Chen Shaoming 陳少明, Mengjue zhijian: ‘Zhuangzi’ sixiang lu 夢覺之間：《莊子》思想錄 (Between Waking and Dreaming: Reflections on the Zhuangzi). Beijing: Shenghuo Dushu Xinzhi Sanlian Shudian 生活・讀書・新知三聯書店, 2021. ISBN 978-7-10-807105-7, xvii, 219 pages, 52 RMB.
Reviewed by Dennis Schilling (Renmin University of China, School of Philosophy)
Qui sait si cette autre moitié de la vie où nous pensons veiller n’est pas un autre sommeil un peu différent du premier, dont nous nous éveillons quand nous pensons dormir ? (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, fragment 164)
… who knows whether the other half of our life, in which we think we are awake, is not another sleep a little different from the former, from which we awake when we suppose ourselves asleep? (tr. W. F. Trotter)
When giving his new essay collection the allusive title Sixiang lu, Chen Shaoming may have thought there exists a kind of intellectual affinity between two “classics,” the Pensées of Blaise Pascal and the Zhuangzi – in doubt and reflection, in the way of looking at things, or perhaps in literacy and style. And indeed, some passages in the Pensées look very Zhuangzian in some respects.
Chen Shaoming (born 1958), professor at the Department of Philosophy of Sun Yatsen-University in Canton, is widely known for his studies in intellectual history. Together with Liu Xiaofeng (劉小楓, born 1956) and inspired by Leo Strauss’ (1899–1973) classicism, Chen edited the series Classics and Interpretations (經典與解釋) of European philosophical works. His interest in the “classics” is further documented by methodological reflections on how contemporary philosophical analysis should conduct a dialogue with traditional thought, taking into account the different natures of philosophical expression in earlier times and traditions. Narratives are given particular attention in his methodological considerations. In the foreword of his essay collection Persons, Affairs and Things in the World of the Classics, Chen portrays his approach as an “Imagining of Ideas” (觀念的想像): In order to understand traditional philosophy, we first have to understand its “setting,” i.e., how classical Chinese literature communicates ideas. When reading ancient Chinese philosophical literature, we are often not confronted with questions and concepts but stories reflecting the experiences and views of the ancients. When taking those narratives as a starting point for philosophical analysis, we first must complete our knowledge about content and context, and, having taken into account all the sources available to us, then imagine the world and experiences behind them. Having understood the stories and their thinking, we push our imagination a step further to more abstract ideas portrayed in these specific accounts of philosophical speculation.
The new essay collection Between Waking and Dreaming continues Chen Shaoming’s approach to reading narratives philosophically or, to put it another way, doing philosophy narratively. Once more, we must use our imagination in order to enter the “world” of the Zhuangzi, “a reality free of assigned tasks” (無事實) expressed in “empty words” (空語) (p. 41). Yet Chen’s collection also contains new aspects: Imagination is not merely a hermeneutical tool but a subject of investigation itself.