07 Mar

Agreeing to Agree

Posted By John Hewish

Collaboration happens all the time in many disciplines, but not in philosophy. There are many reasons for this, but our experience suggests that we philosophers should strive to overcome the structural and other barriers that inhibit jointly-written essays and books. The biggest payoff, we think, is that never has either of our solo work been read as carefully or critiqued as thoroughly by another person as have the chapters of this book. We believe that the outcome—from general framework to individual arguments—is much the better as a result. To get to this point, though, we had to do something very difficult for two philosophers with rather different backgrounds and training: we had to come to agree.

The first step in book’s emergence occurred in 2011, when Tiwald wrote a review of Angle’s book Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy. Tiwald was enthusiastic but also critical, and the journal’s editor asked Angle to write a reply, and subsequently invited Tiwald to write a follow-up response. Happily, this exchange resulted not in pointless sparring but in what we felt was a genuine process of mutual learning. We valued one another’s perspectives and came to see that, with further conversation, we might actually be able to overcome our differences on interpretation, translation, and philosophical significance.

The second key step came during a conversation at a philosophy conference we were both attending. It wasn’t just that we found ourselves intrigued by the possibility of working together on a broad overview of Neo-Confucianism, and it wasn’t just that we both recognized the need for such a book; the key was that we found ourselves agreeing on how such a book should be structured. Virtually every overview of Neo-Confucianism ever published—in any language—has been organized chronologically by thinker. Sometimes the books are more biography than history of philosophy, but even in the more philosophical cases, the goal is to give a comprehensive picture of a given thinker’s ideas before moving on to do the same thing for the next figure. But there are problems with such an approach, particularly when these books are used in the classroom. Yes, there are differences from one philosopher to another, but there are also many similarities; looking at each one holistically sometimes results in books that are, sad to say, rather boring.

Our idea was to organize the book around controversial topics instead. What did Neo-Confucians argue about, who had the most interesting things to say on a given topic, and how did the argument develop through time? We realized that not only would such a format be more lively, but it would also allow us quite naturally to foreground the philosophical problems that mattered to Neo-Confucians, rather than borrowing our organizing problems and vocabulary from the history of Western philosophy, as often has been done. At the same time, we felt that the result would also be quite accessible to non-experts: even though we allow the Neo-Confucians to speak their own language (via our English translations), because we emphasize what is at stake, philosophically, in their arguments, newcomers to Neo-Confucianism would have an easier time grasping the significance of their ideas.

So we agreed on format. Only two small issues remained: to agree on our interpretations of the various Neo-Confucians’ philosophies, and to agree on how to translate their terminology into English. This was accomplished by an unusual (among philosophers) “mind-melding” process in which we developed a vast body of notes summarizing our findings from primary and secondary research, notes to which both of us contributed and had ready access. (Thanks, Evernote.) Each chapter was written and re-written as it passed back and forth between each of the two authors, and ultimately we sat down in front of the same computer on one frigid week in January of 2016 and took turns reading the entire manuscript aloud, giving us a last opportunity to smooth out our differences.

The result is a book that delves into some of the high-profile discussions and debates of last thousand years of imperial China. At issue are questions about the structure and organization of the cosmos, the nature of the heartmind, the proper source of social and moral norms, the nature and function of the emotions, and the role of such things as reverence and spontaneity in moral action and moral cultivation. But the book is no mere summary of well-established facts about Chinese intellectual history. As a comprehensive work, we needed to fill in several gaps in that history, gaps that have been little discussed in Western languages or (in some cases) even in Chinese. These include a discussion of three different types of knowing in the thought of Zhu Xi (1130-1200), which vary according to the breadth and depth of understanding that they express. We looked closely at some Neo-Confucians who argued in various ways for the claim that women are the equals or perhaps even the superiors of men in their capacity for self-cultivation. We also unearthed some long-neglected territory in Confucian theories of governance, in particular a debate about whether success in governing people is ultimately to the credit of good institutions or the people that run them.

Throughout all of this, we debated how to translate key terms. On the one hand, we wanted to avoid needless novelty. We recognized that there is definitely something to be said for consistency with existing, accepted translations; among other things, it makes it easier for students who read our book and simultaneously read original sources translated by other scholars. On the other hand, we wanted our translations to help to convey the meaning of the Chinese originals, and not just act as meaningless ciphers that correspond to given Chinese words—or worse yet, mislead readers in predictable ways. In a few cases, agreeing on how to balance these considerations (and, of course, on what the underlying terms meant) was among our most difficult challenges, but in the end, in every case we found a solution on which we could agree. We imagine that not all specialists will be convinced every time, but at least we can assure our readers that a lot of thought lies behind each of these decisions. And now that the book is out in the world, we look forward to the informed reactions of others scholars to our choices of terminology, fully expecting that still-better agreements have yet to be reached.

Stephen C. Angle is Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies and Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University.

Justin Tiwald is Associate Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University.

Their book Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction is now available from Polity.