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  • In Search of Modernity and Beyond—Development of Philosophy in the Republic of China in the Last Hundred Years
  • Vincent Shen (bio)

It is indeed a difficult job to reconstruct the development of philosophical thought in the Republic of China (ROC) over the last one hundred years. One of the reasons is that in its historical process, Chinese philosophical thinking is very much like a great river merging many streams whose continuity is hard to discern. It seems to be a vain attempt to cut and dissect the flow of the great river. Second, numerous and vehement social, political, and cultural changes have taken place in the last hundred years, with fluxuating currents of thought that are, indeed, difficult to reconstruct into a conceptual framework. That is why, instead of trying to paint a complete picture of the history of philosophy over the last hundred years, what I can do is merely to highlight the main line of it, that is, its development in facing the challenge of modernity in the Republic of China. I will focus on its development, its main currents, and exemplar thinkers, and envisage its prospects in the future.

I use the plural form “modernities” instead of the singular “modernity” because, for me, different people with different historical and cultural backgrounds could have access to different modes of modernity. However, even if such be the case, the appearance of modernity in human history and its later diversions and transformations have their main reference in European modernity since the sixteenth century. Though the historical, cultural, and psychological processes that have constituted European modernity are extremely complicated, still we can characterize it as a philosophy of subjectivity, a culture of representations, rationality, and domination, as explained in the following:

  1. 1. Philosophy of Subjectivity. In contrast to the Middle Ages, the modern world began with the Europeans’ self-awareness as the subject of their knowledge, freedom, and rights. The founder of modern philosophy, R. Descartes, summarized most succinctly this new spirit of the modern world by saying, “I think, therefore I am,” which announced also the foundation for modern philosophy would be human subjectivity. Philosophers of classical empiricism, such as J. Locke, G. Berkeley, and D. Hume, all have affirmed the human individual as the subject of his/her cognitive activities and freedom of choice. Modern artists and moralists also proclaimed the individual as responsible of actions that produced moral and artistic values. Members of the school of natural law, such as H. Grotius, S. Pufendorf, and Charles Thomasius, claimed the human person as the subject of rights based on natural law. In short, the human individual was the subject of knowing, freedom, rights, and values. [End Page 153]

    Thus, modern Western philosophy began and developed as the philosophy of subjectivity. Kant, in criticizing both rationalism and empiricism, laid the transcendental foundation of human subjectivity and explored its three parts: the cognitive part in his Critique of Pure Reason, the moral part in his Critique of Practical Reason, and the aesthetic part, with treatises on art and human teleology, in his Critique of Judgment. After Kant, Hegel transformed human subjectivity into spirit, to be realized as the absolute spirit. Philosophers after Hegel, such as S. Kierkegaard, K. Marx, and F. Nietzsche, vehemently criticized Hegel; however, their philosophies were still conceived in the framework of a philosophy of subjectivity. In sum, modern philosophy should be seen as the establishment, extension, and critical reflections of the philosophy of subjectivity.

  2. 2. Culture of Representation. In the modern world, human individuals regarded themselves as the subject and the world as the object, and, through the construction of systems of representation, attempted to express themselves, to appropriate knowledge, and to dominate the objective world. All impressions, concepts, theories, art works, political systems of representative, and so forth were but different modes of representation through which human beings knew, built, and controlled their worlds. Thus, the term “representation” had two meanings: as performance and as representative. Scientific theories and artworks were representative of the world; political parties and parliamentary systems were representative of people and their political opinions. Meanwhile, scientific theories, artworks, and parliamentary representatives performed in microform the movement of the natural, social, or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 153-187
Launched on MUSE
2014-05-07
Open Access
No
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