Friday, November 28, 2014

Wittgenstein to the rescue!

Had another lovely conversation with a young Fudan student, this time one who's just finished his masters in Chinese philosophy and is hoping to pursue a PhD in Switzerland. We'd met briefly through a mutual friend a few weeks ago, but really spoke for the first time after a talk Wednesday afternoon, and continued our discussion today.

Wednesday's subject was, among other things, 缘分 yuanfen. This term (one of those which my host has suggested might be part of an indigenous Chinese sociology of religion) had found its way back to my consciousness because its cousin 随缘 suiyuan had found me earlier in the day. Nobody I've asked defines this new term in quite the same way but I think I like it. The person who introduced the term to me, a quite religious Taiwanese woman, described it as following where one's destiny leads - something she felt described both of our stumbling on Fudan for somewhat unstraightforward but ultimately compelling reasons. Another friend said it meant "happy-go-lucky." Someone else spoke of happenstance. As the MA student explained, 随缘 suiyuan builds on Buddhist ideas of karmic connection (缘) but in colloquial conversation can mean much lighter things - a carefree, playful spirit. I was happy to own all of these, since, as my first stint in Shanghai winds to a close, I feel reconnected with the Mark who's lived lots of places and gets cold feet if in the same place for too long, or even the same language...

Religious studies as I understand it hasn't happened here yet, constrained as it is by its place within departments of philosophy (especially departments anchored in Marxist philosophy), so it was fun to discuss the interdisciplinary venture of a field that attends to the complexities and charms of religion in all its guises. I suggested a philosophical bridge could be Wittgenstein's famous claim that in most cases "the meaning of a word is its use in the language." How are religious words actually used? (We discussed 缘分 as an example and I said, rather 随缘ly, that here in China I am trying to understand it as possibly real.) While we're at it, how about religious stories, images, narratives, rituals? The way religion does its thing may not be the way philosophy thinks it does (or should). But then, as Wittgenstein suggests, philosophy may not do its thing that way, either! Specious contrasts of religion and philosophical "rationality" mislead us about both.

He was intrigued by this, as an email he subsequently sent me attests:

It is just amazing yuanfen (缘分) that we meet in Fudan and share a lot of common interests! ... Although I have been studying medieval Chinese philosophy for three years, I am still struggling to find the best way of conceptualized it in a philosophically interesting way. ... The problem that medieval western philosophy faces is exactly that if we want to access it, we first have to invent it. The same goes also for Chinese philosophy. It's often the case that in reconstructing we bring with ourselves our hindsight and pre- occupation into the ancient thinkers and hence what we read out of the texts is exactly what we read into them. And it is also argued that if we study Chinese intellectual tradition "as philosophy", then we lose our indigenous understanding since philosophy is western. This kind of mind-set has plagued the study of Chinese philosophy for years, so I am trying to figure out in what sense can we have Chinese philosophy at all. 

Thoughtful guy, and eloquent too (not to mention in English)! These are the sorts of concerns I love - well, love reframing and moving beyond. So the worry that "what we read out of texts is exactly what we read into them" was the focus of today's conversation, along with the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't bellyaching about "Chinese philosophy." I had a great time introducing him to Gadamer's critique of the Enlightenment's "prejudice against prejudice" (in fact we can't get anywhere if we don't ask some questions), and his idea that in order for an engagement with a text to be fruitful it has to be dialogic, allowing it to question us too. This led to discussion of dialogue more generally (I told him it seemed to me a miraculous thing, and he seemed to get what I meant), and eventually to the dialogue between religions. But the funnest moment involved another chestnut from Wittgenstein which he, putting me to shame, quoted in German:  

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen
 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent

(What Wittgenstein has in mind is religion, ethics and aesthetics.) This is early Wittgenstein, not the Wittgenstein who taught us to describe language games since "Words have meaning only in the stream of life" (RPP II, §687), but instead of dismissing it I asked what it meant to be silent. He's not saying that we should only go where we can speak, surely! But being silent is a doing (this is clearer in other languages than in English), and there's not a single or obvious way to do it.

And suddenly we were back in the world of religious rituals! And of dialogue, which can't happen unless I stay silent to allow the other to speak. We'd started out talking about the problem of evil and the possibility that responses to it might be concerned to abide in the difficult question rather than to presume to answer it. Now we had a working understanding of philosophy not just open to religion but dialogically engaged in silence as well as speech, in listening and speaking - and perhaps also in forms of notspeaking. Medieval and Chinese philosophy seem quite legit approached this way.

It was kind of a wonderful conversation! And a pleasing recurrence of old Ludwig for me. Only a few days ago, with our French visitor, I'd been part of a conversation about what one can learn from a scholar's first publication, which s/he will often think of as a youthful indiscretion. Mine was on, tiens!, Wittgenstein.

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