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  • Das Wichtigste im Leben: Wang Yangming (1472–1529) und seine Nachfolger über die “Verwirklichung des ursprünglichen Wissens” 致良知 (The most important thing in life: Wang Yangming [1472–1529] and his successors on the “Realization of Original Knowledge”) by Iso Kern
  • Kai Marchal
Das Wichtigste im Leben: Wang Yangming (1472–1529) und seine Nachfolger über die “Verwirklichung des ursprünglichen Wissens” 致良知 (The most important thing in life: Wang Yangming [1472–1529] and his successors on the “Realization of Original Knowledge”). By Iso Kern. Basel: Schwabe Verlag, 2010. Pp. xxxi + 824. Hardcover SFr 128, €90, isbn 978-3-7965-2514-8.

During the last hundred years, numerous scholars, both in the Chinese-speaking world and in the West, have tried to reconstruct the teachings of Wang Yangming (1472–1529) in a philosophical and even systematic fashion. Famously, Mou Zongsan 牟宗三 (1909–1995) interpreted Wang’s statements regarding the identity between xin 心 and li 理 as something akin to the Kantian idea of moral autonomy. In Das Wichtigste im Leben (The most important thing in life), Swiss scholar Iso Kern takes a rather different approach: his monograph primarily advances a very careful, historical reconstruction of Wang’s doctrine of liangzhi 良知 (translated by Kern as “original knowledge”). As such, it is a most welcome contribution.

This is a huge work (more than eight hundred pages of dense German prose) that may represent the climax of Kern’s lifelong interest in Chinese philosophy. In fact, Kern also believes that the Neo-Confucian thinker has a great deal to offer to contemporary philosophical conversations (especially to phenomenology). Nevertheless, Kern is rather reluctant to draw on non-Chinese concepts or modern philosophical issues while analyzing Wang’s particular modes of thought.1 He primarily aims at a “coherent understanding” of Wang’s numerous statements on liangzhi (p. 242) and the many ensuing debates over its meaning among his successors in order to articulate the original experience behind them, the “psychological and phenomenological meaning” of Wang’s teachings (p. xxviii).

A. S. Cua has called Wang’s doctrine of liangzhi “puzzling.”2 In fact, Wang did not write down his ideas on liangzhi in a systematic fashion, but merely communicated his thoughts in a rather casual way through daily conversations with disciples. [End Page 676] And these disciples were not really interested in clarifying his often rather confusing statements (p. 242). Thus, unlike many contemporary scholars who smooth out the differences between earlier and later statements collected in the Instructions for Practical Living (傳習錄—in Kern’s translation, Notes for the Practice of the Teachings Transmitted [by the Teacher]), Kern tries to do justice to the particular nature of Wang’s teachings. One of his major interpretative claims is that only after thoroughly understanding the development of Wang’s mind and the reception of his teachings among his disciples can we hope to recover the true meaning of his thought. I think this is a very important point.3

Kern distinguishes between three periods in the development of Wang’s thinking on liangzhi: an early period (until 1506), a middle period (1507–1518), and a late period (1519–1529). Thus, Kern regards Wang’s banishment to Longchang 龍場 in 1507 and his involvement in the events around the rebellion of Prince Ning 寧 (Zhu Chenhao 朱宸濠) in 1519–1520 to be the two turning points in his intellectual development. Also, Kern thinks that when Wang—after his painful experiences in 1519–1520—decided to place the notion of liangzhi at the center of his mature teaching, he did not articulate a radically new thought, but merely found a new formulation for earlier ideas (pp. 96, 129–130). This fits well with the analyses of Julia Ching and Chen Lai 陳來, who also think that Wang developed his crucial ideas in 1508, but that he wasn’t able to find an appropriate “verbal formula” (biaoshu xingshi 表述形式) for them until the summer of 1520.4

So is it possible to understand all of Wang’s various statements on liangzhi in a coherent way? Can we unpack his original ideas about moral experience and moral agency hidden behind the often rather elliptical statements found in his Instructions for Practical Living? With due caution, Kern advances the...