Twofish's Blog

January 1, 2007

Post on Han Learning

Filed under: academia, china, confucianism, history, law — twofish @ 2:26 am

QUOTE(Yun @ Dec 31 2006, 10:58 AM) *

I am very impressed by your being able to relate your profession as an astrophysicist to the Han Learning tradition. But I’m afraid your characterization of the Han Learning vs. Song Learning debate seems to be incorrect. Essentially, it was Zhu Xi Neo-Confucianism (i.e. Song Learning) that elevated the Four Books and reinterpreted them in certain ways to purge influences from Daoism and Buddhism, using the argument that Confucianism has been distorted ever since the Han period. Han Learning was a reaction against this blanket dismissal of Han scholarship. Han Learning scholars attempted to restore the importance of the Five Classics which had been eclipsed by the Four Books, and also criticized the liberties that Neo-Confucians like Zhu Xi took in interpreting ancient texts to suit the Neo-Confucian agenda. Furthermore, they were able to prove that some of the classic texts that Song Learning used to justify its doctrines were really post-Han forgeries, the most prominent such forgery being the then-standard version of the Old Text Shangshu.

Correct. And Han Learning scholars such as Dai Zhen then accused Zhu Xi of being overly influenced by Buddhism and Daoism and in order to recover the “pristine copies” of the ancient classics, the Han Learning scholars then turned to evidential research, which meant careful research into philology and language in order to remove the Buddhist contamination. This lead them to research astronomy and mathematics which they believed would be the key to deciphering the ancient classics and return China to the pre-Han golden age. Until the Sino-Japanese War, they were convinced that the science and technology that they were seeing coming from Europe was merely “lost ancient Chinese knowledge” that the Europeans had merely refined. After 1895, this belief was unsupportable, but you see the academies in Zhejiang and Jiangsu which had been founded to conduct evidential research reorient themselves to continue research in astronomy and mathematics, and around this time you have the first foreign students to Japan and the United States, which after a generation or two, leads to me…..

So there is a pretty direct line of transmission between the Han Learning school and me. The irony of the school is that they methods that were using to reconstruct the pre-Han “golden age” by demanding strict observation and evidence (i.e. scientific investigation) would later demonstrate that the golden age that they were looking for, never existed, and that would cause a crisis that would effectively end Han Learning in the 19th century.

At the same time, even though the philosophy of the Han Learning school undermined their project, they do form most of the basis for how I look at the world. I reject the rationalism of Zhu Xi and the possibility of sage enlightenment by pure thought, and the believe that reason should overcome emotion in all cases. Instead, my philosophy emphasizes the need to “seek truth from fact,” emphasizes moral uncertainty, and dismisses the possibility of moral perfectability. It also explains my interest in astronomy, law, and history, which are all efforts to understand the cosmic order.

Because I come from Han Learning rather than Song Learning, I also am at odds with those that would elevate Confucianism to a national religion or the “New Confucianism” which attempts to create a “secular religion.” I’d argue that by emphasizing the Song Learning/Buddhist need to go beyond feeling to rational thought that the “New Confucianism” creates a philosophy which is detached from the human experience.

There are a lot of differences between what I believe and what the Han Learning scholars believed. I’m nowhere as hostile toward Buddhism as they were. I live in a world where China is a nation-state is a rapidly globalizing world rather than a “world civilization.” I’m far more interested in physics and engineering than they were. And most importantly, I realize that their original goal won’t work. However, the basic philosophy of the evidential school outlives their original goals and leads naturally to the epistemology and methods of science in much the same way that medieval scholastics in Europe moved toward the philosophy of science, notwithstanding the fact that it destroyed their original goal (which was to mathematically and logically prove the existence of God).


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