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  • Chinese Metaphysics:A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking
  • Joseph E. Harroff (bio)
Chenyang Li and Franklin Perkins, editors. Chinese Metaphysics and Its Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. x, 241 pp. Hardcover $95.00, isbn 978-1-107-09350-8.

"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!"

Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, chapter 51

At first glance one might find themselves perplexed by the title Chinese Metaphysics and Its Problems. For the very mention of the term "metaphysics" will call to mind for many a "first philosophy" or the science of being qua Being and would therefore seem to necessarily transcend any specific cultural determinations like being of a "Chinese" provenance for instance. We might even find ourselves wishing to read Mr. Pott's fictional review of the topic, for it is hard to imagine what kind of combination he might have carried out on these two widely diver-gent encyclopedia entries. How might geography or culture have any bearing on the systematic study of ontology? What might the cultural specificity of philosophy done in a Chinese context have to offer a global, intercultural discipline like metaphysics? Do the Chinese even have an indigenous metaphysical tradition of their own to speak of? These questions and many related others are all brought to a greater degree of resolution in this most interesting collection of essays that emerged from the conference Conceptions of Reality: Metaphysics [End Page 17] and Its Alternatives in Chinese Thought held at Nanyang Technological University in 2013.

The editors of this volume understand metaphysics in a most broad sense as "theories regarding the nature, components, and operating principles of reality" (p. 1), and recognize that this discipline has suffered relative neglect compared to the epistemological, ethical, and political dimensions of classical Chinese thought. So in an effort to remedy this situation of being a relatively overlooked discipline, the stated aim of the volume is to "provide a concentrated study of Chinese metaphysics that reflects the state of the art in the field" (p. 1). It is evident then that the editors at least think that there is a coherent discipline called "Chinese metaphysics" and that it stands in stark contrast to the tradition of Western metaphysics, which has been primarily concerned with the study of things that do not change, with the supposedly super-sensible or ontologically transcendent dimensions of reality. Even the compartmentalization of distinct philosophical disciplines (e.g., metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, etc.) can be considered an entirely provincial phenomenon beginning with the categorization of Aristotle's corpus. In contrast, Chenyang Li and Franklin Perkins remind us that in the Chinese tradition, "the metaphysical and the moral are always intertwined, as the status of values, the nature of the self, and conceptions of order all have metaphysical implications, if not foundations" (p. 7). And as such, the aim of this book, despite being concerned with highlighting the distinctiveness of an often overlooked field of research, "is not to isolate Chinese metaphysical views from other areas of philosophy, but rather to focus on the metaphysical aspect of the philosophical continuum while showing how metaphysical conceptions connect to other areas of concern" (p. 8). In what follows I will briefly summarize each individual essay, occasionally providing some critical commentary. In the course of this review it is hoped that a clearer picture of what the...


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