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Reviewed by:
  • Vanishing into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition by Barry Allen
  • Shane Ryan (bio) and Chienkuo Mi (bio)
Vanishing into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition. By Barry Allen. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. 289. Hardcover $45.00, isbn 978-0-674-33591-2.


Barry Allen's Vanishing into Things discusses intellectual traditions of Chinese philosophy through the thematic thread of knowledge. The thread takes us chapter by chapter from Confucianism, Daoism, and The Art of War to Chan Buddhism and The Investigation of Things. The final chapter discusses "resonance" and the part it has played in Chinese intellectual history.

It wouldn't be surprising if such an ambitious work, covering the range of intellectual traditions that Allen covers, became fragmentary and disparate. After all, such [End Page 1299] traditions vary in significant ways and in certain respects are unrelated intellectually. What arrests this tendency is the commonality that Allen identifies in the treatment of knowledge. In particular, Allen advances the view that Chinese philosophy is concerned with "wise knowledge." This is the sort of knowledge that, among other things, allows us to live well (pp. 20–21, 80). The result is a quite comprehensive work on Chinese philosophy and the topic of knowledge, or at least one aspect of knowledge, and as such is a valuable resource for the increasing number of scholars interested in both Chinese philosophy and knowledge. Indeed, the book's strength is testified to by the fact that what Allen writes in his book can provide scholars with a basis for disagreeing with views that Allen advances. Allen deserves credit for this.

The view that Chinese philosophy is concerned with wise knowledge is contrasted with the concern, as Allen sees it, of epistemology from the Western tradition. This contrast, presented as favorable to Chinese philosophy, is another of the central views advanced in Allen's book and, unfortunately, is perhaps the weakest aspect of the book. The case that Allen makes vis-à-vis Chinese philosophy and epistemology is, as we shall see, problematic.

In the second part of our review we discuss in detail the account Allen provides of knowledge across Chinese intellectual traditions. The principal idea conveyed by Allen is that Chinese philosophy is concerned with wise knowledge and not everyday knowledge. Rather than there being a break between the concern for wise knowledge and everyday knowledge, however, we find merely a difference in emphasis. In contrast to what Allen writes, we believe there is a concern for everyday knowledge in Chinese philosophy.

The Contrasting of Chinese Philosophy and Western Philosophy

Allen introduces his book by telling the story of a servant dashing a duke's plans for war. The servant attends to small details to draw the correct conclusion that the duke is planning for war against a neighboring state. The airing by the servant of the duke's secret plan for war forces the duke to give up the plan. We are told that the servant is called a sage by Guan Zhong, who himself is a "sage statesman" (pp. 1–2). His is a case that exemplifies what Allen calls "wise knowledge." It tells us what Chinese philosophy expects and values in such knowledge. A Chinese proverb says of the sage that "from the inconspicuous he hits upon brightness" (p. 2). Another proverb in the Daodejing makes the same basic point: "To really see the little things is called enlightenment" (ibid.). Finally, in the Huainanzi, we have a further and more explicit variation on this: "Since the beginnings of good and bad fortune are tiny as a sprout, people overlook them. Only sages see their beginnings and know their ends. … The sage's perception of outcomes at their origin is subtle" (quoted on p. 2). Allen notes the importance given to "[p]enetrating the subtle—seeing a lot in little things. Discerning the concordant and contrary—knowing the resonance among things, and how to amplify or dampen emerging tendencies" is the "leading idea" with regard to wise knowledge in the Chinese tradition (p. 3; Allen's own emphasis).1 He describes [End Page 1300] this capacity to see what the little things portend as the "cognitive accomplishment" of...


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