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Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China Paperback – 28 Jan 1999
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There are problems, however. The purpose of many sections of the book seems to be the resurrection of ancient Chinese philosophers as thinkers of relevance to today. This is occasionally slightly ludicrous. In the part on Confucius and 20th century Western philosophy, Graham echoes the arguments of Fingarette, who claimed that Confucius' famous doctrine of the Rectification of Names was, in fact, an ancient precursor of J. L. Austin's *performative utterance*, and not a fundamentally primitive, magical device attempting to create a peaceful realm through the charisma and magic of the king. This does not seem reasonable, unless one is willing to concede that *any* magical or ritual use of words in spells or mantras is a performative utterance of the same kind as Confucius' - in which case, magicians in eastern Indonesia are just as much precursors of Austin as Confucius is.
Graham should have laid out the facts, and stuck to less speculative interpretations of the thinkers. The interpretive aspect, and the attempt to revive the reputations of the philosophers, takes time away from other aspects that are more important. It seems odd to claim that Confucius' thought rested on a refutation of the is/ought problems thousands of years before the problem had been formulated - and claiming this takes pages away from a discussion of Confucius' (very contentious) biography.
The point of a lot of the book seems to be an attempt to show that other societies have produced different philosophy that is the equal to that found in Greece or Rome, and that our "Western" categories bind our thoughts and send them off in certain directions that Chinese categories do not. If the author had included etymologies, or a section on the pre-Springs-and-Autumns thought of China, and had put the thinkers in the context that Graham saw as all-important, then that purpose would have enhanced the work instead of turning it into the curate's egg that it is.
This is standard practice in books on Greek philosophy: showing the possible origins of the earliest ideas and going from there. Kirk and Raven, "The Presocratic Philosophers", includes an entire chapter devoted solely to going over the arguments about the Orphics and pre-Classical Greek religion before telling us about Thales. Graham, however, begins with Confucius, presumably in order to make room for speculation about how these thinkers relate to today - something that could be summed up in a single sentence, or even a footnote, for each. It makes the book feel a tiny bit amateurish, when it really shouldn't be. Its author was an academic long considered one of the English-speaking world's greatest sinologists. But it simply doesn't compare to even an average work on Greek philosophy.
Other minor problems include the use of Wade-Giles romanisation instead of Pinyin, and the lack of characters.
If you're interested in Chinese philosophy, then do read this book, but take the interpretations with a pinch of salt.
Graham's Disputers of the Tao is one of the best introductory books on classical chinese philosophy. It covers a wide range of thinkers, all in a very accessible manner. This book is recommended for students of history and philosophy as well as the general reader who is interested in an introduction into the world of chinese philosophers.
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One point of interest in this book is that Mr. Graham dates the Tao Te Ching later than the Chuang Tzu. Whereas the writings of Confucius are datable closer to 500 BCE, we can be fairly confident that the Tao Te Ching was the work of various authors that was complied a bit earlier than 300 BCE (although most of the ideas predate this period). Since this book was published (1989) we know the author was wrong about the dating of the Lao Tzu. And although current information puts Mr. Graham's dating of the text into question, his bottom line that the Lao Tzu may have been written after the Chuang Tzu, may still be accurate. Many have preferred to fancy The Tao Te Ching as the oldest of and thus wisest of the ancient Chinese philosophies, and may be disturbed by this assertion, but the text in its entirety also benefited from the study of the philosophies that preceded it and thereby was able to hone its unique philosophy.
Let me take issue with what I regard as an important point made within this informative, well researched book.
On page 84 of my 1997 Open Court paperback issue, Mr. Graham states, ". . . This implies an awareness of sense perception as problematic for which there is no firm evidence in China before the arrival of Buddhism." Be aware that the text that became known as the Tao Te Ching was in its current form(s) several hundred years before the arrival of Buddhism to China, and it seems to me that the problem of sense perception is a large part of what the Tao Te Ching is aware of and addresses.
The first verse reads something like this:
Tao able to be Tao’d
Is not unchanging Tao.
Names able to be named
Are not unchanging names.
Lacking name, the ten thousand things are in potential.
Naming, is mother of the ten thousand things.
Therefore, eternally without desire accords with a view of essence.
Having constant desire accords with a view off the surface.
These two arise together yet are estranged by naming.
In unity we speak to its abstruseness;
Dark, it is in turn dark,
All essence its gateway.
There is nothing wrong with this translation other than perhaps sounding vague to some, or worse, mystical. But the topic isn't mystical; the topic is infinity. Words are definite and can't but fall short here. We cannot DEfinie INfinity without speaking of something less than infinity. Infinite reality, rather than personal reality, is the topic and it is represented (rather than defined) by the logo "Tao". If this isn't stated clearly enough here, it is specifically stated in chapter 25 that Tao is a "logo" or "designation". Many authors before and since have defined Tao as "The Way" and have missed the point or, at least, muddied the waters for the reader. The Tao Te Ching is asserting or reasserting a topic of debate while also broadening the parameters of the debate. This might sound complicated but the intent is to be clear and serve a practical purpose.
Words may be used to communicate, but the definiteness of our words AND sense perceptions, define our own reality so closely that we devalue reality beyond ourselves. So in order to be clear seeing and clear thinking, we need to devalue our personal viewpoints while valuing reality beyond our selves instead. But we have an extremely difficult time with this because we value our point of view above a "broader view from infinity" (so to speak).
So, in order to to demonstrate the logical link between the naming/definition of language with the definition of our points of view, the text continues by speaking of "viewpoint" (often translated as "to observe"). Now we are in a world of images. Both our rational viewpoints as well as our physical viewpoints are so definite that we call them "true". The Tao Te Ching implores us to get around this error of reason and view by imagining other views from a desire-less or non-personal perspective.
Then, the last few lines contain a concept that has come to be referred to as the 'twofold mystery': "In unity we speak to it's abstruseness, dark, it in in turn dark, all essence its gateway." The character used for the abstruse/dark (mystery) is hsuan/xuan and the image is full of meaning. It represents a dark red color, the symbolic color of heaven. When you combine this visual with the preceding lines about how "desire accords a view off its surface", I interpret this as a summary that demonstrates how the dark red of a sunset sky in the heavens is reflected off the surface or water thereby concealing the water's own depth and clarity. Because people near to us in space and time tend to share and reflect back to us the same physical and rational viewpoint, sheer numbers of local agreement make this perception seem broad and true rather than narrow and ignorant. This happens everyday, and with peoples that differ either in perspective or place on the globe, the conflicts caused by our misperceptions are enormous while they defend their views in the exact same way as we do.
Discussion of infinity demands we read the implications of visuals into the text in order to get past the limitations of the written word. The text and the visuals provided by the Chinese characters support this. There are other chapters, notably 10, 26, and 54 that address this issue too.
• There's too much Wade-Giles (which ought to have been pinyin in the first place, but never mind — at least never mind for those of us who learned Wade-Giles before pinyin was much used in the West) transliteration without the Chinese characters. It can't be unusual for people studying Chinese philosophy to read Chinese, and if you do, finding "ku" without the original Chinese nearby just slows you down. For that particular word, I never did track down the Chinese, so I don't really know what it is.
• The organization of the text is not well reflected in the typography. Important sections that might qualify as chapters begin in the middle of a left page; navigation is not as easy as it might be.
There have been some major advances in scholarship since the book was written, like discovery of the Guodian (Kuotien) version of the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), which weaken some of Graham's statements, but these are minor points. It's a fine book.
However, the book is becoming more and more out of date with every passing year. This process of obsolescence is not due to any fault in the work itself, but to the continual discovery of new texts that Graham could not have taken into account, and to the improvement in our understanding of the received texts that the new ones have made possible.