- An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy: From Ancient Philosophy to Chinese Buddhism
No one history of the early Chinese “Masters” can meet the needs of every audience. Benjamin Schwartz’s The World of Thought in Ancient China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985) has special appeal, I think, to scholars working in the broad humanistic traditions of religious studies and intellectual history. In contrast, A. C. Graham’s Disputers of the Tao (Chicago: Open Court Press, 1989) is written from a more distinctively philosophical perspective. To give just two more examples, although neither has written a general history of the period, the works of Mark Lewis and Paul Goldin particularly emphasize the interplay between social history, archaeology, and philology.1
Scholars will sometimes dismiss methodologies other than their own as “uninteresting,” as “projecting concepts onto the text,” or as making claims that are “improvable.” But “interesting,” like “delicious,” is a matter of taste; all interpretation is “projection” to one degree or another; and as if anything nontrivial were “provable”! So we should not begrudge our colleagues their own methodologies and interests because each is potentially legitimate. Of course, this does not mean that anything goes. Someone can be using a particular methodology well or poorly, expertly or crudely.
My own primary approach to Chinese thought is that of “analytic philosophy.” (Other scholars working in this style include Kwong-loi Shun and David Wong.)2 Consequently, it was with great pleasure and anticipation that I discovered that JeeLoo Liu’s An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy is written from a similar perspective. As she explains, analytic philosophy “emphasizes the analysis of concepts, the formulation of arguments, the examination of basic assumptions, and the pursuit of clarity in language” (p. ix). Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the author’s execution of this methodology.
This book covers most of the major figures of pre-Qin Chinese thought and then skips over the Han dynasty Confucians and Daoists to discuss the main schools of Chinese Buddhism. Neo-Confucianism is mentioned in passing, but is not a focus of the book. My own knowledge of Buddhism is limited, so my comments on this section of the book will be briefer and more diffident. Although the first half of the book focuses on pre-Qin thought, Liu says nothing about Gongsun Longzi, Huizi, or the later Mohists. I think this is an unfortunate and significant lacuna. Linguistic paradoxes are particular favorites of analytic philosophers, so any work using that approach should find rich material in these Chinese sources. Even more important, without the background provided by thinkers like these, one cannot fully understand [End Page 39] texts like the Daodejing or Zhuangzi. I follow Graham in thinking that the “antirationalism” of both is motivated to a great extent by the development of linguistic paradoxes by earlier thinkers. How can language and argumentation be reliable guides when one can persuasively argue that “a white horse is not a horse”?
Issues of coverage aside, the first significant error in this book occurs on the third page, where the author writes,
The earliest form of divination that we now know of was the method of tortoiseshell reading. To perform this divination, some encrypted words were first written on a tortoise-shell. (These writings were the earliest writing samples found in China, dating back to 1700–1100 bce.) The shell was then put into a fire until it started to crack at various points. The reader of the sign would decipher the code depending on how those words were separated.(p. 3)
There are at least four things wrong here. (1) I am not sure what the author means by saying that the words were “encrypted.” The inscriptions are very hard for us to read today, but that is because the characters and the grammar differ so much from classical Chinese. The expressions were being written in a ritual context, so they presumably used stylized locutions, but this...