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  • Searching for the Way: Theory of Knowledge in Pre-modern and Modern China
  • Bart Dessein
Searching for the Way: Theory of Knowledge in Pre-modern and Modern China. By Jana S. Rosker. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2008. Pp. xvi + 356. U.S. $52.00.

In Searching for the Way: Theory of Knowledge in Pre-modern and Modern China, Jana S. Rosker investigates the development of ontological and epistemological theories in China, from the early philosophical fundaments of the period of the Warring States to the contemporary period. Rosker deals with the development of Chinese theories of how knowledge is gained and transmitted in order to attain ultimate wisdom, where wisdom is understood to pertain to the domain of morality in the Chinese holistic view of man and the cosmos. Given the discrepancy between the object of knowledge and the subject of comprehension, this investigation more particularly deals with such problems as the possibility or impossibility of attaining correct knowledge of a given object—and thus the possibility or impossibility of attaining a complete understanding of the way (dao); the relationship between this knowledge and wisdom on the one hand and morality on the other; the possibility or impossibility of language to function as a conveyer of knowledge; and the relationship between knowledge (zhi) and action (xing).

In this investigation the author engages in a discussion of the criteria that define a logical tradition, that is, a tradition of rational inquiry, and the number of such logical traditions that can be discerned. This discussion is also part of the Chinese philosophical debate, as the modern Chinese Marxist philosopher Feng Qi (1915–1995) claimed that, with the exception of the Mohist classic Mo jing, which includes some well-developed formal logical treatises, “it is generally acknowledged that Chinese philosophy was primarily focused on ethics.”1 With this claim, Feng agrees with the common Western opinion that this characteristic of Chinese philosophy places the Chinese tradition in contrast to the European and Indian traditions, which are characterized by the accentuation of formal logic.2 Indeed, this fundamental difference between the Chinese tradition on the one hand and the European and Indian traditions on the other made some scholars claim that only two traditions of rational inquiry can be differentiated: the Western and the Indian.3 The difference between the Chinese and Western approaches to these problems can be summarized in the following: whereas in Western discourse, the external world (or objective reality) was conceived to a great extent as independent of the subject of comprehension, the Chinese theories of knowledge can generally be called ‘relational epistemologies,’ that is, epistemologies in which there is a holistic relation between the object of knowledge and the subject of comprehension.

In the first chapter, “Chinese Philosophy and Chinese Epistemology—Uncovering a Hidden Relationship” (pp. 1–37), Rosker argues that four basic epistemological trends can be differentiated in the philosophy of the Warring States period. A first trend is the one represented by Confucius and Mozi. For them, language is normative and reality is subject to language. Therefore, language can express reality and is a normative instrument for gaining knowledge. A second trend is represented by [End Page 130] Laozi and Xunzi. For them, language cannot express reality. Hence, it cannot be used as a conveyor of knowledge. Mengzi also formulated a critique of the Confucian interpretation of language: “Mengzi argued that language did not represent an innate system which contained the essence of proper social norms that enabled people to live in a harmonic society” (p. 15). As this is the case for Laozi, his moral epistemology was based solely on introspection. While the Nomenalists (xingming jia) based their theories on isomorphic assumptions, the Neo-Mohists based them on linguistic relativism. They constitute a third trend. Zhuangzi’s philosophy, finally, can be named ‘radical relativism.’

It has been argued that “Rationality and argumentation arise when a thinker seriously contemplates the pervasiveness of the possibility that he may be wrong, that he needs reasons and arguments to support the validity of his views.”4 In other words, the peculiar Chinese connection between Confucian and Neo-Confucian orthodoxy on the one hand and the political milieu...