‘A Short History Of Chinese Philosophy’ By Fung Yu-Lan

9780684836348I was really enjoying this and what I was learning, until I stopped to think about it. Fung is very good on the history, but how much had I actually learned about Chinese philosophy from my reading?

Plenty, certainly, but it seemed like it was more about a more or less chronological succession of figures and their relationship to political-historical milieus than actual philosophy. And he allows various major currents, particularly Taoism and Confucianism, to seem surprisingly philosophically undifferentiated, as if the the major differences between them were in the historical place of major thinkers within the traditions, rather than the philosophical traditions themselves.

Now, he does lay out some wonderful categories of major schools in Chinese philosophy and, while acknowledging their limitations, uses them as a wonderful framework for helping the reader keep up. And I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t learn anything from this book, only that I had hoped to learn – or to feel like I had learned – a bit more about philosophy.

His account of more contemporary philosophy feels incomplete and mostly focused on the influences of and correspondences with western thought. There is an account of ‘intuitive mind’ in later neo-Confucianism, which resembles Socrates’ helping a slave to ‘remember’ a priori knowledge in The Meno.

It was also interesting to learn that the first western philosophy to be introduced to China was primarily non- or anti-metaphysical: Betrand Russell, John Dewey, JS Mill, and William Jevons. He says that the introduction of formal logic was the biggest influence from the west, but that it was more of a coincidence that it was analytic texts that first arrived than  any particular affinity.

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