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  • Mind and Body in early China: Beyond Orientalism and the Myth of Holism by Edward Slingerland
  • Bongrae Seok (bio)
Mind and Body in early China: Beyond Orientalism and the Myth of Holism. By Edward Slingerland. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xi + 385. Hardcover $35.00, ISBN 978-0-19-084230-7.

In this book, Edward Slingerland criticizes and rejects a pervasive and widely accepted viewpoint in Chinese philosophy: holism. Simply speaking, holism is a non-discrete and non-analytic pattern of thinking that avoids the adoption of mutually exclusive and dualistic concepts such as mind-body, theory-practice, reason-emotion, and macrocosm-microcosm typically found in many Western philosophical theories. In the context of Chinese philosophy, it is understood as an interpretational framework where Chinese philosophy is characterized as a fundamentally and essentially non-dualistic system of thought. According to Slingerland, holism is not simply one of the characteristics of Chinese philosophy but a deeply rooted and broadly dispersed bias in comparative studies of Chinese culture, society, politics, religion, and psychology. He also believes that holism has a historical and intellectual root in the orientalism of modern Europe with its romantic obsession with exotic cultures of the East. Recently, holism gained its sustaining power from postmodernist and cultural constructivist interpretations of Chinese philosophy, where the incommensurable uniqueness or the alleged superiority of Chinese tradition is explained and emphasized from the perspective of cultural relativity and radical otherness. He sees holism at the foundation of this neo-orientalist approach. His goal, in this book, is to demonstrate that holism and its orientalist foundation are a wrong and biased way of understanding and studying Chinese philosophy, specifically early (pre-Qin) Chinese philosophy.

Slingerland's critical journey to holism and orientalism consists of three major routes. He analyzes (a) mind body dualism (b) in early Chinese texts (c) by utilizing traditional (i.e., textual interpretation), digital (i.e., quantitative analysis), and interdisciplinary (i.e., cognitive analysis) methodologies. He argues, contrary to what some comparative philosophers and sinologists believe, that mind body dualism is a prevalent and intuitive understanding of human beings in early Chinese philosophy. He demonstrates, through his textual and cognitive analyses of how people perceive the mind, soul, spirit, and supernatural agent, that this dualistic thinking is a common (cross-cultural) and intuitive (spontaneous) way of understanding the relation between the mind and the body. The book provides not only the usual content, i.e., philosophical and hermeneutical analyses of mind [End Page 1] body dualism in early Chinese philosophy, but also methodological reflection on the adoption of digital methodology in the humanities and meta-philosophical discussion on comparative studies. Overall, it develops a unique interdisciplinary approach to Chinese philosophy to challenge and criticize what Slingerland believes are the ill-conceived and blindly followed ideas of holism and orientalism.

There are seven chapters in this book. The first chapter explains the nature of the myth of holism from the perspective of neo-orientalism. According to him, holism is not just a style of interpretation. It is a myth, something that many people believe without full justification. Like a Kuhnian paradigm, holism is widely accepted and discussed in Chinese philosophy but it has not been fully and rationally scrutinized. Slingerland wants to see if there is any ground to believe in a strong holistic tendency in Chinese philosophy. Specifically, he focuses on how holism affects our understanding of mind body dualism in early Chinese philosophy. He points out that many comparative philosophers and sinologists believe falsely or blindly that early Chinese philosophers have no conceptions of the individual self, disembodied soul, and afterlife because Chinese conceptions of the mind (xin 心) are radically different from those of Western philosophy. In the following chapters, he demonstrates that a strong mind body holism is a textually and cognitively inappropriate and incorrect way of understanding early Chinese philosophy. There are two general paths in Slingerland's arguments against holism: the textual argument and the cognitive argument. The textual argument consists of qualitative and quantitative analyses of early Chinese texts developed in the chapters two, three, and four. The cognitive argument in the chapter five provides empirical analyses of mind body dualism as...


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