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  • Vanishing into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition by Barry Allen
  • Aaron B. Creller (bio)
Barry Allen. Vanishing into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. viii, 289 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 978-0-674-33591-2.

While the content and context of Barry Allen's book is in Chinese philosophical approaches to knowing, this project has at its heart a Nietzschean concern. Allen's concerns about knowledge compel the reader into his framework, mapping out a route for the rest of the book:

Epistemology may be passé, but the philosophy of knowledge has never confronted more interesting questions. What is the value of knowledge, if not truth? What is the value of truth, if not adequation or correspondence? What is the relationship between knowledge and technical accomplishment? What is the relationship between knowledge and wisdom? What makes technical, technological knowledge wise?

(p. 6)

The prompt is Western (or as he calls it "post-Western"), but the inspiration for the solution is thoroughly grounded in a journey through Chinese intellectual traditions. The focusing thesis of the book is to identify a better account of knowledge, one not focused on theoretical truth, but instead on a knowledge that disappears into a world of particulars, or as the title phrases it, a knowledge that "vanishes into things."

Allen's first two chapters establish his reading of knowing in the Chinese context through a historically informed tour through Confucianism (chapter one) and Daoism (chapter two). Tying together these two traditions, he describes knowing in both as connected to the concept of wu wei. While "effortless action" is obviously rooted in Daoism, he uses it to ground the description of knowledge as efficacy with particulars while they are still in their infancy, an account of knowledge he says is part of Confucian understanding as well. He encapsulates this idea by referring to the "virtual." Using chapter 52 of the Daodejing, he articulates it as:

To really see the little things is to see the big things they betoken, and see them well before their development becomes obvious. Such seeing penetrates to the virtual depth of the world, perceiving incipient mutation, recognizing opportunities to align and transform with the changes.

(p. 2)

Being able to see the virtual dimensions of possibility in the incipient circumstances of the present is a key factor of sagacious knowing, of wise [End Page 279] knowing. Since this kind of knowledge is based on the process of transformation and being effective in early stages of development, the actions of excellent knowers disappear into that process, becoming part of the development itself. For Allen, this is the "vanishing" of wu wei.

Chapter three extends this idea of wise knowledge to efficacy in relation to power, especially in the political and military context. Comparing the Sunzi with Clausewitz's Vom Krieg, he taps into a very useful comparison outside of standard epistemological discussions. In the Chinese classical military literature, knowledge is an art of articulating incipient circumstances through knowing and deception in order to avoid casualties and conflict. Contrasting this with Clausewitz, who argues that it is not strategy but force of troops and of character that resolves conflicts, Allen draws a contrast in their approaches to knowledge. The Sunzi advises its reader to know the context of conflict for the sake of avoiding it (at best) or at least winning, even though those circumstances are malleable and ever changing. Vom Krieg takes a more Cartesian approach to knowledge, says Allen, only relying on certain knowledge, a rare thing given the fog of war. While the former sees knowledge as a skilled navigation of the world, the latter holds to a theoretical necessity.

The Confucian, Daoist, and Militarist chapters establish a common theme for classical Chinese approaches to knowledge: to know something is "a perspicacious insight into the becoming of things, confirmed by the wu wei effectiveness it funds" (p. 129). Differences amongst thinkers are based on a commitment to different projects that one should be engaged in: rulership, longevity, or military success. Chapter four introduces Chan Buddhism into the context of Chinese knowing, especially the Buddhist concept of emptiness. While the Chan approach to knowledge...


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pp. 279-282
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