An Objectivist in China?

by Peter Saint-Andre (1997)

Of the three main flows of philosophical thought, it has been maintained that the Indian is otherworldly, the Greek unworldly and the Chinese worldly.
—Yueh-Lin Chin (Chin 1980, 83)

Indian philosophy has had little impact on Western philosophy, Schopenhauer being clearly an exception. With Chinese philosophy we seem not to have even such exceptions....
—Hao Wang (Wang 1986, 194)

What, if anything, can Western philosophers gain from the study of Chinese philosophy? Is there unique philosophical value to be discovered in a continuous tradition of worldly thought whose concepts, problems, and figures are so utterly foreign to our accustomed ways of doing philosophy? If so, is it worth the potentially painful effort necessary to acquire that knowledge?

There are two varieties of value one could derive from such study, which in Hegelian terms we could describe as knowledge of Other and knowledge of Self (through comparison with Other). If Nietzsche is right about the "strange family resemblance of all Indian, Greek, and German philosophizing" (Nietzsche 1886, ยง20) [1], then there must be value to be gained from learning about a philosophical tradition that is outside the family, as it were — both to see "certain other possibilities of world-interpretation" (ibid.) and to better understand our own characteristic perspectives on reality.

Thus Chinese philosophy presents, perhaps, a special opportunity. Although the characterization of the Chinese tradition as purely worldly is a "caricature" designed to "bring out certain features into striking relief" (Chin 1983, 83), those features are worthy of attention from Western thinkers because they consist in a complete overcoming of dichotomies that are endemic to much of the Western tradition, such as mind vs. body, reason vs. emotion, humanity vs. nature, truth vs. goodness, politics vs. morality, knowledge vs. action, and the secular vs. the sacred. [2] Naturally, Chinese philosophy has its own difficulties, including the "underdevelopment of what might be called logico-epistemological consciousness" (Chin 1980, 84) [3] and a tendency to use philosophy to justify current politics (which in Chinese history has usually meant authoritarian politics); but those are not our difficulties, and we are free to explore Chinese philosophy for insights that might prove valuable to us. [4]

Where to begin such exploration? Aside from obvious sources [5], I think Irene Bloom's translation of the K'un-chih chi (Knowledge Painfully Acquired, Bloom 1987) by Lo Ch'in-shun provides a worthy entrée into Chinese philosophy. The main reason is that Lo (1465-1547) was virtually the first Chinese thinker to make strong steps towards a modern understanding of the world [6], so that his ideas may be especially agreeable to Western readers.

Naturally, it is impossible to understand a philosopher outside the context of the traditions in which he worked and against which he reacted; this is difficult enough when reading Western philosophers, but there are special problems for Westerners reading Lo Ch'in-shun. For, while we perhaps have some passing acquaintance with Confucius and Lao Tzu, we know nothing of the Neo-Confucianists with whom Lo grappled; names such as Chou Tun-i, Chang Tsai, Ch'eng Hao, Ch'eng I, Chu Hsi, and Wang Yang-ming are just so many characters on a page to all but those in departments of East Asian Studies. Professor Bloom strives mightily (and, I think, successfully) to overcome this barrier of ignorance by using her introduction to place Lo's achievements in terms that Western philosophers can understand without violating the original, Chinese sense of his thought.

Lo's philosophical reflections seem to have been driven by dissatisfaction with the course taken by Chinese Neo-Confucianism. According to Lo, few if any of the earlier Neo-Confucianists had "finally achieved unity" because they had accepted a duality of ch'i and li (material force and abstract principle). Lo's innovation in this context was to postulate a metaphysics of pure ch'i while still doing justice to the human experience of natural order by emphasizing that li is not a thing (wu) but the "unregulated regularity" or spontaneous order of particulars. For Lo, the relation between the one and the many is captured in the formula "principle is one; its particularizations are diverse", and the mind grasps principles through a process of perception and reflection directed outward at concrete reality.

Lo's materialism or concretism enabled him to effectively counter several of the lingering philosophical effects of China's assimilation of Buddhism. For example, he upheld the validity and epistemological centrality of sense-perception. Thus whereas Lo's contemporary Wang Yang-ming interpreted ko-wu (the investigation of things) to imply the primacy of inner cultivation, Lo insisted that the desire to know must be directed first and foremost at concrete reality, from which one can grasp the abstract principles that unify the particulars. And his realist approach to knowledge is accompanied by what we might call a realist theory of emotion: feeling and desire are human phenomena in harmony with nature and consonant with intellectual understanding; thus they are not fit subjects for repression, as some previous Chinese thinkers had argued under the influence of Buddhist views of human nature. For Lo, then, an intellectual orientation focused primarily outward on the particulars and patterns that exist independently of the mind enables one to grasp the unity of things and the unity of oneself with other human beings, thereby leading both to correct understanding and to true humanity (jen).

Lo Ch'in-shun did not follow up on his philosophical objectivism with anything approaching a critical methodology of the kind developed slightly later in the West by Francis Bacon; however, neither were Lo and later Chinese realists such as Tai Chen driven by fear of or fealty to theistic authorities to draw the kind of sharp distinction between science (the study of material nature) and the humanities (the study of spiritual nature) that has bedeviled Western thought in modern times. In the Chinese tradition, there is no dichotomy between the material world and the human world; indeed, perhaps the signature idea of Chinese philosophy through the ages is the unity of man and nature (see Chin 1980, 87). This humanistic naturalism or naturalistic humanism, along with the generalized commitment to unity inherent in Chinese thought, has many implications that are beyond the scope of this review (for example, it is perhaps part of the reason for the historical underdevelopment of science in China), but one key result seems to be a dedication to the centrality of philosophy in human knowledge — to philosophy as the unifying discipline in a worldly intellectual tradition. While Western philosophy may never overcome its modern marginalization [7] and regain its role as the "queen of the sciences" (both natural and human), it will never muster the spiritual resources necessary to attempt such a transformation without the "conviction that philosophy is not just one subject more or less like any other, but something special" (Wang 1986, 194). Chinese thought has never relinquished that conviction, and from this if nothing else we would be wise to learn.


[1] The transmission of Buddhism from India to China violates the letter if not the spirit of Nietzsche's insight, although even Buddhism was sublimated by the original impulses of Chinese philosophy (i.e., Confucianism and Taoism).

[2] See also Wang 1983, 5 and Fingarette 1976.

[3] Hsün Tzu and some of the Neo-Confucianists are exceptions. Chin notes further that, as a result, "the Chinese philosophers presented their ideas with a barrenness and disconnectedness that might suggest to those who are accustomed to systematic thought a feeling of indeterminateness unexpected of philosophies" but that this does not "mean either that Chinese philosophy is illogical or that it is not based on knowledge" (Chin 1980, 84).

[4] Hao Wang has noted some of the subtleties involved in the process of borrowing what is good in a culture or philosophical tradition without simultaneously taking on what is bad; see Wang 1987, 246-7.

[5] Examples include Chan 1963, 1967; Fung 1948, 1952, 1953.

[6] In this regard, Lo was a precursor of later Chinese realists such as Tai Chen (1724-1777) as well as of Japanese thinkers such as Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714); on this last see Tucker 1988.

[7] Chin well describes the specialization and detachment required of the modern scholar. "The emergence of professional philosophers may have done some service to philosophy, but it seems to have also killed something in the philosopher. He knows philosophy, but he does not live it" (Chin 1980, 92).


Bloom, I. 1987/1995. Knowledge Painfully Acquired: The K'un-chih chi by Lo Ch'in-shun. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chan, Wing-tsit. 1963. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
--. 1967. Chinese Philosophy. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Volume 2, 87-96. New York: Macmillan

Chin, Yueh-lin. 1980. Chinese Philosophy. Social Sciences in China 1:1.

Fingarette, H. 1976. Confucius—The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper & Row.

Fung, Yu-lan. 1948. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. New York: Macmillan.
--. 1952. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Volume 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
--. 1953. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Volume 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Nietzsche, F. 1886 [1966]. Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books.

Tucker, M.E. 1988. Religious Aspects of Japanese Neo-Confucianism: The Thought of Nakae Toju and Kaibara Ekken. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Volume 15:1, 55-70.

Wang, Hao. 1983. Philosophy: Chinese and Western. Commentary (Singapore) 6:1.
--. 1986. Beyond Analytic Philosophy: Doing Justice to What We Know. Cambridge: MIT Press.
--. 1987. Reflections on Kurt Gödel. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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