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  • A Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking
  • Jeremy E. Henkel
A Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking. By François Jullien, translated by Janet Lloyd. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004. Pp. x + 202. $22.00.

In A Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking François Jullien argues that the different ways Chinese and Western thinkers have dealt with warfare and diplomacy reflect important differences in how the two cultures understand human action in the world. When Chinese texts such as the Sunzi and the Guiguzi are set up as counterpoints to the Europeans Clausewitz and Machiavelli, Jullien argues that the Aristotelian inheritance of the latter pair is shown to be the cause of their inability to provide clean theories with the consistent predictive power they desired. Chinese strategists, by contrast, meet with no such limitations in the realm of human interaction. The basic difference between Western and Chinese thought that Jullien seeks to demonstrate is that "one constructs a model that is then projected onto the situation, which implies that the situation is momentarily 'frozen.' The other relies on the situation as on a disposition that is known to be constantly evolving" (p. 189; italics in original).

Jullien's regular use of the generic terms "Western" and "Chinese" in constructing his comparison will likely give many comparative philosophers pause. But this [End Page 347] need not be a source of worry, as he is careful not to essentialize the two world-views. While he is pointing out patterns and tendencies in the thinking of Europe and China, he is not positing an essential incommensurable difference between them. Rather, he is pointing out that "what remains underdeveloped in the one context is more developed in the other" (p. 145). He goes on to say, "The purpose of our foray into China is not to imagine-let alone fabricate-other 'mentalities'. . . . It is simply to make use of other possible sources of intelligibility" (ibid.).

Jullien begins by showing that Western thought regards human action as something that imposes itself on the world in order to bring about a predetermined goal. This is a natural consequence of the belief that the world is created: belief in creation implies something existing outside that creation, thus an intention behind that creation, and thus a transcendent norm toward which things within that creation aim. This two-leveled ontology of creator and creation yields a distinction between theory and practice, wherein practice always aims-and ultimately fails-at implementing an ideal that is established by theory. This worldview has led to demonstrable success in the sciences but meets with frequent frustration in the arena of human interaction. This limitation has been recognized by strategists in the West but has never been successfully resolved.

Aristotle was the first to identify and try to resolve this problem. He posited phronesis as the skill that enables an individual to apply a model to the world successfully. For Aristotle such successful action consists of first identifying one's desired end and then reasoning back to one's present situation in order to establish the best means to achieve that end. Jullien's analysis shows that Clausewitz was working with the same model more than two thousand years later. Clausewitz believed that earlier attempts at creating a general theory of warfare had failed to achieve their goal-namely, to provide a model of warfare that a general could use to ensure victory-because the opponent's actions are unpredictable. The system that the military strategist is dealing with, then, is not mechanistic, and consequently plans are easily frustrated by ever-changing circumstances. But Clausewitz was unable to conceive of strategy as based on anything other than plans.

For Clausewitz, warfare is composed of distinct engagements, separate moments in time where an army seeks to impose a plan on the world. Seeing warfare as composed of distinct moments means that time is an opponent, for time brings with it change and uncertainty and thus a greater chance that one's plans will be frustrated. Opportunity, then, is something unexpected-a chance happening at a specific moment that can be taken advantage of only...