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  • Response to David Glidden's Review of The Siren and the Sage
  • Steven Shankman and Stephen Durrant

The essence of David Glidden's critique of The Siren and the Sage (Philosophy East and West 52 [2] [2002]: 260-265) is that its authors have decided "to import a largely nineteenth-century, technically Western philosophical terminology" (p. 261) into their interpretation of the first chapter of the Daodejing and then used that grid to distort the texts they examine.

May we suggest the possibility that it is perhaps rather Professor Glidden who is the willful distorter-in his case, of the text of The Siren and the Sage?

Glidden's chief objection is to our translation of the first chapter of the Daodejing, our analysis of which shapes the direction of the book's argument. In speaking of the nature of one's experience of the dao, Laozi says, "Therefore, constantly have no intention (wu yu) in order to observe its wonders; constantly have an intention (you yu) in order to observe its manifestations." Now, while readers are, of course, free to disagree with our interpretation of this passage, it is an act of interpretive hubris, ignorance, and even irresponsibility for a reader who knows "no classical Chinese" (as Glidden admits, p. 261) to ground his fervent objections to our interpretation on the basis of his superficial comparison of our translation and that produced by just one other scholar, Robert G. Henricks.

Our construing of the word yu as "intention" is not as idiosyncratic or as original as Glidden contends. As we observed in The Siren and the Sage (p. 186), Shigenori Nagatomo similarly argues that the word yu plausibly refers to "a directionality within a noetic act; I seek something; I intend something or desire something" ("An Epistemic Turn in the Tao Te Ching: A Phenomenological Reflection," International Philosophical Quarterly 21 [2] [June 1983]: 176). We surveyed at least twenty versions of this passage, and while the favored translation of the word yu is "desire," we came to the conclusion that for us to render yu in this manner would convey inappropriately Buddhist overtones ultimately deriving from the Buddhist-influenced commentary of Wang Bi (226-249 C.E.). The word "intention" better suited what we wanted (or intended!) to say. Our choice of the word "intention" does not, in any event, alter or distort the meaning of the passage. Indeed, Glidden's one alleged counter-example from the Henricks translation ("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") is, in essence, not very different from our own, and can easily accommodate our analysis.

Having made this fatal assumption (on the basis of no firsthand linguistic evidence) [End Page 399] that Shankman and Durrant could not possibly be convincing in their reading of a passage from the first chapter of the Daodejing, the Chinese-less Western classical philosophical specialist then goes on to pontificate, at length and with no apparent relevance to the book he is attempting to understand and evaluate, on the subject of how comparative studies should be done. Comparativists, according to Glidden, should focus on the mundane realities of existence in order to point out "the common experiences of humanity," such as "parenting and rearing children, . . . learning to read and write and count," or "enduring hardship in the search for food" (p. 262). He then expatiates on how contemporary "Chinese authors" such as Amy Tan and Ha Jin (who are American citizens, not Chinese nationals), as well as director Zhang Yimou, "have achieved considerable cross-cultural understanding" (p. 263) and have conveyed this understanding to their audiences.

Glidden then rewrites The Siren and the Sage from his own preferred perspective of doing cross-cultural studies, having willfully tossed out our interpretive frame (p. 263), which emerged from a painstakingly careful philological analysis of the first chapter of the Daodejing. We cannot know whether Laozi would approve of our analysis. We can say, however, as authors of The Siren and the Sage, that Glidden's interpretation of our book often bears little or no relation to our own...