literature · synopses
Classics and Interpretations.
The Hermeneutic Traditions in Chinese Culture.
New Brunswick – London:
Website »My point is that the matter of questioning textual consistency should be incorporated as a basic requirement in the whole onto-hermeneutical project, while the ontological criterion should be applied in order to assess the systematic value of any proposed system of interpretation.«
As the Chinese world looks back on 5000 years of cultural continuity, including a good 2500 years of unitary history of ideas, it is not surprising that the hermeneutic endeavour of constantly renewed interpretation and determination of one's traditions is considered much more meaningful in China than in Europe. Especially in the field of intellectual thought, the low number of originally thoughtful texts is striking – in contrast to the rich traditions of commentaries. Progress in the history of ideas occurred mostly within the interlinear exegesis of ›canonised texts‹. Over time, the canon was subjected to significant change, and historically sensitive interpretations had a strong influence on the constitution of the texts. Thus Chinese culture presents itself today as a constantly rewoven text, whose complex synchronic and diachronic intertextualities guarantee (construct) its cultural unity – but at the same time, in their sheer boundlessness, they constitute both splendour and misery of the Chinese intellectual as well as the European researcher. ›China‹ consists less in a sequence of historical figures than in a continuity of texts and interpretations.
Against this background, this volume of 21 articles based on a conference provides a wealth of insights into goals, strategies, and the self-understanding of hermenutic proficiency in China, up until the most recent past. However, the main emphasis of the book lies on ›Confucian‹ hermeneutics (today often regarded as Chinese orthodoxy), while only one article addresses the hermeneutic practice of ›daoism‹, and the highly developed and influential Buddhist hermeneutics is not dealt with at all. This is a grave shortcoming of this publication which addresses itself predominantly to a sinologist audience.
Nevertheless, philosophers with hermeneutic orientation can benefit from the detailed, philosophically informed reflections, which are partly working comparatively on inner-Chinese phenomena. John Berthrong's insight is of fundamental meaning for the self-understanding of Chinese hermeneutics. Understanding and interpretation merge together into a creative form of exegesis whose final sense is not in the text itself, but in the self-cultivation of the exegist and the concurrent transformation of the world. Hermeneutics in China has to be understood as peculiar pragmatics on the basis of the interpretive appropriation of meaning, not as a form of historical knowledge. Here, a polarising tendency in Europe and China comes out to the open, as much as does the aspiration for a distinctly Chinese foundation of hermeneutics in the humanities.
Numerous authors thus work out positions that are close to Gadamer, seeking to use them to underline methodological demands for the historical and critical research of Chinese intellectual history, while simultanuously classifying them as the characteristics of hermeneutical proficiency of ancient China itself. As Chung-ying Cheng says, based on the long hermeutical practice in China:
Helpful and telling also is Ming-hui Lee's discussion of the rational hermeneutics developed by the modern Chinese philosopher Mou Zong-san (1909-1995). It is well-known and yet contested how Mou brought forward an ethically oriented critique of Kantianism from the perspective of ›Confucian‹ thought. With this, we at least witness the rare case of a ›critique from the outside‹ which, methodologically, has appropriated the Kantian understanding of rationalism. Like a good number of his contemporaries, Mou engaged in a comparativism of the European school, with an inverted perspective, looking from China.
Hermeneutics in China is nearer to a ›philosophical hermeneutics‹ than hermeneutics in the West. And this Chinese philosophical hermeneutical attitude of interpretive thought is especially prone to be used as method for an intercultural dialogue of philosophies. In this way, the essential meaning of most articles in this volume can be sketched out.