Reimagining Li Zehou’s A History of Chinese Classical Thought, Part 2, Michael Nylan

The historian in me surveys the academic fads of the last forty years in her field, including the overblown and rather dubious celebrations of cultural memory and cultural representation. Come and gone is the craze for the digital humanities (merrily imploding, due to its own lackluster achievements, given its huge expense). This survey reminds me that nobody has come up with a markedly better model than Li Zehou’s “sedimentation” theory by which to explain the sort of “path dependence” that historians believe they see in every era … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Routledge

Editor’s Note:

Michael Nylan’s essay review will be presented in three parts. This post serves as Part 2. Please refer to Part 1 and Part 3 of the essay review.

Article citation: Nylan, Michael. 2020. “Reimagining Li Zehou’s A History of Chinese Classical Thought.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (2): 40-54. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-4Pf.

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Li’s Distinctive Method

The historian in me surveys the academic fads of the last forty years in her field, including the overblown and rather dubious celebrations of cultural memory and cultural representation. Come and gone is the craze for the digital humanities (merrily imploding, due to its own lackluster achievements, given its huge expense). This survey reminds me that nobody has come up with a markedly better model than Li Zehou’s “sedimentation” theory by which to explain the sort of “path dependence” that historians believe they see in every era.

Culture is a notoriously difficult word to define, as Raymond William’s Keywords reminds us, but we cannot deny that it somehow shapes realities past, present, and future, through highbrow journals, media outlets, and pop culture, in what Li dubs a “cultural-psychological formation” (310). So while Li could never be lumped with the New Institutionalism that has taken over studies of antiquity (with the inevitable pushback by those who exult in Athenian and Roman glory), he shares their approaches to some degree.[1]

For the purposes of unpacking Li’s distinctive method, then, I will draw upon and revise formulations I first came to ponder in response to a lecture by my Berkeley colleague, Emily Mackil, on the competing disciplinary models for conceiving past and present:

(1) Sociological institutionalism rejects the totalizing assumption that organizations and institutions are the product of rational and purposive attempts to introduce greater efficiency into social life, and alleges that institutions are the products not of rational design processes aimed at promoting efficiency but rather of the assimilation of cultural practices into organizations. Sociologists tend to ask why specific institutions are adopted and how they are diffused through industries, professions, regions, and states through formal and informal phenomena (the latter including moral values and symbol systems). Their goal is to discern the connections between the individual, individual actions, and society as mutually constitutive and dynamic. Insofar as institutions are the products of cultural preferences, as cognitive and affective systems, they become, in theory, proper subjects of study.

(2) By contrast, the rational choice theories that heavily color political science, economics, and legal studies assert that strategic and calculating behavior affects all people’s ability to undertake joint action. By this world-view predicted on the “autonomous, rational being,” institutions are created to reduce inefficiencies or transaction costs that people would prefer to avoid, but once created, institutions represent mainly constraints on human interaction. Meanwhile, significantly for rational choice theorists, institutions tend to be seen as the result, initially at least, of careful strategic calculations about how to achieve the most gains from ad hoc and permanent forms of cooperation.

(3) Historical institutionalism tends to define institutions in terms of the formal and informal procedures, routines, norms and conventions embedded in the organizational structure of the polity or political economy. In consequence, cultural institutions matter to historians a great deal. Historians routinely admit the possibility, indeed the probability, that institutions may be shaped and maintained by forces other than a drive for economic efficiency and economic gain.

Indeed. Historians like myself are apt to find people complex beings whose “reasoning” need hardly be “rational.” After all, so much of life is governed by processes outside of free will, if one pays attention to the philosophers and neuroscientists. Gilbert Ryle, for instance, argues that “When we observe a person’s acts, we observe his intentions and desires, so the latter are not causes, but characteristics”; Elizabeth Anscombe, that mental states (desires, intentions, etc.) are not associated with actions via empirical laws, and so they cannot be said to cause actions; and Herbert Fingarette, that “Much, if not most of our actions are inadvertent, involuntary, thoughtless, by habit or rote, or otherwise unintentional.” For that reason, historians emphasize “path dependence,” meaning, once certain choices are made and implemented, they and their effects can rarely be undone, without monumental effort.

To historians like myself, then, the so-called “significant” historical event becomes no more than a node in time, to which numerous historians down through history have drawn their attention, crediting the event with shaping the basic contours of social life, rather than little more than a pile-up of catastrophes whose accumulation may have elicited strikingly little thought as they occurred. Certainly, the wide impact of Huang’s 1587: a year of no significance and Gumbrecht’s In 1926: living at the edge of time alerts us to the pitfalls of portraying history as a string of “significant events” rather than broader trends, the “piles of wreckage.”[2]

I say to my undergraduates that names, dates, and events are like the numbers 1-9. The ability to wield those numbers doesn’t make you a good mathematician, nor does the ability to trot out names, dates, and events make you a professional historian of repute. That said, the farther people travel down a particular path, the harder it becomes to turn around. Ergo, the word “path” as a “self-reinforcing process” eerily akin to carved neural pathways. Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow may be adduced in evidence here. The institutional historian emphasizes what we might call the stickiness of institutions, i.e., their persistence over time and their distribution,[3] even if no one would credit institutions with rationality.[4]

By such categories, Li’s method undeniably makes him an institutional historian, and a good one at that, insofar as he:

(1) Attempts to bridge micro and macro social action and processes;

(2) Traces how formal institutions develop gradually from practices observed and agreements made; and

(3) Identifies critical turns in history through diachronic analysis.

Li thinks the “challenge is to explain how” an “ism” becomes the “heart and soul” of a culture (313),[5] and more particularly, in the case of China, how clan-based society gradually yielded to class-based society, ushering in periods of boom and bust that required the powerful to constantly scramble to rethink the premises of good governance.[6] Meticulous investigations and pragmatic orientations are the hallmark of Chinese culture, Li says, in stark contrast to Russian mysticism, so the hope is that Chinese reasoning may “reestablish itself at a higher level” (317), freeing itself from Soviet-style ways of modes of operating.

In addition, Li writes, “I have always argued that studies in Chinese history …. should, as far as possible, undertake detailed and specialized research. Only when many specific histories have been fully researched can more accurate and scientific general histories be produced” (308). He apologizes in his last chapter for presenting a general history at all: “I dare not claim that this present essay is a work in the history of philosophy, but a history of philosophy ought to reflect the historical progress of self-consciousness.”[7] Agreed, even if we quibble over the connotations of the word “progress.”[8]

Foregrounded in Li’s History of Chinese Classic Throught is Li’s theory of sedimentation, which seeks to explain the uniqueness of the human species in particular times and places (mainly on the North China Plain) largely in terms of the evolution of the local sub-species due to its ever-increasing resort to an ever-wider range of tools: physical, cognitive, emotional, and institutional, and most especially cultural. For Li, people are distinct from animals by virtue of their acute awareness of time and timing, which allows them to imagine their own deaths. No less importantly in Li’s history of evolution, reading, writing, music, and knowledge production all intervene as noteworthy technologies, prompting powerful elites to incessantly formulate and reformulate distinctive notions of the “common good,” as first known from the Warring States masterworks and Five Classics, with their rich commentarial traditions.[9]

In China, as elsewhere, a series of particular improvisational moves, delicate turns of the manifold in Nathan Sivin’s memorable phrase, eventually throw off discreet historical cultures grounded in aesthetic appreciations of the cosmos and an allied set of predispositions to view the world—with humans posited as an integral parts of that world, in no way superior to it—as inherently good and moral, bending toward justice, if you will. Nothing could offer a greater contrast with most Abrahamic views of human nature as inherently sinful, and societies and states construed as “unfree” and “controlling,” nor, for that matter, with the cultural conservatives’ fond fictions of an “unchanging China,” the “longest continuous civilization.”

Obviously enough, the very sedimented processes from which human culture is constructed can, under certain circumstances, burden the human imagination and impede human advances. (This was the claim of the powerfully affecting “River Elegy,” which blamed “the weight of tradition” for all China’s perceived ills in the past two centuries.) Cultural inclinations are fragile, and cultural memories all the more so. If constructive social behavior (by Li’s definition) is to be encouraged, both must rely heavily upon a cluster of sustaining institutions for support: the family, instruction of all types (not just vocational), and state-sponsored welfare institutions, to mention but a few.

Enter, stage right, Jiwei Ci’s dystopian sketches of a post-Tiananmen China, wherein people’s aspirations have been thwarted by concerted forces internal and external, with the result that its citizenry, in the absence of real freedoms, turns to a nihilism (defined as widespread cynicism about institutions) fed by hedonistic immersions in rampant consumerism.[10] Evidently, short-term delights become the drug of choice to people long denied a satisfying sense of human connections. Who needs a Christian revival or mantic experts in the marketplace, for that matter, promising deferred gratifications? Jiwei Ci’s rhetoric, historically grounded as it is,[11] can nonetheless be countered and enriched by Li’s history, insofar as Li rather quietly but insistently asks, What is human progress, after all?

For Li, whom many would hail as one of the chief intellectual inspirations for Tiananmen, the answer is understandably complex, but the touchstones are these: any “good” society, to work for its members, must afford them opportunities to develop their own capacities in ways that conduct to a larger human good. Taking the long view, Li chooses to believe that the resources available to the Chinese people (and to curious non-Chinese who avail themselves of their own distinctive cultural resources, as well as interactions with other cultures) suffice to build a better future wherein each and every person can not only become but also operate as a thinking and feeling person of worth, in the company of such others.

Li’s favorite Chinese classics might seem to allow cautious optimism, for both Laozi’s Dao de jing and the Analects ascribed to Confucius evince a strong interest in teaching people to “know what is enough” (zhi zu 知足) and a firm faith in the human capacity to derive solutions that are simultaneously moral and pragmatic for the host of ills that beset humanity in any age. Even abiding by the touchstone “knowing what is enough” could conceivably forestall, if not prevent global environmental disasters, for who among us needs that many pairs of shoes and that many flights to attend conferences. And Chinese culture over the centuries has offered other guidelines:

(1) Wu wei 無為 (“non-intrusive activity”) necessitating wide consultation and massive delegation of authority by the court; ergo, the possibility that the Scotsman Reginald F. Johnston could proclaim China the freest country in the world, in its strong reliance on self-organizing units;

(2) “Leave no traces” (wu ji 無迹/xiao ji 削跡/迹) operates as the functional equivalent of wuwei in everyday life; and

(3) The powerful idea of “One world” as variant upon “One Dao,” with the goal of “complete integration” (cheng 誠, quan zhen 全真), with the implication that, for better or worse, we’re all in this together.[12] (For those who don’t know it, reading Kang Yuwei’s posthumous One World Philosophy in English translation will astonish and confound.)[13]


[1] As my colleague Randolph Starn once said, some historians have to “script the action and raise and lower the footlights by periods,” and I see this in colleagues who know little to none of Chinese history aside from the stereotypes. Writing on glory, I prefer the work of Timothy Chappell and Douglas Cairns to the American celebrants of Athenian democracy.

[2] Of course, I refer here to Walter Benjamin’s poetic “counter-staging of history” against history as “step-by-step progress,” inspired by Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus.” I thank Randy Starn for this citation.

[3] For the foregoing paragraphs with their frequent asides, Professor Mackil, it need hardly be said, is not responsible, though I thank her for clarifying the disciplinary boundaries for me.

[4] On this, one might consult David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House, 2015); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 1984).

[5] Here I myself part company, respectfully with Li, as I believe, with Paul Veyne, that the modern historian’s main task is not to seek explanations masquerading as causes, but to restore a plausible silhouette to a discrete time and place, taking into account all the evidence at our disposal.

[6] I cannot read Li Zehou without thinking of William Skinner’s work.

[7] In this connection, Li offers a misreading of Joseph Levenson’s Confucian China and its Modern Fate (ACLS History E-Book Project, 2008), the only work of history at the time to ask, At what cost have modern Chinese relegated their traditions to a museum, the “dust-bin of history”?

[8] Li himself portrays Confucian political thought as backward-looking (312), to the golden age of the Three Dynasties (312), acknowledging the difference between such theories and future-oriented utopian thought of Kang Youwei or a Mao.

[9] For Li, knowledge and culture are forms of production that produce distinctive forms of life. Knowledge is “reflexively tied to the social conditions of its production,” as Li Zehou realizes.

[10] That said, consumerism took a very long time to become the third pillar of the Chinese economy, with agriculture and industry. A tremendous change in Chinese habits, consumerism even today occupies far less of overall GDP than in the USA.

[11] My one objection to Ci’s latest book, Democracy in China (Harvard University Press, 2019), is not how badly it misconstrues Chinese history but how badly it understands American culture, including de Tocqueville.

[12] The philosophers often mistranslate cheng as “sincerity,” not knowing the Han exegetes gloss it as quan, being whole and intact.

[13] I disagree with but ponder Li’s statement: “We might say that Han Confucians’ idea of unity of tian (Heaven, the heavens) and humans established a cosmological model within which human behavior was free” (329). Certainly, the Han Confucians placed far more emphasis on human parity than on human hierarchies than did the Song Confucians.



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