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  • Orientalism and Enlightenment Positivism:A Critique of Anglophone Sinology, Comparative Literature, and Philosophy
  • Shuchen Xiang


On January 1, 1958, in the journal Democratic Critique, Zhang Junmai, Mou Zongsan, Tang Junyi, and Xu Fuguan published the "Manifesto on Chinese Culture for the World: Our Common Understanding of Chinese Scholarship Research and of the Future of Chinese Culture and World Culture."1 This manifesto is commonly seen as the founding statement of the New Confucianism movement. Section 2 of the manifesto, "Three Motives, Approaches, and their Shortcomings in the Study of Chinese Culture in World Scholarship," claimed that Chinese culture had not been understood by three kinds of people who had approached it, namely, Christian missionaries, sinologists, and students of present world history. For the New Confucians, the Jesuits did not understand Chinese culture because they overly stressed its religious aspects with a view towards the proselytization of Christianity. The sinologists didn't understand Chinese culture because they treated China as a living fossil or extinct civilization on which to perform autopsies. Finally, the students of contemporary world history approached Chinese culture not out of genuine interest, but out of necessity. None of these three groups of people could appreciate the value of Chinese philosophy.

The New Confucians' diagnosis of the state of the field is just as incisive today as it was then. The reason why neither the Christian missionary, sinologist, or the student of world politics understood Chinese culture is because they all saw their own culture and methodologies as universal. Under this universalism, the tradition of the other is merely a particular or mere "accident" that must be understood through (European) universalism. The tradition of the other has no intrinsic objectivity or claim to validity. A true understanding of Chinese culture is incommensurable with Enlightenment [End Page 22] universalism. In this paper, I will add two more disciplines to the New Confucian's list of people who have not understood Chinese culture: Anglophone China-West comparative literature and mainstream Anglophone philosophy.

In Orientalism, Edward Said makes the point that the Western academe's desire to acquire knowledge about the Orient was based on a Baconian paradigm of knowledge and power (Said 32). Knowledge about the orient was necessary in order to subjugate it, not because its traditions were worth knowing for their own sake. In the postwar Anglophone academe, this orientalizing sentiment foundational to the discipline of sinology joins forces with the "hermeneutics of suspicion" (I will provide a definition of this in the following section) and further displaces the idea that there is any intrinsic merit to the traditions under study. Inasmuch as the "hermeneutics of suspicion" problematizes the overt meaning of a text and seeks to find a social-scientific explanation for why the text has the perceived meaning that it does, it is a species of scientism. The application of the hermeneutics of suspicion onto the Chinese tradition discovers a China that fits the usual, but mistaken (Hegelian) stereotypes about the Chinese: that they are unfree and passive servants in the face of political authority (Hegel 279). What contemporary sinology and China-West comparative literature discover about traditional China, I will argue, reflects more the intellectual assumptions and philosophical frameworks that guided such work than the subject under study. These intellectual assumptions furthermore must be situated within the course of Western intellectual history. The methodologies themselves must be historicized to show that they are neither objective, ahistorical, a-cultural, nor neutral.

Ultimately, I argue that for the Western academe to truly overcome its orientalism, it needs to jettison the Enlightenment project of universalism and embrace instead the humanistic pluralism that Edward Said himself appealed to: the tradition of Goethe and Herder, and their twentieth-century incarnations in the work of Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) and Hans Georg-Gadamer (1900–2002). Both these philosophers argued that the humanities cannot be conceived through the same methodologies as the exact sciences, and it is to this German humanist tradition that I shall turn to as a point of contrast throughout this paper. Gadamer premised his magnum opus Truth and Method on the fact that objectivity in the humanities does not rely on the same methods as in the...


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