Shengren – Chapter 1.4.1 – The Philosophers

Now, philosophy must formulate the principle of all experience; its object therefore lies necessarily outside all experience. [1]

– Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Erste Einleitung in die Wissenschaftslehre

In the above quote, Johann G. Fichte repeats once more what we already knew: philosophy is necessarily void of experience because its object, the philosophical object, is outside of all experience. The philosopher believes that human affairs can be studied without taking part in the real social world, in a similar way to the scientist who believes that nature should be studied in isolation from the human world. In this respect, both the philosopher and the scientist are Western concepts (as well as Western terminologies), and are essentially materialistic in spirit. In fact, in order to make the reader believe that a particular philosopher is concerned, however pretentious, with humanist problems, one would have humanist affixed to the philosopher: being materialist is a precondition of the philosopher because of the nature of the philosophical object – being a humanist on the other hand is not: A sage, the true humanist, relates to the world… the philosopher, drawing the line between himself and his philosophical object, dissociates from it.

Philosophy is eponymous – it also lends its name to the highest degree of formal education that a Western country—and now the Westernized world—has to offer: the Doctor of Philosophy. The name and prestige suggest that academia places great hopes on philosophy and the philosophical approach: systematic thinking, logical argument, and sound judgment. The philosophical approach in the humanities is just as precious to Western scholarship, than is the scientific approach in the sciences. Apart from academic philosophers who title themselves ‘PhDs,’ ‘philosopher’ is also an honorable name for any great Western thinker, a person that has contributed to the history of thought of not only Germany, but mankind. But just because the world today embraces Greek terminology, it does not mean that the East should deny its own traditions. The Chinese world for university is 大学daxue. When daxue is back translated, it says Great Learning. Daxue or Great Learning is the name of Confucianism’s most prominent text (the first of the Four Great Confucian Classics), with the famous opening line:[2]


What the Great Learning teaches, is to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.[3]

The Chinese name for university originates from that Ancient text, the Daxue, and the Daxue in Confucius’ terms is the way of the sages, it cultivates virtuous people on their way to attain the highest level of human perfection: to become 圣人shengren. The modern Western (and now global) concept of ‘university’ is quite a different one: it trains theories and technologies. The 大学Daxue (of the Confucian Classics) concentrated on the human person; the Western university concentrates on the objects of study. Thus, the shengren and daxue appeal to the humanist nature of the Chinese; the philosophers and university appeal to the materialist nature of the West.

That especially the Germans withheld or denied Chinese concepts was no surprise. Western countries in general cross-referenced and venerated each others great thinkers, philosophers. And by forcing Greek terminology onto all other world cultures, the West reserves all the right for the final explanation. Profoundly, because philosophy has such a long intellectual tradition starting with Greek antiquity, Western culture really has not cultivated any other name or concept of similar significance (other than philosopher) to accolade a great thinker. Philosopher is the only kind of great thinker they know. Other names or titles do not even come close to it. Granted, in Germany, a Dichter (poet) goes a long way: Schiller and Goethe are known as Germany’s two greatest Dichter. Denker (thinker) is used usually only as signifier (and to make the venerable title a bit longer) in addition to the field in which that person has contributed most, for example: Goethe, der Dichter und Denker; or even: Deutschland, Das Land der Dichter und Denker (Germany, land of the poets and thinkers). If the title philosopher does not apply intuitively, for example for Franz Kafka, that person’s main occupation, for Kafka it is: ‘Schriftsteller’ (writer, novelist), is preferred instead. The title or name ‘Weiser’ is unheard of in Germany. Germany is inexperienced at the veneration of sages (Weisenverehrung is not a word in Germany, I just made it up). Germany instead venerates saints (Heiligenverehrung), a legacy of Christianity. Since the Germans are ignorant of sages and sagehood, they call all Eastern sages ‘Heilige,’ just as they are used to call Christian saints ‘Heilige.’ The entire world is modeled this way in Germany: Greek Philosophen or biblical Heilige. Countless foreign terminologies are eliminated this way by the Germans, and their greatest victory so far is the elimination of the shengren.

From a German point of view, it is understandable: A Weiser is not an occupation, career or profession in Germany; and it is also no title for veneration, since sage culture was dead and buried since the Greeks (as opposed to living and striving in China). Becoming a Weiser, like the Confucian highest goal is the becoming of a shengren (sage), is not a priority in Western Christianity; and wisdom is not a priority in broad German culture; knowledge is. Everyone gets wise as he or she gets older. No one gets so wise and so old that Germany would be impressed by that person’s accumulated wisdom, though. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the social anthropologist, was right that Eastern societies have developed ‘theories of inter-connectiveness of all life forms’ that were more complex and a thousand years more advanced.[4] Although Levi-Strauss had an idea about China, he had no name for the shengren. Eastern cultures have sages and sagehood, Germany doesn’t. Not even the most sagely German and European thinkers have been called sages: Jacob Burckhardt, Karl Marx, Hegel, Voltaire, Giambattista Vico, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Augustine of Hippo, and Orosius; those are all ‘die Philosophen’ – never ‘die Weisen.’

German scholars knew it was at best dubious to call Eastern sages ‘Philosophen’ or ‘Heilige.’ Even Richard Wilhelm, who called shengrenHeilige’ throughout his missionary career, admitted at some point that ‘Kungtse ist kein Philosoph im europäischen Sinn […] Sondern er ist eine praktisch-schöpferische Natur’[5] [Confucius is not a philosopher in the European sense of the word…, but instead he is of a practical-creational nature]. Karl Löwith, a social anthropologist, wrote in his analysis of East and West: ‘Classical Eastern wisdom is very different from Greek philosophy and the European sciences and humanities.’[6] But what kind of scholarship was this? Turning down the shengren and refusing to call a shengren a shengren, a Weiser, a sage… but instead Hellenized ‘philosophers’ and ‘philosophical teachings’… when it plainly—in the anthropologist’s words—wasn’t Western stuff at all? That historic shengren, cultivated all through China’s 2500 years of history of thought: what made it so dangerous to Europeans thinkers who dared not promote its ancient name. The Germans, nationalists and survivors, killed the shengren the moment they spotted him in foreign texts older than their own texts. Such deliberate error did the Germans and many other European individuals pass, a collectively committed blunder of epic consequences that could in all its grandness only be compared to Christopher Columbus having christened the natives of the Americas ‘Indians.’ Only that Columbus [so the popular myth] miscalculated the spaces of the planet,[7] while the Germans miscalculated the range of global vocabulary. When a scientist discovers a new species or specimen, he or she will give a new name to that species or specimen; otherwise how can the scientist express himself or communicate the novelty of his discovery with the scientific community? That’s exactly what the European orientalists did, by the way, when they discovered the spiritual beings in the Buddhist canon: the bodhisattvas. So, why did almost all the prominent German philosophers, missionaries, and orientalists such as Wolff, Hegel, Gützlaff, and Wilhelm, use familiar, over-used, and admittedly misplaced Western concepts to describe the new concepts such as shengren they discovered in China?

Hegel, the great philosopher, used that very approach: when he discovered a new concept or had a new idea, he came up with new terminology for it, like An-und-für-sich [In and for itself] or An-sich [In itself] and Für-sich [For itself]; isn’t that fun? Re-using under-used terminology was only occasional permissible, but not without assigning a new definition to that terminology, like Hegel’s Begriff [Concept] or Unmittelbarkeit [Immediacy]. Nevertheless in general the re-using of common terminology was a bad habit; ‘Philosophy’ is a Greek concept that permeates European cultural identity and history of thought; ‘Heiliger’ is a biblical saint; those were the least suitable names for China’s Confucius and the shengren. New concepts needed new names. Career Hegel knew that.

Most orientalists and missionaries agreed with renaming of China. In various ways, the Germans made it their mission to bring Greek philosophy and Christianity to the East, and it was convenient that Oriental traditions of thought provided the German scholarship with such a great and steady target: the essence of German China Studies became this: how terribly un-philosophical the Eastern ‘Philosophen’ were at philosophy; and how spiritually immature the Eastern ‘Heilige’ were at Christianity.

[1] Fichte, 1794: ‘Nun hat die Philosophie den Grund aller Erfahrung anzugeben; ihr Object liegt sonach nothwendig ausser aller Erfahrung.”

[2] Da Xue, Chinese text project, 2006-2010

[3] Legge, The great learning, 1893

[4] Lévi-Strauss, 1975, pp. 384-385

[5] Wilhelm, 1925, p. 64

[6] Löwith, 1966, p. 17

[7] Zinn, 2003, pp. 1 ff.

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York

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