- Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy by Bryan W. Van Norden
In his latest book, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, Bryan Van Norden provides an introductory survey of classical Chinese philosophy. Van Norden’s approach is to introduce classical Chinese thought in terms of contemporary philosophy with the hope that in coming to the material in this way readers will be encouraged to pursue not only Chinese philosophy but also contemporary Western philosophy.
In the introduction, Van Norden begins with a brief overview of the classical period — beginning with the mythology of the sages and concluding with the historical rise and fall of the Qin dynasty (221–207 b.c.e.) — and gives an account of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–221 b.c.e.) in particular, as it was the heyday of classical Chinese philosophy.
Following the general introduction, Van Norden proceeds through the various major thinkers and schools of thought. He begins in chapter 2 with a brief thematic overview of Confucian philosophy before interpreting Kongzi’s (Confucius’) ethics as a form of virtue ethics in chapter 3. Mozi and Mohist consequentialism are the topic of chapter 4. Chapter 5 introduces the work of Yang Zhu. In arguing that Yang Zhu was an ethical egoist, Van Norden draws the distinction between psychological and ethical egoism for the reader. He expands on the virtue-ethical dimensions of Confucianism in chapter 6, where he introduces Mengzi (Mencius) and the central features of the Mengzian conception of human nature. Chapter 7 discusses the ragtag group of dialecticians and sophists known as the “School of Names.” In particular, it introduces Deng Xi, Hui Shi, Gongsun Long, and the Later Mohists. The Daodejing is the central focus of chapter 8, in which Van Norden draws comparisons between the tenets of this early text and those of mysticism. The central point of chapter 9 is that Daoist skepticism and relativism in the Zhuangzi serve therapeutic rather than doctrinal ends. Xunzi’s form of Confucianism, his rejection of cosmic teleology, and his naturalist leanings make up the tenth chapter. Chapter 11 introduces Han Feizi and the Legalist critique of Confucianism. Chapter 12, the last proper chapter of the book, examines the various developments of Chinese philosophy from the Han dynasty (202 b.c.e.–220 c.e.) through to the present day.
In addition to this survey of early Chinese philosophy, Van Norden provides three helpful appendices. Appendix A discusses hermeneutics and the proper way to read a philosophical text, especially a philosophical text from another culture and time period. Appendix B is an introduction to the Chinese language, a dimension of Chinese philosophy that is rightly emphasized by almost all Western commentators. Appendix C provides a brief introduction to three alternative interpretations of Kongzi and their frameworks for interpreting classical Confucianism as a whole. [End Page 1115] They are exemplified by the works of P. J. Ivanhoe, Hui-chieh Loy, and Roger T. Ames, respectively.
Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy succeeds in what it sets out to do, namely to introduce the Western reader to the world of classical Chinese philosophy by way of a thorough survey of major thinkers and intellectual trends. [End Page 1116]