


That is the topic of this fascinating essay. I already knew that there are no exact European equivalents of jen, ch'i and li, to mention but a few central philosophical concepts, but Graham's analysis of "to be" and "being" from the point of view of classical Chinese (and vice versa) is the kind of eye opening experience that will have a long term effect on my thinking.(***) Indeed, I do not have a clear view at this time of all the consequences of Graham's analysis for my understanding of metaphysics. 


However, this book is probably not where a complete neophyte should begin his acquaintance with Chinese philosophy. With the single exception of the first article discussed above, Graham engages with the most problematic portion of that literature - pre-Han philosophy (i.e. before 200 BCE). The extant texts are corrupted by later additions, the literature is badly incomplete(4*) and one is still trying to interpret the ancient language.(5*) 



(*) According to Graham, the Chuang-tzu is widely recognized among specialists as a collection of writings of the 4th, 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE in which only the first seven chapters can be confidently ascribed to Chuang-tzu himself, that some of the additions are not even Taoist, and those that can be described as Taoist are not all of Chuang-tzu's own branch of Taoism.(!)


(**) Here Graham explicitly renounced deciding who went wrong in grasping this relation - the Chinese or the West - but he revisited the question in a full length book, Reason and Spontaneity, in which he apparently comes down firmly in favor of the Chinese. That's something I will probably have to look into...


(***) A suggestive excerpt: 


In Western and Indian mystical philosophies, God, the One, the Absolute, Brahman, are conceived as more real than the phenomenal world. These systems were developed in Indo-European languages, in which "to be" is not confined to speaking of concrete things [all of its replacements in Chinese are so confined], and in which it is easy to argue that what is heavy or light, large or small, does not enjoy the pure being of what simply is.


(4*) An ass of an emperor, the founder of the first historical imperial dynasty in China, ordered the burning of philosophical texts when he rose to power in 221 BCE with the idea that they would be a danger to his nascent dynasty, which, in fact, ended already in 206 BCE when the first Han emperor slew his way to the top. Experts are arguing about just how devastating this burn was, but it left a mark in the Chinese psyche comparable to that left in our psyches by the Nazi book burnings.


(5*) Graham points out that in the mid-20th century there still existed leading sinologists who believed that ancient Chinese had no grammar.(!) Our grasp of the language has fortunately improved since then, but, as Graham writes, "None of us yet knows classical Chinese."