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  • Philosophical Discourse of Postmodernity in the Chinese Context
  • Ersu Ding (bio)

As is suggested by the title of this article, the following discussion of postmodernism will be confined to the realm of philosophy, especially to the issue of whether it is possible to have some relatively stable cognitive criterion against which we can evaluate our day-to-day speech acts. Unlike other humanistic areas such as literature and art where the postmodernist movement has exerted a considerable impact upon the Chinese scene, the philosophical circle of contemporary China as a whole has not paid much attention to what they call “another fashionable trend of the West.” This philosophical indifference, in my opinion, does not mean that the postmodernist discourse contains nothing valuable that can contribute to philosophical studies in China. Rather, it is an indication of failure on the part of Chinese scholars to recognize the nature and importance of postmodernism. It is therefore the aim of this paper to re-present the postmodernist debate about cognitive criteria in the hope that it can help resolve many related theoretical difficulties that keep besetting contemporary Chinese philosophy.

In his book Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Alfred J. Ayer characterizes the present century as an era that rebels against Hegel, the nineteenth-century monument of rationalist philosophy. The point is obviously a bit exaggerated, because there has been no shortage of rationalist philosophers since 1900, especially during the years immediately following the Second World War when it was antirationalism that had to go into hibernation for its alleged appropriation by the Nazi government. Furthermore, if we broaden the purview of philosophical historiography to make it also include speculations conducted in many non-Western countries, the generalization in question becomes even less sustainable. Contemporary China, for example, makes no secret of the fact that it is Marxist in its philosophical orientation and, as such, it claims partial heirship to the philosophy of Hegel. 1 Nevertheless, Ayer is right in that most twentieth-century antirationalists do trace the ideas of their opponents back to Hegel as a major source and, for that reason, they single him out as a convenient point of attack. Given these two [End Page 21] parallel relationships toward the same philosopher, it would be very interesting, if not ideologically necessary, to interpret the philosophical discourse of contemporary China in light of its Western counterpart or vice versa.

We know that Hegel’s philosophy evolves out of his critique of Kant who restricts human claims to genuine knowledge to the realm of “phenomena.” For Kant, our knowledge can only result from the application of “categories” or “forms of intuition” to the externally produced sense data. Beyond this point of contact, there remains the “thing-in-itself” which is in principle unknowable. Hegel, on the contrary, does not want to leave the door open to a relativization of our knowledge. For him, there is nothing “in itself” that lies unknowably beyond thought. The categories of the mind are the laws of the world and the laws of the world are the categories of the mind; they belong together as two aspects of the same process which he calls the dialectic movement of the Absolute Idea or the World Spirit. The Absolute Idea is driven by its internal logic of contradiction to realize itself in the world and then comes to self-awareness through human knowledge.

Hegel’s dialectic thinking has had an enormous influence on contemporary Chinese philosophy, but only through the lens of a Marxist critique. According to Marxist philosophy, one fatal error of Hegel’s dialectics lies in that it inverts the relationship between actual existence and ideas about such existence by detaching self-consciousness from human beings and turning it into the Absolute Idea as a self-sufficient essence. In that sense, it is a “metaphysical theology.” Nevertheless, Marxism does not simply throw away Hegelianism as useless but, instead, takes over Hegelian dialectics of mind and projects its action into nature. The most authoritative example of such a transformation can be found in Engels’s Dialectics of Nature, which is the standard textbook of philosophy taught at every university in China. There Engels reintroduces the Hegelian laws of dialectics...

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