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Epistemological and Methodological Problems in Studies of Tr

Date:2005-11-04 00:00Author:youzhengli
(The paper was published in New Literary History , Virginia, v.26,#3,1995) Ethical practices of human beings have social, cultural, psychological, and behavioral dimensions. Ethics, the study of ethical situations and practices, can therefo

(The paper was published in New Literary History, Virginia, v.26,#3,1995)


   Ethical practices of human beings have social, cultural, psychological, and behavioral dimensions. Ethics, the study of ethical situations and practices, can therefore be related to various domains of thought, academic disciplines, and moral practices. If the human being is a “rational animal” making good choices, then Aristotle's “political animal” chooses rationally in an ethical situation. Implicitly or explicitly, ethical decisions permeate private and public world. As civilization advances, the relation between ethical and other social aspects, particularly political and legal ones, has become ever more complicated. The nature and function of ethics have accordingly become fuzzier and fuzzier during the course of history. But at the same time the structure of ethical situations remains unchanged and continues to influence our fundamental choices even in the more intricate social networks of modern times. The primitive impulses of the human heart also remain unchanged. The proofs of a good or bad heart in ethical predicaments are just as they were thousands of years ago, even if the objectives and applications of ethics have become increasingly complicated. As we have invented ever more effective political and legal systems, the role of ethical practices in social life has come to suffer creeping neglect. Meanwhile the study of ethics has devolved into an academic business which has little contact with social reality.     

If so many great intellectuals, including erudite philosophers, political theorists,  theologians, and moralists, have erred so seriously in their moral judgments about the major political events of this century, how can we rely on moral principles deduced from academic systems of ethics? And why should we expect that the masses will react more wisely? Despite advances in science and technology, there is still a need to continue to develop a more exact knowledge of human ethical situations. It is unfortunate that our ethical reflections are no longer as connected with our political and moral realities as they were in ancient times. As their contacts with real life have relaxed, modern ethical thinkers have decreased their active engagement with the basic moral dilemmas and challenges which were more immediate to ancient thinkers. This is partly a result of the increasing institutionalization of various domains of modern societies. As a result, people devote their primary attention to the legal and technical questions of norms and codes underlying the material and spiritual organization of society. Because ethical quandaries persist through time, efforts to improve the quality of our understanding of moral practices remain urgent. Ethical situations, practices, and doctrines should be considered more a synthetic phenomenon  than a mere academic ethics.    

With the study of ethics firmly established in the various modern social and human sciences, the time now seems ripe to develop a more comprehensive and synthetic approach to human moral problems. The study of oriental, and especially Chinese, experiences should form an integral part of such an approach. A comparative analysis of the structure of ethical practices in history may be a desirable first step. As a typical form of Chinese moral pragmatism, Confucianism offers us an unparalleled opportunity to explore the mechanism of elementary ethical relationships. But such a study is not without its difficulties. The present essay presents some epistemological and methodological problems faced by comparative Chinese and Western ethico-political studies. 

I. Similarity of Basic Ethical Situations and Divergence of Historical Ethical Practices 

   Among its great cultural achievements, Chinese civilization has produced a rich scholarly tradition. The earliest Chinese philosophical reflections were notable for their richly ethical thinking. We could even say that the early Chinese reasoning took the form of intuitive ethical wisdom. The formative period of this ancient Chinese intellectual world was roughly contemporaneous with the ancient Greek academic world, which also put ethical practices at the center of its intellectual life. Whatever the difference between the two great civilizations, both ancient Greece and pre-Ch'in China produced philosophical traditions which were ethics-oriented. This common spiritual concern provides a basis upon which the two ethical tradition may be compared.    

Comparative studies of these two ancient ethical traditions tell us a great deal about earlier, simply structured societies in both the East and the West, and reveal an original similarity of the basic ethical situations and relationships which may be common to all ancient civilized societies.  For the ancient Greeks, despite their penchant for speculative thinking, the relationship between social reality and intellectual practice was much closer than today. Similarly, in ancient China life and thought were even more closely linked. Compared with other branches of the humanities, ethics is more reality-bound, for it concerns actual  relationships between individuals. However complex its connections with other more sophisticated disciplines become, ethics retains this basic  concern. Historically, different peoples facing similar ethical situations have reacted and made choices differently. One of the first steps in developing a comparative ethics is to construct a typology of the ethical mentalities and behaviors of different societies. A comparative study of the patterns of Western and Chinese ethical practices in ancient times will be highly instructive for our understanding the mechanisms of human moral life in general.     

Different historical practices in Western and Chinese civilizations have produced different typologies of ethical learning. Western philosophical history presents us with a much more sophisticated and fully developed tradition of ethical thinking than does the Chinese. Nevertheless, China shows a stronger engagement with ethical practices during its long history. Traditional Chinese ethics is more practical in nature and more closely linked with social reality. By contrast, classical Western ethics with its many schools has become an ever more independent discipline specializing in elaborate speculations. This difference is due, on the one hand, to a tendency in the West to separate the ethical and the political and, on the other, to the increasing complexity of its philosophical constructions, Throughout the course of its long development European classical ethics remains a branch of European philosophical systems. In China, however, ethics, in spite of changes in Chinese philosophy and religion, has miraculously kept its original structure, functions, and practical character. Since its establishment two thousand years ago, Confucianism has successfully remained the predominant current in Chinese political and cultural life. For this reason, Confucian ethics offers an unusually deep historical record of the human moral experience, testifying to the existence of stable interactions between ethico-ideological thinking and sociopolitical behavior. Investigation of these patterns will not only increase our knowledge of Chinese ethico-ideological  history, but will also help deepen our understanding of the basic ethical situation of mankind. 

2. Limitations of Comparative Ethical Studies 

   When using the Western term “ethics” in our Western-Chinese comparative studies we  need to pay careful attention to its semantic aspects, because different academic and social dimensions are interwoven into the fabric of moral life. First, in each ethical situation we must distinguish the central and peripheral elements of various social and cultural layers, from the intellectual to the practical. One of the mistakes of traditional comparative studies is to neglect this variation in different cultures. In German usage, for instance, a clear distinction is made between Ethik (ethics) and Sittlichkeit (morality). A contrast is thereby drawn between the theoretical and the practical, or the academic and the social. In general, we need a clearer awareness of such variations in the constitution of moral life. Developing a typology of ethical practices requires creating a typology of different historical cultures. As Georges Duby explains: “In fact ethics always only represents a 'localized area' within a totality in which it operates in quite different ways according to the cultural levels, societies and epochs.”     

The term “ethics” in the West tends to refer to a clearly established academic discipline. But its meaning takes on finer nuances according to its specific application. As applied to ancient Chinese morality it denotes something other than Greek “ethics” at the time of Aristotle. While comparing the two different traditions of Western and Chinese ethics we need to situate them within their entire cultural contexts, for ultimately comparative ethics includes the entire range of Western- Chinese comparative scholarship, including Western and Chinese sinology. In addition to the differences between Western and Chinese political, social, cultural, economic, and technological histories, we ought to consider the academic arrangements of the two traditions. Confucian ethics or Confucianism, far from being simply a strand of ethical thinking, is a synthetic “social complex.” Of all difficulties relating to comparative studies, the linguistic barrier is not the most serious one. The difficulties facing Western-Chinese comparative studies are epistemological as well as technical in nature. That's why, despite the ever-expanding scope of sinological works all over the world, the related academic achievements have been accessible mainly to the professional specialist.     The tradition of Chinese classical humanistic scholarship has survived into the modern world. Indeed the basic academic framework of the traditional Chinese humanities has remained little changed till today. Academic institutions and leading scholars have advocated and overseen a nationalist emphasis and research orientation in the humanities. Partly because of this deeply rooted ideological background, the conservative framework has been able to survive and remain productive, despite confrontation with a strong Western academic world. Part of the reason for this resilience is the structure of traditional Chinese scholarship; and part is the maintenance of collections of historical literature, as ossified symbols of national pride. The positive contributions made by traditional scholarship today have mainly been in the fields of philology and empirical exegetics, which are by nature isolated from modern epistemological changes. The late historian Fu Si-Nian frequently emphasized that the guiding principle in the historiographical studies of the Academia Sinica was still the traditional philological tradition of the Ch'ing Dynasty. Contemporary Chinese classical humanistic scholarship continues to be dominated by the conservative approach established by Fu and other scholars in China before 1949 and in Taiwan after 1949. Revolutionary directives in communist China after 1949 also perpetuated this earlier conservative tradition in humanistic scholarship on the mainland. Thus the bulk of the twentieth-century Chinese humanities retains a traditionally philological character and is seriously out of step with theoretical trends in the rest of the world. Moreover, this conservative perspective in Chinese humanistic scholarship has in turn influenced the direction of Chinese studies in the postwar West. Despite its considerable achievements, this generally philological and historical research direction can hardly promote a wide and deep dialogue between the traditional Chinese humanities and modern Western theories. The problem is particularly pronounced in the field of comparative ethics, which necessarily requires a reexamination of traditional sources through modern methodologies. The study of Confucianism,  because of its complex background, is particularly difficult. As a result, the full significance of Confucian ethics has not yet been grasped by most Western philosophers and scholars of ethics. 

3. Difficulties with the Availability and Authenticity of Historical Documents 

   The study of early modern Chinese history, including the political, economic, and social domains, is an area where Western scholars have made important progress. In the more empirical academic areas, where scholars can apply modern scientific models to relatively trustworthy materials, the results have been very encouraging. Few usable historical documents from the ancient period, however, are available. For modern studies of China the most important problem is the availability and authenticity of documents and data. Most classical Chinese historical literature prior to modern times was recorded and organized in an unsystematic fashion that mixes historical and fictional elements. Despite  recent encouraging archaeological contributions, there is still little historical data on ancient China. In a discussion of historical scholarship on the Ch'in-Han period, Michael Loewe points out that, “In general, the historian of this period has perforce to rely almost exclusively on the Chinese form of the standard History (Cheng-Shih). Only exceptionally is it possible to call on other written evidence with which to identify a document on which the compilers of these works drew, to check the accuracy of their statements of fact, to examine questions of authenticity, or to  balance their opinions and judgment.” It is unfortunate that many modern Chinese philosophers, often out of nationalist  sentiment, have intentionally ignored these serious problems with historical sources. By contrast, some Chinese historians in an earlier part of this century, most notably Chien Hsüan-Tong and Ku Chieh-Kang, took a more critical stance toward these problems. Discussing the authenticity of the classics, Chien asserted as early as 1921 that “the scholars of former generations were really pitiful. They read unreliable books intently and naively until their death without disillusion . . . those living today are even more laughable. They have knowingly continued to use the false books because, it is said, such books could contain good and useful advice.” Ku expressed a more general suspicion about the usability of the traditional written source  materials, saying “The ancient historical source materials never have been thoroughly reorganized and examined . . . throughout two thousand years. The documents are full of unreliable texts. Until they have been exhaustively and systematically examined, such materials cannot be used confidently. It is unfortunate that some contemporary scholars of social history hastily and wishfully persist in projecting their preconceptions onto the old written materials.”     

Some Western scholars lacking Chinese have been even more guilty of such misdemeanors. Early commentaries on Chinese philosophy by well- known Western philosophers such as Leibniz and Hegel are highly impressionistic and tell us little about the nature of original Chinese thought. In Max Weber's influential monograph on Confucianism and Taoism, whatever the merits of the sociological model he applied, the problem of source materials is scanted. To be sure, following the publication of Legge's systematic translations of the Chinese classics in the late-nineteenth century, Western scholars in general gained access to some Chinese historical materials. But it was precisely during this period that the classical canon was under serious re-examination in China. So it is questionable whether these historical materials have provided a suitable basis for sociological reflection.    

Even Western scholars who know Chinese well cannot entirely escape these difficulties. For example, Marcel Granet, a sociologist who had written a number of good books about Chinese culture and intellectual history, put great faith in historical materials and used them to construct a systematic description of ancient Chinese culture. But his classification of ancient Chinese cultural activities and mindset, impressive as it is, slights the diversity of Chinese history over its three thousand years. No doubt, his books represent a significant effort to organize the available materials in a comparative perspective so as to make them more intelligible for the modern mind. But because he took the classics at face value, treating them as historical fact, he weakened the reliability of his conclusion.    

The greatest merit of these sociologists' works on Chinese thought is their attempt to take an analytic rather than a merely descriptive approach to alien cultural documents. By contrast, even today many Chinese scholars are reluctant to accept a theoretical approach in their discussions. Western sociological treatments of Chinese Society and culture are therefore theoretically more interesting and appear more comprehensive. But because they overlook problems with sources, they draw hasty and excessive generalizations: an especially serious problem for sociologists, since their data should be positively confirmable social facts. If the seriousness of the problem has not been perceived clearly, this is because even overseas Chinese scholars with Western training have been tempted to accept the traditional sources as records of established facts. As a result, simplistic conclusions about Chinese history and mentality abound. In Weber's case, because he did not sufficiently question the credibility of the evidence, he construed “Confucianism” as an “independent” intellectual power spontaneously arising in China, comparing it with the modern European Protestant spirit propelling capitalist development in the West.      

In future work, the scientific validity of the original written sources must be taken into account. As the Chinese historian Ku points out, until the source materials have been systematically reorganized, scholarship on China's history will have limited value. We shouldn't underestimate this basic obstacle to advancing our knowledge of Chinese culture and Society. Apparently, Fu's philological attitude toward the direction of Chinese new historiography conformed in its essentials with Ku's concern for the accuracy of the sources. But Ku took his text- critical approach only as a first philological stage for reexamining the old source materials; he knows clearly a scientific historiography still requires “sociological treatment.” In contrast, Fu's strategy was set to the general guidelines for all of Chinese historical science regardless of other historiographical and theoretical interpretations. This philological orientation has rendered Chinese orthodox historiography incapable of debating with other modern theory-oriented historical thought, including Marxist historical materialism. To be sure, within the tradition of historical philology, the textual criticism practiced by Fu, Ku, and others is very productive and helpful. They have concerned themselves with the study of a plethora of historical documents on a technical level, attempting to provide more philologically reliable material. We can perceive this tendency also in more traditional fields of Chinese scholarship, such as philosophy and literature. On the whole, modern Chinese philological historiography has focused on processing documents. 

4. Structural Obstacles in Dialogue between the Western and Chinese Humanities 

   Fu's way of fixing his historiographical priorities is typical of modern Chinese scholars. Their perspective has been shaped by the uneven development of modern Chinese scholarship in the twentieth century. While Chinese scholars have been quick to accept Western natural science, they have been much more skeptical of Western approaches to the humanities. Fu was inspired, on the one hand, by German exegetical historiography of the nineteenth century and, on the other, by the textual research tradition of the Ch'ing dynasty. He regarded “the historical materials or data” as the only valid objects of historical analysis, and stressed that “historiography is the study of the historical material as such.” Like many other Chinese scholars trained in the West, he attempts, in his use of Western positivist methodologies to reexamine Chinese historical materials, to strengthen the characteristic values of his national academic tradition. Thus Western historical methods were for him merely a technical tool used in the service of preexistent, institutional preferences. In other words, before sufficiently understanding Western human sciences, Fu and others had already adapted their scientific strategy to the prejudices of their native traditional framework.  Since they had not sufficiently grasped modern theoretical discussions, they could not reconsider the traditional scholarship in a modern spirit, let alone acquire a deep understanding of problems in historical causality and the formation of value judgments. With such a conservative historiography, despite the remarkable  philological achievements of this century, they were not in a position to consider the epistemological problems involved in the use of historical source materials and in the analysis of historical events.    

Were the only problem the re-examination and rearrangement of traditional materials, it would be sufficient to perform some empirical or scientific operations on the given data, confirming or denying their historical or textual reliability. Modern and traditional philologists perform this task by means of their respective procedures. But there are also other kinds of problems: the organization and function of disciplines, the semantic structures of texts, their implicit axiological systems, and pragmatic problems of the interaction of social with writing practices. All of these intrinsic and extrinsic factors in the organization and function of Chinese textualities form an entire semantic organization which is more complicated and richer than the more obvious grammatical and verbally semantic levels.     

Hermeneutically speaking, several layers of meaning may be associated with a linguistic text. As Gadamer has said, “Each statement doesn't simply have a definite meaning in its linguistic and logical structure. Instead, it is motivated. Each problem hidden behind the statement gives it its meaning.” Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (Frankfurt, 1986), II, p. 179. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (Frankfurt, 1986), II, p. 179. But before the work of interpretation, we must attend to another textual layer of technical nature, the embodiment of a procedural “motivation.” The text thus possesses two layers: the intertextual and the extratextual. The former is the linguistic and the latter the institutional. To understand texts produced by and representing Chinese intellectual practices, a Western scholar must be aware of those explicit and implicit technical aspects of the production, organization, and  expression of texts and discourses.    

Bernard Waldenfels has said that “The heterogeneous, in contrast to the homogeneous, is related to structure and orders of experience. In the case of language this corresponds to what is not merely unknown but incomprehensible.”  This distinction between knowing and comprehension is  particularly relevant to the extreme heterogeneity of ancient China. Knowing a text  through its literal translations is not the same as comprehending the range of possible meanings. Waldenfels enumerates four types of heterogeneity in contrast with the homogeneous. Might ancient Chinese thought, a “heterogeneous other” to Western mentality, count as another instance? We may say ancient China was a “semantically” structured heterogeneity for the West. To comprehend this different semantic world, you need to grasp its special grammatical (or broadly, organizational) and productive (or broadly, constitutive) code in comparative terms. In other words, to compare the two cultures, one must first find their organizational principles and then try to establish criteria of commensurability. Because of a lack of knowledge about Chinese cultural and academic “codes,” some Western classical philosophers project their own conceptual patterns onto the fragmentarily translated oriental materials.  

5. Historical Constitution and Recombination of Academic Disciplines 

   We have discussed several problems in comparative studies of the traditional Chinese humanities, for which Confucianism remains central. The Western-Chinese dialogue in this comparative field has been seriously hindered by structural barriers at various levels: linguistic, semantic, stylistic, institutional, social, and ideological. Because of such barriers, simply presenting the original Chinese texts to Western readers translation can hardly promote sensitive understanding. For both Chinese and Western sinologists first is also the problem of choosing how many codes to pursue in their research.     

Western study of China and Chinese study of China are different academic fields, despite the apparent congruence of object. The content and the  orientation of project are mainly determined by the organizing principles embedded in the historically and socially conditioned disciplines,  rather than by the material manipulated. When an academic discipline is established in a society, that society will influence academic and nonacademic norms and customs, which then determine the character and tendency of its research work. Belonging to the Western social and academic context but taking the Chinese as its object, the historically formed sinology as a Western academic discipline possesses its own special interests and functions which are different from those of its Chinese counterpart.    

In modern times, China needs Western academic achievements much more than the West needs the Chinese. This historical tendency naturally limits the aims of Western sinology and the general interest of Western scholars in the Chinese. These facts become an external factor retarding the progress of comparative studies. The result is that Chinese studies of various kinds have not been incorporated into the main Western academic context. These limitations hamper attempts to bridge the epistemological gap between Western and traditional Chinese humanities. For this special task of cross-cultural academic dialogue we need some epistemological and methodological preparation, which is still historically outside the established disciplines. Thus, on the one hand there are difficulties arising from differences in the organization of the humanities in the two cultures, and on the other there are limitations in scientific conditions of the related disciplines. In addition, there may also be a third kind of obstruction arising from recent epistemological changes within Western humanities as such.        

Consequently, Western sinological studies of Chinese subjects within Western academies and studies of the some Chinese subjects within Chinese academies are generally divergent in focus, aim, purpose, and perspective. The disparity increases when one considers the prevailing standards for judging the qualifications of researchers. Generally there are two kinds of academic values. One is technical progress, as measured by the commonly accepted procedural standards; the other is theoretical advance.  In almost every field there inheres a double standard in measuring the empirical quality of a project. The prevalence of utilitarian attitudes has blurred our appreciation of the genuine worth of theoretical projects. The existence of such a double standard in every academic field, especially in the field of sinology, is historically conditioned and influences our research priorities. 

6. Recent Epistemological Change and Interdisciplinary Turn 

Barriers against mutual understanding are not only the result of differences in opinion, but also stem from differences in the basic principles by which meanings and expressions are organized in discourses. Of course the comparison of texts is easier or harder depending on how extensively they share a communicative common denominator. Disparity in principles of organization creates a “technical” hindrance to communication between heterogeneous discourse systems. Such a disparity influences the priorities which dictate choice of problems, topics, aims, methods, and even style. The conventional arrangements of the chosen disciplines lead to a divergence of scientific interests and tastes. Then more serious differences in dialogic context will finally arise at the semantic and logical levels. Thus, beneath the apparently commensurable linguistic expressions of two discourses lies a variety of structural divergences concerning the multiply semantical, logical, pragmatic, and institutional aspects.    

On the one hand we have natural language historically formed and effectively used in the common academic world; but on the other, different discourses embodied in the same linguistic system can have quite different mechanisms to convey meanings. This insight has led to more attention being given to the microcosmic level at which textualities are organized and will eventually change our understanding of how academic disciplines are structured and arranged. As a result we can form a new network of problems, objects, and methods, as suggested by Jacques Le Goff and Pierre Nora. Reconceptualizing the way we organize and represent objects and problems will bring about a systematic  rearrangement of our subjects and reorganization of our disciplines. Such a change implies more procedural than philosophical rationality. In a sense it can also be taken as a semiotic turn, in which we direct our attention to the problem of the mechanisms governing para-technical expression planes.    

This shift of perspective would enhance the methodological possibilities of Western-Chinese comparative research as well. Thus terminological innovations and borrowings in interdisciplinary research should be understood first of all in a technical sense. We are even required to reconstruct our world of objects. A sharp difference from the positivist position based on natural science models first of all lies in the conception of the objects of our observations. They are not something analogous to stones which have been constantly over there. The objects of the humanities are multidimensional semantic compounds which have physical, spiritual, axiological, and signifying planes. A valid object of humanistic research is a synthetic entity with many perceptual and nonperceptual elements. It can be adequately represented only through a constructive process which becomes more and more technically complicated in an age of science and technology. We therefore need knowledge of several disciplines to construct our objects. This requires us to develop a more detailed knowledge of the semantic structure of an object and its constitutive elements. Further, objects interact in causal, significant, and axiological dimensions, each acting discretely as well as coordinately with the corresponding elements of other objects. If we move from the normal level at which we experience ordinary objects to the lower level of constituent elements in formulating our discourses, we can more precisely present the mechanisms of signification and the causality of   objects. Natural units of objects are formed and used in our practical life. In the day-to-day world, interactions among natural objects actually occur at the levels of the constituent elements. The actual processes of signification and causation in our social and cultural worlds occur at a level beyond intuitive observation. Understanding in the intertextual dialogue is connected with several planes' simultaneously. Constitution of objects of the human sciences is more intricate and elaborate than those of the social sciences, which are themselves more complex than the objects of natural sciences. Therefore, a process of semiotic reformulation may illuminate the structural relations of the constituent elements contained by ordinary objects, thereby increasing our understanding of the interrelated causal and signifying channels in our field of work.    

Comparative research on China and the West should not be an exception to the general trend toward interdisciplinary approaches. It is clear that the field of cross-cultural comparative research must also be pursued in an interdisciplinary manner. Accordingly, geographical and historical features of source materials become less determinative than the techniques by which materials are processed. The so-called original materials, the initial objects of researchers, are not themselves neutral or natural; they are already products manipulated by the original native procedures of the classical disciplines. Thus a comparative study is in essence a confrontation of objective and subjective procedures; or rather a comparison of two sets of productive and significant mechanisms of texts in a comparative dialogic situation. Objects, procedures, and objectives in a project need to be consistently organized through a new interdisciplinary epistemology. A stress on a wiser choice of the applied discipline and related methods would lead us to be more attentive to the possible priorities of our problematic. Beside the traditional ways there could be several more methodological possibilities for solving our more synthetically formed problems. This methodological pluralism is in essence another name for interdisciplinary research. But there are different domains and planes of methodological techniques which are associated with different disciplines. The problem of combination and selection of the chosen techniques is highly theoretical as well as epistemological in nature. Among other things, a semiotic or semantically technical method will require reformulations of the studiert texts. Therefore, as I have suggested elsewhere, “any dialogue between the traditional and the modern is equivalent to the direct or indirect reformulation of ancient discourses through modern discourses. Thus we can only handle traditional cultural records in terms of a modern conceptual framework, since we are ineluctably involved in the present.” The process is like an interdisciplinary “fusion.”    

Gadamer has said: “Text is more than a designation for the field of objects in the study of literature. Interpretation is more than the technique for scientific explanation of texts.” But the technique of texts here may be understood in a richer methodological sense. The problem of the text hinges here on the semantic range of the term Technik. Why should we limit it strictly to the grammatical or linguistic? There is a wide range of the expression and content planes in texts which can be understood as “technical” or “semantically technical.” For any kind of academic dialogue we first need to solve the problem of commensurability on a semantically technical level before entering into more elaborated substantial levels. All verbal communication has numerous layers of a technical nature which we may safely treat as a common denominator of the expression plane or as a “universal” plane. As Eimer Holenstein put it, first exist nonphilosophical “near universals” in intercultural comparison, for example, the psychological and biological ones. For defining a commensurable factor in comparative research Holenstein tries to isolate a “technical” layer distinct from the philosophical one. Similarly, what we are considering is the possibility and necessity of establishing semantic “universals” of the same technical nature. Generally, it should be possible to differentiate between the philosophical and the technically methodological planes in comparative discourse. Semantical commensurability therefore represents a prerequisite for successful communication between two genres of discourses.    

In criticizing the use of the Westernized methodologies in studying the Chinese classics, Yü Ying-shih said recently: “not only have they accepted Western concepts and methods of analysis at the linguistic and technical levels, many of them unhesitatingly accept Western theories and viewpoints as universal truth which can be applied to interpret traditional Chinese thought. Typically, they take the Chinese traditions as material which is to be put into same Western theoretical models.” Here and in many other places Yü Ying-shih expresses a general but unfounded concern about applying Western theories to Chinese materials and persists in advocating the traditional Chinese philology and exegetics which prevailed in the Ching dynasty. Because he neglects the decisive role of theoretical methods and techniques in historical research, Yü Ying-shih  tends to emphasize the originality of the Asian materials and their methods. But as Levi-Strauss remarks of history: “History is neither entwined with humans nor with any object, it is completely based on its methods. Our experience shows that methods are necessary for codifying the human and nonhuman structural elements. Therefore studies about historical intelligibility are far from finished.” Likewise we can say that the priorities implicit in Yü Ying- shih's historiography are determined by his own habitually accepted academic framework and limited by the traditional epistemology he employs in his research.    

The persistent attachment to traditional methods of Chinese research in China and the West is also determined by the established organizations of the two academic worlds. In China there have always been two main determinative forces limiting academic choices. First, there is the national habit of clinging to the traditional ways of pursuing learning. Second, it is a difficult task to grasp the theoretical texts of modern Western humanities, and no quick rewards can be obtained by choosing this academic direction. In the West, scholarly priorities have also been partly shaped by the composition of the reading public and the background of the leading scholars. We should point out that there have been many accidental and historical factors influencing the modern Chinese philosophical context. In sum, the existing academic priorities are themselves the product of definite social and academic processes. The prevailing methods and topics of research are not necessarily determined by empirical necessity as such. One needs to consider those existing scholarly priorities in a larger context before deciding whether or not to accept them. Yü Ying-shih's misgivings about the theoretical comparability of traditional Chinese and modern Western scholarship seems akin to certain forms of hermeneutical relativism in the West. A preliminary answer to the question of comparativity can be safely given here: it is impossible to avoid a broad set of “technical” problems concerning semantic commensurability. Furthermore, once the conditions of semantic commensurability of the compared heterogeneous discourses have been established, the normal scientific procedures must be applied to the semantically treated discourses. It is essential that academic dialogue between China and the West concerning traditional Chinese and modern Western thought be conducted along several different dialogic channels.     

It is also epistemologically important that comparisons of Chinese and Western scholarship avoid so-called “ontological” questions. Western ontological terminology cannot be applied to the study of oriental ontologies because of their highly heterogeneously semantic contexts. Our purpose is to make explicit the multiple technical codes governing the texts. The traditional disciplines can be regarded as historically shaped systems of operations consisting of concepts, principles, and procedures for analyzing a definite body of data and for a definite goal. Consequently in the humanities, the content, focus, and direction of the various disciplines are also historically and practically determined, and therefore undergo change in any given period. 

7. Toward a General Ethico-Ideological Study of Traditional Chinese Ethics 

   Ethical thought and practice are not just the preserve of ethics as an established professional discipline. They also belong to the wider human cultural community. We should try to keep drawing new topographies covering various aspects embodied in the changing social and cultural hierarchies, so as to grasp more comprehensively the entire ethical horizon. Talking about Aristotle's tripartite division of human knowledge, Gadamer points to a middle level concerning human practice which is especially relevant to the intellectual world of ancient China. In contrast to the consistent and logical style of Western intellectual life, China was characterized by a particular type of practical rationality. As a consequence, Chinese social and cultural manifestations were constructed around intermediary symbolic layers. This makes it difficult to understand the structures and functions of ancient Chinese moral and political practices. Touching on the moral life as a whole, the ethical layers were not philosophical doctrines as such. As Gadamer said about Kant's vision: “The moral self- justification of mankind is not a task of philosophy but that of morality itself.” Similarly traditional Chinese ethics or Confucianism is more than a classical Chinese moral philosophy. Instead it was plurally composite. Hence we need to find more suitable methodological tools to explore the constitution of the Confucian intellectual and social practices. Ideological analysis in its special modern sense is an especially suitable approach.

    Ideological analysis will be a very useful approach to a comparative ethical scbolarsbip, but few terms in our intellectual world are as ambiguous as ideology. Despite its equivocacy, tbe term remains quite usable and can effectively fill in some important thematic lacunae wbich cannot be clearly treated by other alternative categorical terms. Just as “reason” or “truth” need not refer to a definite type in a Kantian or a positivist pattern, the term “ideological” need not be taken only in its Marxist use. It is useful for tbe analysis of discourses on Confucianism to detect bias, consciously or unconsciously maintained in academic and cultural discourses and practices to conceal tbe unfairness of privileged groups. But it sbould be distinguisbed from political analysis, wbich is the proper domain of disciplines like political science and law. Its aim is to disclose tbe bidden connections between specific cultural phenomena and hierarchies of privilege which are not politically or economically constructed. It is therefore particularly concerned with tbe phenomena of privilege and domination as manifested in cultural fields, including the ethical. We orten methodologically put the ethical and the ideological together in order to expand the scope of the ethical pole in the traditional ethicopolitical combination. Instead we should postulate an ethico-ideologico-political trinity as a more adequate schema for understanding human ethical practices. Because the relationship between the ethical and political has been treated clearly since Aristotle, an expanded new  combination of ethical and ideological study may suffice.

   The institutionalized manifestations of ideology exhibit a social and cultural autonomy governed by its own social logic which is different from that of other institutional levels. These mechanisms are a strong effective determinant not only of culture as such but of social structures and developments as well. But they are not so easily uncovered as other social determinalions because the institutional and technical mechanisms of ideology  remain largely hidden. The cultural traditions and current circumstances of Asia provide a rich source for the study of ideological typology. Recent developments in Asian ideology are now a more relevant academic subject because of the special historical situation emerging after the breakdown of older totalitarian systems.    

China possesses an incomparably rich ideological history. Ideological factors in modern Chinese cultural and social systems generally operate along two directions: one that determines present and future cultural developments and another that manifests a persistent tendency to cling to nationalist traditions of scholarship. This tension between the traditional and the modern has been exhibited in a specially organized ideological world possessing its own operating code systems. The ideological aspect of Confucianism studies is especially relevant to present-day conditions. There exists an ideological layer behind current work on Confucianism within Chinese communities. As a matter of fact, Confucianism and other related traditional scholarship have been elevated to a lofty dogmatism called “the state learning” during the modern period, a period during which .the whole country has actually been engaged in the systematic pursuit of Westenized technological, military, and commercial know-how. As I noted elsewhere: “Throughout the all-embracing materialistic process of westernization chosen by the Chinese nation, the emphasis on the orthodoxy of the spiritual 'state learning' colludes with materialism. This confusion may be called 'double covering,' since it has effectively covered a double absence in modern Chinese society and culture: the absence of the spiritual dimension within the westernizing movement and the absence of innovation of traditional scholarship.” Acknowledging ideological analysis in our research will allow us to differentiate between the thought itself and the ways it is used, and will make the structure of Confucianism, as a multilayered social and cultural complex, more apparent.                                                                                                      

* This article was first published in New Literary History, vol. 26, #3, 1995.


 * The English of this article was corrected by Mary Rorty.

Faire de l`histoire, ed. Jacqucs Le Goff and Pierre Nora (Paris, 1974), 1, p. 219. All

translations into English are mine.

Refer to Houng's “Report on thc Sourccs of thc Ching Dynasty's Philological Traditions” (in Chinese), Newsletter for Modern Chiese History, II (Taipci, 1991), 140.

 The Cambridge  History of China,ed. Dennis Twitchett and Michael Laewe (Cambridgc,

1990), 1, p. 2.

Criticism of Ancient Historical Texls, ed. Chieh-Kang Ku (Gu-Shi-Bian, in Chinese)

 (Hong Kong, 1963), 1, p. 24.

 Criticism of Ancient Historical Texts, ed. Shuh-Yie Tong (Gu-Shi-Bian, in Chinese )

(Hong Kong, 1963), VII, p. 101.

Si-Nian Fu, The Complete Works of  Fu Si-Nian (in Chinese) (Taipei, 1980), 1, p. 6.

 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (Frankfurt, 1986), II, p. 179.

 Bernard Waldenfels, “Expcrience of the Other,” in Life-world and Politics: Between

Modernity and Post-Modernity, ed. Stephen K White (Notre Dame, Ind., 1989), p. 68.

Waldenfels, p. 69.

You-Zheng Li, Introduction to Theoretical Semiotics (in Chinese) (Peking, 1993), p. 88.

 Le Goff and Nora, Faire de l'histoire, v.1, pp, 10-11.

 You Zheng Li, "The Necessity of Meta-Theoretical Approach to Cultural Understanding," in Harmony and Strife, ed. Shuh-Sien Liu (Hang Kong, 1988), p. 310.

 Gadamar, Wahrheit und Methode, II, p. 337.

 Elmar Holenstein, Menschliches Selbstverstandnis, (Frankfurt, 1985), p. 126.

 Yü Ying-shih, Modern Interpretation of Traditional Thoughts (in Chinese) (Taipei,

1987), p. 5.

 Claude Levi-Strauss, La Pensee Sauvage (Paris, 1962), pp. 47-48.

 You-Zheng Li, Introduction to Theoretical Semiotics, p. 106.

 Semantic commensurability is not to be confused with logic. Thc latter is sharply

criticized by Thomas Kuhn and other scholars advocating behaviorism. In addition, the

Anglo-Amedean philosophy of languagc along the positivist line tradifionally tends to

combine the empirico-logical domains with the semantic. As a result, thc referent cannot

be differentiated from the "signified." This epistemological position leads to a neglect of

continental semantics essential for current axiological analysis.

 Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, II, p. 324.

 Gadamer, p. 327.

 You-Zheng Li, “Ideological Background of Current Confucianism Scholarship” (in

Chinese), China Tribunt, 380 (Taipei, 1992), p. 61