Absorbing Chinese philosophy through the dispositif of French philosophy can strike one as retranslation at its most unwelcome, like channeling Ismail Kadare from Albanian through French to English or playing the childhood game of Telephone in high-cultural mode. We all prefer nonstop flights to connections, original-language films to the hopelessly dubbed. For the non-French reader, it’s only sensible to approach François Jullien, the magisterial French ponderer of Chinese thought and language, with caution.
Even Paula Varsano, translator of In Praise of Blandness (2004), one of the several Jullien tomes expertly published by Zone Books, voices some of the concerns that arise in scrutinizing the corpus of this singular professor at the Université Paris Diderot and director of the Institut de la Pensée Contemporaine. “Recognized professionally as a sinologist,” writes Varsano in her preface, “Jullien has frequently and publicly asserted that he came to this field not out of a passion for things Chinese but out of a desire to gain a clearer perspective on the roots of his own tradition as found in Greek philosophy. He describes his lifelong foray into Chinese philosophy as a ‘never-ending detour.’” Varsano properly notes that Chinese thought provides Jullien with an ideal vantage from which to view the Western philosophical tradition from the outside, becauseWestern thought’s Indo-European syntax and etymology didn’t shape Chinese philosophy, Western civilization didn’t influence China until modern times, and the field abounds in classic texts that can be confronted directly.
Yet that stance, Varsano cautions, has “worrie[d] readers who fear a return to the bad old days of Orientalist exoticism. . . . The essence of the charge, as described by one of Jullien’s most vocal critics, is that by looking exclusively for difference, he lays the epistemological groundwork for producing a skewed image of a China that exists only as a foil for our own civilization.” The arrogance of Hegel, who dismissed all of Confucius’s works as “very thin and watered-down, like books of moral sermons,” hovers in the background.
This worry about Jullien is easily put aside.The new Vital Nourishment: Departing from Happiness, like the Jullien volumes that preceded it from Zone—In Praise of Blandness, The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China (1995), and Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece (2004)—demonstrates that Varsano here succumbs to the binary fallacy she and Jullien disdain elsewhere. While it’s true that Jullien speaks in Detour and Access of his desire to “decode” China, he quickly adds that he will not “limit” himself to that “practical purpose.” Jullien’s passion for things Chinese suffuses all his work, as does his sympathy for many of the notions and habits he finds in Chinese thought—the integration of all things into a form of oneness, the discarding of God by a logic (if not a rhetoric) that recalls Pierre-Simon Laplace, the genius for indirection and inference (the subject of Detour and Access).
When Jullien asks, in the book, “What if the purpose of speaking about the world, to make it intelligible, were not to arrive at Truth?” he welcomes the deviation from prepragmatist Western philosophical fixations. When he seeks difference, it is not “something to be imposed” but “something to be made intelligible” while investigating the “extreme coherence that underlies the Chinese mode of thought.” Jullien’s “constant concern,” he explains in The Propensity of Things, is “to rediscover, in concentrated form, the logical, if underlying, features of an entire culture.” All the while, he remains an adamant opponent of the appetite for Chinese (or Asian) philosophy as “naive yearning for escapism or fascination for the exotic,” as “popularization that distorts its subject and renders it inconsistent on the pretense of making it accessible.”
What, then, does Jullien, now in his mid-fifties, add to our conventional notion of Chinese philosophy? One must first identify what that is. The cartoon (graphic-novel?) précis of the subject carried around by most intellectual nonsinologists (Jullien’s declared ideal audience) posits an illustrious, ancient tradition whose separate schools—the big three of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism and, secondarily, such strains as Mohism, Legalism, the Logicians, and others—eventually get mixed and absorbed into syncretic treatments by such thinkers as Zhu Xi (1130–1200), whom Jullien credits with the “most penetrating synthesis of Chinese thought.”
Clichés of Chinese philosophy, like those of Western philosophy, contain substantial truth when not imposed in blunderbuss style on individual thinkers. Chinese philosophy values tradition, often venerates the wisdom of the ancients, and lacks the “rigor” and “precision” of Western philosophy, if one identifies those qualities with piecemeal, syllogistic argument. It also often disfavors aggressive disputation and operates by anecdote or homily rather than deduction. It doesn’t seek to “represent” the world or teleologically promise another spiritual world, or form of immortality, to which we’re all headed; even its notion of “heaven” is best understood as nature in endless transformation, which arguably encapsulates its notion of “reality” as well. The chief concerns of Chinese philosophy have been political theory and ethics, with the consensual and social favored over the individual and idiosyncratic in both areas, though many Western approaches to ethics find their Chinese analogues (so Mencius bases his ethics on the premise of a fundamentally good human nature, and Xun Zi on the opposite view).
Jullien agrees with many of these generalizations. At the outset of In Praise of Blandness, he writes of how on the “common ground of the bland, all currents of Chinese thought—Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism—converge in harmonious accord,” that ever-present goal of Chinese thought. He’s not a revolutionary, seeking to overthrow long-standing views of Chinese thinking. Rather, in an unmistakably Chinese style (with French background music), he refines, develops, explores, noodles about. One virtue he brings to Chinese texts is his philological and, one might say, Wittgensteinian urge to examine words beyond the historical cynosures of Chinese philosophical commentary (e.g., Tao, “the Way,” or li, “right action”) and show how their use reveals subtleties in Chinese thought. The Propensity of Things examines shi, ”a relatively common term generally given no philosophical significance,” remarks Jullien, before he brilliantly exposes how it illuminates the force of “efficacy” in Chinese thinking. In Praise of Blandness offers extended musings on dan, which Jullien translated as fadeur, and Varsano renders as “blandness.” Another merit Jullien brings to Chinese thought is his eclectic and historicist willingness to survey diverse sources over the centuries: ancient military treatises, classic poetry, essays on painting and calligraphy, philosophical commentary. He does it with ever-present Foucauldian antennae that monitor his basic concepts, including those he’s inherited from the Western canon.
Vital Nourishment continues Jullien’s bravura exploration of Chinese terms, extrapolating their import for both Chinese and Western philosophy. Here he begins with yang sheng, “a very common Chinese expression: ‘to feed one’s life’”––the thought behind his title phrase. Immediately, Jullien notes, “It eludes the great divides between body and soul, and between literal and figurative through which European culture has so powerfully shaped itself.” From there, we’re off on a study of the philosopher Zhuangzi (ca. 370–286 bce), the foremost shaper of Taoism after Laozi and a fount of original, imaginative ideas in the mold of an expansive freedom- and authenticity-loving Romantic reacting to the distinctions and logic chopping of the Enlightenment. Through Zhuangzi’s work, Jullien traces how the notion of vital nourishment is neither “narrowly concrete and material” nor “spiritual,” but bonded to the distinctive Chinese philosophical bent to avoid worthless epistemological quests in favor of preserving the “vital potential” of one’s life.
Jullien’s aim here remains consistent with that hostility expressed in The Propensity of Things to exoticized Chinese thought. He despises how the “philosophy sections of bookstores have been replaced with shelves devoted to an amorphous subject located somewhere between ‘Health’ and ‘Spirituality’ . . . filled with books on ‘breathing,’ ‘energetic harmony,’ the ‘Dao of sex,’ ginseng, and soy. It hardly needs saying that this bastardized philosophy vaguely linked to the ‘East’ and proliferating under cover of cloudy mysticism is terrifying.”
That feeling, Jullien explains, motivated Vital Nourishment: “It is high time that ideas about breathing, harmony, and feeding be rescued from this pseudophilosophy and coherently integrated into the realm of philosophical reflection.” He accomplishes it by reflecting on jing (energy), yang (to feed), tian yu (food of heaven), qi (breath-energy), and other notions that bring us to a non-Western sense of the body, as well as the prospect of life as art—not clung to, not prolonged at any cost, but fashioned aptly to one’s nature.
At the beginning of Detour and Access, Jullien asks pointed questions: “In what way do we benefit from speaking of things indirectly? How does such a distancing allow us better to discover—and describe—people and objects? . . . Westerners find it natural and normal to meet the world head- on. But what can we gain from approaching it obliquely? In other words, how does detour grant access?”
Such queries can double as an introductory lure to Jullien’s beguiling oeuvre. The answers to them? We see things afresh, grasp our local concepts contextually, and feel the allure of a philosophical tradition that sizes up its subjects rather than mowing them down.
Carlin Romano, literary critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and critic at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, teaches media theory and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.