Karyn Lai on Classical Chinese Philosophy

Co-host Karyn introduces herself to the listeners and talks about the challenges of tackling classical Chinese philosophical texts.

Audio Episode:

Transcript: History of Philosophy in China 03, Karyn Lai on Classical Chinese Philosophy

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to talk now about who you are so the listener knows and also how we decided to approach the whole topic of philosophy in ancient China. Can you introduce yourself to the listeners, tell them who you are and a little bit about yourself?

Karyn Lai: My research specialism is Chinese philosophy of the Warring States period, and by Warring States I refer roughly to the time frame between 475 to 221 BCE. In my view the historians have aptly named this period as it was indeed an unsettling time in China. It is partly because of the unrest I believe. Some would believe that the unrest contributed in a major way to the formation of these texts including Kong Zi's Analects, the Mozi, the Zhuangzi, the Hanfeizi and many more well known and lesser known texts were products of this time. Although many of them were edited later, their composition began during this period. It is this suite of texts that we will be looking at across this series on Chinese philosophy. In my research the way I approach the texts include looking at their views, trying to understand their assumptions as well and also attempting to grasp their bigger picture. For instance to ask what questions might have preoccupied these early Chinese thinkers. How did they seek to articulate their views? How did they argue with each other? These texts were composed so long ago, many of them are fragments and even the ones that we have collated as books are loosely organised. They might have chapters but often the chapters are not even thematically organised and not all ideas were clearly expressed or said in the way we expect them to have been said. So this makes reading them a lot of fun and really exciting. I'm most absorbed when I'm working through the way early Chinese thinkers reasoned in articulating their views. They used a range of reasoning strategies including metaphors, analogies, anecdotes, wonderful stories and parables, some of them fantastical. They argued with each other, they subtly changed word meanings and we again will look at all of this across this podcast series. I feel very fortunate in my undergraduate training at the National University of Singapore to have been exposed to both analytic and non-Western traditions in philosophy and this allows me to utilise some of the tools in seeking clarity, in explanation, in understanding fallacies and bring these to help us better understand what goes on in these early Chinese texts. I enjoy bringing the ideas from the early texts to light, showing how they make sense and often not in the ways we might expect them to do so. In the course of my work, I also challenge what we expect philosophical argumentation and philosophy more broadly to be.

Peter Adamson: And maybe it's worth emphasising that you've worked on both Confucianism and Taoism. So probably the two major traditions, although not the only traditions that we're going to be covering in the series, are both things you've published on. So listeners, you're in good hands. Okay, so now let's talk a little bit more about the approach that we're going to be taking in the series to come. And we've already touched on this a bit in the episodes we've already had, but I think it's worth dwelling on, first of all, the chronology. So obviously we're starting a long time ago. So some of the texts that we're working on go to the time of Plato and Aristotle and even before that, we're talking about, in a sense, ancient or classical, you could say. But of course, philosophy in China continues right up to the present day and we're not going to be tackling all of that in just this one series, although we might come back and do more of it later in a future series. Can you say something about the chronology in terms of both what we will be covering, where we're going to be stopping and why we're stopping there?

Karyn Lai: We'll be looking at the texts whose composition began around the Warring States period, and that's the period from 475 to 221 BCE. However, having said that, the composition of these texts begin at this period, but of course, the conversations and the debates about them continued much later into the Han period and beyond. So while we have these texts from this very, very early period, up until about 221 BCE, and during the Qin period, which was the Dark Ages in China that ran from 221 to 206 BCE, not much philosophy happened. However, during the Han period, which picked up again from 206 BCE to 220 CE, philosophy began to flourish again. The early period then of Chinese philosophy would move us right through to the Han period where we have this flourish of early texts from the Warring States period and the continuity with which they were picked up once the empire had settled during the Han period, and teams of officials were gathered to write on, to reflect on these early texts, and to explicate their insights for the rulers. It's also during this Han period that Buddhism was first introduced into China and Buddhist ideas were translated into Chinese ideas, or they found alignments with various available ideas in Chinese philosophy at that point in time. The texts we'll be looking at will include the Analects Associated with Kong Zi, the Mo Zi, the Lao Zi, Dao De Jing, Xuan Zi, Meng Zi, and Zhuang Zi, but this is merely to mention the major texts. We'll also look at the minor figures, lesser-known figures, people like Yang Zu, Hui Zi. There are also texts from the Chinese so-called legalist or the Fa tradition, and as well there were people who debated on philosophy of language.

Peter Adamson: One thing that we talked about when we were sort of gaming out how to approach this is that there's a way in which the historiography of philosophy in ancient China kind of begins in the Han period. And so one thing that we'll be seeing is that I guess we'll be kind of bouncing back and forth between let's say the Warring States period and the Han period because it's in the Han period that a lot of these texts become considered canonical. It's also in the Han period that we get the first attempt to kind of categorize thinkers into various schools, which is both useful but potentially misleading, right, because it means that they have a tendency to really emphasize the contrast or rivalry between schools. So do you see the Han period as a kind of natural place to stop because that's where we kind of get the formation or at least is where we get the first attempt to kind of consider classical Chinese philosophy as one phenomenon? Is that part of the thinking behind it?

Karyn Lai: Yes, indeed. And during the Han period too, I mentioned earlier that officials were tasked with drawing insights from the earlier texts. And so this was a period when many commentaries were written on these earlier texts. And the tradition continues. So many of these texts then were circulated with commentaries, which is an interesting accretion of the ideas. So we have long, long traditions of debates on Confucian ideas. So starting from the Analects, we can understand the ideas. But it's nice to get the sense of continuity to understand what people did with the texts, how they thought about it. It's also important philosophically because these commentaries tend to influence our reading of these texts. For instance, why we've come to understand benevolence as a key virtue in Confucius' analytics or why we've come to understand Li as having a central place, its propriety as having a central place in Confucianism. All these readings have resulted from commentaries that give prominence to one or other of the concepts in the Analects.

Peter Adamson: It reminds me a lot of something we've seen in other traditions. For example, with Greek philosophy, we have commentators on Aristotle and Plato in late antiquity. In Indian philosophy, we had these huge commentary traditions based on the sutra texts. Also, even in philosophy in the Islamic world, we saw that there were commentaries written on Ibn Sina and other thinkers. So this seems to be a very common pattern for philosophy is that it emerges in the form of these formative texts that we consider classics for some reason. And then later philosophers comment on them and the commentary becomes a way or a vehicle for independence, original thought. And I think we're going to see yet again that one ignores the commentators as philosophers at one's peril because they're often very original in what they're doing. 
Maybe one other thing that's worth flagging here is that by going up to the Han period, first of all, we're kind of connecting the story to what we've already seen in the India series, because of course there we talked about Buddhism. But also we're actually not going that far chronologically in absolute terms, because we're really only going up to roughly what would be the end of let's say the Hellenistic period in Europe. So we're not even getting into the period of Neoplatonism, which would be like third to sixth century CE, never mind the equivalent of like medieval philosophy, early modern philosophy. So there would be a lot more Chinese philosophy to come. And really all we can say now is that hopefully eventually there will be another series about that. 
Okay, so we are in fact going to be dividing this up in terms of what we could like in scare quotes call schools, right? So we're going to talk about Confucianism, so the whole line of thought coming from Kong Zi. And we're going to talk about Taoism. We're going to talk about the legalist school. And so we're going to talk about Mohism. So maybe you could just say something about that, like what are the maybe costs and benefits of doing it that way and what would have been alternative ways of organizing the material?

Karyn Lai: The traditional way of organizing the material is according to the traditions. And I believe it's more appropriate to call these schools "traditions" precisely because of the commentarial tradition. They give us a sense that what happens in there with the intellectual history and then also because of the crossovers across the different traditions of thought: Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism tend to be quite vibrant in early Chinese philosophy. And it's just interesting to see the conversation they have across these traditions. There is also a sense of fluidity in the word traditions. When we organize our material according to traditions, it's a more traditional approach. And that way we can be sure that we're covering the thinkers and the texts associated with the tradition. However, the conversations that happen across the traditions might fall out. Another way to organize the series could be, for instance, thematically by covering ethics across the different traditions, for instance, or philosophy of language in China or epistemology, again, across the different traditions. It could be potentially confusing though, because you'd have to assume that readers have the knowledge already of the different traditions before you put them up there and to say, well, how does ethics look? So it could be a bit more unwieldy.

Peter Adamson: So even if we resist what you might already get in the Han period, which is this tendency to consider these groupings as kind of rigid, so there's like a Confucian way of seeing it and a Taoist way of seeing it. And so there's going to be the one Confucian way of looking at a topic like benevolence, and then there will be a Taoist way of looking at benevolence. So even if that's probably an overstatement, it's still useful to work within Confucianism as a body of thought, as a tradition of thought, and think about benevolence within that tradition and then tackle Taoism separately. I guess another way we could have done it is just purely chronologically, just move through history, dealing with each thinker as they turn up. But I suppose one problem with that would be we often don't know exactly when they were alive and writing, right? That was certainly true in India. So there was often thinkers where we would say, well, this is someone who wrote between the fourth and the second century BCE, which was not very exact, right? And I suppose the same thing happens with China, right?

Karyn Lai: Exactly. We often can't pinpoint the period of composition and also bearing in mind what we've said about Han dynasty scholarship, that what happened there was some of the officials would edit the texts. And of course, we don't have evidence of what's been edited away. So yes, the chronological ordering would not make sense at all. We have texts, for instance, that are multi-authored. We can't pinpoint the author. The Dao De Jing, for instance, is a text like this. It's traditionally been ascribed to Laozi, but we don't even know if a figure Laozi exists.

Peter Adamson: Right, okay. So pinning it under the biography of someone who may or may not have actually existed, not a very good methodology. So that's how we're generally going to be proceeding. But I suppose we'll also be allowing ourselves to kind of step back and think about themes by comparing the way that different schools talk about the same concept, right? So we might talk about problems in philosophy of language and how they were handled within different traditions.

Karyn Lai: Exactly. And I'm also quite conscious that there are fascinating topics that are embedded in these themes, such as the idea of change, the notion of human nature, what it means to cultivate. Your self-cultivation is a major issue. Metaphors such as water, metaphors such as mirror, the sage is like the mirror. We have gender questions, of virtue, ethics, and so on. There are many topics that we will bring in within the episodes focusing on the different traditions.

Peter Adamson: It's actually really interesting that list you just gave us of topics, because normally when people think about, okay, well, what might you cover philosophically? They might think about knowledge, virtue, right? Or metaphysics, right? Or free will, right? Some of what you just said falls into that category, right? Like change, okay, Aristotle talks about change, right? It's a big topic in his physics. But water, I mean, okay, there's Thales who thought everything was made of water, but the idea of using water as a metaphor for philosophy, it's fascinating that that could be an overarching theme that runs across different philosophical approaches. I guess one idea would be that the Tao is often compared to water, right? Because it sort of follows its own way naturally. Is that the idea?

Karyn Lai: Yes. And the Confucians also have water as a metaphor. So across the traditions, they use this discourse in very interesting ways. And it would be a miss not to cover a metaphor like that.

Peter Adamson: Maybe this would also be an example of something we've touched on already a couple of times, which is that they might say something very similar using the same metaphor, which pushes against this idea that we're going to have this very strong contrast between, let's say, the Taoist tradition and the Confucian tradition, because actually often they're saying the same things even using the same metaphors. There may be a more complicated process going on here where they're borrowing each other's ideas, building on each other's ideas. It's not all just about like opposition between the different traditions.

Karyn Lai: Exactly. They shared a discourse and they use similar terms. Yes, they sometimes shared ideas that were implicit in these terms, but it's also fascinating to see how sometimes when they criticize another thinker, what happens is they use that term and they modify it ever so subtly.

Peter Adamson: And so you really have to know the tradition and the textual history of it to appreciate even what's going on. That might be an example of the next thing I was going to ask you, which is about the specific challenges of dealing with Chinese texts. You mentioned that actually in your own work, you started off basically trying to read this stuff as if it were an analytic philosophy and being frustrated when it failed to be written like analytic philosophy. Obviously all philosophical texts in whatever language or historical period share certain difficulties. I mean, these are just really hard problems to think about. That's why we do it. But are there specific issues or challenges that arise when dealing specifically with ancient Chinese texts?

Karyn Lai: A lot of these texts, particularly the Confucian ones, are not organized in any discernible way. For instance, Kongzi's Analects, there's just chapter one, chapter two, they're associated with particular figures. But if you don't have the context for that you don't really understand what the associations are. And even if you have the context you might not understand what the associations are. There are conversations with Confucius, for instance. They talk about any topic under the sun. So you don't get a sense of the theme that a particular chapter is covering. So one can be quite thrown. And indeed, you could sit down at a first reading of the Analects and walk away thinking, wow, it's completely unwieldy. And yes, indeed it is. And therefore, to read the text, you need to think, well, what's happening here? We have these passages where typically an interlocutor comes to speak with Confucius. And Confucius delivers a decision on the question. And the point of this is when you understand the compositional details of the Analects, the text was compiled possibly in its earliest form - and we're not even sure - we think 70 years after Confucius had passed away. And Confucius' dates are 551 to 479 BCE.

Peter Adamson: He really lived then?

Karyn Lai: We think so.

Peter Adamson: That's something to hang your hat on. At least we know when one died. That's great. Very comforting.

Karyn Lai: And so the earliest the text could have been composed, and possibly not in its present form of 499 passages allocated to 20 chapters, is that it's compiled by people who were trying to remember Confucius. Why did they try to remember Confucius? Perhaps there is something insightful. They remember Confucius having said to them, but you also have to remember that 70 years on, these people may not have been Confucius' first generation followers either. So then they could be memories of memories. They could also be people who are writing these short passages, conversations with Confucius, because they wanted to lean on Confucius' authority to put across what they're trying to say. So in fact, when we look at the Analects, it really is a text about a tradition built around Confucius, rather than a text that Confucius has written and that really tells us about Confucius. Having that background information is really interesting because you begin to realize how the Confucius figure played a significant role in the formation of Confucianism in that early period. So that's just one example of how complicated just the one single text is, the Analects. The Mencius, the Mengzi and the Zhuangzi are somewhat better organized, although the Mengzi and Xunzi also include conversations and anecdotes. Mengzi often refers to Kong Zi as an exemplar. In Zhuangzi, there are many discussions about what it takes to be an exemplary person. So again, we see in these texts lots of deliberations. They're almost as if people are having conversations, rather than offering systematic views on 'this is how we should conceive of virtue' or 'this is a picture of the flourishing life.' The texts present to us little snippets of views about how these early thinkers tried to work through things.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, it's almost like we need to familiarize ourselves with another rather unusual from the European point of view, notion of what authorship is, because the author of the Analects, Kong Zi or Confucius, we've sort of been calling him both. He's obviously a teacher whose ideas are presented in the Analects, but he's also an exemplar. And the text is talking about him as an exemplar. Maybe another example, just to take an example from the Daoist side, would be the Zhuangzi, because this is a text where part of it, the so-called inner chapters, are I guess more or less reliably ascribed to Zhuangzi. And then there's some outer chapters that are definitely not, or are let's say, further away from him as an author. Is that right?

Karyn Lai: That raises even more fascinating questions, because whereas the early Confucian texts talk about exemplars, they refer to, for instance, sage kings in the past who have done this and that. So you can see evidence of their thinking through things by drawing out examples from the past. The Zhuangzi is interesting. It doesn't really have too many anecdotes. It has stories and parables that are extremely fascinating. The Zhuangzi text is, as we have it, a 33-chapter text. We know that at one point it was a 52-chapter text. An influential thinker, Guo Xiang, in the fourth century CE, edited the text and edited it in a major way. He classified the text into different groupings, such as the inner chapters, the outer chapters, the miscellaneous chapters. It's very difficult to tell what Guo Xiang did with the remaining 19 chapters. They may have been absorbed into the 33 chapters in the extant text. We don't know. We just absolutely have no idea. And the concept of the inner chapters is created by Guo Xiang as well.

Peter Adamson: Maybe another challenge we need to bear in mind, just stepping back from these particular examples, is that pretty much everything we're going to be discussing is somehow created by some later editing process, which may have identified certain things as more authoritative and others as less authoritative, may have added material, may have suppressed material. And so we're always going to be thinking about the composition of texts, even as we're thinking about what is said in the text.

Karyn Lai: Yes, exactly. And the composition of the text then has close connections with the way we read the texts, of course. How do we read a set of texts, such as the early Confucian texts, that present to us lots of anecdotes and ways of working through things. Whereas the Zhuangzi presents parables to us and how do we as readers respond to the text. So there are different ways. There isn't just one way to read the early Chinese texts.

Peter Adamson: That point that sometimes the philosophy is presented in the form of an anecdote or a parable. So something that I've found starting to read some of this stuff, something that I've found is that often you read, let's say, a parable from the Zhuangzi, and you think, well, that is really cool, but I have no clue what it might mean. And I could start speculating. So I start using my imagination as a philosopher and start freely associating, as it were. And that doesn't really seem like what we're after. That seems kind of interpretation that lacks historical embeddedness or methodology. So is there anything you can say generally about how you think one should handle material like that? Is it just a matter of having read a lot of it and trying to see interconnections between parables? Or how does one deal with material like that in your opinion?

Karyn Lai: In order to interpret what goes on in some of Zhuangzi's parables, some of them are about animals. Those are always fun because you don't need to locate animals in any specific time or place. But there are references to specific figures. For instance, the Zhuangzi uses Confucius as a figure. Sometimes Confucius is a spokesperson for the Zhuangzi. Sometimes Confucius is someone who holds a view that is plainly ridiculous. And how you read a particular story turns on the role Confucius might have, for instance, in that story. So one really needs to understand some of the views across the different traditions to understand what's going on in the Zhuangzi and to see some of these stories as possibly dialogues with what was happening then during the Zhuangzi's time. So some of the famous skill stories, for instance, where Confucius is a figure and he talks to the masters in the skill stories. And typically at the end of the skill story, Confucius turns around to his followers who happen to be with him and then he instructs his followers. He says, look, this is what the master is doing. This is how he's got such great skill. And I used to read this in terms of Confucius as a spokesperson for the Zhuangzi. So here is Confucius distilling the insights of the Zhuangzi for his followers. Until it dawned upon me that perhaps Confucius in that particular story, two or three stories where he's a figure in conversation with the masters, that perhaps Confucius distilling the information to his followers is in fact what is exactly being held up for ridicule.

Peter Adamson: Right. Because that's not the point. The point isn't that you say, see, this is how they do it.

Karyn Lai: Exactly. And so even realizing the roles of the different figures, there are also historical figures that the Zhuangzi refers to. And yes, to some extent, one needs to be familiar with the significance of those figures. But on the whole, the stories in the Zhuangzi can be read at various levels. I think that's the beauty of the Zhuangzi too. The parables can be read at various levels. And one of the ways, apart from reading more broadly across early Chinese philosophy, one could be informed by the scholarship.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, absolutely. Which we'll try to bring to bear as well. I think what you were just saying about the fact that there are these ongoing debates, that's part of what makes this very deeply philosophical. Because part of the way you need to understand it is that there is perhaps a tacit argument going on between different points of view. And if you understand what's at stake in the argument, then you'll have a better chance of understanding individual passages. 
There's one other thing I want to ask you. We are going to be presenting a long English language take on classical Chinese philosophy. I think therefore it might be interesting to just touch on the presence or lack thereof of Chinese philosophy in Anglophone philosophy. I've gotten a lot of listeners over the years writing in to encourage me to add a series on philosophy in China. And I kept saying, I will get there. And now we've gotten there finally. So there's certainly a lot of appetite for it out there. Do you think that that appetite is being well served by the English speaking philosophy community?

Karyn Lai: I'm not sure I'd say well served. I believe it's really quite encouraging to see a slow but noticeable increase in courses in Chinese philosophy in the English speaking world. So that's very nice to see. These developments are important not only because students are coming to university and they're learning there's much more to philosophy than what's offered in the Western tradition. But at some level for a university department to be offering a course in Chinese philosophy is a statement of the recognition by those who are in the profession that non-Western philosophy matters. So that's indeed very encouraging. In research terms, it's also wonderful to see not merely, and these are significant, I don't use merely lightly, that there are journals that focus specifically on Chinese philosophy and comparative Chinese and Western philosophy. But there are also generalist journals, significant, well-respected generalist journals that emphasize non-Western philosophy. And we're seeing more and more articles on Chinese philosophy being published in these journals. So in Chinese philosophy, we have the more established ones, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Philosophy East and West, Asian Philosophy. We also have DAO, the Scholarly Journal of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy. We also have important resources such as the Stanford and Rutledge Encyclopedias of Philosophy. And it's very important that they're putting out there the information that non-Western traditions matter philosophically. The generalist journals include the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, the British Journal of the History of Philosophy, amongst others.

Peter Adamson: I think that actually parallels to some extent what's happened in my own field, or one of my fields, which is philosophy in the Islamic world, where there used to be fora where you could publish on that. But you wouldn't see that many papers on Islamic philosophy in mainstream History of Philosophy journals. But that's become more and more the case. There's still a difference though, I think, because philosophy in the Islamic world has always had a more intimate connection to European philosophy than Chinese or Indian philosophy does. For example, Avicenna, as he was called in Latin, influenced people like Aquinas and Scotus. So there was always a way in which it was almost impossible to exclude philosophy in the Islamic world from discussions of the history of European philosophy. And that's really just not true for Chinese philosophy. All the more encouraging to see how there are more and more classes being taught on Chinese philosophy, even if an entire class isn't devoted to Chinese philosophy. Maybe one text is included in the course.

Karyn Lai: Also in terms of research, it's particularly encouraging when people who haven't traditionally worked on Chinese philosophy decide to have an angle here or have an angle there. They incorporate perhaps a quotation or a passage from Chinese philosophy. There are some people who are purists, as I said, oh, they're not trained in the Chinese philosophical tradition. They shouldn't be talking about these texts. But I tend to have a more inclusive view. I think that if a particular scholar believes that a particular insight in a Chinese philosophical text is insightful and they can draw on its relevance to a particular debate, and if they do that with integrity, I'd be happy to see that paper published. 


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