Saturday, March 1, 2014

Graham on Confucius I: Graham First

Scott Bradley

This series will be responses to A. C. Graham's Disputer's of the Tao: Philosophic Argument in Ancient China, a standard treatment of the subject often quoted by sinologists. Ancient China, in this case, refers to the "classical period" (roughly 500-200 BCE), and includes Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, Legalism, 'Sophism', Yin-Yang, and others.

First, a purely subjective take on Graham himself. Even though many scholars are in strong disagreement with many of his conclusions, all express their differences with respect and deference to his position as a pillar of Western sinology. He was considered a 'good' human being, as well as a great scholar. Both these assessments are beyond my ability to determine one way or the other, though I take them at face value.

Based on my own reading, however, I do have two criticisms to offer. The first is that he tends to take his conclusions beyond the limits of scholarship, formulating opinions that are subsequently expressed as facts upon which to form still other opinions, all under the guise of 'scholarship'. The classic example is his re-editing of the Zhuangzi, moving passages from one chapter to another, while expunging others. The exercise itself is not without merit, but the tentative and speculative character of his opinions is often forgotten in favor of later definitive statements. Throughout the work now under consideration, similar questionable interpretive overlays are frequent. One must therefore be careful to sort out the fact from opinion.

Secondly, and more quibblingly, I frequently find his sentences unnecessarily opaque. Sometimes just a comma helps, but often I am at a loss to decipher his intended meaning, no matter how simple. I find myself asking, a bit like Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction, "The English language, do you write it?" Perhaps it just comes down to syntactical differences between British (his) and American English; or perhaps I am just dull-witted.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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