Vanishing into Things explores the concept of knowledge in Chinese thought over two millennia, from Confucius to Wang Yangming (ca. 1500 CE), and compares the different philosophical imperatives that have driven Chinese and Western thought. Challenging the hyperspecialized epistemology of modern philosophy in the West, Barry Allen urges his readers toward an ethical appreciation of why knowledge is worth pursuing.
Western philosophers have long maintained that true knowledge is the best knowledge. Chinese thinkers, by contrast, have emphasized not the essence of knowing but the purpose. Ideas of truth play no part in their understanding of what the best knowledge is: knowledge is not deduced from principles or reducible to a theory. Rather, in Chinese tradition knowledge is expressed through wu wei, literally “not doing”—a response to circumstances that is at once effortless and effective. This type of knowledge perceives the evolution of circumstances from an early point, when its course can still be changed, provided one has the wisdom to grasp the opportunity.
Allen guides readers through the major Confucian and Daoist thinkers including Kongzi, Mengzi, Xunzi, Laozi, and Zhuangzi, examining their influence on medieval Neoconfucianism and Chan (Zen) Buddhism, as well as the theme of knowledge in China’s art of war literature. The sophisticated and consistent concept of knowledge elucidated here will be of relevance to contemporary Western and Eastern philosophers alike.
What makes his book particularly valuable in my opinion is that [Allen] argues well that we must now go beyond merely learning about the Chinese, to accepting that we can learn much from them, especially, but not confined to the relation between knowledge and its uses or misuses… After reading this book, it will, I believe, be difficult for anyone to not see epistemology in a somewhat different light, perhaps to review their ontological assumptions, and to not want to rethink the field of ethics as well if hoping to achieve a global reach… Readers will not only learn much about Chinese thought from this book, but will see important elements of their own intellectual heritage in a different way. Allen hopes this will lead to making philosophy as truly global in the future as it has mistakenly been thought to be in the past. In sum, a splendid book, a pleasure to read. Philosophy as a discipline is better for having it.
Philosophically there is much to be learned from the work… There are also fresh readings of Chinese philosophical concepts and problems that should make us review some of the commonly accepted interpretations.
Allen provides us with an interpretation of Western and Chinese modes of knowing. But he does more. He provides us with another voice in the emerging world of global philosophy, taking the history of Chinese epistemology, knowledge, and wisdom into account. I welcomed Allen’s style, which translates very complicated Western and Chinese philosophical epistemological discourse into a form that is readily accessible to an intelligent reader. I think that it will be of interest to both professional students of Chinese philosophy and intellectual history as well as a larger general public.
The book makes a fine contribution to the continuing dialogue between Western and Chinese philosophy. It shows the Chinese tradition’s contribution to the broader debates in epistemology, while also dispelling certain misconceptions that might otherwise prevail among non-specialists.
- 304 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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