The career of Li Zehou has been shaped by its, at times, fortunate timing. He was able to establish his reputation as one of China’s leading philosophers during a time, after the death of Mao Zedong, when thinkers were allowed more freedom of expression and thought in publication. The crackdown on democratic uprisings at Tiananmen Square changed that circumstance, and precipitated Li’s necessary move to the United States … [please read below the rest of the article].
Riggio, Adam. 2020. “Philosophy Should Be Vibrant and Necessary: A Commentary on Li Zehou’s History.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (1): 27-37. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-4LM.
- Rošker, Jana S. “Enriching the Chinese Intellectual Legacy: A Review of Li Zehou’s “A History of Classical Chinese Thought.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (12): 1-7. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-4G9.
The career of Li Zehou has been shaped by its, at times, fortunate timing. He was able to establish his reputation as one of China’s leading philosophers during a time, after the death of Mao Zedong, when thinkers were allowed more freedom of expression and thought in publication. The crackdown on democratic uprisings at Tiananmen Square changed that circumstance, and precipitated Li’s necessary move to the United States.
Li is, if I may adopt a loose translation from the direction of China’s currently-dominant philosophy of Xi Jinping Thought™, a thought criminal. So his reliability has suitably grown for me.
Thought Emerges From Humans in the Conditions of History
I open my review of Li Zehou’s A History of Classical Chinese Thought with this note on his historical moment to emphasize how much I accord with one of Li’s own methods. That is, throughout the essays of this book, published throughout his most productive period in the Chinese academy, Li helps explain the priorities and ideals of the philosophies and philosophers in question by situating them in the cultural, political, and economic situations in which they lived.
Reading Li, he has no interest in arguing that historical circumstance helps shape the philosophical priorities and debates of a time period. He accepts that this is true, and if you do not, then that’s your mistake because you aren’t going to understand the historical development of philosophy accurately.
So if I may give a summary of what I think Li’s work can teach this community of those who affiliate ourselves with social epistemology in our brand identities as researchers, those points are as follows. Historically-minded thinkers such as ourselves have a natural ally in the traditions of Chinese philosophy, which is itself historically materialist in essential aspects. Most importantly, the Chinese traditions are themselves the senior partner in this arrangement.
A Tradition That Has Always Taken History Seriously
Western philosophy, for the most part, has not taken kindly to notions that historical situations can shape philosophical thought. Throughout the essays of Li’s History, he gives the Western tradition deserved praise for the powers of abstraction that it has developed, from which the Chinese tradition has never quite achieved.
Li concludes from his own decades of research that Chinese philosophy has much to learn from the virtues of Western philosophy’s skill at abstraction. Yet too much of the Western philosophy academy considers any concession to historical influence on thought to be an outright attack on truth’s very possibility.
Ultimately, if my colleagues Steve Fuller and Finn Collin are right in their assessments of where our society stands today in the Western academy, we would all be better off allying with Asian traditions which have never considered such an extremist anti-historical stance to be at all sensible.
An ordinary feature of Li’s analyses of different core schools of the Chinese tradition is describing how the philosophical thinking of such singular figures as Laozi, Dong Zhongshu, Xunzi, and Confucius or Kongzi himself were all responding to real cultural and political challenges of their times.
Kongzi, for example, developed his philosophy as a systematization and expansion of the cultural moralities of his own society, as it was disintegrating. The virtues and moral principles of Confucius’ philosophy makes a system out of the cultural morality of the clan system that had remained stable in Chinese society literally since the Neolithic era. As imperial warfare shattered the ability of people to hold fast to these norms intuitively, Kongzi set out to make a formal philosophical system of filial clan morality.
His situation was, in many ways, similar to Socrates a century later on the other side of the continent. Old, long-reliable cultural norms were destabilized through warfare and political upheaval. Traditions having been broken, the society’s ethics needed more resilient grounding than fealty to tradition alone. Kongzi’s Analects built such a system for the first time.
A typical Western thinker would shortly ask whether this direct engagement with the historical problems of their own societies somehow sullied or compromised the truthfulness of these philosophies. Writing about Li gives me the appropriate cover to give what I think is the appropriate, if impolite, answer to such a question.
That’s a stupid idea, and we should all be ashamed of ourselves for propagating a way of thinking about philosophy that takes such a question seriously.
In the Chinese tradition, it is natural to treat history as the ground of philosophical thinking. All philosophy thinks with a universal scope, and history provides the material that lets a philosopher set her priorities for thinking, what matters most for thought. Matters of timeliness and sometimes even urgency.
Comparative Philosophy: Presuming Simplicity and Death
If Li’s History demonstrates anything to a reader exploring the Chinese traditions of philosophy for the first time, it’s that Chinese philosophy has a great deal to teach Western thinkers. Unfortunately, it seems that much of the orthodox practice of the sub-discipline in the Western academy called comparative philosophy lacks this open mind. If other participants in this review symposium are taken as typical representatives, then comparative philosophy can never achieve genuinely creative dialogue among those who’ve grown up in and studied the two traditions of the West and China.
The problem seems to be that comparative philosophy operates less like philosophy itself, and more like philology or archaeology. Jana Rosker’s review was such a disappointment. It reads more like commentary on a project to create a dictionary of Spring and Autumn Period Mandarin than seriously engaging the philosophical discourse of the period and how we can understand the contemporary impact of that remarkable time.
She writes that Li’s philosophical system has become more understandable and enriching with subsequent translations, but she does not spend her essay exploring Li’s philosophy itself. She instead focusses on critiquing Andrew Lambert’s translation of Li Zehou’s book, which to me, was not even the purpose of this ongoing symposium. Here is an example and analysis of her error in this purpose, a purpose which sadly appears to be common throughout the approaches of comparative philosophy as an academic discipline.
She criticizes Lambert for translating the Mandarin term “legan wenhua 乐感文化” as “the culture of optimism,” when the word “leguan 乐观” corresponds more closely to optimism, and a better expression of Li’s term would be “the culture of socially-grounded pleasure.” She says the problematic translation arises from the audible similarity of “gan” and “guan,” but as far as I’m concerned, that critique is pedantic, and even exposes ignorance. Because while “gan” and “guan” sound similar, there is a clear and obvious difference between how they are written in Mandarin: gan 感 and guan 观.
Confusing the two does not happen when one is reading Mandarin. To accuse Lambert of such a literally illiterate error in translation is disrespectful to the translator, as if he approaches philosophically dense writing just as you would a booklet of furniture assembly instructions. Such a critique takes Li’s own writing and concepts to be as facile as a dictionary. Yes, guan 观 literally means “optimism,” but Li chooses the phrase “legan wenhua 乐感文化” for his philosophical purposes because of the more complex connotations of that term in the variety of contexts and strategies of thinking he employs throughout his analyses of the concepts and frameworks of thinking in the originating works of the Confucian tradition.
Philosophical writing is more complex than ordinary uses of language, so appeals to the definitions of competing dictionaries will be useless to readers wishing to learn about Li Zehou, and above all insulting to Li himself. Even more insulting to Li himself is the unfortunately high number of proofreading errors with which Routledge staff have polluted A History of Classical Chinese Thought. It makes Li appear to be a sloppy writer, when in fact, it is the proofreaders whose sloppiness pervades and insults this engaging and culturally important collection.
Confucius Is Alive, Just as Are Plato and Aristotle
Western readers and thinkers are all too accustomed to thinking of Chinese thought as made of some rarefied material, or as being the product of an utterly stable society. Li’s book demonstrates how, philosophically and historically, that conception of Chinese thinking and society is a total lie.
Kongzi may have lived 2500 years ago, but the tradition of philosophical thought, study, and application that began with his work has continued since then, and continues today. The tradition that began in Shandong is just as complicated, diverse, and fruitful as the tradition that began in Greece. So how can a single review do justice to an entire tradition? After all, no single review can do justice to the entire tradition of Western philosophy.
Li acknowledges throughout his History that his own book can do no true justice to the depth and range of this tradition because no single book can do so. The best question to ask of Li’s History is, therefore, whether it establishes a clear purpose and succeeds at it.
That purpose is to identify how the concepts of Chinese philosophy’s classical era have influenced the psychologies and cultures of Chinese people over the centuries. Li’s philosophical reflections and arguments lead him to hypothesize that key concept, “legan wenhua 乐感文化” or the culture of optimism. Throughout the history of China, the texts of that culture’s Confucian philosophical tradition were central elements of popular and elite education for millennia. That tradition’s concepts are, therefore, baked into the personalities and values of every individual who grew up in a Chinese society. Whether you study them, turn against them, or react to them, they’re ubiquitous and ordinary ways of thinking.
In the sections that follow, I will trace my understanding of Li’s account of how this concept of cultural optimism developed in the Chinese tradition of philosophy.
Immanence: A Materialist Cosmos
Philosophical practice begins with systematizing what is already known or accepted about the nature of the universe, of existence. Such a system need not always begin from ontological principles themselves, as the Western tradition with the speculations of Thales, Heraclitus, Anaximander, and Parmenides on such ground in Greece.
Around the same time in Shandong, Kongzi focussed his systematizing work on the moral, ethical, and political principles of Chinese culture’s clan-based governance. Systematic philosophy in China, beginning as it did in Confucius, turned intuitions and norms into concepts and principles.
One effect of this focus on morality, ethics, and politics is that it takes many centuries for Chinese philosophy to apply similar systematization to any metaphysical speculation about aspects of reality on any separate planes from human life. Ontological thinking appears clearly first in Laozi. As the crux of Daoist philosophy, Laozi carries an entirely different attitude and orientation to philosophical thinking than Confucianism.
Contemporary interpretations of Laozi have understood him as a conceptually ecological thinker, or more broadly a chaos theorist. Daoism concentrates on ontological analyses of reality as composed of dynamic forces. These forces interact with each other, combining to make new orders, radically transforming their own natures. Daoist philosophy is an ontology of constant change, a systematic vision of the universe as fundamentally motion, transformation, and power.
Daoist Logic of Dynamics: True Contradictions Everywhere
The logic that Laozi and the later Daoists developed has, unfortunately for the tradition, been wrenched into the racism that caricatures Chinese people as inherently mystic, unchanging, ‘celestial,’ and inherently nonsensical sages spouting contradictions. “To act most successfurry, you must do nutting!” says the sneering yellowface Fu Manchu trotting across the stage.
Perverting Daoist thought into a trope of dehumanization and exploitation was merely one of many British crimes against philosophy, if not humanity. The logic that this image perverts is a detailed and profound engagement in how to understand the dynamic. Forces are always in motion, fields of energy and material that are continually changing. Any apparent permanence is actually a fluctuation that is slow enough to last a very long time relative to the duration of human life.
So the reality of things is constant flux and change, but practical human thought and the material processes of our everyday lives must act as if the world were permanent. Psychologically, a human requires acting as if their world will remain the same not only day to day, but moment to moment. Laozi’s logic has the purpose of training people to recognize and understand the fluctuating, motive nature of reality by reconciling it with the appearance of permanence in ordinary perception and practical thought and action.
Daoist philosophical argument is written in language that is ordinary enough in its vocabulary to be easily understood, and also strives for abstractness. A Daoist philosophical writer describes in abstract language the structures common to many actual situations. Beginning from what in ordinary language is a blatant contradiction,
Laozi works through a variety of conceptual arguments that understands such situations as the dynamic collisions of forces that create new orders of being while destroying previous such orders. Such a logic is necessary to understand such important problems in contemporary human civilization as how to maintain technological societies while encouraging thriving ecosystems.
Consider one very serious problem facing us in very immediate time frames, as of the date of this publication. A Daoist beginning: That which destroys may also create. Fire destroys a forest, but this benefits younger generations of trees and revitalizes the land. But fire in great excess razes the land clean beyond its capacity to regrow for many generations, and what eventually returns will be utterly different than what was wiped out.
Navigating Great and Volatile Dangers
So order is not truly the taming and destruction of chaos; order is a harmony of forces held stably in a dynamic tension. Sometimes, this tension holds the order of the world in a calm, stable manner. But there are also times when harmonious relationships become more fragile, when they can be catastrophically disturbed by smaller and smaller disruptions.
Properly understanding the world, constituted as it is of such dynamic relationships, is to hone and converge intellectual understanding of dynamic system into an instinct that can detect subtle yet pivotal changes in the overall relationships of many forces meeting in complex harmonies. In the context of an ontology of dynamic tension as constitutive power of being, an epistemology follows that prioritizes knowing holistically the balance of powers across complex systems, and what can make them resilient and fragile.
The works of Laozi and his followers in the Daoist tradition develop these concepts in detail over many centuries, the most influential and fundamental ontological and epistemological philosophy in Chinese thought. But although Laozi was the first Daoist ontologist and metaphysician, there were Daoists who preceded him. These were the military strategists, such as Sunzi of the stereotypically famous Art of War.
Sunzi and the other war theorists developed the ontological concepts of dynamism that would form the philosophical launchpad for Laozi to develop the broader metaphysics of Dao. Li situates the theories of Sunzi and the war theorists in the historical tumult and mass military violence of their time. They were military leaders and strategists, expert advisors to kings, clan leaders, and generals in the Warring States period, two and a half centuries of constant war starting in 475 BCE. As well, much of the previous three centuries saw continual internecine wars and conflicts among smaller dukes and nobles on smaller scales.
Sunzi and his school of philosophy developed theories of war: how to attack an army, siege a city, and protect your own country from devastating attack and conquest at the same time. These were the constant top concerns of political leaders at any level in China for five centuries, until the Qin dynasty finally consolidated power over all those dukes and clan leaders. Their theories concentrated on how a general can correctly understand the constant fluxes of huge armies always on the march, carrying out raids, attacks, sieges and massacres against civilian populations.
Diagnosing an Authoritarian Tradition
These kings, generals, and squad leaders had to understand the battlefields as dynamic systems, where powerful forces were in constant flux, and could conflict in incredible violence with little clear warning. They had to develop ways of thinking that would more easily reconcile contradictory reports of troop movements or reconnaissance raids. All these armies were in continual dynamic tension with each other, and terrifying destruction could unfold at any time. Survival required understanding the smallest signs that a stable situation could imminently collapse.
Li traces how this approach to the volatility of battlefields were systematized with ontological concepts, which were later used as the framework of a political philosophy for general governance. He does so in the broad strokes of a well-informed historical and philosophical outline, as is appropriate for a book that is a survey of major trends in a 2500 year tradition of thought. That movement runs from Sunzi and the war theorists through Laozi and the Daoist ontologists, to the works of Han Feizi and the legalists.
Early legalist theory was applied to the governance of the first unified Chinese government after the time of the Warring States, the Qin dynasty. Li describes how this harsh, authoritarian philosophy contributed to the fall of the Qin government after only fifteen years, from 221-206 BCE. Summarizing the argument of a long, complex article in a mere few sentences is a wrenching oversimplification, but I’ve been doing that since the beginning of this piece anyway.
Essentially, the early legalist thinkers applied the Daoist concept of stability as a delicate balance among mutually destructive forces to the needs of peacetime rule. But they did so under the operating premise that a peacetime society must be ruled and controlled with the same discipline among all members as an army in the constant danger of the battlefield. Any opposition, dissent, or even carving a sphere of social action beyond the control of the government was seen as a mortal threat.
Shaping an Authoritarian World
These were new forces developing beyond the control and direction of the emperor’s office, and so the first Qin emperor Qin Shi Huang, informed by legalist political advisors, ruthlessly suppressed them. Early legalist thinking understood all material social frameworks as dangerous as a battlefield. Such suppression naturally led to rebellion, and the Qin dynasty fell to one such rebellion shortly after the first emperor’s death.
The Qin was overthrown by a rebellion, whose leader became the first emperor of the Han dynasty, Liu Bang, whose name as emperor was Han Gaozu. Li, in his essay critiquing the overall usefulness of Qin dynasty legalist governance policies, wrote what I see as many veiled criticisms of his contemporary government, the People’s Republic of China. The total authoritarianism of the Qin government doomed it because people naturally rise up against what openly oppresses them.
The Han dynasty adopted the same authoritarian institutions of absolute rule, but revived the Confucian political and moral principles of humaneness as a guide to executing absolute rule through government policy. Maintaining absolute power in institutions that brought even the poorest people some material benefit, instead of bringing brutal police control, undermines resistance to authoritarianism.
As with a large family or clan in ancient times, the social morality Kongzi systematized long ago, no one questions the absolute authority of the leader if he is competent. So it goes with an entire empire. Yet even a humane empire remains an authoritarian empire, as Li’s History makes clear is the foundation of Chinese moral and political order for two millennia.
Writing anything challenging the wisdom of authoritarian rule and the leadership’s control of all the people of a society merely a few years after the death of Mao Zedong, even writing about the policies of a China thousands of years in the past, carries great danger for any intellectual. When the leader of your own country still holds absolute control of the army and police, and it is considered reasonable for those authorities to have any power the leader asks of them, to criticize a philosophy of absolute control takes great courage.
But there was another purpose, one tacitly encouraged by the government, that would have protected Li from suppression, at least during the relative calm of Deng’s leadership. This was the slow reconnection of Chinese culture, led by its intellectuals, with its Confucian traditions. Li himself spends the latter half of his History analyzing the philosophies of the Neo-Confucian movement, which over a thousand years from the Song dynasty to the end of imperial China in 1911, developed a variety of new concepts that made a massively complex set of schools and subsidiary traditions.
The Way of Heaven in All Human Life
Despite the great philosophical variety and complexity of Neo-Confucian traditions, their mainstream set of moral values was institutionalized in every institution of the Chinese empire, through all the years of stability, war, and collapse that the imperial states experienced over that millennium. Li identifies two key principles whose expression in politics and society was an intense conservatism that slowly ossified Chinese intellectual and cultural life.
One principle was that the human realm is an ordinary part of the larger cosmic order, such that human processes are a deterministic order of the cosmos itself. The corollary of this constitutes the second principle: that the feudal political order of imperial China’s caste system was itself in all its detail the true expression of that cosmic order in everyday life.
This philosophy of conserving a rigid feudal social order has, metaphysically speaking, a stronger justification than even a theocratic order such as those in contemporary Saudi Arabia or among American Christian extremists. Western religious thinking radically separates the human realm from the divine or heavenly, such that to follow heavenly order requires political activism and organization.
Ontology in all Chinese traditions is so thoroughly monist that to dispute their materialism is, on their own terms, silly. So there is no separation of human and cosmic because the human is an element of the cosmic. The cosmic order includes the human order as a whale includes the calcium ion uptake mechanism in a single one of its cells.
The fundamental dynamic process of all existence expresses itself in the ordinary life of even the most insignificant human. Where the way of the cosmos informs the entire structure of the empires as strictly caste-bound feudalism, that includes the structure of all human lives born within those systems. Such a vision of social reality mandates that the most harmonious life is without variation from the prevailing order.
How to Become Intellectually Bankrupt
You might ask, given such a critical account of the actual political and social effects of Confucian philosophy, where Li would find the optimism or delight at the centre of the psychological framework he identifies as the uniquely Chinese worldview. The apparent conclusion of Confucian philosophy in history was the cultural and intellectual stagnation of a feudal social order that remained unchanged for about two thousand years.
Late in his History, Li discusses the radical opposition to Confucian thought that was central to Mao Zedong’s political movement to change the moralities of everyday Chinese people. It is true that the Confucian morality of feudalism had calcified Chinese thought and society by the collapse of the Qing dynasty with the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. But Mao’s goal to destroy the entire intellectual tradition that began with Kongzi was quixotic at best and the empty buzzwords of an authoritarian at worst.
Like any philosophical tradition that had developed actively for millennia, Confucian thinking contains many more multitudes of conceptual resources, subjects, and innovative potential than could be contained by any one dogma. The ossified dogma of the Qing dynasty’s Neo-Confucian bureaucrats is only one of many Confucianisms to choose from, or better, to develop entirely anew. Mao conflated Confucianism with the corrupt ideology of feudalism that had oppressed Chinese people for more than five hundred years. But once Mao was safely dead, his omnicidal vision of revolution died with him, and Confucianism, as it had been for millennia, contained potential for a revolution of its own philosophies again.
Li Zehou, in the era of Deng Xiaoping’s rule of the People’s Republic of China, was a leading intellectual in the revival of Confucian thinking. This was not a return to an old dogma that Mao rightfully killed, but a revolutionary exploration of the potential for Confucian philosophy to inform thought and policy for our current era, both in China and worldwide.
His engagement with Confucianism developed a philosophical approach that embraced democratic potential which had long existed in that tradition, often latent and sometimes explicit. Confucian thinking in daily life and the construction of the relationships that constitute family, community, and society from the local to the national encourages solidarity.
Joy: Fulfilling Cosmic Order in Ordinary Life
The joy of your thriving community and the prosperity of those you love are themselves contributors to your own real material happiness. This solidarity constitutes itself from the emotional connections immanent to a person’s inclusion in a community, and her participation in building that community. Such an ethos of mutual loyalty, aid, and protection provides great benefit to the community.
Li critiques that Confucian ethos as it is applied to large-scale institutions of governance and social morality, because such norms can legitimate the corruption of nepotism, as well as encouraging state leaders to impress upon citizens as a family member would, directing the people like a father does his children. This last point is especially dangerous, as the elites’ condescension toward social reformers or anti-corruption campaigns in the Qing era demonstrates. But because Confucian philosophy offers such ever-growing complexity, we can apply it critically to the world as it is now.
The communal spirit that Confucian thinking encourages in people’s ethical development is how the principle of legan wenhua 乐感文化 articulates itself in everyday life. Li, in his History’s last essay, describes the concept as meaning “a culture characterized by sensitivity to delight.” In such a culture, a person does not rely for fulfillment on some transcendent source jusifying our desires for my happiness of that of others for whom I care. This Confucian concept considers it plausible that one could find reason for living and grounds for genuine happiness in the material world itself. Instead of having to rely on conformity to a transcendent realm, one attempts to make your own life process into a joyous experience.
What Has Li Zehou Said?
Throughout the essays of Li Zehou’s History, he writes qualifying statements that his arguments could not possibly be a complete summary of the complex philosophical works and schools that he presents. This is a function of taking philosophy seriously. Philosophers are guardians of a noble and complex set of traditions, and teaching those concepts and disputes as if they were a series of easy definitions and discussions do a deep disservice to the traditions to which we devote so much of our lives. This is despite how often such superficial philosophical understanding informs much how academic philosophers teach undergraduate students.
Nonetheless, Li has accomplished a great deal with his History. In his native China, these essays contributed much to the revival of Confucian thought after the tumult of the Mao years. Now that these historical works from the Deng period of Chinese leadership have been collected in English translation, Li has accomplished a remarkable act of philosophical diplomacy, as progressive thinkers across the global university system push for university philosophy departments to engage beyond the Western canon.
Li’s History offers a young reader a variety of launching points for further research in the Chinese traditions of philosophy. In my own review essay, I’ve explored the points that are most striking for my own philosophical explorations and work. Li discusses the interplay between the development of philosophy and the material social and political conditions of its creation. This important element of philosophical creation is not examined in North American and European philosophy departments nearly as often as it should be, thanks to the unfortunate Western habit of understanding conceptual or logical truths as transcending the material lives of thinkers.
Situating philosophical traditions in the material conditions of their development also has the advantage of helping understand how different philosophies have been adapted into oppressive and authoritarian ideologies. What’s more, we can better understand the feedback that exists between philosophical work and the centres of state and military power, thanks to Li providing models for analysis in his historical work.
I personally am also interested in how the ontology of dynamic systems that Laozi and the Daoist tradition developed can be harnessed for a philosophical account of contemporary dynamic systems science. In this way, the logic of dynamism in these and related texts can inform much productive work in those areas of philosophy of science that concentrate on such fields as ecology, biology, cosmology, the social sciences, statistics, and engineering.
Li describes many more possibilities for research in the Chinese tradition that others, with different inclinations than myself, can explore. The philosophy of mind in Neo-Confucian thinkers from the Song dynasty period, particularly standout philosopher Wang Yangming, offers fruitful avenues for thought. Over the last decade, some thoughtful treatments of Wang Yangming’s work have emerged from Canadian researchers.
The intersection of cosmological and ontological concepts from Daoist philosophy and the metaphysics of Ying and Yang related to Chinese medicine also offers vibrant opportunities for conceptual creation and investigation. I have not even touched on Li’s insightful commentaries on the influence of Buddhist philosophy on Chinese traditions, and his philosophical analyses of Buddhism’s Chinese precursor Zhuang Zhou and the compilation of his school’s work, the Zhuangzi.
The more we discover of humanity’s philosophical history, the more there is to explore, inspire, and create. As with any living tradition, work will continue as long as there are people able to work at all.
Contact details: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, firstname.lastname@example.org