Commentary on Professor Tu's paper


Clifford Geertz



Professor Tu's paper adds a dimension to our conference because it is the only one which takes us outside the boundaries of Western experience and thought into the midst of a quite different set of assumptions, modes of reasoning, and general conclusions concerning the nature of morality and its relation to nature. Here is an ethic which approaches its problems in as down-to-earth a fashion as the hardiest sociobiologist could wish, but the earth it comes down to is somewhat other than that which such a sociobiologist inhabits.


Michel Foucault launches his revisionist examination of the "human sciences," Les mots et les choses, with a contemplation of "a certain Chinese encyclopedia" imagined by Borges, in which animals are divided into those: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.


Tu has provided us with just such a Chinese encyclopedia, which is no less usefully disorganizing to Western habitual modes of thought for being descriptive rather than invented. As Foucault remarks, "in the wonderment of this taxonomy the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility [for us] of thinking that."


Tu's paper can serve, I think, such a liberating function for us if we but let it, allowing ourselves to grant its otherness, and the otherness it records, rather than bringing it too quickly back within the range of our own conceptual categories, thus to make them seem more familiar than, as far as I can see, they really are.


We do not even have here the usual scholarly resource of leaving deep and difficult ideas in their original idiom as quote-inserts which some readers may be expected to comprehend -- verstehen, conscience collective, and verguenza, for example. Tu has to resort to what must be for him such painful glosses as "self-knowledge," "sagehood," "objectless awareness," "harmony," and so on (not to mention phrases like "the way," or "heart-mind") to render notions and attitudes which are not those which these lexemes cause to rise in our minds when we read them.


I say this not in any criticism of Tu. There is nothing else he could do if he were not to write in Chinese characters. Nor do I suggest that he is unaware of this problem. Indeed, his article is full of what I would call "this is not . . ." announcements, designed to alert us that comprehension of what he says is not as easy as it looks. A process of self-development "is not" a quest for pure morality or spirituality. Knowledge "is not" a cognitive grasp of a given structure of objective truths. Intellectual intuition "is not" either mysticism or revelation. East Asian thought "is not" compartmentalizable into academic categories like religion, science, and philosophy, but also "is not" merely undifferentiated, a confused lump. The East Asian way "is not" subjectivistic, individualistic, animist, anthropocentric, transcendental, and so on. These warnings serve to guard us against believing too quickly that we have understood, so that what Tu is saying really does pose a challenge to our own thought modes.


It is not merely a translation problem which I wish to address. There are at least three interpretive systems involved here. First there is the classical East Asian thought of the texts -- the thing on which we are trying to get some hold. Second, there is a modern historian of Chinese with access to these texts, but who lives in a world temporally, spatially, and culturally other than that of those who, in fact, made them. Third, there are Western thinkers, approaching this historian's text in an effort to deepen their thought about the ethical matters now concerning us.


What I would suggest is that it is in this interplay of interpretive systems that the real and profound value of Tu's fine article lies in addressing issues of the nature of morality and the relevance to it of scientific biology and psychology. What we need to do is consciously to juxtapose the thought forms embedded in Western scientific and philosophical thought with those embedded in Tu's description of classical East Asian thought and, so far as we can make them out, the thought forms embedded in the classical thought itself. These various thought forms are quite different and in thernatizing those differences, rather than attempting to bridge them, we may gain some help for our own enterprise, some sharper sense of what we do think, and its limitations and its problems.

In this connection I should like to touch on several specific points. One is the question of just what the classical East Asians, as Tu presents them to us, meant by the term "self." References to self-realization, self-development, selfcultivation, self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-perfectibility appear again and again in his article, and until we get some further grasp on what the word "self" in these various compounds meant to East Asian thinkers, rather than what it means to us, I doubt we are going to get very far. When, as in another article, Tu says of Confucianism that, in its view, a fully developed person should first be incited by "poetry," then established by "ritual," and finally perfected by "music," it is reasonably clear that the grown-up baby of Western developmental thought is not what we have before us.


Next, we could well give attention to the modes of reasoning in classical East Asia. Professor Tu has not had the space here to give direct quotations from the sources he draws on, but in another article, in connection with the self-cultivation theme, he quotes a Confucian classic:

It is only he who has the most [sincerity] who can develop his nature to the utmost. Able to do this, he is able to do the same to the nature of other men. Able to do this, he is able to do the same to the nature of things. Able to do this, he can assist the transforming and nourishing operations of Heaven and Earth. Being able to do this, he can form a trinity with Heaven and Earth.

It is apparent here that a different way of getting from the beginnings of arguments to the ends of them is in force. As with the concept of the self, we are not likely to understand this different way very quickly, but at least the beginning of an understanding of it is necessary, if we are going to grasp at all the conclusions which it arrives at.


Finally, we need to consider directly the central moral principle which Tu sees emerging from all this, namely, that ethics rests on the emotional inability to bear the sufferings of others, that it is a common experience of feeling that undergirds morality:

The great man [Prof. Tu quotes an early sixteenth-century Neo-Confucian in another place] regards Heaven and Earth and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. . . . That the great man can regard Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body is not because he deliberately wants to, but because it is natural to the humane nature of his mind that he do so. . . . Therefore when he sees a child about to fall into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that humanity forms one body with the child. It may be objected that the child belongs to the same species. Again, when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, he cannot help feeling an "Inability to bear" their suffering. This shows that his humanity forms one body with birds and animals. It may be objected that birds and animals are sentient beings as he is. But when he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humanity forms one body with tiles and stones. . . .

This is, as Tu remarks in his article, fundamentally an act of a silent "yes" to humanity, and it would be of use to us, both morally and scientifically, to understand just what sort of "yes" it is.



Commentary on Professor Tu's Paper, in: Philosophy East & West, volume 31,  Issue: 3 (1981), pp. 269-272


online source:


Using this text is also subject to the general HyperGeertz-Copyright-regulations based on Austrian copyright-law (2001), which - in short - allow a personal, nonprofit & educational (all must apply) use of material stored in data bases, including a restricted redistribution of such material, if this is also for nonprofit purposes and restricted to a specific scientific community (both must apply), and if full and accurate attribution to the author, original source and date of publication, web location(s) or originating list(s) is given ("fair-use-restriction"). Any other use transgressing this restriction is subject to a direct agreement between a subsequent user and the holder of the original copyright(s) as indicated by the source(s). HyperGeertz@WorldCatalogue cannot be held responsible for any neglection of these regulations and will impose such a responsibility on any unlawful user.

Each copy of any part of a  transmission of a HyperGeertz-Text must therefore contain this same copyright notice as it appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission, including any specific copyright notice as indicated above by the original copyright holder and/ or the previous online source(s).