- Vital Nourishment: Departing from Happiness
When asked by students taking Chinese Philosophy classes with me what I can recommend as reading material, I usually say, among other things, anything written by François Jullien. Thankfully, with Vital Nourishment: Departing from Happiness, [End Page 437] there is now a new title available in English translation to add to this list. As with the works of most philosophically inclined writers whom I like, this book by Jullien does not really say much that has not already been said by him, at least implicitly, in previous publications. More or less "creative" writers, paradoxically, tend to produce variations of one or more themes and thus repeat themselves to a certain degree. That is, so to speak, the price one has to pay if one has managed to develop a personal style (of thinking and writing, in this case).
Vital Nourishment is, once more, a comparative, or, rather, contrastive, work pointing out the differences between ancient Chinese philosophy and philosophical ideas and notions developed in the European tradition. Accordingly, the book is likely to be enjoyed by those (such as this reviewer) who sympathize with this contrastive approach, and to be disliked by Jullien's many critics who don't. This time, the concrete issue at stake is, to loosely follow the title, Chinese and Western views on strategies of living. The book's general message is nicely summed up by a sentence in the preface stating that the common Chinese expression "to feed one's life" (yang sheng) "eludes the great divides between body and soul and between literal and figurative thought which European culture has so powerfully shaped itself" (p. 8). This is, as usual with Jullien, a very general remark, but it nevertheless leads to a great number of subtle analyses of specific aspects of Ancient Chinese philosophy, or, more particularly (in this book), philosophical Daoism, or, even more particularly, the Zhuangzi. What is, in my view, the basically correct, general claim at the beginning therefore remains not at all superficial. To the contrary, it provides access to and is the first step toward an in-depth analysis of several rather unique conceptions of the physical, and prescriptions of how to deal with it, that can be found in a classic text such as the Zhuangzi. Jullien succeeds in making these visible with a clarity, precision, and, yes, eloquence, as hardly anyone else in the field can.
The book consists of twelve concise chapters, each of which deals with a particular aspect of (mostly) Daoist philosophy of living. All chapters include contrastive comparisons with European philosophy (mostly using ancient Greek writings, but also touching on modern philosophers such as Descartes and Kant). Sometimes these comparisons are at the center of the discussion, for instance with respect to notions of the "soul" (chapter 5) and the pursuit of "happiness" (chapter 9), and sometimes they are more in the background, for instance when Jullien writes about "breath energy" (qi, in chapter 8) or practices of "vital nourishment" (also in chapter 8). These contrastive comparisons are highly useful—even, and perhaps most importantly so, philologically (which is what probably most of Jullien's critics would deny). At the beginning of chapter 10 on hygiene, for instance, Jullien "deconstructs" a typical sinological translation and interpretation of Xi Kang's third-century c.e. Yang sheng lun (On vital nourishment) by Donald Holzman. I do not want to meta-analyze Jullien's analysis here—the readers of the book may do this by themselves—but I want to point out that, in my view, it is only through Jullien's grasp of the underlying philosophical "grammar" (in the Wittgensteinian sense—i.e., here, the conceptualizations of "life" in ancient Chinese thought) that he is able to get the linguistic [End Page 438] grammar (in a broad sense, including semantics) right, or at least to present Xi Kang's views much more clearly, coherently, and convincingly than the sinologist Holzman.
One of the sinological criticisms that has been voiced against Jullien's work is its...