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  • A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter by Andrew Hui
  • Andrew Houwen (bio)
A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter. By Andrew Hui. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019. 272 pp. $29.99.

As its title promises, the historical and cross-cultural range of this book is impressively broad. In its six chapters, it discusses the aphorisms of Confucius, [End Page 779] Heraclitus, The Gospel of Thomas, Erasmus, Bacon, Pascal, and Nietzsche. There are, unfortunately, no chapters devoted to female aphorists—one aphorism by Madame de Sablé is mentioned in passing—but otherwise it is to be congratulated for avoiding the Eurocentrism that still dominates in the Anglophone world by discussing the writings of Chinese philosophers and Indian and Japanese Buddhism as well as those of the West. Perhaps the book's most commendable feature is Hui's mastery of languages: the finer nuances of classical Chinese, ancient Greek, Renaissance Latin, sev-enteenth-century French, and nineteenth-century German are covered with equal ease and, in several instances throughout the book, this enriches its examination of aphorisms from across the world. An outstanding example is when Hui discovers that in Nietzsche's "Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks" the German philosopher "uses at least four forms of WirkWirken, Wirkung, Wirklichkeit, and Wirklichen—to describe Schopenhauer's and Heraclitus' concept of Eternal Becoming" (162). This leads Hui to find in Nietzsche's work an "aesthetics of the unfinished" (162).

Such an aesthetics lies at the heart of A Theory of the Aphorism's central claim. "The best aphorisms" are unfinishable, because they "admit an infinitude of interpretation, a hermeneutic inexhaustibility" (3). They have, as Hui puts it with aphoristic wit, "an atomic quality—compact yet explosive" (1). He builds on this claim by proposing a contrast with philosophy:

The philosopher creates and critiques continuous lines of argument. The aphorist, on the other hand, composes scattered lines of intuition. One moves in a chain of discursive logic; the other by arrhythmic leaps and bounds.


There is not much to quibble about regarding the initial claim that aphorisms "admit an infinitude of interpretation," though that may be because, for the past forty years at least, this has been a theoretical truism about texts in general. What appears more problematic is not only how aphorisms achieve this "infinitude of interpretation" any more than other genres of texts, but also the contrast of this aspect of the aphorism with philosophy. It seems simplistic to characterize all philosophy as "a series of attempts at the construction of systems" that "critiques continuous lines of argument" and "moves in a chain of discursive logic."

This attempt to depict all philosophy as system building is only superficially carried out in the ensuing chapters and is done by cherry-picking which philosophers are used to represent philosophy as a whole. In their desire for "systematic order," Pascal's editors are linked with the "authority" [End Page 780] of Descartes, "who so famously advocated for 'clear and certain' thinking in all matters of inquiry" (123). Pascal's fragmentary aphorisms therefore constitute his "rejection of the Cartesian insistence on order and clarity" (126). Kant is offered as another such philosopher: "without systematic unity," Kant writes in his Critique of Pure Reason, "our knowledge cannot become science; it will be an aggregate" (165). Whether this tendency toward "systematic unity" is indeed true of Descartes and Kant is debatable; but that it inheres in all philosophy seems reductive. Counter-examples abound, not least in the book itself: Nietzsche, whose "aesthetics of the unfinished" contributes to the book's core claim, is after all "still a philosopher" (emphasis in the original), and many of the ideas supporting this claim are taken from Nietzsche's philosophical essays.

As the chapters proceed, the book's central proposal is applied to each aphorist in turn. The conclusion drawn from Confucius's Analects is, "once more," that "there are infinite ways of reading a finite saying" (41). Of The Gospel of Thomas and the Sentences of Sextus, it asserts, again, that "Their capacious natures afford a multitude of interpretations, so that any sect can use it for their own...


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