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Reviewed by:
  • Ogyū Sorai’s Philosophical Masterworks: The Bendō and Benmei
  • Samuel Yamashita
Ogyū Sorai’s Philosophical Masterworks: The Bendō and Benmei. By John A. Tucker. Honolulu: Association for Asian Studies and the University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006. Pp. 496. Hardcover $56.00.

John Tucker’s Ogyū Sorai’s Philosophical Masterworks: The Bendō and Benmei is an important contribution to the field of Japanese philosophy. Not only does it offer readers a complete and annotated translation of this leading Japanese Confucian’s two most important works, the Bendō (Distinguishing the way) and the Benmei (Distinguishing names); it also includes a lengthy introduction presenting Tucker’s own interpretation of these two works, summarizing their content and reviewing the history of Sorai’s philosophy in the Tokugawa period and the pertinent Japanese and English-language scholarship. Specialists will find the introduction useful, and first-time readers of the Bendō and Benmei will learn what they need to know to make their way through these difficult works.

Tucker’s interpretation of the Bendō and Benmei is both original and provocative. He begins with the bold assertion that the “conceptual analysis” in these works is comparable to that found in three other philosophical traditions: the Western tradition, beginning with Plato and Aristotle and continuing through Hobbes, Spinoza, Bayle, Leibniz, Diderot, and Voltaire; the Confucian tradition, starting with the Analects and continuing up through Neo-Confucianism; and the Buddhist tradition after Nāgārjuna. Even though this comparative point seems obvious, no one has put it quite this way.

Tucker argues, too, that the Bendō and Benmei were modeled on the Xingli ziyi (The meaning of Chinese terms), a philosophical dictionary written by the Song Neo-Confucian Chen Beixi (1159–1223). Apparently a 1552 Korean edition of Chen’s [End Page 567] Ziyi was transmitted to Japan in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century and inspired the pioneering Japanese Confucian Hayashi Razan (1583–1657) to write Seiri jigi genkai (Vernacular explication of Beixi’s Ziyi ), which was published in 1659. Tucker points out that Hayashi often differed with Chen, as did others, such as Itō Jinsai (1627–1705), who wrote their own philosophical dictionaries. Writing about this new genre’s significance in the Tokugawa context, Tucker observes that “it served as an open medium, structurally and methodologically, for contesting philosophical terrain wherein increasingly diverse semasiologies of the Confucian way vied for patrons and authority” (p. 6). Tucker is the first Western scholar to highlight the importance of Chen’s Xingli ziyi for Tokugawa Confucian philosophers and to explain why this mattered.

Tucker’s third argument is that Ogyū Sorai’s Bendō and Benmei—long seen as a critique of the philosophy of Zhu Xi (1130–1200), who is conventionally regarded as the father of Neo-Confucianism—can be read as “outgrowths of the invitation to doubt, encouraged among those pursuing Neo-Confucian learning” (p. 9). That is, the Bendō and Benmei were not a destructive attack on Neo-Confucianism but an attempt to reconceptualize it. Here Tucker follows his mentor William Theodore de Bary, as he admits:

This study, in emphasizing that Sorai’s two Ben, in form, method, and significant content, issued from a genre defined by a late-Song Neo-Confucian text, Beixi’s Ziyi, extends de Bary’s line of analysis in particular by showing that, at the very least, those aspects of Sorai’s masterpiece were not generated simply by a return to the Six Classics, or kobunjigaku, the supposed “study of ancient words and literature.”

(p. 12)

Reading Sorai’s writings as an outgrowth of Neo-Confucianism is Tucker’s signature interpretation, and although he makes a strong and persuasive case, this view has not been well received by scholars familiar with Sorai.

Finally, Tucker contends that the Bendō and Benmei are fundamentally political works and that this political dimension was implicit in the philosophical dictionary genre. Those who wrote such works, he explains, “were not defining terms simply out of their academic passion for philology, textual exegesis, or lexicographic clarity. Rather they were engaging as well in an essentially political activity, one that must be construed as directly addressing the existing polity or, more seriously, potentially subverting...