Toward the end of October 1980, a "Symposium on the Comparative Study of Chinese and Foreign Philosophies" was held in Guilin. The conference failed to produce any results; however, the issue it brought up began to arouse the attention of us all. As a matter of fact, the study of conceptual categories of Chinese philosophy naturally would have led to such a question, but special features of the conceptual categories of Chinese philosophy can be identified only through comparison with foreign philosophy. That little attention has been paid to the similarities and differences between Chinese and foreign philosophies is due to a variety of factors. As far as the study of history of philosophy itself is concerned, however, one of the most important reasons was the total neglect of the special characteristics of traditional Chinese philosophy. We tried either to explain it in light of Western philosophy or mechanically to apply Marxist jargon to it. Thus it became unnecessary to study the similarities and differences between Chinese and foreign philosophies. Thus far not many studies have been conducted in this regard and studies generally have been done on some individual topics. For example, the Department of Philosophy of People's University held a discussion to compare and analyze Zhu Xi's idea of "Taiji" [the great ultimate] and the "absolute spirit" advocated by Hegel.
An interesting phenomenon which has emerged in the course of comparing Chinese and foreign philosophies is that a number of people, including some natural scientists, have analyzed the Chinese theory of "vitality" and found that it contains more grains of truth and thus is superior to the Western theory of the "atom." According to them, the concept of "vitality" as theorized in China has not only the implication of "basic particle" but also that of "field"; in other words, it has a "dual character of both wave and particle." Professor He Zuoxiu of the Institute of Theoretic Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences published in Chinese Science an article entitled "The Materialist Theory of Vitality" in which he said: "Vitality is a matter of continuity. It is close to 'field* as discussed in modern science." "The theory of vitality is the forerunner of the contemporary theory of the quantum field." The theory of "vitality" as discussed in Chinese philosophy has special value in holding that the interaction among different things comes as a result of the effect of "vital energy."
But while this thesis probably contains some grains of truth, it appears also to have certain drawbacks, namely, it lumps together all different phenomena under "vital energy" or the "effect of vital energy" instead of focusing attention on analyzing the phenomena. The "theory of the atom" which prevailed in ancient Greece required that the smallest, indivisible particles be found and called "atoms." While this was. of course, incorrect, in terms of method it called for analysis of concrete matter which cannot be but as an advantage for Western philosophy. As far as the method of thinking is concerned, traditional Chinese philosophy seems to have laid more emphasis on the relations among things and the unity of their many aspects. On the contrary. Western philosophers in ancient times were probably more concerned about the distinction between different things and stressed the analysis of their various aspects.
As attention has been paid to the comparison of Chinese and Western philosophies, the comparison between Chinese and foreign religions also has drawn more attention than before. More studies have been carried out on Daoism (Taoism), the religion of the Chinese nation. There are institutions for Daoist studies, for example, the Institute of Religion under Sichuan University specializes in the study of Daoism (Taoism). Special courses on Daoism (Taoism) are now being offered in universities, special teams have been set up to compile An Outline of Daoist Collections, and articles have been published comparing Daoism (Taoism) with Buddhism. The January issue of Philosophical Studies in 1981 carried an article under the title of "A Preliminary Discussion of the Early Daoist Theory of Life, Death, Spirit, and Body"; which, based on historical data, this analysis of these specific concepts in Daoism (Taoism) and Buddhism revealed the special features of Daoism (Taoism) as a religion.
In the perspective of a comparison of Chinese and foreign philosophies, two important questions have been raised. First, in view of the different development in Chinese and Western societies, some have asked very perceptively whether there is a "mode of Asian thinking." Did not some major propositions of traditional Chinese philosophy express the characteristics of the Chinese mode of thinking? Over the last few years quite a few articles have addressed such propositions as the "integration of Heaven with man," "identification of the intrinsic with the extrinsic," "integration of knowledge with practice," and "feeling and scenery in perfect harmony." Do not all these propositions embody a search for "unity," and is this the basic characteristic of the mode of thinking in traditional Chinese philosophy? If such be the case can we predict that once its lack of logical analysis and demonstration has been rectified Chinese philosophy will develop more along this search for unity? The second question raised is where the national spirit of Chinese culture lies. The answer to such a question can be found only through the comparison of Chinese with foreign philosophies.
Was this article helpful?