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Fasting the Mind, Sitting in Oblivion: Methodological Reflections on the Study of Chinese Philosophy


Research in academia has to be played according to the rules of the respective disciplines, but in philosophy these very rules should also be called into question. This is all the more so when unfamiliar topics such as ancient Chinese ideas enter the field. This lecture proposes “mental fasting” as one possible philosophical exercise. Instead of constructing or deconstructing the philosophical systems attributed to early Chinese masters, we linger at the consequences of seeing and temporarily relinquishing the historically contingent frameworks that constitute their current portrayals. Instead of leading to any new certainty, this lingering may loosen the rigidity of our own assumptions and allow novel interpretations to emerge. This exercise concerns emotions and attitudes as much as information and data.

I distinguish three interconnected layers in academic debates or research: on the top, there is contention in terms of knowledge: facts, theories, hypotheses, etc. Below that level are usually unacknowledged, but nevertheless influential, emotions. On the bottom lies an infinite realm of tenuous reality or unshaped potential. I argue that a more explicit recognition and appreciation of the two lower levels—the sensitivities that are involved as well as our overwhelming ignorance about the object of study—would benefit research in Chinese philosophy.

As an illustration of this three-layered reality—certainties, emotions, and ignorance—I analyze in detail the response of Liu Xiaogan (2015) to Esther Klein’s Zhuangzi paper (2010). My target is not these two specific scholars, but the common phenomenon in academia that they illustrate.

Conducted in English 

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