- Ambiguity, Wholeness, and Irony: A New Interpretation of Chinese Metaphysics
Let me begin with a personal observation. It takes some courage to write a review of Brook Ziporyn’s new publications. The two tomes, Ironies of Oneness and Difference and Beyond Oneness and Difference, center on the history of one particular notion, li 理, which, according to Ziporyn, denotes “something interestingly strange” (Beyond, p. 314). The sheer size of these two densely printed volumes (more than seven hundred pages in total) and their enormous scope (from Classical Chinese thought through to Neo-Confucianism) make any attempt to understand and to evaluate Ziporyn’s contribution a daunting task. Therefore, I will confine myself to an overview of the major claims and a few preliminary observations. However, it should be pointed out at the beginning that few books I have read proved to be as stimulating and satisfying (in both purely theoretical and aesthetic terms) as these two volumes on “oneness and difference.” Hopefully, this publication will reach more than the proverbial “happy few.”
Even a modestly engaged student of Chinese thought will spend some time thinking about the term li; but the chances are high that he or she will walk away with a rather cartoonish image (one common misunderstanding among non-Chinese students being that li represents a concept in the Aristotelian sense, with a clear definitional structure). In the seventeenth century, the philosopher Leibniz, in his mostly autodidactic attempt to come to grips with Chinese thought, had connected the term li to the idea of God as a prime mover.1 In 1947, the French Sinologist Paul Démieville addressed this issue in a now famous lecture at the Collège de France.2 Some years later (in 1955), the Chinese philosopher Tang Junyi 唐君毅, developed an often [End Page 949] quoted sixfold classification in order to explain the various uses of li.3 Since then, numerous Sinologists have written about this term, but there can be no doubt that Ziporyn’s two volumes represent a milestone in this long history of reception.4
While engaged in the task of writing these two volumes, Ziporyn’s explicit goal was “to formulate and structure a global theory” about Chinese metaphysics as a whole and, more particularly, about li (Ironies, p. vii). Ideally, such a theory would enable us “to see both the diversity of continuities and discontinuities in the various positions advanced by Chinese thinkers, and to understand the presuppositions that make them possible” (Ironies, p. 60). In other words, Ziporyn’s inquiry comprises both a transcendental dimension (regarding the conditions of possibility of a particular way of thinking) and a historical dimension (the textual evidence left behind by individual thinkers). This is a very appealing way of framing the issue; unlike many contemporary Sinologists, who, in their excessive concern with the precise meaning of single words or sentences, risk neglecting the specific mindsets underlying these texts, Ziporyn is able to establish and to go some way toward clarifying the sense of surprise and refreshment that premodern Chinese texts afford their readers.
Many Sinologists translate li as “pattern” or “law” and tend to understand it in an objectivist way; for example, Rudolf G. Wagner has claimed that this term, in Wang Bi’s 王弼 (226–249) thought, “describes the structured specificity of things.”5 Ziporyn offers us many compelling reasons to think that the real story, in Wang Bi and in other thinkers, is much more complicated. The basic problem seems to be that this term does not simply refer to objective patterns or other entities that could be grasped by a disengaged observer through a...