The Cosmological-Axiological Philosophy of Thomé Fang

Dale Maurice Riepe


It is morning as I sit shivering in my office.

Around me the piles of books on Chinese philosophy.

My morning tea warms me.

As does the clicking of my typewriter keys

That bring a young squirrel on the roof to watch.

                                            (with appreciation to Wei Ying Wu).

Thomé Fang’s lectures, speeches, and radio addresses were densely packed with both information and value judgments. He was never afraid to embark on an intellectual cruise regardless of the dimly-seen destination. Hearing and reading his views was an experience like visiting a garden filled with exotic flowers and bushes bearing fragrant tropical fruit. Then there was the unexpected creature peeping from behind jagged rocks. Some of the plants of his garden were bitter—they were pharmaceutical. On the southern edge of this garden were two huge trees with elephantine trunks: one of them was cosmological and the other axiological. These provided shade for the more fragile vegetation nestling near a spring.

Assessing the work of a philosopher can take centuries, but ten years after Professor Fang’s death it is appropriate to begin appraising his contribution to Chinese and world philosophy. One may believe that in part at least, his work represents a continuation of the T’ung-Chih Restoration of the last century. He was willing to accept with limits foreign philosophical strains. He was himself attracted to Neo-Realism as was Fung Yu-Ian according to Wing-tsit Chan in a review of Fung’s A History of Chinese Philosophy in 1954.[1]

Furthermore, Fang was sufficiently admiring of Whitehead’s process philosophy to adopt some of Whitehead’s imaginative terminology. A lover of words not only for their utility but also for their essential aesthetic attractiveness, Fang later began using some of the terminology of German existentialism.

On the other hand Fang did not take kindly to certain Western excesses such as the ultra-scientificity (quantification) of positivism because it offended his sense of cosmological unicity bordering on unio mystica.[2] Its unsymmetrical activity hindered creativity. Putting two creativenesses together he forged an extra pungency to the idea of generative, procreative, originative causation by his notion of creative creativity. More creative than simple creativity it has that extra zing that suggests superior harmonious fecundity. Organicist and process philosophers like Bergson and Whitehead challenged him. Fang rejected almost wholesale the positivistic and mechanical uncreativity. From the standpoint of considering the cosmos including man and nature as organic harmony, he was suspicious of the atomistic and alienating form of non-natural systems (essentially formal, logical and mathematical).

Although Fang was aware of the tie between expanding industrial capitalism and its attendant imperialism to Asia, he seldom discusses this directly in his writings in English. Throughout Chinese history there has been a sharp awareness of the relationship between the good life and the life of the state, society and family. In more recent times, beginning at least as early as the sixteenth century in the West, the role of economics has been emphasized as its meaning expanded from "household prudence" in Aristotle to the major mover of events in Marx and Engels.

Fang’s tendency in the philosophy of science was in the direction of organic idealism rather than atomistic materialism or dialectical materialism which played down the importance of mechanism. In this sense, I believe, he rejected Neo-Realism which itself moved in the direction of materialism. [3]

While Hu Shih moved in the direction of practicality, pragmatism and instrumentalism (perhaps a decline in wisdom in the Fang sense), Thomé Fang devoted close research to axiology and the metaphysics of harmony. Instrumentalism joined with linguistic analysis after having built its methodology of activism which was akin to behaviorism, Philosophy of the act (Italy) and certain irrational forms of doing while feeling and sometimes without thinking that struck Western Europe in general decline. Fung Yu-Ian, on the other hand, continued in the social direction of Neo-Hegelianism, materialistic Neo-Realism and eventually Marxism. What Fang’s organic idealism-naturalism has in common with Fung’s dialectical materialism is that they are both socially oriented in the direction of ultimate creative harmony. Their methods of achieving the harmony, however, were miles apart.

During the years of various varieties of Marxism in China Fang tamed with considerable assiduity to Buddhistic studies. In "The Alienation of Man in Religion, Philosophy and Philosophical Anthropology," a lecture given by Fang in 1969 at the East-West Philosophers Conference at which I was present, Fang shows concern in Part III with the significance of Buddhism of Hua-yen. He says of it: "As a philosophy, the system of Hua-yen is a marvel of ideal-realism." [4] Fang did not tell us approximately what he means by "ideal-realism" but perhaps we can draw out of his account something of what he means, It is important because he again refers to the infinite all-comprehensive Dharmadh~ tu in his Chinese Philosophy (1981). The comprehensive harmony appears to be essentially mental. It is incompatible with the idea of alienation, so dear to the heart of the German existentialists who borrowed it from the German theologians who may have dredged it out of German Lutheranism. It had scarcely appeared in the U.S.A. philosophical circles before the end of the second World War, brought back as a war trophy by philosophy students from Germany and transported back to especially Princeton University[5] and Haverford College theologians in need of a new buffer against naturalism and materialism. This movement was then followed by various varieties of German phenomenology whose founder was Edmund Husserl (1859-1938).

Thomé Fang in the 1960s was pursuing various and multifarious philosophical interests that could clarify the "line of descending creativity and wisdom" that he found in both China and in the West. He dipped deeply into Western mysticism and the existentialism of Nicolas Berdyaev, Jacques Maritain, Max Scheler and others who seemed to invite "a way out" of the positivist and materialist impasse in contemporary philosophy. Sociologically he turned to Pitrim Sorokin, a Russian-born Harvard professor whose tendency towards harmonious relations between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union went contrary to most other philosophical idealists. Fang here speaks of "the hidden religious creature-feeling" which to him had tended to escape contemporary considerations of humanists and scientists. Although he considered these Western analyses and suggestions, he ends his essay on alienation on an upbeat and patriotic note: "The age-long wisdom in the Chinese innocence-culture should be of some use in the restoration of man to the original image of God." [6]

There is little doubt that Fang is looking for a spiritual and idealism solution to "the problem of China" which Bertrand Russell had used as the title of his book on China in 1922. What Fang is looking for in Creativity in Man and Nature (1980) in addition to that is the solution to the world-problem of a harmonious philosophy. The spiritual solution is more important than the mere social-political solution although it too will be involved. He wants us to look again to the earlier Chinese solutions which he believes contributed much insight to promising resolutions.

Fang was influenced by Western philosophy. But not much when all the chips are down. He was influenced by Indian philosophy because of its importance to Chinese Buddhism. Here too he was not much influenced. He eliminated foreign influences when he saw that they did not work, that they were already present in Chinese philosophy, and that they were conceptually outlandish in relation to Chinese thinking. Indian philosophers were more influenced by Western philosophy generally than Chinese philosophers were. Even where it seemed that Marxism was being swallowed whole, it was being sinofied by Chinese philosophers changing the dialectic and the doctrine of willing.

One must be alert to Fang’s enthusiastic descriptions of a philosophical trend or position to be aware that he does not necessarily approve or agree with it. His seemingly warm appraisals of different schools of Chinese Buddhism do not signify that he approves of their outcome or direction. Sometimes he ends a chapter without making any assessment of what is good and bad, right and wrong about a view point he portrays. Then one must pick through the work--and other work--to see whether he has inadvertently or cautiously approved or disapproved without underlining his reaction.

Sometimes Fang uses a phrase or passage to incite a train of thought of his own that in the end has little connection with the completed actualization. It is not clear whether the depth psychologies and philosophies of Germany are incorporated into his thinking processes or whether they are condiments to make the dish more tasty. There is little evidence indeed that North American philosophy had any significant impact on Fang’s own philosophy. As slippery as is the term "democracy" used by the North Americans which they mouth with the carelessness of children or the evil intent of political cynics or outright hats, it is little wonder that such a notion cannot be taken simply and straightforwardly as a cornerstone of North American philosophy. Another word that must be examined with great caution is "pragmatic" which may mean almost anything from "traditional" to "corrupt with quick results" or "instrumental" which has the vagueness of mist over a Guilin peak. Fang was aware of this and rejected these advertising shibboleths.

Fang is at his sardonic and trenchant best in his paper "Some Aspects of Chinese Thought--Philosophical as Well as Religious" when he criticizes Western philosophy as abounding "in the unhappy pairs of concepts of antinomy such as Super-nature vs. Nature, Man vs. Nature, subjectivity vs. objectivity, individuality vs. universality, One vs. the many, freedom vs. necessity, reason vs. emotion, time vs. eternity, so on and so forth."[7] Then he says that "Dialectics has come to be looked upon not only as a form of pseudo-rationality in the Kantian sense, but even as a universal science of sciences from Hegel through Marx down to the red-rouged communists."[8] In his Chinese View of Life (1956) Fang criticizes Western philosophy for not emphasizing harmony which is "ignored or hopelessly misconstrued."[9]

When Fang gets down to the nitty gritty in Chinese philosophy just as in Western philosophy, he is not completely satisfied with any solution of any particular school. He make strong statements in favor of a traditional-seeming Neo-Confucianism [though not uncritically]. In his account of the dialogue between Chu Hsi and Wang Yang-ming he makes it appear that the Wang ends toward identifying the knower and the object whereas Chu Hsi clearly differentiates the mental from the material remarkably like Western "bifurcators" who displease Fang. Of this Fang says: "Chu Hsi beset with a realistic dualism [unexplained] maintained that the investigation of the objects and the inquiry into reason could go outside of mind for the discovery of truth."[10] Chu Hsi claims, in short, that matter does not depend upon mind for its existence. Wang, on the other hand, in his rage for unity "tried to identify the Mind successively with Nature, Reason, Tao and Heaven. …"[11] Wang says that there can be no objects outside of mind as Hegel does somewhat later. So Fang finds the surd of the difference between the metaphysics (ontology and epistemology) of Chu Hsi and Wang. But does Fang agree with Chu Hsi or with Wang Yang-Ming or with neither or with both?"[12]

No, Fang declines to judge. No judgment appears until the next chapter which deals with Neo-Confucianism of the Naturalistic Type. In China during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, there is an "obvious decline of philosophical wisdom," Fang says. Evidently it is a period that declines in the main features of great philosophy for Fang: in cosmology, ontology, ethics and aesthetics of organic cosmic harmony. It is getting more (abstractly) empirical and perhaps even more rationalistic. Something is missing. It is the vision of "harmonious creative creativity" despite philological cleverness. Wisdom for Fang does not consist in philological or epistemological hair-splitting nor in positing more logical forms. It consists in the ultimate roots of metaphysics and value-theory.

What is most successful in portraying philosophical wisdom, Fang declares, is Realistic Neo-Confucianism with its several virtues. These are enrichment of the mind, beauty of the spirit and justice in the confrontation with the world. They are also cosmic identification with Heaven, and the mind of man as at one with the Mind of the cosmos as a whole."[13] If there is a Mind to the cosmos, this is a form of objective idealism rather than realism, unless realism is used in a Pickwickian sense. It appears, then, that Fang is praising a realistic Neo-Confucian form of objective idealism.

What is significant about much of Fang’s quarrel with Western philosophy is that it seems to be insufficiently cognizant of one overriding fact: that western Philosophy is multifarious, pluralistic and seated in dozens of different countries with widely divergent histories. China, on the other hand, is a kind of unity and no matter how diverse the elements from East to West and North to South, it has a unicity not possessed in Europe, the Americas (North and South) or even India which is largely united on an arbitrary map. There is French philosophy different from Soviet philosophy and Spanish philosophy different from Greek philosophy. Anglo-American philosophy has a certain unity of language as does French with Algerian-Tunisian philosophy. There is the overlapping of language between and among Spanish and Latin American philosophy also. Much of recent Indian philosophy is written in English which influenced the Indians to take British, North American and Australian as well as South African philosophy seriously. China’s uniform written language among the educated is highly significant in unifying Chinese philosophy making it unique among the nations of the world.

Chinese philosophy has a common center, according to Fang, in a Sympathetic unity. . . to be found in the creative spirit of Tao, forever exhibiting itself in the confluence of universal life."[14] And furthermore, says Fang of the Chinese ". . . holding the holiness of life in reverence, we stand upstraight [sic] before the Supreme Lord of the entire universe in proclaiming the thorough-goodness of human nature, wishing for a good wish to cope with the Most High in the creation and conservation of all forms of cultural values."[15] The Chinese people, Fang continues, ". . . are unique in the world not to be bothered or over-burdened with . . . the Western heritage of Guilt-Culture.." [16]

I do not know how many Chinese philosophers will agree that there is "a Supreme Lord of the entire universe" or that there is a "Most High in the creation and conservation of all forms of cultural values," but prefer to think of these as being characteristics of Thomé Fang’s philosophical view. If any of Fang’s views are Western, this one is more of a candidate than any other. I do not know if Fang continued in this belief to the end of his days, for after he wrote them he lived another twenty years. In any event we must take cognizance of such conceptions and try to see how they fit the framework of his philosophy as well as the contour of Chinese philosophy Überhaupt [altogether, in general]. For elsewhere he says, "Material things are produced under spiritual conditions and spiritual values receive their realization on the bases of material constituents." This wonderful aphorism could have been said by an Aristotelian, by a North American naturalist, by an objective idealist and so on. Philosophy, Fang says in "The Philosophical Assemblage," is not merely a way of thinking and knowing, but is a way of life. And the knowledge of the good life, the best life, depends not only upon knowledge, information, facts but exceptional wisdom which implies aspiration or mantic [from Greek matikoV, matikos: prophetic, divining] persons. Hence philosophy, says Fang:

is often seen at its best when it joins forces with religion and poetry in making the utmost efforts to express a conception of the entire universe, a vision of the wholeness of life, a setting-free of the human spirit into a height of solitude in which towering peaks and vast prospects come into the most clear view.[18]

Ultimately, what joins East and West together, is the search and sometimes discovery of wisdom, found among the Chinese, Greeks and Indians in classical times.





[1] Fang’s doctoral dissertation was entitled "A Comparative Study of British and American Neo-Realism" (Madison, Wisconsin, 1924). Chan’s Review appeared in Vol. Iv, No. 1 (April, 1954).

[2] Merging of the individual consciousness with a superior or supreme consciousness.

[3] See especially G. E. Moore, "The Refutation of Idealism," in Philosophical Studies (1903). It is sometimes maintained that general concepts are real rather than ideal and that things are independent of relations into which they enter (theory of external relations).

[4] Fang may mean by "ideal-realism" what is meant by Platonic or medieval Western realism, namely that general conceptions have real existence. Whether this means independently existing apart of being thought of is not always made clear.

[5] Among the Ivy League universities, Princeton has long been known as the most Northern of the Southern universities, which has implied various forms of conservatism including theological.

[6] Fang, Creativity in Man and Nature (Taipei: The Linking Publishing Co. Ltd., 1980), p. 102.

[7] Ibid., p. 144.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Fang, The Chinese View of Life (Hong Kong: Union Press, 1956), p. 18.

[10] Fang, Chinese Philosophy (Taipei: The Linking Publishing Co., Ltd., 1981), p. 454.

[11] Ibid., p. 458.

[12] The Indian Philosophers, with their thirst for ultimacy, try to give not only rational possibility but also irrational and unrational as well. Indian thinkers presumably invented both the notion of infinite and zero.

[13] Ibid., p. 429.

[14] "Some Aspects of Chinese Thought" in Creativity in Man and Nature, p, 149.


[16] Ibid.

[17] Editor’s Note: Fang passed on July 13, 1977, Taipei

[18] "Cross-Cultural Comparisons," Radio Program (October 6, 1959) in Creativity in Man and Nature, p. 141. As a matter of fact, I truly thought it had been written by Professor George Santayana, a spiritual brother of Fang in many ways!

[19] "The Philosophical Assemblage," in Creativity in Man and nature, p. 175. This paper is not dated. I assume from the context that it was given as an address between 1959 and 1960 when Fang visited several colleges and universities in the United States on a Fulbright Professorship.