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  • How Serious Is Our Divergence? A Reply to Thomas A. Metzger
  • Stephen C. Angle (bio)

Near the beginning of his magisterial A Cloud Across the Pacific, Thomas Metzger sums up what he calls his “paradoxical combination of reflexivity with cultural patterns” as follows:

This book is based on the premise that thinking about how to improve political life cannot be the product of either a closed cultural system or of reason as a uniform cognitive faculty with which all persons try to apprehend and reflect on objective realities or universal principles. Insisting that both dimensions are paradoxically combined in everyone’s thinking, I take issues with two groups—the Western scholars fascinated just with culture, and the many Western and Chinese intellectuals who today still largely ignore how reflexivity is shaped by disparate cultural patterns.

(Metzger 2005, 13–14)

Another key feature of Metzger’s approach is to focus on “discourses,” his label for the language, concerns, and “indisputables” that various “we-groups” share. That is, people who mutually recognize one another as part of a community share certain commitments that they find indisputably reasonable, not standing in need of justification. A central thesis of A Cloud Across the Pacific is that Chinese political thinkers in the twentieth century, whatever their differences, are virtually all members of a single community whose mode of expression he labels discourse #1. Most Western political thinkers, in contrast, participate in discourse #2, whose main indisputables flow from what he has called the Great Modern Western Epistemological Revolution, or GMWER, though some Western thinkers persist in a more old-fashioned search for true political principles that Metzger calls discourse #3.1

The question with which I want to begin my reply to Metzger is, where is he in this scheme? Though he sees himself as a child of the GMWER, he is both attracted to significant aspects of discourse #1 and repelled by key consequences of discourse #2. Who, then, makes up his we-group? The answer for which I will argue here is that (among others) he and I are members of the same discourse community, or at least of two largely overlapping ones. The central goal of my book, after all, was to simultaneously honor the distinctiveness of Chinese rights discourse (both methodologically and historically) and to insist that various sorts of cross-cultural communication and critical dialogue can nonetheless proceed; I, too, am thus a supporter of the “paradoxical combination of reflexivity with cultural patterns.” In fact, I will be presumptuous enough to suggest that there are ways in which I might see how to articulate the values and methodology of the intellectual community that Metzger and I share more clearly, at least in some places, than he has. To be sure, there is a great deal I have learned from him, both through reading his scholarship and through the series of informal exchanges that have culminated in this public dialogue. And, importantly, there [End Page 20] are some continued differences between us. After discussing the areas in which I see significant agreement and reviewing some of the historiographical issues on which Metzger takes me to task, I will turn to the comparative values of inclusive context as versus disaggregation and argue that this difference between us is as much a normative choice as it is an empirical disagreement. It is not that we look at the same body of evidence and disagree about how much divergence is to be found. Rather, we approach the whole body of possible evidence with different questions and goals. If one is looking for a flat place on which to sit, one can find it on an elephant; if one is looking for a source of danger, an elephant’s hooves will provide that, too. I suggest that the approach I label “disaggregation” must be used cautiously, always with the concerns that Metzger urges on us clearly in mind. Nonetheless, if we hope to learn from one another—and not just about one another—disaggregation is our best strategy.

Language, Holism, and the Middle Ground

Let us start with some of Metzger’s key assertions about language. He believes there are three basic self-understandings to...