The Penumbra Unbound

Submitted by LvKohn on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 12:44
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THE PENUMBRA UNBOUND: THE NEO-TAOIST PHILOSOPHY OF GUO XIANG. By Brook Ziporyn. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Pp. 186; appendices; elementary index; no Chinese characters. Cloth, $68.50, ISBN 0-7914-5661-7; paper, $22.95, ISBN 0-7914-5662-5.

Based on a dissertation at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, this book looks at the philosophy of the third-century thinker Guo Xiang (d. 312) as it is expressed in his only surviving (and maybe only authored work), a commentary to the classical Daoist text Zhuangzi. The work carefully places Guo Xiang's thought into the greater history and environment of traditional Chinese philosophy, acknowledging his indebtedness to Wang Bi and other early contemporaries, then proceeds to analyze certain key concepts and terms, including ziran (spontaneity), ji (traces), suoyi ji (that which left the traces), ming (darkness), shi (suitability), duhua (lone transformation), and wuwei (nonactivity). In all cases, the author presents a careful and correct reading of the original sources, writes with conviction and in a systematic fashion, and makes a coherent argument on how to understand Guo Xiang's thought as an attempt to combine Ruist (read Confucian) thinking as seen through the eyes of Xuanxue philosophy with traditional Daoist thought as represented in the Zhuangzi. Ziporyn's study relies heavily on Chinese secondary studies and places Guo Xiang's philosophy further in the work of other thinkers who have tackled issues of freedom and determinism, such as Hobbes, Priestly, Nietzsche, and especially Spinoza, providing an approach that is overall philosophically oriented and valuable for students of comparative philosophy. For students of Daoism, on the other hand, the book has little if anything to offer. It does not mention the religious dimension of Guo Xiang's or other Daoist thought and fails to reflect on issues of mysticism and religious cultivation, expressed in concepts such as zuowang (sitting in oblivion), zide (spontaneous realization), and the pairs xingming (inner nature [discussed briefly in an appendix] and destiny, both important in later Quanzhen thought) and fenli (lot and principle; the ways people are linked to Dao). Nor does this book acknowledge the urgency which pervades Guo Xiang's writings to create a consciousness that is free from thought and at one with Dao. What is particularly regrettable is that there is an extensive scholarly literature in Japanese, English, and French that presents this side of Guo Xiang and also, maybe even more importantly, of the Zhuangzi (see the list below). Why not at least mention these works? Why ignore this important side of a key Chinese thinker? Why negate his Daoist dimension so thoroughly as if it did not exist at all? There seems to be a tremendous prejudice against Daoist thought, as already revealed in the translation of xuanxue with the denigrating "abstruse learning," especially considering that the term's translation as the more neutral "dark learning" has been rejected actively by Daoist scholars (notably by Alan Chan in his Two Visions of the Way) and its rendition as "Neo-Taoism" has been out of scholarly discourse for several decades. Despite these shortcomings, the author bases his observations on the same original source as the ignored Guo Xiang scholars and does a competent job translating and presenting the text. As a result, in a number of instances he comes to the same or very similar conclusions. It is gratifying to see certain concepts, such as "traces" and "lone transformation" discussed in more depth, although one regrets that Ziporyn had to reinvent the wheel in many places instead of benefiting from the fruits of previous labors. To sum up, the book is competent in its foundations and may appeal to students of Chinese thought who focus primarily on Confucianism and enjoy comparative philosophy. However, it misses a large and, at least to this reviewer, essential component of Guo Xiang's vision. By ignoring too much of previous scholarship it does not promote the kind of engaged discussion and progress in understanding one would like to see.


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Aoki Goro. 1979. "Shoshi Kaku Sho chu no shini mondai ni tsuite" [On the perfect world in Guo Xiang's Zhuangzi Commentary]. Kyoto kyoiku daigaku kokubungaku kaishi 14: 27-35.

Fukunaga Mitsuji. 1954. "Kaku Sho no Soshi kaishaku" [Guo Xiang's interpretation of the Zhuangzi]. Tetsugaku kenkyu 37: 108-24 and 167-77.

Fukunaga Mitsuji. 1964. "Kaku Sho no Soshi chu to Ko Shu no Soshi chu" [Guo Xiang's Zhuangzi Commentary and Xiang Xiu's Zhuangzi Commentary]. Toho gakuho 36: 187-215.

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Togawa Yoshio. 1966. "Kaku Sho no seiji shiso to sono Soshi chu" [Guo Xiang's philosophy of life and his Zhuangzi Commentary]. Nihon Chugoku gakkaiho 18: 142-60.

Livia Kohn Boston University April 12, 2004