I've been following Leigh Jenco's work in comparative philosophy for some time now and was most happy to see her new book come out late last year: Changing Referents: Learning Across Space and Time in China and the West. It speaks, at least on a theoretical level, to an issue I am currently working on: how systems of thought can meaningfully move from one cultural context to another. I'm focusing now on the conditions under which "Confucianism" might gain more traction in contemporary America. Jenco's explication of Chinese debates from about 1860-1920 on how "Western Learning" might be imported into China and made meaningful there offers several key points that relate to my project.
Herewith some very rough initial notes and thoughts on this theoretically rich and thoughtful volume.
1) Meaningful cultural (or we might say philosophical) importation is possible. This might seem a self-evident statement but, as Jenco relates, it is contested. Some theorists (e.g. Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre) have argued that knowledge is "particularlistic," embedded in specific social and historical contexts, and that embeddedness produces a kind of incommensurability between distinct knowledge communities. The Chinese experience, however, suggests this assertion is empirically false. Chinese thinkers not only learned "Western knowledge" but they came to understand and debate the theoretical preconditions that enabled such learning. "Western Learning" ultimately came to be indigenized, transforming "Chinese" culture and experience. A key problem with particularistic thinking is that it embraces a static and singular notion of "culture." To the contrary, Jenco holds that "culture" is dynamic and plural, in both time and space. Thus, where particularists assume that "the association of particular individuals with particular [cultural] traditions is therefore both automatic and authentic...." (46), Jenco views culture as an acquired achievement, the product of self-conscious learning:
If cultural practices or characteristics are cultivated rather than given, then certain cultural practices or institutions can be adopted in other times and places, though often not immediately and not by one individual, or within the time horizon of a single generation. (65)
It should be noted that Jenco's argument is not a type of universalism. Rather, building on the "culturalist" interpretation of Chinese practice and identity, she recognizes the social and historical conditioning of knowledge but does not see this as an insurmountable barrier to cultural movement and intermixing and change. By these lights, under certain conditions, it is possible for a system of thought like "Confucianism" to have meaning in a cultural context, like that of contemporary America, radically different from its Chinese origins.
2) Jenco holds that not only can systems of thought move and be meaningful between cultural contexts, but she also believes that they can be transformative in their new context. This is obviously the case in China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but Jenco's argument is pitched at a sufficiently high level of generalization that it can apply to American now as well. This is not simply a matter of "us" (if by "us" we mean an immutable and singular cultural identity) becoming like "them," but, rather, a continuous process of cultural change and reinterpretation, which happens within a particular place across time as much as it does between different places. These lines spring out to me:
Just as (what we take to be) our own past heritage of thought fundamentally constitutes, rather than merely influences, our present production of knowledge, so too will situating foreign thought within the genetic narrative of our past be able to reconstitute our field of knowledge and our methods of inquiry.... This internalization of foreign thought effectively explodes the foreign/indigenous dichotomies that were its original motivation. (88)
How we might situate foreign thought into our past is an interesting question. The answer has to do with how we understand how the past relates to the present. If we, as Jenco, understand the past as interpretable in light of the social and political dynamics of the present, then we can imagine various discursive possibilities for including "foreign" pasts into our own. This could be as simple as revealing parallel lines of inquiry in ancient Chinese and Greek texts, as has become more common in academic philosophy in the past decade or so.
3) Cultural transformation born of the transposition of "foreign" systems of thought cannot be reduced to "use" versus "essence." This is the famous ti/yong - 体/ 用 - debate that took various forms over the course of several decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in China. The conservative version of this formulation, that some sort of "Chinese" essence (which implies a kind of historical cultural continuity) can be preserved by only importing "useful" Western knowledge, is obviously untenable. More interesting is Jenco's explication (published previously) of Tan Sitong's revision of the terms of this debate to dao/qi - 道 / 器. Qi is something more than yong. It might be translated as "vessel," and suggests something specific and concrete. But it also here implies not just a kind of de-contextualized technology but recognizes that "the actual material objects supplied by the Westerners" are inseparably fused with "the faculties or capacities - intellectual, social, institutional, economic - that produce these objects." (130-131). When an idea - let's say for building a train - comes into a new cultural context, it brings with it a whole host of social and economic and political and cultural preconditions and implications. Dao, therefore, is something both more general and more specific than ti. We might say there is an "ancient Chinese Dao," but also that there is a "Dao of railroads." But, ultimately, dao is unstable and changing as a result of the proliferation of many, many specific qis. Jenco notes that Tan: "...follows Wang [Fuzhi] by departing from typical neo-Confucian readings that held dao to be the foundation of qi... Wang reversed the relationship, holding that it was in fact "vessels" that held the "Way," or in other words, the particular and concrete that predicated the general and abstract." (128-129). She quotes Tan:
"Once qi has changed, can dao alone remain unchanged? Change is precisely doing qi, and qi cannot leave dao. People cannot abandon qi; how then can they abandon dao?" (129)
There is much that could be said here, many questions raised. For now, suffice it to note that this way of thinking recognizes that "culture" - one implication of dao - changes from the bottom up, from variations in particular, practical activities. This is not simply a spatial dynamic, the importation of new ways of doing things from other places, but also temporal. For instance, a "Confucian Dao," is determined by the practice of a variety of particular qi. As particular practices change over time in China, the "Confucian Dao" changed as well. Whatever historical continuity might be possible is not ideational but practical.
Another point here is: if lived experience - an agglomeration of many actually existing qi - changes dramatically from the past, let's say through a multifarious process of "modernization," then the basis of something like a "Confucian Dao" could be destroyed. For "Confucianism" to persist in modernity, it is not enough for isolated intellectuals to think like Confucians, but, rather, there must be collectivities enacting qi that under-gird a "Confucian Dao."
4) The production of meaning, drawing from both indigenous and foreign sources, is a collective enterprise. Jenco emphasizes this throughout the book. This was very much the understanding and experience of Chinese intellectuals, and their collective effort was no less than to change "China." That happened. We cannot reduce that momentous historical transformation to only the work of intellectuals but the fact of that extensive change demonstrates Jenco's point here. The "foreign" can be made the "indigenous" through self-conscious social enactment. This is not simply a matter of the hybridized experience of individuals, but can only come about through social interaction within and between groups: qun - 群. For there to be a Confucianism in America it must be based upon a social infrastructure.
In her last chapter she turns toward our own time. Since such change was possible in China, why not in Europe and America? That is, to some extent, happening, but Jenco's work gives us various conceptual resources to theorize how, for instance, Confucianism might take hold in America.
These comments do not do justice to this excellent volume. I will likely have more to say about later. In the meantime, I highly recommend the book.