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  • Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought by Eric S. Nelson
  • David Chai (bio)
Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought. By Eric S. Nelson. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. Pp. x + 344. Hardcover $114.00. ISBN 978–1-3500–0255-5.

Eric Nelson's Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought opens with the following: "The work before you is an interpretive journey through the historical reception of Chinese and Buddhist philosophy in modern German thought, focusing in particular--albeit not exclusively--on the early twentieth century. Its intent is to describe and analyze the intertextual nexus of intersecting sources for the sake of elucidating implications and critical models for intercultural hermeneutics and intercultural philosophy. The possibility of such a philosophy is confronted by the persistent myth and prejudice that philosophy is and can only be a unique and exclusive Western spiritual achievement" (p. 1). The book is directed by "the question of who can philosophize, and who counts as a philosopher" (p. 2), a quintessential question indeed, but I wonder if it dawned on Nelson that this question never occurred to the people of Asia, rendering it an exclusively Western line of approach. The same can be said when Nelson writes: "The much-needed emancipation of philosophy from ethnocentrism, often cloaked in the language of a false universality, requires what could be called 'a critique of European reason,' or a deconstruction of the Eurocentric conception of rationality, which is simultaneously an internal immanent critique of the dialectic of Western philosophy and an exposure to the exteriority of its--in this case East Asian--others" (p. 3). Is this not also true of the lack of Chinese receptivity towards Western thought for much of its history? Until the arrival of the Jesuits in the 16th century, the Chinese lacked the means to converse with Western philosophy, Buddhism notwithstanding. Of course, Nelson is only concerned with the modern Western reception of East Asian thought, but this doesn't make my point moot. Indeed, if the West can engage the ancient traditions of the East, and be accused of misrepresenting or misconstruing their ideas, why is there no similar criticism being made of the modern Chinese reception of classical Western thought? Perhaps the reason is as Nelson says: "A more genuine encounter and dialogue is constrained and undermined by the colonial and racial history of modern Western philosophy" (p. 5). [End Page 1]

Chapter 1 "traces episodes in the story of European Confucianism by exploring historical examples of the role and interpretation of Confucianism in modern German philosophy in general and in early twentieth-century thought in particular" (p. 16). A richly detailed historical and intellectual account, it is necessary for Nelson to provide this as it sets the stage for the analysis that follows in subsequent chapters. Chapter 2 examines Zhang Junmai's (1886–1969) relationship with Rudolf Eucken (1846–1926) and Hans Driesch (1867–1941), and how their life-philosophy influenced Zhang's own intercultural thinking. In light of the social and political chaos engulfing China at the turn of the 19th century, many Chinese intellectuals turned to the West for inspiration and potential solutions to the identity crisis sweeping their country. That Zhang turned to the life-philosopher Eucken and the neo-vitalist Driesch is both surprising and also fascinating because Zhang and Eucken co-authored a book in German in 1922 entitled: Das Lebensproblem in China und Europa (The Problem of Life in China and Europe). Nelson describes their collaborative work as "perceiving affinities between early Greek and Chinese thinking, particularly in their Socratic and Confucian moments, as critical reflection concerning the individual and social-political formation of life through self-cultivation and moral government" (p. 50). Such qualities were absent from the China of Zhang's time, deserted when the Qing empire collapsed a decade beforehand. Zhang, therefore, "articulates a modern Confucian philosophy that has learnt from and is open to learning and adopting from Western modernity, in particular from Kantian philosophy and liberal-constitutional and social democratic political thought, in the formation of a distinctive Chinese modernity achieved through a form of enlightenment suited...


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