Thomé H. Fang and the Spirit of Chinese Philosophy[1]

by Lewis E. Hahn

Keynote Address to the First International Symposium on the Philosophy of Thomé H. Fang, in commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of Fang’s passing, held August 15-18, 1987, Taipei, Taiwan, ROC.

Esteemed colleagues, friends, and fellow admirers of Thomé H. Fang:

It is a pleasant privilege to meet with you in this symposium and share memories of past associations with him while noting appreciatively some of his achievements as one of the great scholar-teachers in philosophy of our time.  As a philosopher he exemplified his own ideal of the combined personages of poet, prophet, and sage.  My associations with him and my acquaintance with his philosophy are far less extensive than those of various of you, but there may be some value in seeing how he appears from my particular perspective.

I first met him in 1960 when he came to Washington University in St. Louis for presentation ceremonies in connection with a gift arranged by Professor Constant C. C. Chang of National Taiwan Normal University of some valuable Chinese documents to the Washington University Library. At the time I was Chairman of the Philosophy Department  and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences there, and Professor Fang was on visiting appointment at the University of Missouri in Columbia.  Afterwards we met at various philosophy meetings—for example, the East-West Philosophers’ Conferences in Honolulu in1969--and had some good discussions.  And even a brief philosophical conversation with him was enough to suggest something of the depth and range of his scholarship, the keenness of his understanding of basic issues and problems, and the aptness of his grasp of major movements and figures in the history of culture.  We also corresponded in connection with recommendations he wrote for various of his students who were interested in doing graduate work in philosophy at Southern Illinois University in Carbon-dale, and I learned a great deal about him from these bright youngsters after they came to study with us.

Another eminent Chinese philosopher who wrote recommendations to us for some of his students was Professor T’ang Chün-i of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  His former students, like Professor Fang’s, were justifiably proud of their erstwhile mentor.  And in spite of what the two masters had in common, the students sometimes liked to speak of them as representing different philosophical traditions. T’ang’s students stressed his contributions to methodology and epistemology whereas Fang’s students pointed to his interpretations of Chinese world views and to his cultural emphasis.  At any rate, thanks to these two and various other Chinese teachers of philosophy who sent us their students, Southern Illinois University was fortunate to have for a time what Professor Y. P. Mei called the largest collection of able Chinese graduate students to be found anywhere. Thomé Fang’s own characterization of himself as a philosopher, as quoted in an early version of Professor George Sun’s “Profile” of him, admirably outlines the broad range of  his philosophical affiliations.  “I am,” he declared, “a Confucian by family tradition; a Taoist by temperament; a Buddhist by religious inspiration; moreover, I am a Westerner by training.”[i]

Both in terms of subject matter and audiences addressed, for more than fifty years he combined East and West, and his normal discourse was filled with illuminating comparisons. Even when he was not making explicit comparisons between East and West or between various streams of, say, Chinese philosophy, what he said of any given topic was uttered with contrasting possibilities in mind.  He drew in depth on the traditions of Ancient Greece and Modern Europe in the West as well as on those of China and India in the East, among others, and he made such extensive use of the fields of science, art, and religion when he philosophized that they as well as philosophy may be listed as his areas of special concern.  For a good part of his career he interpreted Western philosophy for his Chinese students, but from his own student days on he also presented Eastern thought for Westerners.  For example, in the 1960s while holding visiting appointments at universities in the United States and lecturing widely there, he concentrated mainly on interpreting Chinese philosophy for Western audiences.  For the final years of his life at National Taiwan University and Fu Jen Catholic University, however, he shifted his center of interest from teaching classical Western philosophy to lecturing on the spirit and development of Chinese philosophy.  But even when focusing on Chinese thought, on a page or two he sometimes brought in a host of illustrations from outside China and referred to such people or works as William Blake the English poet, Augustine’s City of God, the Christian Book of Revelations, Plato’s Dialogues, Goethe’s Faust, Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, Tagore on religion, E. A. Burtt’s  Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, Spengler’s Decline of the West, and various others to show that certain characteristics of Chinese metaphysics are not peculiar to the Chinese mind but that their counterparts may be found in Indian religion, the Bible, and various periods of Western thought[ii]

The spirit of Chinese philosophy as Fang saw it comes out with special clarity in his treatment of Chinese metaphysics, and I shall comment briefly on a few of his major tenets or emphases in metaphysics. 

First, Fang was eclectic in his views.  In the West too frequently we tend to hold that there is only one sound metaphysics and that views which differ from the one we accept must be wrong; but Fang in characteristic Chinese fashion believed that commitment to one world view should not shut us off from the wisdom accumulated by other great world views.  Insights into the nature of things are not the exclusive possession of any one world view, and we should be glad to grow from the insights of other outlooks as well as from our own.  As Fang noted, Bertrand Russell asserted that “to realize the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom”;[iii] but for Fang the Elysium of blissful wisdom requires more approaches than one.  The Confucian might equally well say that to realize the importance of time is the way to wisdom, and it might been even better for us to realize both the importance and the unimportance of time, depending on the context.  The Taosist, according to Fang, transfigures the eternal into the enjoyed space of lyrical art or romantic poetory, and the Buddhist starts with incessant change and suffering and ends by rejoicing in the fulness of a dharma conceived under the form of eternity.  Accordingly, not surprisingly, when he sketched Chinese metaphysics in his great work, Chinese Philosophy: Its Spirit and Its Development, he did so in terms of four different clusters of views: Confucianism, Taosim, Mahayanist Buddhism, and Neo-Confucianism, and his account of these four is interlarded  with references to various Western traditions.  Within this framework he did not think  that acceptance of the central tenets of Confucianism, for example, ruled out Taoism, Buddhism, and Neo-Confucianism.  Indeed, he was convinced that one important asset of his own organismic outlook was that it managed to combined the distinctive contributions of each of these contrasting views without robbing them of their distinctiveness.   

Fang developed a distinctive form of organicism growing out of what Stephen C. Pepper, in his World Hypotheses, called the root metaphor of the organic whole or organism.  One finds manifestations of this in his Chinese Philosophy, but it was set forth at length, first in Chinese and later in English translation, in The Chinese View of Life: A Philosophy of Comprehensive Harmony (1956, 1980).  Fang’s early study of Hegel, Bergson, and Whitehead, among others, coupled with his ancestral Confucianism, helped orient his organicism towards the process tradition.   As a graduate student (1921-1924) he took leave of E. B. McGilvary and the University of Wisconsin for a year to study Hegel with J. A. Leighton at the Ohio State University.                     

The appeal of organicism for him was partly that this view recognized and had a place for not simply one but a multiplicity of philosphical outlooks, each of which had a unique contribution to make.  Also, organicism had for him the great merit of making values central whereas some forms Western naturalism seemed to read values out of nature and turn nature into an abstract mechanical order.  He argued that nothing is more real than the world of active human endeavors in which people strive in diverse ways to  ward off the less good and realize the good through fulfilling their human nature. Again, I think Fang would have appreciated John Dewey’s confession that Hegelian organicism freed him from a host of hard and fast dualisms, for Fang’s view denounced disconnectedness  and the possibility of treating things and persons as members of absolutely isolated systems. It also cried out against “reducing the plenitude of reality into an impoverished mechanical  order of merely juxtaposed constituents” and squeezing the dynamical universe into a tightly closed, completed system with no room for creativity.[iv]  On the positive side, organicism tries to encompass the integral universe in all aspects of its riches and plenitude, clarifying experiential multiplicities through discerning such organic wholes as the unity of being, the unity of existence, the unity of life, and the unity of value and seeking a comprehensive harmony.  For we must not forget that “all the manifold unities are such that they can be twined and fused into an intimate embracement of mutual relevance, essential interrelatedness, and reciprocal importance.”[v]

For Fang, metaphysics is not an Aristotelian noting of facts. Things are rarely as simple as they may appear to philosophers operating under the ideal of literal reporting.  What appears as an elementary quality to a mechanistic naturalist may look far more complex to one with Fang’s outlook.  The simple quality of sound, color, or whatever under his treatment is likely to be a rich texture of distinguishable strands, each of which has its own history.  Each philosophical system, moreover, brings its own way of interpreting what is, and we cannot say what the world is apart from perspectives.  What we find in each case is a world which has been transfigured or transmuted.  For the Confucian or Neo-Confucian the transfigured realm is primarily a moral universe.  For the Taoist it is an aesthetic domain, and for the Buddhist it is a religious realm.  Each transfigured world offers a teleological system with its own set of values and its own way of understanding human destiny, and the human task is conceived differently in these different domains.  For the Confucian the primary goal of the human being is moral edification.  For the Taoist it is artistic liberation and for the Buddhist, religious purification.  Granted these activities, one may find one’s place in the combined transfigured world of moral, aesthetic, and religious perfection.[vi] 

On this view such basic concepts of metaphysics as the nature of human individuals are not problems to be posed once for all, with answers to be found ready-made once for all.  The questions about these concepts have to be continually asked, and in different eras of time and in various contexts of thought the answers may be radically different.[vii]  So the richness of  meaning of these concepts  requires us not to rest with an overly simplified unitary approach but rather to open ourselves to new possibilities.

Writing in a time when many philosophers in the West regarded metaphysics as a dubious type of inquiry, Fang made it central for his investigations into the spirit and development of Chinese Philosophy.  Many if not most of his contemporaries in the West held to the ideal of literalness in philosophical expression and regarded philosophy ideally as being close to science, especially abstract sciences like logic and mathematics; and when some of them spoke of metaphysics as poetry, these were not words of praise but indications of how far in their view such discourse was from precise, unambiguous, literal science.  Fang, however, shared with Whitehead the notion that philosophy was closely akin to art and poetry.  For him, as for Stephen Pepper, metaphors, far from being inappropriate to philosophical discourse, provided fresh insights into the nature of things.  The great philosopher, in his view, is a combination of poet, prophet, and sage, with the proportions of the poetic, prophetic, and sagacious varying from philosopher to philosopher.  Fang praised especially the Taoist’s poetical inspirations but noted the Confucian charisma of a sage and the Buddhist hope of becoming a prophet.

To understand our culture the role of constructive reason is important, but much more is needed.  Myth, religion, and art cannot be overlooked; and in sketching the historical drift of early Chinese philosophy, Fang used a musical figure to suggest the metaphysical moods as chords sounded over the centuries in the triads of myth, religion, and poetry.[viii]  These three may afford insights, sometimes into depths as yet unspoken, and optimally philosophy in its pursuit of understanding seeks to rationalize them, not to explain them away.

In terms of world views there are some noteworthy parallels between Fang and such contextualists as Bergson, Dewey, Pepper, and myself; and perhaps the wonder is why his position and theirs are not even closer.  But the contextualists are known for their diversity, and there are significant differences between any two of them, In his Profile of Fang George Sun tells us that John Dewey in 1920 at the University of Nanking was Fang’s first teacher of Western Philosophy: the Ancient Period and that he was initially very much impressed with Dewey as a historian of ideas but that he found himself unable to appreciate the latter’s pragmatism.[ix] 

One needs to remember, of course, that this was the Dewey of Reconstruction in Philosophy rather than the Dewey of Art as Experience.  He had lectured in Japan on Reconstruction in Philosophy and then repeated these lectures at various universities in China.  Although he also gave many other lectures in China, the substance of Reconstruction in Philosophy was probably central to his thinking at the time, and various of his emphases in this work were probably less congenial to Fang than the major tenets of his classic work on aesthetics.  For example, in the earlier work Dewey emphasized instrumental scientific knowledge as over against contemplation and held that classic Greek metaphysics was a compensatory device to justify traditional moral and social values by placing them in a timeless domain where everyday critical inquiry could not touch them.  The instrumentalist Dewey emphasized means-end relations throughout and strongly suggested that the technical, manipulative knowledge of the artisans was more responsive to the genuinely real than the dialectically formal philosophical knowledge of Plato and Aristotle, and quite possibly Fang thought that he was too much concerned with means at the level of common sense.  At any rate, Art as Experience would have been better suited to his temperament.  This work stressed vivid, intense, clarified, and organized experiences, insisted that experience in the full sense of the term is aesthetic experience, and contained in addition to distinctively contextualistic features some echoes of Hegel which Fang would have appreciated.

The main parallel between the contextualists and Fang concerns their common emphasis on the importance of time and change, notwithstanding the fact that their statements concerning this topic take very different forms.  Contextualists find the root metaphor or key reality to be historical events, happenings, or occurrences.  Although some things change at slower rates than others and thus give a relative stability, no concrete things exist apart from temporal process with its mixture of contingency and stability, the novel and the routine.  Historical events, viewed not as something past and done with but rather as dynamic, living presences, have within them movements from and toward other events and always occur in contexts and have reference to other events within these contexts.  Each occurrence is a web or texture of strands or tendencies all interwoven into integral wholes each with its own individual character or quality.  Nature, accordingly, is a scene of incessant beginnings and endings; and initiations, consummations, blockings, with connecting references and intervening means-objects or instruments operating within a specific context, are basic features of the process.  In this setting Dewey stressed the importance of instruments for effecting desired changes or blocking harmful ones.

An emphasis on time is part of Fang’s Confucian background, and change is a central theme of both his Confucianism and his overall organic view.  It is also focal, of course, for the Buddhist, who starts with incessant change and suffering, and for the Taoist, who seeks to view it under the aspect of eternity. As the Confucian Book of Change has it, change is great and comprehends everything.[x] Or to quote or paraphrase various passages from Fang’s Chinese Philosophy, nature is the scene of an incessant process of succession, constant renovation, ever dispensing with what is old and antiquated, and evermore begetting what is new and timely.[xi] The universe “is an all-comprehensive urge of life, and all-pervading vital energy, not for a single moment ceasing to create and procreate and not in a single spot ceasing to overflow and interpenetrate.”[xii]  “The stream of life coincides with the stream of time in which we cannot step twice into the same waters.  The antecedent, which occurs in any moment of time and soon becomes old and antiquated, is continued into the consequent which, as a fresh time-bud, is a creative novelty evolving from the given duration to be incessantly succeeded and superseded by whatever is new, again and again,” thus producing infinitely varied novelty. [xiii]

In a passage with both Hegelian and Whiteheadian overtones, Fang summarized the organicistic implications of the philosophy of change:

Metaphysically, the philosophy of change is a system of dynamic otology  based upon the process of creative creativity as exhibited in the incessant change of time as well as a system of general axiology wherein the origin and development of the idea of the Supreme Good is shown in the light of comprehensive harmony.  Thus the principle of extensive connection asserts at the same time that the confluence of life, permeating all beings under heaven and on earth, partakes of the creative process of time, and achieves, as a natural consequence, the form of the Supreme Good.  From the viewpoint of organicism, no set of fundamental principles formulated in a system of metaphysics can be cut and thrust into an air-tight compartment without interpenetration.  And, therefore, the principle of extensive connection serves as a prelude to the principle of creative creativity which, in turn, furnishes a keynote to the principle of life in the process of value realizations.[xiv]

It will be noted that for Fang the creative process is teleological and laden with values.

A second parallel between Fang and the contextualists is their working practice in analysis.  Contrary to the dominant tradition which views analysis as an affair of breaking a whole down into atomic units or permanent pellets, both Fang and the contextualists question the existence of such units and think of analysis as a matter of tracing tendencies from   beginning to endings or points of convergence with other tendencies.  Thus they find genetic accounts of particular tendencies or movements far more illuminating than attempts to reduce them to abstract elements.  They are more interested in the way in which movements interweave and interpenetrate or fuse with other movements—Fang usually spoke of interpenetration whereas Pepper or I would characterize it as fusion; and they are impressed with the difference a new context can make in the quality or character of a given web or texture of tendencies.  No strand can be understood separately but must be interpreted in the context of other strands with which it is intertwined or to which it is mutually relevant. Accordingly, contextual interpretation is needed to exhibit a dovetailing of interrelated meanings.

A third parallel is their opposition to dualisms and the method of bifurcation.  Among the contextualists Dewey was especially known for his stand against dualisms and such sharp metaphysical dichotomies as those between self and the world, soul and body, nature and God, subject and object, matter and spirit or mind, the human and the divine, and the Finite and the infinite. Typically, when he opposed a view it was very likely to be at least in part because it set up an unbridgeable gap of some sort.  Fang also opposed the method of bifurcation and found it uncharacteristic of the Chinese spirit.  For him a characteristic Chinese doctrine “rejects neat bifurcation as a method” and “disowns hard dualisms as a truth.”[xv]

Still other parallels between Fang and the contextualists might be noted, but I shall mention only one more which grows in part out of their accounts of change:  namely, their openness to new systems of ideas, culture patterns, and ways of doing things.  Both had misgivings about orthodoxies, stereotypes, and exclusive allegiance to closed systems of thought. Both stressed novelty.  Whereas some try to explain away novelties, both Fang and the contextualists accepted them.  Like William James, Fang and the contextualists were ready to hear unfamiliar ideas and to try new cultural patterns and ways of doing things. One striking illustration of Fang’s openness to new ideas and cooperative dialogue between East and West may be found in his modification of his standard rendition of his own name from Fang Hsün, Tung-mei, to Thomé H. Fang to make it easier for Westerners to identify him and thus facilitate communication.

To conclude, however, the title I chose for my remarks today, “Thomé H. Fang and the Spirit of Chinese Philosophy,” has enabled me to sample his contributions to metaphysics and comparative philosophy, but it is a topic vast enough for volumes.  It is a subject which each of us will see somewhat differently but one to which each of us has a contribution to make.  The rich multiplicity of interwoven details and contrasting perspectives he adduced in connection with every metaphysical concept he treated serves to enrich our appreciation of both Thomé Fang and the spirit of Chinese philosophy he exemplified.

This symposium, I suggest, does at least two important things.  First, it celebrates our common devotion to Fang’s ideal of improved mutual understanding between peoples of all nations, and secondly, it commemorates his work and spirit, not because all of us agree with all the stands he took, but rather primarily because he had something helpful or insightful to say about a vast range of topics and issues of continuing concern, a way of drawing upon major historical traditions to show how they could illuminate some of our contemporary problems, and an infectious manner of getting us to share his delight in tracing their varied contributions.



 [1] Keynote Address to the First International Symposium on the Philosophy of Thomé H. Fang, in commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of Fang’s passing, held August 15-18, 1987, Taipei, Taiwan, ROC.

     Editor’s Note: The Speaker, our esteemed Editorial Advisor, is a most distinguished philosopher and educator in America.  He was the architect and founder of the   Ph.D. programs on three campuses: University of  Missouri, Columbus; Washington University, St. Louis, MI.; Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, IL. As well as the founder of the world-known Center for John Dewey Studies, Carbondale, Il. He is the author of  A Contextualist Theory of Perception, Enhancing Cultural Interflow between East and West, and  A Contextualistic View of Life,  co-author (with John Dewey, etc.) of Value: A Cooperative Inquiry, besides numerous comments and reviews, articles and speeches in the academic proceedings and professional journals.  He was awarded with the unique honor as “Man of the Year in Philosophy” (1967) and “Lifetime Achievement” (1997) by American Philosophical Association , etc.  He retired at 92.

1 Cf.  Thomé H. Fang, Chinese Philosophy: Its Spirit and Its Development (Taipei: Linking Publishing Co., Ltd., 1981), p. 525, Appendix I, for George C. H. Sun, “Thomé H. Fang, the Man and His Career: A Profile.”

[ii] Ibid., p. 1--18.               

[iii] Ibid., p. 34.               

[iv] Ibid., p. 21.               

[v] Ibid., p. 35.               

[vi] Cf. Ibid., p. 35.               

[vii] Ibid., p. 35.               

[viii] Ibid., p. 22               

[ix] Ibid., pp. 525-526.               

[x] Ibid., p. 111.               

[xi] Ibid., p. 104.               

[xii] Ibid., p. 111.               

[xiii] Ibid., p. 107.               

[xiv] Ibid., p. 109.               

[xv] Ibid., p. 19.