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Reviewed by:
  • The Discovery of Chinese Logic by Joachim Kurtz
  • Benjamin A. Elman (bio)
Joachim Kurtz. The Discovery of Chinese Logic. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2011. xiv, 471 pp. Appendix, bibliography, index. Hardcover $221.00, isbn 978-90-04-17338-5.

A veteran of the Translating Western Knowledge into Late Imperial China project, which was organized by Michael Lackner, then at the University of Göttingen, Joachim Kurtz helped to edit one of the resulting conference volumes, New Terms for New Ideas: Western Knowledge and Lexical Change in Late Imperial China (Leiden: E. J. Brill Academic Publishers, 2001). He also helped Lackner to develop several Internet websites using search engines for Chinese primary texts to explore systematically the translation into classical Chinese of technical terms in the modern social and natural sciences from European languages during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Joachim Kurtz’s new book is a pioneering reconsideration of the historical genealogy of logic as a technical subject in both China and the West from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. The early chapters focus on the reasons why logic failed to take hold as a discipline in China when the Jesuits introduced Aristotelian logic and the syllogism to Chinese literati in the late Ming. His argument that the Jesuits themselves never made entirely clear the place of logic as a discipline in their translations of Western learning into Chinese, which were compiled with the help of Chinese converts, is persuasive. Despite the much ballyhooed translation of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry into Chinese, we might add that the Chinese were never convinced that it offered a superior method of thinking and argumentation to their own, which informed, for example, the reasoning patterns (wenli 文理) in the infamous eight-legged essays of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Although Kurtz is essentially correct here, he has based his own account of the Jesuits on historical material that others have often presented on both the translation of Euclid and the failure of Ferdinand Verbiest to gain the Kangxi emperor’s authorization to print a Jesuit compendium of Western knowledge known as the Qionglixue (Cursus Philosophicus) for use on the influential Chinese civil service examinations. To elaborate on Verbiest’s remarkably ambitious efforts to insinuate the syllogistic method (litui zhi fa 理推之法) into the epistemological discourses of late imperial Chinese classicism, Kurtz has reviewed many primary sources that were not available earlier, but in the end he reemphasizes the reasons the Kangxi emperor gave for rejecting Verbiest’s request “as mere pretext” (pp. 85–86).

Yet Kurtz takes Verbiest’s own tactics at face value. Why? Because Verbiest’s appeal to the syllogism was authentic and not just a means to an end, while the Chinese rejection of the initiative was misguided from the beginning? The Chinese literati in the Ministry of Rites who advised the emperor on Verbiest’s request rejected the proposal because they claimed it wrongly focused on the brain and [End Page 513] thus missed the centrality of the heart-mind (xin 心) in all mental deliberations. Kurtz dismisses this reason as disingenuous and a front for literati intransigence, which, in part, it surely was. However, when the Kangxi emperor himself weighed in and proclaimed “the style of this book is absurd and unintelligible” (p. 86; what others translate as “illogical”), Kurtz sees this as the playing out of a public performance at court with no intellectual merit. Verbiest’s gamble “came to naught” (p. 86).

Why, then, was Verbiest so focused on the syllogism? Was it just a clever ploy to show the emperor and his Chinese officials the way to God? Was not Verbiest perhaps convinced from his private audiences with him that the emperor was intrigued by European forms of reasoning, which the Jesuits claimed informed their allegedly more advanced expertise in calendrical studies and philosophy? Why else would Verbiest have been so audacious as to propose a European style of reasoning for the training and testing of all civil officials? He likely thought he stood a realistic chance to effect his plan. In other words, if we examine contemporary Chinese forms of reasoning during the Ming-Qing transition, we might find that the intellectual...