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Reviewed by:
  • Thinking From the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture
  • Deirdre Sabina Knight (bio)
David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames. Thinking From the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. xix, 336 pp. Hardcover $74.50, ISBN0-7914-3613-6. Paperback $24.95, ISBN9-7914-3614-4.

Thinking From the Han is as sensitive an introduction to Chinese philosophy as there has been. Among its many strengths are a comparative method that introduces classical Chinese philosophy on its own terms, a historically grounded approach that treats the tradition as an ongoing cultural narrative, and a groundbreaking analysis of the differences between Chinese and Western sexism. In subject matter, depth, and nuance, the work completes the authors' trilogy that began with Thinking through Confucius (1987) and Anticipating China (1995) and prepares the way for The Democracy of the Dead: Dewey, Confucius, and the Hope for Democracy in China (1999).

By confronting major obstacles to appreciating Chinese thought, Hall and Ames help readers to overcome common misconceptions that arise from several heuristic devices long accepted in the teaching of Chinese thought. In particular, they are careful not to reduce a historicist tradition to theoretical or conceptual terms that import alien notions such as objectivity, strict identity, or transcendence.

The authors' pragmatist, historicist approach is signaled in the title. By specifying Han China's importance in synthesizing and codifying what became dominant Sinitic culture, they disavow any pretense of analyzing a timeless or universal Chinese thought. In this review, I nonetheless use the term "Han tradition" to convey some of the authors' major insights about an object that they rightly name more carefully.

Relations to others constitute the "self" in the Han tradition. Since the self is always embedded in a net of human relationships, situation takes priority over agency in Chinese understandings of selfhood and action. This recognition of a plurality of contingent roles and definitions departs from dominant Western meanings of self as an essential identity or self-contained subject capable of encountering independent objects, be they obstacles or instruments to achieving ends. The authors call the Han notion of self the "focus-field" model in order to bring out how individuals both constitute and are constituted by social relations and fields of influence. Though not autonomous, the individual takes up a unique place in a social context and engages in concrete actions that bestow worth and personhood based on the quality of one's relationships. The authors thus underscore the affinity between Confucian self-cultivation through deferential engagement in ritual roles and relationships and Daoist self-cultivation through deferential [End Page 449] engagement committed to unprincipled knowing, nonassertive action, and objectless desire. The latter replaces knowing, feeling, and action based on construal according to principles and fixed standards.

This emphasis on the interdependent projects of self-cultivation and communal responsibility casts questions of knowledge, truth, and meaning in a radically different light. Western notions of truth are of limited relevance for interpreting a tradition more concerned with given contingent states of affairs and appropriate practical responses. Since knowledge in this tradition is primarily performative and participatory rather than discursive or representational, "disclosure" of the Way takes priority over the "closure" of representational knowledge focused on gaining access to the truth about the ultimate nature of the universe. Similarly, because the tradition recognizes a plurality of significant definitions and interpretations for any given term, the theoretical truth of propositions is less important than their practical relevance for fostering productive relationships, maintaining one's integrity, continuing community, and enhancing one's natural, social, and cultural world.

Furthermore, since the Han tradition privileges process over permanent form, change over stasis, and specific "thises" and "thats" over objective essences, it is more concerned with the appropriateness of names to their objects and the degree of personal sincerity and trustworthiness than with truth as a coherence among elements in a single-ordered whole or as correspondence between a fixed reality and appearance. Whereas in the Western metaphysical tradition belief in a single-ordered universe leads to epistemological assumptions about the supremacy of logical method, in the...


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pp. 449-452
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