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  • La pensée Chinoise et l'abstraction
  • Mary Tiles
La pensée Chinoise et l'abstraction. By Anna Ghiglione. Paris: Éditions You-Feng, 1999. Pp. 303.

In La pensée Chinoise et l'abstraction Anna Ghiglione deploys the methods of analytic philosophy of language to exhibit the many and various means used by ancient (pre-Qin) Chinese philosophers to express abstract ideas. This is done in order to make the larger point that characteristics of a language, whether Chinese, Greek, Latin, French, or English, do not on their own explain differences in philosophical style or the presence or absence of particular kinds of philosophical theorizing. The stalking horse here is the Western sinological tradition, which, from its very beginnings in the seventeenth century, has been shaped by the views of those such as Athanasius Kircher, who denounced the inadequate means afforded by Chinese characters for expressing matters sacred. Even in the twentieth century, Ghiglione suggests, Chinese studies has been informed by a collective representation that portrays Chinese language and thought as deficient by comparison with Western languages and systems of philosophy, because the former lacks vehicles for the expression of abstract ideas.

The other large issue in the background here is the relation between any language and formal logic, which is in turn treated as a mark of rationality. As Ghiglione notes, the twentieth century has seen a quest, both in China and in the West, for characterizations of a distinctively Chinese rationality. These have not been able to shake off their defensive tone—in the defense of Chinese culture from the dangers of Westernization. The problem is that there is an inevitable ambivalence in any program that seeks to interpret the thought and cultural history of the Chinese according to criteria where universalism, occidentalism, and modernism are frequently intertwined.

One of the virtues of this work is that it demands much more precision of those who approach Chinese philosophy. Exactly what can be meant by saying that Chinese as a language lacks mechanisms for abstraction, or that Chinese philosophers stick to the concrete and the particular? As Ghiglione points out, part of the problem with talk of abstraction is that the term itself is polysemic. It can mean a collection of speculations on questions that might be either abstract or concrete, or it can refer to the cognitive procedures that lead to such theorization. Again, it is possible to formulate abstract questions about concrete topics and to raise such questions without formulating any abstract theories. Moreover, abstraction can occur without anyone formulating a philosophical theory about it. In particular, one must clearly distinguish between abstraction as an operation and the hypostatization of abstract entities. [End Page 554]

Abstraction as an operation plays a fundamental role in the acquisition and elaboration of knowledge. Here abstraction and conceptualization go hand in hand, and it is presumed that all human beings, as language users, have and deploy this capacity. The problem of abstract entities, or universals, has been a major theme in Western philosophy but has not figured prominently in Chinese philosophy. Does such a lack of interest reflect a lack of abstractions or of elaboration of abstract concepts? Ghiglione argues in detail that this is not the case. She does this by analyzing the uses made by pre-Qin philosophers of specific characters in articulating philosophic positions concerning reality, change, the discrimination of things, resemblances, names (language), and wisdom. Throughout, her aim is to reveal the mechanisms by which abstraction is effected and abstract concepts expressed. She does not question the reading according to which the Chinese vision of the world is of a dynamic reality, where contraries are conceived as complementary and where the relationships between elements take precedence over the elements themselves. Her argument is merely that having a dynamic conception of reality does not rule out the possibility of postulating abstract objects, such as the gu zhi dao (the way of antiquity), which constitutes an immutable model, an idealized prototype for judging the present.

In chapter 4 Ghiglione seeks to undermine any sharp opposition of a Chinese logic of resemblance to a Western logic of identity. Pointing out that while comparison plays a fundamental role in...


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