A Conversation between Wang Min’an and Zhang Xu on Continental Philosophy

2:00–6:00 pm


The Center hosted a public forum on December 8, 2016, titled "A Dialogue Between Wang Min'an (Capital Normal University) and Zhang Xu (Renmin University of China) on Continental Philosophy in China".  The forum was moderated by Professor Geng Youzhuang from Renmin University of China. The Center director, Professor Judith Farquhar, initiated this very successful forum, which drew quite a large audience.

The dialogue started with the question proposed by Professor Geng who asked, "what do you, as Chinese scholars, take to be the relationship between continental philosophy and ‘Enlightenment’? In answering this question, Wang Min'an pointed out that Enlightenment emphasizes reason, rules, and development, while continental philosophers started with a critique of Reason, in strong reaction against Enlightenment values. But he also argued that Foucault, in his essay "What is Enlightenment", read enlightenment in a positive light instead of lodging a simple criticism.  Zhang Xu situated this question in the Chinese context by laying out four important figures of "continental philosophy", who had been introduced into China since the 1980s and all of whom had made great impact on the Chinese academy at different times. According to Zhang, these philosophers were Heidegger in the 1980s, Max Weber in the late 1980s, Foucault in the 1990s, together with post-modernism and post-colonialism, and Leo Strauss after September 11, 2001. And all four of them were influenced by Nietzsche, who was the most radical critic of Enlightenment, Zhang also noted. Wang Min'an responded by arguing that he disagreed about Strauss because he didn't think Strauss had been as influential as the other three European thinkers, while Zhang Xu insisted that Strauss had inspired Chinese scholars to go back to their "pre-modern" forebears, which tendency could explain why post-colonialism theory hasn't been well accepted in mainland China, unlike in Japan and Korea. Zhang argued that a tracing of Chinese thinking back to the pre-modern era could be directly connected to the contemporary "National Studies fever", and this in turn can also be considered an alternative project to post-colonial studies, perhaps seen as an effort toward a renewed self-enlightenment.

Other topics included the Chinese impulse toward the study of Western philosophy since the Opium War of 1840, and the radical break from tradition in the 1919 May Fourth Movement, the "wholesale westernization" tendencies of the 1980s, and the trend of "returning to Chinese philosophy" in recent years. In the Q&A session, there were also heated discussions of post-structuralism and phenomenology, and on universality and singularity. The forum was concluded successfully in two and half hours.