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Reviewed by:
  • Chinese Metaphysics and Its Problems ed. by Chenyang Li and Franklin Perkins
  • Robert Cummings Neville (bio)
Chinese Metaphysics and Its Problems. Edited by Chenyang Li and Franklin Perkins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. x + 242. Hardcover $95.00, isbn 978-1-107-09350-8.

Roger T. Ames begins his contribution to Chenyang Li and Franklin Perkins’ edited volume Chinese Metaphysics and Its Problems (chapter 5) with this scene from Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, chapter 51: [End Page 280]

“They [a set of literary articles written for the Eatanswill Gazette] appeared in the form of a copious review of a work on Chinese metaphysics, Sir,” said Pott.

“Oh,” observed Mr. Pickwick; “from your pen, I hope?” “From the pen of my critic, Sir,” rejoined Pott, with dignity.

“An abstruse subject, I should conceive,” said Mr. Pickwick.

“Very, Sir,” responded Pott, looking intensely sage. “He crammed for it, to use a technical but expressive term; he read up for the subject, at my desire, in the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica.’

“Indeed!” said Mr. Pickwick; “I was not aware that that valuable work contained any information respecting Chinese metaphysics.”

“He read, Sir,” rejoined Pott, laying his hand on Mr. Pickwick’s knee, and looking round with a smile of intellectual superiority — “he read for metaphysics under the letter M, and for China under the letter C, and combined his information, Sir!”

Chinese metaphysics, as a contemporary topic, has no better luck in the Britannica 2015 edition than it did in the edition of Dickens’ day. As the editors discuss in their introduction to this book, the Chinese had no metaphysics at all if it is defined narrowly as what Aristotle did, or what postmodernists reject, or as the search for unchanging ultimate realities. But if you expand your notion of metaphysical philosophy to be something like Wilfrid Sellars’ famous definition, quoted by Ames on page 86 — “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” — then of course Chinese philosophy has a full plate of metaphysics. The twelve chapters of this volume, plus its subtle introduction, amply demonstrate the existence as well as philosophical value of metaphysics in Chinese philosophy. The authors are all substantial scholars, several being among the most senior students of Chinese philosophy; although other scholars might dispute some of the interpretations, these authors are authoritative, and I recommend that anyone interested in Chinese metaphysics, or China, or metaphysics, should read it.

Robin R. Wang’s “Yinyang Narrative of Reality: Chinese Metaphysical Thinking,” deals with a text that might suggest there is a transcendent abstract reality “above” the flow of things, but argues that the yinyang cosmology from the Yijing and elsewhere is the basic reality, which is always changing. She explains how that cosmology undergirds important Chinese metaphysical terms: maodun (contradiction and opposition), xiangyi (interdependence), huhan (mutual inclusion), jiaogan (interaction or resonance), hubu (complementarity or mutual support), and zhuanhua (change and transformation).

JeeLoo Liu’s “In Defense of Chinese Qi-naturalism” explores the notion of qi, and she says that a qi narrative is compatible with the yinyang narrative in Wang’s chapter. She argues that all the origins of things, including the cosmos, are functions of the changes in qi and that there are no transcendent supernatural entities other than the qi as the stuff of the world.

Franklin Perkins’ “What Is a Thing (Wu)?” does for wu as a basic metaphysical idea what Wang and Liu did for yinyang and qi, arguing that wu is to be understood [End Page 281] as changes toward individuation. He discusses the many senses of this in pre-Qin material.

Chris Fraser’s “The Mohist Conception of Reality” contends that the Mohist texts present a naturalistic philosophy in which all changes are naturally caused. Heaven (tian), though having intentions somewhat like a god, is just a name for the whole of nature, and it has important ethical elements that are metaphysically naturalistic. That is, norms are built in to the nature of things.

Roger Ames’ “Reading the Zhongyong ‘Metaphysically’” is a splendid metaphysical reading of that text, and very surprising...


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