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  • A Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking
  • Christiaan Mitchell (bio)
François Jullien . A Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004. x +202 pp. Hardcover $55.00, ISBN 0-8248-2815-1. Paperback $22.00, ISBN 0-8248-2830-5.

In the ongoing struggle to make Chinese philosophy accessible to Western academics and to further the cause of justifying the title "philosophy" for the massive corpus that has come to be called "Eastern philosophy," few can rival the work of Francois Jullien. His studies as a sinologist and philosopher have done much in the way of providing viable interpretations of the classical Chinese texts that are more consistent with the original intentions and meanings of their authors. The present book, A Treatise on Efficacy, is no exception.

A Treatise on Efficacy is a follow-up to Jullien's 1999 book The Propensity of Things. Building upon his work in Propensity, which is dedicated largely to the elaboration of the concept of shi 勢, A Treatise on Efficacy further expands his interpretive scheme. Working in largely broader terms but focusing much more closely on the important realm of human interaction, Jullien completes Propensity by demonstrating the central importance of the notion of efficacy to the Chinese tradition.

All books that would seek to compare and contrast Eastern and Western traditions run the risk of overly hasty generalization and painting with a brush that is a little too broad. There is a constant danger of using "the East," "the West," or "the Chinese" to refer singly to a group of thinkers quite diverse in the warp and woof of their theories. Unfortunately, the present work does not entirely escape this difficulty. However, such overly general statements are kept to a minimum, and even more so in places where they would be an issue. In addition, at many of the potentially problematic points the counterexamples that would discredit generalizations actually serve to accentuate many of the points Jullien is trying to make about efficacy.

Throughout A Treatise on Efficacy Jullien pushes the central thesis that the fact that Chinese philosophy seems strange to thinkers in the West is a result of a fundamental difference in the logic underlying the thinking of each. The book has twelve chapters that fall roughly into two groups. The first six deal largely with explicating in general form the theories of efficacy held by Western and Eastern schools of thought. The last half dozen are more integrated and do much to draw out comparisons and contrasts between the two traditions. Providing us with a wealth of images, metaphors, and texts, Jullien finds many ways to bring into focus the Chinese notion of efficacy. In the culmination of the essay, he turns a critical gaze at the Chinese theories and evaluates the expenses we must incur in adopting such programs. [End Page 134]

Noting that to most Western eyes the logic that underlies our "schema" is "so thoroughly assimilated that we no longer see it," Jullien breaks down the Western notion of efficacy, and more particularly "action," to begin his comparison (p. 1). As he sees it, the logic of action in the West is the interplay of goal, ideal, and will. "We set up an ideal form (eidos), which we take to be a goal (telos), and we then act in such a way as to make it become fact" (p. 1). This front-loaded theory of action, he goes on to note, is present throughout the Western tradition and is evinced in some of our greatest cultural heroes-Odysseus, for example. He traces a path from this logic to a problem facing the Greek philosophers that to this day has not been satisfactorily resolved in the Western tradition: the gap between theory and practice. After glossing over some attempts at resolving this problem, most notably by Aristotle, Jullien finds himself poised to begin developing the Chinese counterpart.

The second chapter, "Relying on the Propensity of Things," wherein Jullien first begins his analysis of the Chinese tradition, communicates quite a bit about what is to follow. For Jullien, the primary mode of action in the Chinese world...


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