- Beyond the Troubled Water of Shifei: From Disputation to Walking-Two-Roads in the Zhuangzi by Lin Ma and Jaap van Brakel
One of the most important challenges for scholars of Chinese and comparative philosophy is adopting a methodology for engaging with source texts in a way that enables us to accurately reflect the intentions of the authors, acknowledge the linguistic, historical, and philosophical context of the text in question, avoid unconscious modern, Western, or other provincial biases that may be projected on the text, and fruitfully develop the ideas in the text, among other interpretively virtuous constraints. In the present volume, Lin Ma and Jaap Van Brakel outline such a methodology--explored in detail in their Fundamentals of Comparative and Intercultural Philosophy (2016)--and then apply it to interpretations of the central classical Chinese philosophical concepts of shi 是("this", "right") and fei 非("notthis", "wrong"), with particular emphasis on the use of the terms in the Daoist anthology, the Zhuangzi « 莊 子 ». Along the way, Ma and Van Brakel traverse substantial interpretive and philosophical territory, offering a novel interpretation of the contemporary debate over the concept of truth in early Chinese philosophy, exploring numerous non-English translations of crucial texts about shi and fei, as well as rejecting the fact-value distinction both in our interpretations of Chinese texts and in general. In this way, the book is an ambitious exercise in Chinese and comparative philosophy.
After a useful introduction which outlines the chapters in the book, Ma and Van Brakel briefly sketch their methodology. In so doing, they describe what they take to be the necessary preconditions for the interpretation of any text (p. 1). These are supported primarily by the Wittgensteinian idea of family resemblance (p. 210, n1). For interpretation to be possible, one must assume family resemblance across forms of life and across all general concepts. That is, both forms of life and general concepts must be assumed to be mutually recognizable without positing that any universal essence or concept lies beneath them. This leads into another necessary precondition: the rejection of the ideal language hypothesis, which holds that there is a language of universal concepts that reflects the "fundamental structures of reality" (p. 3). Using the notion of family resemblance instead, we ought to posit quasi-universals, which map general concepts from two different traditions or languages onto one another on [End Page 1] the basis of family resemblance. The authors effectively apply these ideas to the concepts of shi and fei throughout the book. They argue that we should not say that shi means "this", "right", or "true" depending on the context while assuming that "truth" or "rightness" are universal concepts. Rather, we should say that shi shares a family resemblance relationship with a general sense of 'rightness' understood in both a normative and descriptive sense.
Chapters 2 through 7 motivate Ma and Van Brakel's interpretation of shifei. Chapter 2 discusses the recent scholarly debate over the concept of truth in Chinese philosophy--a candidate interpretation of shi--and ultimately concludes that ascribing the notion of truth to early Chinese philosophers is a Western, modern conceptual projection, or a "transcendental pretense" (p. 23). Rather than attempt to find the concept of truth in early Chinese texts on the assumption that it is a universal concept which ought to be there, we should try and find family resemblances across concepts from ancient and modern traditions on the assumption that they are not the same concept, but are distinct, though they may share some overlapping similarities. Instead of understanding shi as "true", the authors argue in chapters 3 and 4 for understanding it as a generic notion of rightness that bridges the gap between facts and values. Chapter 5 attempts to clarify the significance of collapsing the distinction between facts and values in our interpretation of early Chinese texts by discussing Hilary Putnam's arguments in favor of collapsing the...