My research departs from the following deceptively simple question: why has it become commonplace to describe the specificity of Chinese philosophy in particular and of non-Western traditions of thought in general through a recourse to the notion of “wisdom”? We have perhaps become all too accustomed to conceiving of, for example, Immanuel Kant as a “thinker” and of Confucius as a “sage” or “wise man”, and have rather different expectations of what these two figures can still offer us today. Since “wisdom” is usually not treated as technical term, it can operate in the background of intellectual and popular discourse while passing largely unexamined. In this project, I will try to cut through some of the fog surrounding the notion of wisdom by analyzing its discursive function in the reinvention of the traditional Chinese philosophical heritage within the context of global modernity.
Although it is not uncommon for the ideal of wisdom to be presented as always having been intrinsic to philosophy both East and West, a present-day interpreter risks overlooking the historical specificity and significance of the seemingly perennial ideal of acquiring wisdom (sophia, zhihui). In order to determine more precisely what was at stake for Chinese thinkers in appealing to the category of wisdom as a marker of cultural identity, it is necessary to take the complex process through which traditional forms of knowledge and practice such as Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism were transformed into the modern academic discipline of philosophy into account. By placing the notion of wisdom in the broader context of Chinese and global intellectual history, I will investigate how it came to be used as a category of knowledge and action defined both in relation and in contradistinction to the modern order of learning consisting of segregated disciplinary fields such as philosophy, “science”, “ethics”, and “politics”. Based upon the preliminary findings arrived at in the course of my Ph.D. research, I depart from the hypothesis that Chinese thinkers used the category of “wisdom” to denote a performative and transformative form of knowledge that is inseparably linked to moral and social practice and to the subject's concrete existence. The distinction between wisdom and knowledge played a pivotal role both in endowing the new discipline of Chinese philosophy with an identity of its own, as well as in conceptually engaging with the perceived limitations and pathologies of modern society and its functionally differentiated order of knowledge.
I will approach the general problem outlined in the above through a targeted case study of a number of reinterpretations of the thought of the great Neo-Confucian thinker Wang Yangming (1472-1529). My choice for focusing on this specific case is far from arbitrary: Wang's famous doctrine of the “unity of knowledge and action” (zhixing heyi) was repeatedly invoked by modern Chinese intellectuals in providing a succinct conceptual metaphor for what they took to be the essence of China's heritage of wisdom. Crucially, Wang Yangming's ideal of the continuity between consciousness and praxis did not only appeal to “traditionalist” thinkers in the strict sense of the term. As a general rule, modern Chinese intellectuals cannot be confined to
the straitjacket of one of the “three traditions” (san tong) and exclusively classified as either liberal, conservative, or socialist. Figures as diverse as Liang Qichao (1873-1929), Zhang Junmai (1886-1969), Huang Changgu (1890-1959), Liang Shuming (1893-1988), He Lin (1902–1992), Tang Junyi (1909-1978), Mou Zongsan (1909-1978), and Feng Qi (1919-1995) all devoted important texts to the reinterpretation of Wang Yangming's thought and paid particular attention to Wang's doctrine of the unity of knowledge and action. Drawing on the work of the intellectual historian Wang Hui, I will argue that traditionalist as well as iconoclast thinkers used “wisdom” as a critical counterconcept against the structural constraints of institutionalized forms of knowing and acting conditioned by the developmental logic of modernization. I will try to show that the notion of wisdom functioned as a way of addressing the problem of the tense relation between subjectivity and social structure in modern societies by exploring how this tension translated itself into some of the most important reinterpretations of Wang Yangming's thought as “wisdom”. In order to provide a comparative point of reference for my study, I will draw on Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault's studies on the mutation of Western philosophy from a “way of life'' and a mode of ''care of the self'' into a form of knowledge in which the existence of the subject is bracketed out as a condition of the possibility for attaining objective truth.