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  • The Universal "One"Toward a Common Conceptual Basis for Chinese and Western Studies
  • Ming Dong Gu

In the world today, rapid globalization has drastically shrunk the geographical distance between the East and the West and greatly facilitated exchanges between different cultures and traditions. In the comparative studies of Eastern and Western literatures and cultures, however, an opposite trend characterized by the anxiety of cultural relativism prevails. It has been aptly reduced to this claim: "[T]he East and the West are so distinctly different that ways of thinking and expression cannot be made intelligible from one to the other, and therefore the knowledge of one must be kept apart from that of the other" [Longxi Zhang xvii]. The viability of comparative studies, as is recognized, rests on the fundamental notion that two cultural objects juxtaposed for comparison should share some common ground, or that a valid frame of reference be applicable to both of them. In the comparative studies of Chinese and Western traditions, because these traditions are recognized as founded on different and often unique ontological premises and epistemological assumptions, it is difficult to locate a common conceptual entry point for a two-way dialogue, let alone a common conceptual basis undergirded by Chinese and Western philosophical thought, to establish a viable paradigm of comparison. The current absence of such a conceptual basis in the international context of globalization, which calls for dialogues between different cultures and traditions, cannot but force us to ask: is there a Chinese philosophical concept that signifies, as another Western philosophical concept does, the ontological and epistemological conditions of human existence, one that can be used as a conceptual premise upon which to build a bridge across the divide between the Chinese and Western traditions?

Undaunted by the seemingly unbridgeable gap between Chinese and Western traditions, some scholars have made valiant efforts to locate a common conceptual ground. Following the lead of Qian Zhongshu, a Chinese erudite of the twentieth century, some scholars have also noted that the Dao (Tao) in Chinese philosophical thought and Logos in Western philosophical thought are remarkably comparable [Qian 408]. The compatibility of the Dao and Logos, however, has been problematized by other scholars, who argue that the differences between the Dao and Logos are more profound than their apparent similarities. James J. Y. Liu, for example, questions the universality of logocentrism as claimed by Longxi Zhang in both the Dao and Logos: "Zhang's comparison of dao to logos fails to take into account an important difference: in the West, logos is identified with God, but Lao Zi took great pains to say that dao is not the true name of the ultimate" [Liu 25]. Moreover, while in Lao Zi's conception, the Dao is a [End Page 86] feminine concept, the Western Logos, through its emphasis on presence, is obviously masculine in nature. More significantly, the pairing of the Chinese concept of Dao with the Western concept of Logos as a conceptual common ground has a fundamentally incommensurable point: namely, while the former is predicated on a fundamentally monistic view of the universe as a spontaneously self-generating entity, the latter, like Plato's Idea, is founded on a dualistic view of the universe as constituted by one world of essence and another of appearances, created by a powerful personal god.

To establish a model for cross cultural studies, it is of little value to simply juxtapose a Chinese concept and a Western concept and find their similarities. In comparative studies, we need to find a conceptual model based on the pairing of similar concepts from different traditions that may yield promises of paradigms and methodologies. For this reason, my exploration is not concerned with the question of whether it is viable to pair the Dao and Logos together. I am more concerned with another question: Is it possible to build a conceptual and methodological model based on the near commensurability between the Dao and Logos? Some scholars suggest that the striking similarity invites and encourages further exploration. But in which direction or directions should we pursue the subject further? In my view, previous scholars' preliminary explorations have been promising, but too narrowly focused on the local...