Literary Forms of Argument in Early China examines the functions of rhetorical markers and devices as well as the patterns and larger modes structuring various styles of early Chinese argumentation. The nine contributors to the volume each present tight analyses of specific compositional or literary aspects of persuasion, hoping to demonstrate how an unabashed focus on the formal elements of philosophical writing might come to the aid of, or even more drastically alter and transform, philosophical interpretation. The volume includes essays by the following nine scholars, who are at once a mixture of philologists, textual and literary specialists, and intellectual historians: Rudolph Wagner, Andrew Plaks, David Schaberg, Joachim Gentz, Christoph Harbsmeier, Martin Kern, Michael Nylan, Wim De Reu, and Dirk Meyer. A quick glance over the names of the contributors reveals that eight of the nine contributors are male. I will speak more to the implications of such an arrangement later, but first it is important to outline the many insights presented in the volume despite this obvious lack of female voices.
The book is organized according to what the editors identify as three dominant modes of analysis: 1) the analysis of specific markers in argumentation, 2) the analysis of structural patterns and their role in argumentation, and 3) the analysis of "macro modes of persuasion" wherein literary forms become woven into larger philosophical messages (p. 20). These are fine-grained distinctions that seem to rely on the relative size of the textual component being analyzed, proceeding from analyses concerning the smallest of textual units such as the initial fu, in Rudolph Wagner's piece, to analyses of entire chapters in the Zhuangzi by Wim De Reu and Dirk Meyer. The organization of the book, as with most of its chapters, emphasizes not philosophical meanings or their implications, but the formal structure of how arguments are presented in the textual corpus and what such a structure has to say about the hermeneutics of philosophical argumentation.
The introduction is engaging and well-written. The editors, Joachim Gentz and Dirk Meyer, describe their work as largely formalistic, functionalist, and structuralist (p. 18), situating the volume within a broader context of structural linguistics and performance studies on the one hand, and the specific [End Page 1] contributions of scholars such as Herbert Fingarette, Rudolph Wagner, and Michael R. Broschat on the other. Gentz and Meyer also provide a very broad intellectual framework, background, and justification for the work. They highlight the well-known claim (to some, a complaint), that Chinese argumentation lacks the rigor of formal logic as understood in the West since ancient Greek times, and is more analogical and aesthetic in orientation, often invoking correlative rather than deductive reasoning. After a discussion of classical Greek debates involving the distinction between philosophy and poetry in Plato's works, the editors conclude by insisting that the so-called "poetic" elements of classical Chinese philosophy should be understood as an integral part of the philosophical texture and meaning of Chinese arguments. In other words, the aesthetic and literary elements of ancient Chinese philosophical writings cannot be discarded or ignored, as they are vital to the very essence of the arguments being made. This is an important claim that implicitly and justly criticizes certain philosophical approaches that artificially, and in many cases to the detriment of the arguments being made, discount the literary elements in philosophical writings.
For lack of space, I will not discuss all the arguments presented by the nine contributors here. However, I would like to raise a few examples to underscore some of the ways in which the volume explores the performative and literary contexts of ancient Chinese philosophical argumentation. In David Schaberg's piece on Laozian tetra-syllables, we learn how tetra-syllables were common types of verses that extended well beyond the Daodejing itself. Such pithy phrasings were likely performed in an esoteric context (to a ruler) with only one or a couple of people present, invoked primarily to serve didactic and curative functions...