How to Forestall Western Scholars’ Misreading of Chinese Traditional Philosophy?
Zhang Cunjian1, Zhang Xueli2
1. School of Philosophy and Public Administration, Jiangsu Normal University, Xuzhou Jiangsu, 221116；2. College of National Culture and Cognitive Science, Guizhou Minzu University, Guiyang Guzhou, 550025
Abstract: The misreading of Chinese traditional philosophy goes in western scholars because they read the philosophy in a way that emphasizes the role inferential thinking and conceptual analyzing plays. However, the Chinese characters and its pragmatic using determine Chinese traditional philosophy from two sides. One is that philosophical studies in China stress the using of linguistic descriptions; the other is that Chinese philosophers are used to following convergent thinking. Researches from experiment philosophy show that current westerners and the Chinese vary in the habit of using logical skills. There are clarified concepts and controversial concepts functioning in Chinese traditional philosophy. In addition to convergent thinking, what supports the philosophy foundationally is a kind of clarified conceptual relations among controversial concepts. Thus, to forestall western scholars’ misreading of Chinese traditional philosophy, there are two aspects to be explored for domestic scholars. One is the delineation of inferential thinking presupposed by the philosophy; the other is finding clarified conceptual relations among controversial concepts.
Keywords: misreading; Chinese traditional philosophy; western scholars; culture; thinking mode
The term philosophy was introduced into China only about 100 years ago. In fact, Chinese traditional philosophy is generally the result of reconsidering Chinese culture classics in the perspective of western philosophical studies. However, the legitimacy of Chinese traditional philosophy is questioned now and then. The problem about the philosophy lies in misreading of Chinese traditional classics. What leads the misreading is the fact that there are controversial core concepts to be cleared in the comprehension of the classics for western scholars as well as for some domestic scholars. Generally, western philosophers stress that constructing a philosophical theory should start with figuring out its basic concepts. However, even for domestic scholars majoring in Chinese traditional philosophy, there are problems in giving accurate definitions of the core concepts of the philosophy. For example, Tao De Ching is taken by western scholars as the masterpiece comparable to the Bible, but they have doubt on how to understand Tao道. In fact, even Chinese scholars vary in the interpretations of Tao’s meaning. Hu Shi interprets Tao as Wu无. Yan Ling-feng takes Tao as You有. Zhang Dai-nian argues that Tao should be interpreted as Wu + You. etc.. Also, scholars struggle to understand core ideas the key ideas implicated in Chinese traditional classics. For instance, Tao De Ching clearly claims, “As masters of governing, ancient officers would fool the people, rather than englighten them.” Some western scholars argue that the claim advocates a kind of obscurantism potentially. Thus, according to the continuity of the Chinese culture, they believe that China has pursued an autocratic or dictatorial system since ancient times. However, so called “autocracy” or “dictatorship” can’t shelter the fact that Chinese traditional social governance stresses “good governance”. There is no decent mode for selecting officials in the western history. By contrast, in China, there have been rigid schemas for selecting officials since a long time ago. In Han dynasty, officials are selected on the basis of Xiao孝 and Lian廉; in the period of Wei and Jin, officials are selected with so called Nine-rank System. Especially, there has been a rigid Imperial Examination System of selecting talents working since Sui Dynasty. Ancient China had always attached importance to the selection and appointment of officials. This mode of administration not only provides an upward social ladder for ordinary people, but also requires senior officials to be promoted own experiences of governing more and more people. Undeniably, this official-management model had contributed the Chinese social stability and development.
Some western scholars have recognized the problem of misreading Chinese traditional philosophy. They argue that the misreading is caused by using wrong methods in interpreting Chinese philosophical works. In my opinion, Chinese traditional philosophy is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, and the main reason for misreading it lies in neglecting the integrity of Chinese culture. Although there are more than 400 different definitions of culture, it seems plausible to take culture as a net consisted of important things cherished by the whole society. In the perspective of cultural integrity, a culture can be divided into several parts, such as material culture, spiritual culture, system culture, and information culture, etc. A culture may change as a whole when there is an innovation occurred in any part of it. Thus, there might be two kinds of misreading of Chinese culture. First, the reading is confined in finite parts of the culture, keeping away off the other parts of the culture. Secondly, some scholars are only capable of reading one part of the Chinese culture, but they give influential error judgments about other parts of the culture. The same is true to the reading of Chinese traditional philosophy. However, when it comes to the philosophical ideas involved in Tao De Ching, there are few scholars talking about the integrity of Chinese culture. Especially, among western scholars studying Chinese traditional philosophy, those who are simultaneously good at philosophy, culture, history, and translation are few and far between.
Cultural analysis bears helpful insights for reading Chinese traditional philosophy. In the following sections, I begin with explaining thinking mode presupposed by Chinese culture, arguing for the necessity of giving a basic clarification of Chinese traditional philosophy in the perspective of inferential thinking. Then, I suggest that, to forestall the misreading, Chinese philosophers must distinguish clear concepts from controversial concepts and take conceptual relationships among the latter as basis units for reading Chinese traditional philosophy.
II．The thinking mode of Chinese traditional philosophy
One of the salient attributes of Chinese traditional philosophy is that it stresses the role realizing体证 plays, and scholars majoring in the philosophy speak highly of Epiphany through a wake-up call. But, what is realizing? It does not have the form of pure science, nor does it become a kind of pure science. According to the “linguistic turn” of philosophical studies, we might reveal the myth of realizing through explaining meanings of linguistic expressions. According to linguistic researches, language affects thinking, determines perception, and influences the development of social culture. Thus, linguistic analyzing is a hoping way for dealing with problems about philosophical generalizations of culture. However, the matter is that language itself is fuzzy. Jackendoff, a famous linguist majoring in cognitive semantics, asserts that natural language is a self-productive realm independent of any syntax. Moreover, some distinguished philosophers have drawn shocking conclusions from the fact that there is unavoidable semantic ambiguity in catching the meaning of natural linguistic expressions. For instance, Quine suggests the thesis of indeterminacy of radical translation, arguing for a kind of epistemic holism; Kuhn claims that both the meaning and using conditions of a theoretical term may vary in different theories, and there is incommensurability between successive theories because there is no neutral language to express these theories.These considerations suggest that, to forestall the misreading of Chinese traditional philosophy, it is necessary to start with clearing semantics of its linguistic expressions.
As far as an individual’s using of a linguistic expression is concerned, the problem talked above is essentially about how to determine its meaning. When one says to another, “our head comes”, “our head” may refer to Sun Wu-kong, a figure in the novel. But it may refer to a senior student in a graduate school or someone who is very active. According to researches on cognitive processes, the factors that affect an individual’s understanding or expressing are mainly of three kinds: behavioral factors, psychological factors, and consequence factors. Moreover, an individual knows an object because he/she is able to make a construction relationship among these factors about the object. The construction relationship is plausible since the mental process of making it is not at will. The individual’s mental process follows rules of thinking accepted by the linguistic community. In other words, the process of determining the meaning of a linguistic expression is actually the process of constructing structural relationships among relevant cognitive factors in virtue of rules of thinking. Similarly, the process of forming philosophical judgments could be addressed as a constructing one. Thus, to forestall the misreading of Chinese traditional philosophy, it is necessary to clarify the rules of thinking presupposed by the philosophy.
Chinese traditional philosophy and western philosophy vary in preferring thinking modes. An individual prefers some rules of thinking means he/she always tends to accept a special mode of thinking. Experimental philosophy argues that Chinese tend to use descriptions, while westerners tend to use causal reasoning. Western philosophical studies stress using arguments. Generally, a simple argument is supported by a single inference, and a complex argument is consisted of several progressive inferences. Logic, being regarded as one of the three main roots of western culture, has been a special theory of inferring since ancient Greece. The development of logic theories injects rationality into westerners’ preference of inferential thinking continuously. But this does not mean that western philosophy rejects using irrational methods. A strong evidence for this claim is that there is a tradition of taking intuitions as evidence in western philosophical studies. Williamson, a world famous philosopher, argues compellingly that, in the long run, the divergence of all philosophical problems can be regarded as the divergence of choosing among different intuitions. 
Compared with western philosophy, Chinese traditional philosophy is clearly short of inferential thinking. Just like the Chinese ancient poetry, which conveys the depth of emotion but does not explain what it is, Chinese traditional philosophy stress the depth of thinking, but the explanation of “what is thought” is rare. In the view of the famous Chinese philosopher Chung-ying Cheng, that Chinese is an image language affects the Chinese way of thinking deeply. The Chinese are used to knowing and expressing the world through associating subjects with objects. They express the objects to be known with a network of relationships, and have grown accustomed to using implicit linguistic expressions.A word of western languages may have several syllables. There are strict formal connections or grammar among words contained in a sentence, guiding users to fix its meaning. By contrast, one Chinese character carries only one syllable. Chinese has no strict grammar. Chinese characters are associative compounds会意字. The methods of associative compound are normally divided into two categories: associative compounds with meaning and associative compounds with figure. The habitual using of methods of associative compounds cultivates a distinct way for learning Chinese characters, that is, knowing 会意. It is a common way for understanding and expressing. Accordingly, the meaning of Chinese expressions is highly context-dependent.
Then, what is the distinguishing feature of Chinese philosophical thinking? In accord with the fact that the Chinese prefer using “knowing” way of understanding and expressing, they pay more attention to using descriptions in doing philosophical studies. Chinese expressions are used more to indicate than to explicate, showing more flexibility and euphemism. As Wenzel argues, speaking in a flexible and euphemistic way means not only a kind of politeness, but also a strategy for protecting the speaker while speaking to persons of high status. This speaking mode functions well in Chinese culture. Attaching great importance to meet the realistic needs of life, Chinese culture is a political ethics culture maintained with blood-clan relationships. Thus, Chinese people are accustomed to making choices on the basis of books, official positions or words of saints. Convergent thinking plays a key role in the inheritance and development of Chinese culture. Correspondingly, it is reasonable to believe that Chinese traditional philosophy speaks highly of expressing with descriptions and what supports this orientation is convergent thinking.
Tracing the development of Chinese traditional philosophy, it should be noted that the philosophy stress using convergent thinking. Ancient Chinese scholars had a theoretical purport in common, that is, they all wanted to inherit ancient saints’ precious ideas. They expressed their own ideas by explaining the Six Classics, or interpreted themselves by means of the Six Classics. Either way, most of them were anxious to step with the ideas of ancient saints. For them, ancient saints’ wisdom is all encompassing. In terms of war, there is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; in terms of disease, there is Huang Di Nei Jing；for interpersonal interaction, there is The Book of Rites礼记. It seems that ancient saints left answers for all problems ordinary people encounter. Of course, there might be some inferential thinking functioning in getting in a line with ancient saints, and there were theories advocating inferential thinking in ancient China, e.g. the Mohist argumentation theory, but inferential thinking was neither economic nor permitted in the context of Chinese culture. Deng Xi, a famous lawyer in the Spring and Autumn Period, was good at arguing, but he was sentenced to cut in half because he betrayed ancient kings and violated rituals and morals. In fact famous lawyers like Den Xi were often called shysters in ancient China.
To forestall western scholars’ misreading of Chinese traditional philosophy, it is necessary to give a basic clarification of the philosophy in the perspective of inferential thinking. In the 1980s, Chinese domestic philosophers had come to realize consistently that Chinese philosophical studies should pay attention to using rational and irrational methods simultaneously.There are plenty of irrational methods functioning in Chinese traditional philosophy, such as appealing to authority, intuition, ignorance, etc. To realize the consistency in doing Chinese philosophy means to critique and reconstruct it through using more inferential thinking. Unfortunately, up to now, few articles entitled “thinking mode” are published on philosophical periodicals in China. It is inadvisable to filter Chinese traditional philosophy with inferential thinking. The dialogues between Chinese and foreign philosophers should be certainty-oriented, urging domestic philosophers to take inferential thinking as a basic way of studying Chinese traditional philosophy.
III．The basic premises needed in the interpretation of Chinese traditional philosophy
Logically, there is a possible way of getting reasonable results through inferring. A good conclusion can be reached through a correct formal inference with reliable premises. Thus, to forestall misreading of Chinese traditional philosophy, in addition to stressing the basic role inferential thinking plays, it is important to pay attention to the premises needed for using inferential thinking. Furthermore, it is necessary to clarify the basic cognitive factors of Chinese traditional philosophy, and take them as the basic premises required in the interpretation of the philosophy.
It seems that an individual is capable of making choice on basis of one premise. But there are other potential premises working jointly. For example, when a young fellow gives a rose to a girl, the girl may conclude that the boy loves her. Here, in addition to “he gives me a rose”, the girl selects another premise potentially, such as “if he loves me, he gives me a rose.” She gets the conclusion with a syllogistic reasoning on the basis of two premises. Philosophical studies of language tell us that the two premises are rules of how to use the object involved in the given premise, and the most common rule is generally expressed with conditional sentences. Syllogistic reasoning are the essence of classic logic. It is preceded on the basis of conceptual relationships between subjects and predicates of premises concerned. It is the conceptual relationships that make the premises co-related each other essentially. In view of this, defining concepts should be the key step in fixing philosophical judgments with inferential thinking. Since the definition of concepts is aimed at getting clearer concepts, the effort for removing the misreading of Chinese traditional philosophy should start with getting definite concepts of it.
Logic theory argues that a concept could be specified through explaining its intension or extension. Modern western language philosophy is centered with meaning theory, taking the intension of a concept as its meaning, and reference or objects denoted its extension.  The main question about specifying concepts lies in explaining the relationship between meaning and reference. Answers to this question fall into two sides. The internalists claim that concepts are associated with descriptions and we should define the reference of a concept in virtue of the descriptions associated with it. By contrast, the externalists argue that “meaning is not in head”, the meaning of a term is determined by external factors.  Neither the internalists nor the externalists deny necessity of specifying a concept by describing the object denoted. Thus, in general, western philosophical studies presuppose some foundational concepts and take defining concepts as the first step of constructing theories.
Traditional Chinese philosophy doesn’t deny the role concepts plays in understanding or expressing. Concepts are the basic units for carving the world at its joints. Chuang-Tzu’s famous story “Pao Ding’s Dismemberment of an Ox” tells us that we should think and practice in virtue of concepts. However, as it is shown in previous sections, clarifying basic concepts has long been an annoying problem in studying Chinese traditional philosophy. It seems that most of western scholars are pessimistic about defining concepts of the philosophy. Wing-Tsit Chun, a world famous philosopher majoring in Chinese traditional philosophy, listed 115 basic concepts of Chinese traditional philosophy in the 1950’s. 
It is irrational to deny Chinese traditional philosophy on the ground that its concepts are controversial. It is no doubt that there are specified premises for reading Chinese classics. Chun Lai, a famous Chinese scholar majoring in Chinese culture, argues that there are five basic values advocated by the Chinese: Ren仁, Yi义, Li礼, Zhi智, and Xin信. And he claims that there are four core value orientations accepted by the Chinese: “responsibility is prior to liberty”, “obligation is prior to right”, “community is higher than individual”, and “harmony is higher than conflict”.  According to Chun Lai’s generalization, there are clarified concepts and quarreled concepts working in Chinese culture. Especially, accepting his generalization of five basic values means that there are five clarified concepts needed in reading the culture. Besides these clarified concepts, there are controversial concepts, such as “responsibility”, “obligation”, “liberty”, “community”, “conflict”, and “right”. But there are clarified relationships among these concepts. What he generalizes with “higher than” or “prior to” are the core relationships advocated by Chinese culture. In a world, in addition to the five values, these conceptual relationships are the basic premises needed in reading Chinese culture.
In the perspective of philosophical studies, Chun Lai’s interpretation of Chinese culture suggests that we should distinguish clarified concepts from controversial concepts in reading Chinese traditional philosophy. Since there is so much difficulty in defining basic concepts of the philosophy, it is necessary to further the consideration of conceptual relationships among controversial concepts. In my opinion, based on Yin阴 and Yang阳, the Chinese traditional philosophy accepts five basic concepts: Jin金, Mu木, Shui水, Huo火, and Tu 土, and stresses that there are two uncontroversial relationships among these five concepts: produce生 and restrain克. This kind of theoretical orientation exhibits a remarkable practical effect in the history of China. For example, traditional Chinese medicine represents the patient’s lung, heart, liver, spleen and kidney with Jin, Huo, Mu, Tu and Shui respectively. Diagnosis and treatments are designed in accord with these two conceptual relationships. The theoretical orientation is a common decision in other realms of Chinese traditional philosophy. Chinese traditional philosophy is different from western philosophy in the sense that its theory is constructed on the basis of clarified conceptual relationships.
To interpret Chinese traditional philosophy on the basis of clarified conceptual relationships, it is important to pay attention to the premises for using these relationships. For example, “friendship is as valuable as a thousand of gold” and “Money is like dirt” are two clarified conceptual relationships accepted by the Chinese traditional philosophy. The former emphasizes a value in the context of interpersonal communication while the latter gives a value concerning with personal cultivation. The ignorance of the difference will bring out a wrong judgment through a syllogistic reasoning, i.e. “friendship is like dirt.” Since western scholars have a relatively strong sense of inferential thinking, they are more likely to reach such misreading. Hsien-Chung Lee argues that it is necessary to clarify five basic aspects of reading Chinese traditional philosophy: ideas of “phenomenon (exist)”, “aim (what)”, “reason (why)”, “expect (how)”, and “solve (how?)”. In his point of view, “phenomenon” and “aim” consist of the context construction while the other three aspects means context processing, and Chinese traditional philosophy stresses the context integration realized with “coherence” between context construction and context processing.That is to say, context construction and context processing explains the premise and process needed in one’s judging. The plausibility of the process of context processing lies in its reaching context integration. In my opinion, Hsien-Chung Lee interprets Chinese traditional philosophy in terms of Chinese culture, and what he argues is exactly the premises of using conceptual relationships.
In reading Chinese traditional philosophy on the basis of conceptual relationships, it is clear that the saying “as masters of governing, ancient officers would fool the people, rather than englighten them” doesn’t advocate any obscurantism at all. Delineating the conceptual relationship “fooling is better than englighting” with other Chinese idioms, such as “the foolish old man who removed the mountains” and “ A man of great wisdom often appears slow-witted”, it is easy to shake off narrow judgments about philosophical positions expressed with fooling and enlightening. Besides “higher than” and “prior to”, there are plenty of other connectives representing conceptual relationships presupposed by Chinese traditional philosophy, such as “if…then…”, “only if …”, and “…or…”, etc. Logically, each of them is in lined with a special form of correct reasoning. So, in addition to using more inferential thinking, clarifying conceptual relationships is the other aspect to be explored in efforts of forestalling western scholars’ misreading of the philosophy.
Inferential thinking and well-defined concepts consist of a framework for reading Chinese traditional philosophy. Western scholars read the philosophy with the framework, but they ignore the fact that the basis of the philosophy is made up of explicit conceptual relationships rather than concepts. Chinese characters and their pragmatic using affect Chinese culture greatly, so that Chinese traditional philosophy stresses using linguistic descriptions and convergent thinking. To forestall western scholars’ misreading of Chinese traditional philosophy, the Chinese domestic philosophers should reconsider the thinking mode presupposed by the philosophy, and give a concise generalization of its essential conceptual relationships.
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