Book Review

 

Author:           Wan Xiaoping, Philosophy of Department

                        Anhui University, Hefei, Anhui, China

 

Book Title:     Thomé H. Fang and Philosophies Chinese and Western

 

Publisher:      Anhui University Press, 2008

 

Reviewer:       Zhang Zehong, Department of Philosophy

Anhui University, Hefei, Anhui, China

 

 

 

A Masterwork on Thomé H. Fang Studies

 

 

Zhang Zehong

 

Tr. Suncrates

 

Since the 80s of the 20th century there has been, in the academic communities of China and abroad, an intellectual climate in which gradually develops an intense interest in studying the philosophy and culture of Thomé H. fang (Fang Dongmei, 1899-1977) -- a poet-philosopher of great repute in the history of our contemporary philosophy.  Recently, Professor Wan Xiaoping, Department of Philosophy, Anhui University, has published his new work on Thomé H. Fang and Philosophies Chinese and Western (Anhui University Press, Hefei, Anhui, China, 2008) as the result of many years of continuous concern and concentrated studies. Professor Wan Xiaoping is the grandson of Zhu Guang-qian, a master in aesthetics.  Zhu and Fang were classmates and bosom friends in their life time.  Now, as a continuation of their scholarly family background and a dedication to the great philosopher as one of the elder worthies of their hometown, the appearance of Wan’s new work will surely cut quite an anecdote of itself.  After reading it carefully, I have come to find the experience rewarding and fruitful; it is a work abounding in innovative ideas and insights, brilliant in multiple aspects.  My chief impressions can be summarized as follows.

 

 

I.                   A New Philosophical Hermeneutical Interpretation of Thomé H. Fang as a Cosmopolitanist (A Philosopher Embracing the Cosmos in His Vision of the Whole)

 

As the author remarks in his Introduction Chapter, Thomé H. Fang and Philosophies Chinese and Western, the academic communities recently have been engaged in a series of endless controversies over the issue on Fang as a Neo-Confucian or a Neo-Daoist, wherein each of the disputants insisting on his or her own views.  Most likely, various disputants have each been under the influences of their respective schools of parochialism, or at the mercy of the prevailing vogue of thought; and none has started right from the standpoint of Fang’s thought per se.  Hence, unavoidably, they have all been caught in a “tunnel view” or “missing the wood for the sake of the trees.”  As the author stresses strongly in the book, all disputants are one-sided and equally wrong, whether by pigeon-holing Fang as a Neo-Confucian or a Neo-Daoist. Perhaps he can be best termed as a “cosmopolitanist” – an epithet that he believe could best catch the essence of Fang’s thought and its value-orientations.  Fang, he says, well deserves to be entitled as a “philosophical cosmopolitanist.”

 

Thus, the author proceeds to argue for the position of Fang’s cosmicism as reflected in his intellectual vision and insight, and his charismatic personage as a philosopher. Wan’s argument focuses on (1) the impacts Fang received from the cultural milieu of his native place; (2) the features of his intellectual works; and (3) the virtues of his philosophical methodology.

 

(1)  With regards to the cultural heritage of his native place, we notice that Fang spent his early youth with the Tong Cheng High School founded by Mr. Wu Rulun (a great educator on his own).  Its aim of education is well formulated by Wu in the form of a Motto: “One hundred years or decades hence forth, various types of great talents will emerge and flourish in the world; they are all found growing right here on this campus -- for their embryonic phase, as it were; we aim at merging and creatively synthesizing the essences of learning of all nations East and West -- by way of cultivation and discipline.”  As to be noticed, both Fang and Master Zhu Guangqian are greatly stimulated and inspired by these few words as embodied in the Motto of their mother school (the Tong Cheng High), so as to achieve each their position as “Great Masters of the time.”   Intellectually, their subsequent pursuit and development follow closely the very path as mapped out in this Motto, moving forwards along the open route of “Embracing the Chinese and Western cultures in a broad scope of survey and picking the essences of learning contained therein; devoting to the career of the great writer as spokesman for the Cosmic Life .”

 

Analyzing the distinctive features of Fang’s intellectual works, the author finds that Fang’s philosophy can be “characterized as both Confucian and Daoist, both Chinese and Western, never one-sided, yet open-minded and all-comprehensive.”  Again we notice, comprehensiveness, intercomplementarity, unification by extensive connection, are typical of Fang’s philosophy as a whole.  Also they are his methodological presuppositions.  In his self-portrait Fang sums up his life career as saying “I am a Confucian by family tradition; a Daoist by temperament, a Buddhist by religious inspiration; moreover, I am a Westerner by training.”  Thus we see, it is quite partial and one-sided to have Fang’s philosophical position neatly pinned-down and labelled either as a Confucian or a Daoist.  In Wan’s book he has adopted a fourfold approach to demonstrate the intellectual key features of Fang’s philosophy.

 

Firstly, it is to be noticed that never has Fang himself grounded his philosophy exclusively in this or that particular school of thought -- Confucian or Daoist.  Rather, he has brought into a synthetic unification the traditional Chinese metaphysics (chiefly based on the ontology of cosmic Life as embodied in The Zhou Book of Creativity) and such contemporary Western theories as those of Henri Bergson and A. N. Whitehead, forming thereby a grand systematic, life-grounded philosophical perspective.  Attention, therefore, must be called to this very feature of Fang’s cosmos-orientation. He has de-emphasized the importance of The Analects while extolling the status of The Ancient Book of History and The Zhou Book of Creativity.  Why?  The deep reason, however, consists in his aiming to inform the West that Chinese philosophy is not merely an ethical philosophy alone; it dose have much more to offer: For examples, The Ancient Book of History contains the idea of Eternity in the form of the ‘Great Center as the Great Paradigm”; The Zhou Book of Creativity contains the Principle of Life as Creative Creativity; the School of Doaism contains a me-ontology.  All these, understandably, are meant to show that the Chinese metaphysics is no less impressive than its Western counterparts.  The author maintains that it is only through such a cosmopolitanist perspective of all things as in the process of making that we can expect to accurately grasp the essence of Fang’s philosophical thoughts.

 

Secondly, although Fang’s appraisal on the Confucian and Daoist Schools can be found  to have been influenced by the philosophies of the outside world he has, nevertheless, maintained at least an area of autonomy for Chinese philosophy proper, i.e., by tracing to its primordial fons et origio.  For instance, Hegel has criticized The Analects as merely a bunch of collected sayings on common-sense morality, devoid of the eminence of speculative philosophy.  Likewise, Fang has taken The Analects as a form of moralology (based on moral aphorisms), rather than a systematic philosophy of pure reason.  Even when Fang agrees with Hegel in holding a disparaging view on The Analects, yet it cannot be said that he accepts uncritically Hegel’s negative views on the entirety of the Confucian classics, because for Fang it is sheerly untenable to claim that The Ancient Book of History and The Zhou Book of Creativity are devoid of speculative spirit, in spite of the fact that the same can be said of The Analects as rather lacking in philosophical speculation.

 

Thirdly, although Fang has frequently used the concept “metaphysics,” he has clearly distinguished the transcendental metaphysics in Chinese philosophy from Western metaphysics of the transcendent type.  For Fang, Chinese culture has espoused a system of extensive connections in contrast to the bifurcational method predominant in the leading trends of modern Western philosophies. Wan further notices that Fang’s view of “metaphysics” is heavily loaded with an overtone of the Chinese-Western synthesis (as he has always in mind).

 

Fourthly, Fang’s philosophy is a metaphysics of vision, thus emphasizing on the perpetual exaltation of various planes of perspective.  In such a philosophical system Confucianism and Daoism are both found and bound to be intercomplementary in terms of values -- that is to say, on axiological grounds.

 

Fang advocates persistently that the common characteristics of various schools of Chinese philosophy consist precisely in “the Way of Pervasive Unity.”  Methodologically speaking, whichever system to be constructed, Chinese philosophy -- in attitude, and in keynote, too -- always aims to make it as comprehensive and trenchant as possible.  In other words, it aims to transform the pluralistic systems of oppositions into an integrated, well unified Whole.”  Obviously, with regard to the standpoints of Chinese philosophy, never has Fang leaned towards this or that particular school of thought or sect; rather, he has always striven to unify axiology with ontology on the basis of such common characteristics.

 

In view of his methodological considerations on the schools of Confucianism and Daoism, Wan finds Fang as affirming the rational aspects of both while rejecting the irrational ones of either.  He is no less critical of the Confucians than of the Daoists:  He is worrying about the Confucian’s “too much involvement” with the world while disapproving the Daoist’s uncritical dismissal of Time as unimportant.  For Fang, there must have been certain rational aspects in the systems of all important philosophers regardless of East or West, and certain irrational ones as well to be transcended (in Hegel’s term, aufgehoben).  Admittedly, with his ability to integrate Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism and his paradigmatic exemplification for the synthesis of East and West, Fang is indeed a great Master on his own.  The author fully endorses to Professor Yang Shiyi’s view, that Fang is “a philosopher trans-national in character and comprehensive and Wholistic in vision.” As his philosophy is both contemporary and trans-national in temper, it can be safely termed “cosmicism.”  Throughout his philosophical works and lectures Fang is adept at starting with the common characteristics and culminating therein; the method he employs is that of synthesis, par excellence, characterized by interpenetration, interfusion, and comprehensively synoptic vision.  Little wonder that the late Professor Joseph S. Wu of Sacramento, CA., USA, was heard to sigh admiringly thus, “The Fangian way of doing philosophy is just as traceless as the antelope’s of concealing its footprints by hooking up its horns on the tree!”[*]  It is futile, therefore, to attempt to pin down Fang’s philosophy to the camp either of Neo-Confucianism or Neo-Daosim as it just won’t fit in with his methodological scope of vision.

 

Furthermore, the author stresses that we cannot simply reduce Fang’s philosophical thoughts to this or that particular school because he is a superb poet-philosopher with the combined personages of poet, sage, and prophet in one; also he is, philosophically speaking, a full personality consummated by way of inward transformation of all the Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist virtues, plus his solid training in Western scholarship.  In this way he has obtained a “cosmopolitanist” outlook in the truest sense of the term.  With such a cosmic scope of vision he is enabled to consider the problem of reconstruction of philosophy of culture [Kulturphilosophies] in the context of the crisis of cultural conflicts involved in China vs. the West.  The method he employs for the project is one transcending any form of one-sidedness, thus blending the Chinese with the Western.

 

In one word, the best definition for Fang’s philosophical system is “cosmicism”; he is, so to speak, a cosmopolitanist worthy of the name.

 

 

I.                    “Three Types of Philosophical Wisdom” and Other Works as the Core for Expounding

Fang’s Philosophical system

 

While expounding Fang’s philosophical system, the author has focused primarily on his early essay “Three Types of Philosophical Wisdom” and his later work Chinese Philosophy:  Its Spirit and Its Development as fair samples for interpretation and conclusion.  And from there he has made an in-depth comparison of Fang’s “Three Types of Philosophical Wisdom” with Liang Shuming’s Eastern and Western Culture and Philosophy, rating Fang’s as superior, as it has entered upon a new phase in the course of the studies of comparative culture and philosophy in contemporary China.  The formation of Fang’s views on philosophy, the author points out, has undergone roughly three phases as indicated respectively by (1) “Three Types of Philosophical Wisdom”; (2) his (projected) works on Western philosophical systems; and (3) his monumental work Chinese Philosophy:  Its Spirit and Its Development.  In “Three Types of Philosophical Wisdom” Fang has treated the cultures of all people on an equal par. It is under the standard of world culture that Fang proceeds to consider the ancient Greek, the modern European, and the classical Chinese as representing three distinctive types of philosophical wisdom.  This is the first phase of his thought.  In his works on Western philosophical systems, e.g., Science, Philosophy, and the Sentiment of Life and “Hegel’s Philosophy: Its Current Predicament and Its Historical Background,” etc., Fang has broken away from such an “equal” treatment approach, and becomes more critical of Western philosophers.  He sets off to draw a blueprint for the “Ideals of World Culture” in terms of a hierarchical structure.  This is the second phase of his thought.  The third phase is indicated by the “Diagram for the Correlative Structure of Man and Nature in Ideal Culture” as proposed in “Alienation of Man in Religion, Philosophy, and Philosophical Anthropology” and “Impacts of Chinese Philosophy on the World to Come.”  His consummate monumental work Chinese Philosophy:  Its Spirit and its Development, just finished a few months before his passing, is aimed to be on its way to complete and systematize such a blueprint.  For our everlasting regret, his final and even greater masterpiece Ideals of Life and Patterns of Culture, unprecedented and hardly to be succeeded, is nipped in the bud by his premature passing, thus leaving us with only a glimpse of its magnificence in conception -- in light of “The Analytical Table of Contents!”  Otherwise, in Suncrates’ words, such a blueprint would prove “all the more impressive as a masterwork  -- comprehensive in scale and sublime in tenor.”

 

Stressing on “Three Types of Philosophical Wisdom” as of crucial importance, the author with subtle analysis has pursued down to the core of Fang’s philosophy with respect to its conception, development, and completion.  He further underscores its unique status as (the groundwork of) Fang’s philosophical system that has been built up, bit by bit, by fifty years of devotion and conscientious works.  Additionally, the author has pursued his investigation into Fang’s insightful views on matters of religion, morality, arts, and sciences.

 

With regard to his views on religion, Fang in his treatment of the “trinity in excellence of art, philosophy, and religion” has exalted the religious world to the summit plane in order of existence because, for him, “the ultimate concern with the spiritual existence in the religious world is the perfect realization for the exalting Life of all human beings.”  In other words, in Fang’s view, philosophy represents Reason (Logos) as the core of the “trinity in excellence”; art represents emotion and sentiment and, through interfusion with Feeling (Eros and Pathos) of Life, culminates in the ideal state of harmony of Reason and Feeling.  Besides, we need a Supreme Spirit as the Protector or Lord over the destiny of human beings. And this is religion.  Accordingly, the question is raised: Since Fang affirms religion in the positive sense, then, what is his view of “God”?  As a matter of fact, from Fang’s point of view, “God” is not a substance; rather, it refers to an all-pervasive “divinity” throughout the universe composed of heaven, man, and nature.  Here on this point the author advances a new look at Fang’s religious view as a form of “pantheism” [which, more precisely, could be termed “pan-en-theism” or, as with Suncrates, “pan-pene-theism”] grounded in the grand view of “cosmic identification of heaven and man” in Chinese philosophy.  Neither does he attempt deliberately to demonstrate for the existence of God, nor does he object for each and every individual to testify to his or her inward divinity in their own ways.  He recognizes the status of equality for man and the Divine.  Fang’s “pantheism” bears a strong touch of humanism.  It is just because of this form of pantheism, remarks the author, that Fang is so fond of George Santayana, A. N. Whitehead and, especially, Goethe.  These philosophers have all demonstrated the rationale why it is unnecessary for religion to exclude art and philosophy. Fang strongly endorse to the grand theme of unity through interfusion of religion, art, and philosophy.

 

Fang’s moral views, remarks the author, starts from his metaphysics as derived from the moral spirit in Chinese tradition and demonstrated in terms of the axio-ontological unity. Fang’s moral views have a twofold importance: (1) morality is to be united with Life as a Whole, and (2) “morality” is charged with the imports and significance of the axio-ontological unity.  What Fang calls “morality” is to be taken in the sense of the primordial source of Life; morality, in this sense, pervades throughout all the Cosmic Life, unlike the Western views that treat “morality” on the plane of empirical considerations alone, taking “morality” as a matter of the individual’s subjective free will.  As Fang sees it, the Cosmos imports its intrinsic goodness into the make-up of human beings; and, accordingly, we the human beings should testify experientially to this inherent cosmic goodness with our exalted mode of Life.  This is known as the theory of “cosmic identification of heaven and man.”

 

II.                Thomé H. Fang and Western and Other Chinese Philosophers:

                       Compared and Contrasted

 

Wan has devoted an enormous space to an in-depth and over-all comparative analysis of Fang in relation to the thoughts of other philosophers Western or Chinese, thus opening up a new chapter unprecedented in the literature of the scholarly Fang Studies, wherein lies its great distinctive feature.  Besides, the author has laid much stress on analyzing the constructional problems for Fang’s comparative philosophy of culture.

 

The author consciously employs the comparative method to perceive the selection of  approaches for Fang’s philosophy of culture in the context of the cultural encounters of China vs. the West.  The author has made a careful and penetrating comparative interpretation of Fang’s thought in relation to Hegel, Goethe, Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Bergson, Whitehead, and Schelling.  Meanwhile, he has made an analysis of Fang’s comparative philosophy of culture per se., followed by in-depth discussions on the way Fang proceeds to treat the problems of Confucianism, Doaism and Buddhism in relation to Western philosophy respectively, thus highlighting the values of his theoretical framework and their meanings for the further development of Chinese philosophy.  It should be said that the comparative method is an important ingredient in Fang’s methodology for the philosophical system-building; it may well be called a “fundamental method.”  In his investigation Wan has adopted the same “method” to examine Fang’s philosophy.  For this reason, it may well be called a “methodological return.”  Such a theoretical discrimination is full of penetrating insights, of which a few examples can be summed up as follows:

 

For instance, in comparing Fang’s philosophical system with Hegel’s, Wan points out: there has been a certain degree of resemblance between Fang’s blueprint for ideal culture and Hegel’s Philosophical Encyclopedia, e.g., both systems are found to be of a hierarchical or architectonic structure.  Nevertheless, unlike Hegel who uses metaphysics to swallow up infra-physics, Fang endeavors to work out their unification (by the principle of extensive connection and interpenetration).  Again, for instance, the author takes Fang’s relation with Nietzsche to be such that undoubtedly Fang has been so deeply influenced by Nietzsche as to adopt the method of comparative philosophy of culture for the investigation of most major problems of life.  In a certain sense, Nietzsche can be truly said to have great impact on Fang’s decisive choice of philosophy of culture as a humanistic approach.

 

As for the comparative parts of the book, important chapters are devoted to an analytico-comparative study of Fang with Bergson and Whitehead. The author has expounded in detail Fang’s close relationship with Bergson in philosophy of Life, believing that Fang’s aesthetico-philosophy of Life derives from, but supercedes, Bergson’s.  Traces of the Bergsonian influences are discernible whether at the outset of Fang’s system building-up of his aesthetico-philosophy of Life, or in the religious reflections of his old age.  We may even claim that without Fang’s multi-dimensional grasp of the categories of the Bergsonian philosophy of Life, it is impossible to have a combined system of Chinese and Western philosophy of Life – one that is most receptive of the Western thought and best capable of synthesizing therewith the philosophy of organism as embodied in The Zhou Book of Creativity in contemporary China.

 

The author maintains that a cosmopolitanist as he is, in Fang’s system of philosophy of Life there are parallels on the one hand between the concept of “Creative Creativity” in the fore-mentioned Zhou Book of Creativity and the Bergsonian philosophy of Life and on the other hand between it and the imports and implications of the Whiteheadian process philosophy of organism.  Thus, Fang is seen to have advanced the new concept of Zhou philosophy of Creativity in the broad sense of the term, in his own words: “Living in the present age, with our frequent contacts with the Indian and Western philosophical thoughts, our philosophical points of view have to be different from what they were before. Accordingly, nowadays we may not merely speak of the philosophy of the Zhou Book of Creativity in the narrow sense; rather, we may just as well speak of it in the broad sense, so as to combine the purely Confucian thought contained therein with the Buddhist thought of the Hua Yan School.  In the meanwhile, with regard to the French philosopher Bergson’s thought and the British philosopher Whitehead’s, multiple parallels can be found similarly for the same comparative studies project.” (See Fang, Primordial Confucianism and Daoism, the Liming Cultural Enterprise Co., Ltd., p.161.)  “The philosophy of The Zhou Book of Creativity” in the broad sense is, in fact, the tendency to move, by the metaphysical approach, towards a synthesis-oriented philosophical ideal on the basis of the combination of the Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, and the Western strains of thought.

 

The book has made important studies concerning issues of “Chinese (Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist) vs. Western philosophies” as treated by Fang’s comparative philosophy of culture.  Fang’s attitude towards the case of Chinese and Western philosophies, remarks the author, is to seek a synthetic unity of both from the metaphysical standpoint, to merge to the utmost the boundaries of Chinese and Western philosophies of Life, so as to build up a system of comparative philosophy of culture and to draw a blueprint for ideal culture.  Hence, while treating the differences involved in Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Western philosophies, Fang is always able to locate their common characteristics whereupon to work out a synthetic unity, a coherent unified Whole, so to speak, which is Life in Itself.  Wan’s book has provided analytical arguments for this vital point at issue. According to him, the Confucian philosophy, as Fang sees it, is represented by the philosophy of Creative Creativity implied in The Zhou Book of Creativity; Fang speaks highly of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, which he believes can be brought into a harmonious synthesis with its Chinese counterparts. This insightful view is well justifiable. The author further reminds and warns us by saying that what Fang has accomplished is only the initial stage work done for comparison and synthesis; we have as yet a long way to go towards the realization of a Chinese-Western synthesis in the ideal regards.

 

With regard to Fang’s treatment of the relationship between Daosim and Western philosophy, the author finds that Fang considers Zhuangzi’s philosophy capable of completely by-passing the so called Plato’s “Third-Man” argument in Greek philosophy, and the controversy over idealism vs. realism as brought up by F. H. Bradley in his doctrine of internal relations vs. external relation. The world of vision opened up by Zhuangzi in terms of the “cosmic identification of all things with Nature” is, in Fang’s phraseology, the world of Space-Man.  Actually, Fang himself is full of the romantic sentiments, capable of spiritually soaring ever higher up to the blue sky like the Magic Bird, and indulging in a spiritual flight unobstructed in the infinitude of Space.  As a great philosopher of the Daoist temper of mind, he has cut quite an imposing figure of himself.  Hence, an excellent observation the author has made indeed!

 

As for the relationship between Buddhism and Western philosophies, the author finds that it is with the typical Chinese spirit of perfect harmony and unobstructiveness that Fang has taken up the challenges from Western philosophies.  Such a spirit is best exemplified by the Hua Yan School of Mahayana Buddhism.  In his “Preface” to Chinese Philosophy:  Its Spirit and Its Development, Fang states: “I came to visit and teach in several American universities with a single purpose and that was to challenge the Western segregational mode of thought beset with difficulties in antipathetic duality by the Chinese wisdom of comprehensive harmony.”  For Fang, various systems of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism are characteristically trenchant and comprehensive, especially the Hua Yan School which best represents the Chinese spirit of Comprehensive Harmony, because it can truly harmonize the opposition and segregation between inward and outward, subject and object.  The Hua Yan philosphy can be said to be the best exemplification of the “cosmic identification” as exhibited in the “trinity in excellence of philosophy, poetry, and religion.”  In view of the entire history of Western philosophy, the profound significance of the Hua Yan School of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism is found to be able to unify, and supercede, the Western philosophies.  It is precisely here towards this very issue that Master Fang in his old age has directed his focus while lecturing on Mahayana Buddhism.

 

 

III.             Inquiry into Fang’s Aesthetical Thoughts

 

As composer of The Solid and White: Complete Poems, an anthology containing nearly one thousand exquisite poems, Master Fang is a well reputed great poet-philosopher.  Its unique beauty, in the words of Zhu Guangqian, consists in being at once “ethereally vigorous and vividly alluring.”  Understandably, Fang must have some remarkable views on art and aesthetical theories.  Here Professor Wan has made another breaking-through contribution by taking up as extensive investigation into Fang’s artistical and aesthetical thoughts, winding up with the findings that Fang’s aesthetical thoughts again are grounded in Life as Reality, so as to build a system of aesthico-philosophy in terms of the Trinity of Life, Sense of Beauty, and Cosmos.  As for such a system, the author proceeds to advance a fourfold exposition in concrete terms as follows: (1) Cosmos and Life form an aggregate of Feeling and Reason, Cosmos and Life are concretely realized by virtue of the poet’s sense of beauty; (2) Fang advances the art-symbols of a cosmic space in light of which to perceive the intentionality of various peoples’ life activities; (3) In Fang’s view, all achievements and appreciations of beauty are the spontaneous expressions of the spirit of human Life; and (4) Fang’s aesthetico-philosophy is based on the doctrine of Enlivened Nature (Natura Naturans) combining the Chinese and Western philosophies of Life.

 

The author has also made an in-depth study of the mode of thought in Fang’s aesthetical orientation, recognizing that his method is the humanistic.  As Fang admits, throughout his life he endorses to the famous saying, “The Cosmos is a theater; and life a tragedy.”   He believes that the aim of poetry is to “dream the dream of Life at it best.”  It is on the basis of the subtle feelings of Life that Fang advances to contemplate on Life and the Poetical as the objects of appreciation.   Never would he bother to ask: What is beauty in the substantive sense?  Or, what is it that art takes as a specific object for aesthetical experience? Rather, he is inclined to put art and beauty on the cultural background, so as to make comparative studies of the spirit and civilization of various peoples in the light of philosophies of culture.  This comment, I maintain, is pertinent -- quite to the point.

 

The author has viewed the system of Fang’s aesthetical thought in terms of the ontology of Life as distinguishable into two phases:  His aesthetical thought of the early phase (20s-30s of the 20th century) comprises several important issues:

 

(1) Fang’s aesthetical thought has broken through the mould of the Western tradition that tends to treat aesthetic problems from the epistemological angles.  For Fang, aesthetics and philosophy are the two sides of the same coin, as both belonging to the “aggregate of Feeling and Reason.”  Life penetrates the world of man and nature throughout, which too belong to the same aggregate of Feeling and Reason.  Starting from the existence of Life, Fang takes “beauty” as a spontaneous expression of the sentiment of Life; he never bothers himself with the question of its substantiation.  Life transformed by the “cosmic identification of heaven, man, and earth” is exuberant with vitality; hence, the sense of beauty manifests by itself.

 

(2) Since Fang has combined philosophy with art so closely that what he calls “art” usually amounts to “philosophy of art,” rather than “the fine arts”.  Therefore, he treats the Cosmos as an object of aesthetical empathy.  The world of vision for the philosophy of art consists in being able to “comprehend the reason of all things on the ground of cosmic beauty.”  The imaginary world for art and the rational world for philosophy merge into one by way of perpetual exaltation by plane after plane.  From Fang’s point of view, with “feeling” (art) as conditions, and “reason” as being (existence) and, as a result, with their interfusion, the sentiment of Life and the sense of beauty also merge in the cosmic world of vision for the state of “Great Peace” (for Zhang Zai) or “Peace as Harmony of Harmonies” (for A. N. Whitehead).   Hence, the author rejects certain scholars’ view on Fang as having only (fragmentary) aesthetical thoughts without any systematization thereof.  On the contrary, the author argues, Fang does have such an aesthetical system, only that it one inseparably bound up with his philosophical system as a whole.

 

(3) In contradistinction to the Western bifurcational mode of thought, Fang approaches from what is the typically Chinese unitive mode of thought as reflected in the principle of “cosmic identification,” considering art and morality as forming an unity as both belonging to the “metaphysical culture-system” (to borrow from W. Dilthey).  Art, philosophy, and religion form the so-called “trinity in excellence.”  For Fang, morality and art are just a matter of difference of “high or low” in the position of their respective realms, not any form of contradiction of opposites.  And Life itself is art; whereof the sublimation is necessarily bound toward the realm of morality.

 

The author observes analytically that Fang’s aesthetical thought of the second phase (30s to 70s of the 20th century) focuses primarily on the problems of Chinese art and aesthetical considerations, covering three chief problems as follows: the beauty of silence, the essence of beauty, and the nature of Chinese art.  He feels that in Fang’s aesthetical thought of this phase several problems are involved that call our attention for further investigation.  For examples:

 

Firstly, In pursuit of the essence of beauty Fang attempts to break through the Western epistemological mould, convinced that “beauty” is ineffable, which can be grasped only through the method of intuition (the method of universal perspective, that is, perspective of all-perspectives, as implied in the Wholistic mode of thought); such a method of universal perspective fully emphasizing the Wholistic mode of thought is typical of the speculative mode of contemplation for Chinese artists.  Western philosophers such as F. Schelling also stresses to view the cosmos, human life, and nature by the Wholistic mode of thought.  But that is essentially logical.  By contrast, the Chinese Wholistic mode of thought differs widely from its Western counterpart.  Thus seen, Fang’s intuitive mode of thought and the Western mode of intuition from the epistemological standpoint diverge. Then, which mode of thought shall we take for the grasp of beauty?  Shall we take it disjunctively in terms of “either/or”? Or, shall we take it conjunctively in terms of “both-and”?  In the latter case, concretely speaking, how is the sense of beauty possible? This question needs and deserves further studies.

 

Secondly, starting from the Chinese traditional standpoint of “cosmic identification of heaven and man,” Fang considers “beauty” in the cosmic sense of the term, taking it to signify “the cosmic beauty.”   And, to be sure, “the beauty of the universe is to be comprised within life and its exuberant vitality; the beauty of life is to take the shape in the mode of concordant creation.”  It is from the point of view of “sympathy” that Fang considers the problem of the sense of beauty as all-pervasive throughout the entire realm of heaven, man, and earth; thus Fang’s “sympathetic” approach is seen to differ remarkably from the “empathy” theory as proposed by Theodor Lipps in the West.  As viewed from the sympathetic perspective, the individual life and the cosmic life are inseparably bound up together, and unified as a Whole.  Thus seen, the “unsympathetic” comments from the learned communities on Fang’s individualistic mode of thought as lacking in full scope of unfolding prove utterly untenable -- to say the least!

 

Thirdly, Fang believes that Chinese art concords perfectly with the spirit of humanism.  His reading of “humanism” also differs widely from the Western way, which employs the bifurcational method of “subject vs. object” to forge the opposition of contradictions between man and nature, taking man as conqueror of nature and master of all things therein.  In contradistinction, the spirit of Chinese humanism always seeks for the Comprehensive Harmony between man and nature under the perspective of all worlds.  The Western humanism has degenerated into a form of homo-centricism in modern age wherein, undeniably, sciences flourish, with industry and enterprises booming fantastically.  Yet, nevertheless, the kind of humanism Fang loves passionately tends to stress more or less on the spiritual culture, rather than the physical one (technology and business).  But in between these two types of humanism, is there any “mid-path” to be found?  This, too, is a question that requires further investigation.

 

In sum, Professor Wan places Fang’s aesthetical thought in the context of the evolution of contemporary Chinese aesthetical thought in order to evaluate its accomplishments as a whole, wherein what is of especial importance intellectually is the comparative interpretation of Fang’s views by reference to those of such great masters as Zong Baihua and Zhu Guangqian. Obviously there are many parallels between Fang and Zong on the ground of their Life-ontology-based aesthetics, especially their respective concerns with the Space-theories.  To this issue the book has devotes detailed analyses and comparisons.  In regard to Fang and Zhu, such a pair of great friends as twin stars in the kingdom of art and beauty, a comparative elucidation is addressed to their respective views on tragedy.  All these comparative studies are innovative and thought-provocative. Additionally, this book extends its comparative scope of view to cover Fang, Schelling, and Goethe, in respect of their philosophies of art.  Also it abounds in similar comparative studies and elucidations by contrast.  Finally, the author holds, Fang’s aesthetical theory and method are found to have derived many helpful ingredients from Chinese classical culture and, at the same time, to have borrowed certain rational factors from the West as a mirror for reference -- so to speak.  This intellectual phenomenon, undoubtedly, provides us an extremely valuable model frame for reference, especially for those who are on their way to strive, to the best they can, for the system-building of contemporary Chinese aesthetical thought bearing the stamp of contemporaneity.

 

Zhang Zehong

Philosophy Department

Anhui University

Hefei, Anhui Province, China

 

November 8, 2008



[*] To paraphrase this Chan (Zen) parable of “the Smart Antepole”:  The antelope is so smart for self-protection that before going to sleep it manages to lift its body off the ground by hooking up its horns on a tree, thus leaving no traces to be tracked.” In art appreciation, “traceless” suggests “effortless,” as the mark of the supreme art as the art of no art.  Hnece, the Chanists’ distrust on language and all conceptual ways of thinking as inadequate. The experience of enlightenment, they maintain, is “ineffable”; “beyond words”; “beyond categories”; “infinitely flexible and inexhaustible, but utterly unfixationble,” etc. Yet, for that matter, the “antelope’s horn-hooking-up” style is held to be “the consummate poet’s art”!