- Learning to Emulate the Wise: The Genesis of Chinese Philosophy as an Academic Discipline in Twentieth-Century China ed. by John Makeham
Everyone in the field of Chinese and comparative philosophy becomes more indebted to the scholarly efforts of John Makeham with each new publication of his. Those of us with an interest in the Lunyu, for example, profit from his masterful book on its commentaries and the ru who wrote them, and from his Monumenta Serica article (1996) on dating when the text, as we have it, was put into its present form. More recently, Western scholars of Chinese thought will gain numerous insights from his newer work as author and/or editor of the intellectual backgrounds and philosophical writings of their Chinese counterparts of the twentieth century and continuing today (on both the mainland and Taiwan), sensitizing us to the various ways they share a problematik that, differences among them aside, tends to differ from those of most Western philosophers in some crucial respects. The most recent of Makeham’s publications is the work under review here, Learning to Emulate the Wise: The Genesis of Chinese Philosophy as an Academic Discipline in Twentieth-Century China. [End Page 1110]
An intellectual historian of China, Makeham has consistently focused on what has come to be seen as “Chinese philosophy,” and in the present volume he and his fellow contributors make abundantly clear how and why the expression itself has been and remains a contested one. From their joint investigations of how Chinese philosophy came to be an academic discipline in the formative years of Chinese universities, in the early decades of the 1900s, we gain not only historical perspective but come to appreciate debates about, for example, the significance of the distinction between “Chinese philosophy” and “philosophy in China,” which originated then but continues today in only minimally modified form and content. These debates were (and are) by no means “just a matter of semantics,” but rather dealt with issues of interpreting and reinterpreting traditional Chinese culture and the use and misuse of Western philosophical methods and ideas in those efforts. Makeham notes at the outset that “This volume is not a work of philosophy.” But for myself, it is surely a work in philosophy, which I can commend unreservedly to all of my fellow comparative philosophers with an interest in China, past and/or present.
The first essay deals, appropriately enough, with Nishi Amane, the Japanese scholar who gave “philosophy” its East Asian translation: tetsugaku 哲学 (Chin: zhexue). Nishi spent two and a half years studying in Holland, and Barry Steben claims, convincingly, that Nishi established the context in which most Chinese scholars no less than Japanese came to understand the Western intellectual tradition that he transmitted. In Steben’s own words: “[I]n introducing the Western concept of natural law . . . and legal ideas . . . Nishi used a wide range of well-known Confucian distinctions . . . to introduce and explicate the concepts and distinctions which structured the world of learning in nineteenth-century Europe” (p. 59). But according to Steben, placing the Western materials in Confucian terms to a significant extent did not badly distort those materials:
[T]here is no evidence that [Nishi’s] interpretive efforts left a legacy of confusion. . . . This is certainly because the long tradition of Confucian learning was rich enough to be able to provide all sorts of conceptual tools, and because of the degree of Nishi’s skill in creating new translation-concepts by making original combinations of Chinese characters or reviving ancient combinations that had fallen out of use.(p. 60)
It is important to appreciate this claim because of the many disputes among the Chinese intelligentsia dealt with in Learning to Emulate the Wise, most of which hinge on how best to understand and categorize the Chinese cultural heritage. Despite great pressure to do so, especially by the time of the May Fourth Movement, that heritage could not be...