Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy / Bryan W. Van Norden -- Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2011

In the preface to Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy Bryan Van Norden warns his more scholarly readers that he has "greatly simplified many aspects of both Chinese and Western history and culture." His reason for doing so is to avoid overwhelming the beginner with too many nuances and controversies. It is noteworthy that while his work is an introduction to Chinese philosophy, he makes frequent mention of Western philosophical ideas. His hope is to both inspire a more in depth study of Chinese philosophy, while also prompting readers to study Western philosophy. As such, his book will make an excellent text for any introductory Western philosophy course that hopes to take a multi-cultural perspective.

The time period that Norden explores runs from the sixth century B.C.E. to through the third century B.C.E., though a final chapter races through the remainder of the history of Chinese philosophy. Figures given the most attention are Kongzi (Confucius), Mengzi (Mencius), Mozi, Yang Zhu, Laozi (Lao Tzu), Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and Han Feizi. The central ideas that are used to distinguish these figures are their theories about ethics, e.g., cultivating virtues, promoting beneficial consequences, or promoting one's own well being, the nature and value of rites, the foundations of a good society, and human nature.

The work also contains three appendices on how to read a text, particularly a philosophical text, an explanation of the Chinese language and writing, and three alternate readings of Kongzi's philosophy. Each are not without value, but with the exception of the third appendix, they add little to the work. The alternate readings of Kongzi comprise only six and a half pages and as such, might well have been easily incorporated into the main text.

More valuable appendices might have included annotated philosophical and political time lines and a glossary of terms. Norden appears to have consciously decided to avoid using Chinese terminology, probably in an effort to keep the text accessible for beginners, but introducing students to the terms and characters actually used by the philosophers in question would not only make the appendices more valuable, they would be a clear reminder to Westerners that, as much as possible, one needs to place one's preconceptions in abeyance when trying to understand Chinese philosophy. One can only begin to understand it after becoming familiar with a great deal of the history, culture, and intellectual heritage of China.


  1. Alan, your review sent me to my home bookshelves to retrieve Wing-Tsit Chan’s A SOURCE BOOK IN CHINESE PHILOSOPHY, in my case an old paperback copy slightly the worse for wear but no less beloved for that. David found it for me years ago at a garage sale. It is not a book for the casual freshman looking for an easy introduction, but it is an immensely readable comprehensive survey of the history of Chinese philosophy. Anyone with a serious interest in the subject will be well rewarded by studying this book, and for those wanting to go deeper, Chan points the way to primary texts. I would not be without it.

  2. Yes, Chan is great. It was my first real introduction to Chinese philosophy. I remember reading it in a park along the Mississippi River in St. Cloud, MN. Chan joined up with William Theodore de Bary and Burton Watson to compile another really great source book: Sources of Chinese Tradition. It is part of a three volume set in the series Introduction to Oriental Civiliations. The other two volumes cover Japan and India. All of them are great.

  3. Chan's Source Book in Chinese Philosophy was certainly very valuable when it came out 50 years ago. However, the limitations of his book have become more significant over time. For one thing, Chan's translations occasionally border on the incomprehensible for English readers. Sometimes one has to read through the English to the Chinese behind it in order to understand what the text means. In addition, Chan's philosophical commentary is sometimes confusing or confused. For example, it is unhelpful to describe Chu Hsi as a "rationalist" (as if he were like Descartes) and Wang Yang-ming as an "idealist" (as if he were like Berkeley).

    Nowadays, there are better translations available for Chinese texts of all the eras Chan covers. For example, Gardner's translations of Chu Hsi (such as his Learning to Be a Sage) are excellent.

  4. Bryan, Thanks so much for posting your assessment of Chan. I first read it 25 years ago and have returned to it occasionally. Despite finding some parts of it puzzling, I do like it. I always assumed that any confusion was due to my own shortcomings, and not reading Chinese, I'm in no position to have an opinion about the accuracy of the translation.

    I read Gardner's translation of Learning to Be a Sage a few years ago and found it remarkably clear. Do you prefer his translation of the Analects over Slingerland's? I'm guessing you prefer the latter from your comments in "Selected Translations."

  5. I can't help wondering if attempts at near-perfect clarity might not distort some original texts not written with that aim uppermost. Just wondering.