- The Siren and the Sage: Knowledge and Wisdom in Ancient Greece and China
Like much of contemporary scholarship, The Siren and the Sage: Knowledge and Wisdom in Ancient Greece and China is more modest than its title. Steven Shank-man and Stephen Durrant invoke the Siren and the Sage, but what they offer to their readers are three rather constrained comparative studies. They compare portions of the Classic of Poetry with a few scenes from the Odyssey. They contrast the histories of Sima Qian with some passages in Thucydides. Finally, they present a rather disjointed philosophical comparison, pairing portions of Plato and a smattering of Aristotle with snippets from Confucius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi—not to mention bits from Aeschylus and Euripides—before returning once again to the Classic of Poetry.
As a student of Greco-Roman antiquity, I have long wished I had learned more about China, beginning with its language. What the authors of this volume have written here in English about classical China certainly provoked my interest and regret. At the same time I wish they had written more carefully of Greek antiquity, which I suppose is a sentiment only to be expected from a Greco-Roman scholar.
Yet, what flaws this book so fatally for me has nothing to do with classical China [End Page 260] or ancient Greece. Rather, it concerns a fateful decision of the authors to import a largely nineteenth-century, technically Western philosophical terminology as a foreign mediator between these two ancient cultures. As a consequence, "intentionality," "intentional consciousness," "intentionalism," and suchlike phrases are sprinkled throughout otherwise perfectly pellucid prose, like poison on the page—not to mention "participationalism"—but that is a more complicated issue. In any case, the effect, for me, is terminal.
The authors begin, appropriately enough, with lines from the Dao de jing familiar even to Western philosophers like myself: "If a way can be spoken, it is not the constant way. If a name can be named, it is not the constant name. Nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. Named is the mother of the ten thousand things." Then we come to the characteristic Daoist moral, which the authors translate in far less familiar terms this way: "Therefore, constantly have no intention (wu yu) to observe its wonders; constantly have an intention (you yu) to observe its manifestations." From this point (pp. 9-10) on, the authors are off and running with an invocation of intentionality, apparently taken up transparently from the ancient yu, as if Laozi himself had read nineteenth-century Western European philosophy. And then Shankman and Durrant extend the favor to the ancient Greeks, thereby imposing a theoretic and thematic unity (cf. p. 227).
It is especially unfortunate that the authors chose to foist their favored philosophical interpretation upon the readers under the guise of merely translating such well-known lines of Laozi. Henricks, for example, translates these same lines this way: "Therefore, those constantly without desires, by this means will perceive its subtlety. Those constantly with desires, by this means will see only that which they yearn for and seek." This suggests to me that Shankman and Durrant have subverted the text in the interest of interpretation.
To be sure, Shankman and Durrant's discussion of ancient Greece and China usually proceeds quite informatively. Yet, every nowand then, persistently in some chapters, less so in others, "intentionalist consciousness" is periphrastically invoked to drive home some especially favored point. I may knowno classical Chinese, but I knowenough of "intentionality" to knowthat yu does not anticipate a technical term in Western philosophy. The German origins of this technical term have everything to do with Franz Brentano, who developed his understanding of the concept, in part from his study of Albertus Magnus, the medieval mentor of Aquinas. Ockham had a role to play, as did Bonaventure, too. Those who wish to venture further into philosophical etymology might perhaps find faint traces of "intentional consciousness" in the incorporeal lekta invented by Greek Stoics, but...