REVIEW BY JOHN ALLEN TUCKER
China Review International 8:2 (Fall, 2001), pp. 369-373
Comparative philosophers, theologians, and practitioners of Asian intellectual history will surely find much of interest in this provocative, controversial, and undeniably ambitious, titan-like monograph. Simply put, Spiritual Titanism argues that ‘‘Jainism, Samkhya, Yoga, and later Hindu texts’’ endorse what Heinrich Zimmer, in his 1956 study Philosophies of India,(1) characterized as ‘‘the heresy of Titanism’’ or the ‘‘preemption of divine prerogatives and confusion of human and divine attributes’’ (p. 2). Author Nicholas Gier adds that ‘‘Titanism’’is ‘‘a philosophical mistake’’ (p. 16), ‘‘humanism gone berserk; it is anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism taken to their limits.’’ Defining ‘‘deity’’ in culturally biased, distinctly Christian terms as ‘‘any being who is omniscient, omnipotent, infinite, and omnipresent,’’ Gier asserts that ‘‘humans obviously delude themselves if they believe that they can become divine in the sense of these attributes.’’Although the monograph concedes that ‘‘Indian Titanism,’’ as it refers to this supposed tendency of Jainism, Samkhya, Yoga, and later Hinduism, is ‘‘a rather benign form of extreme humanism,’’ its author warns, quite apocalyptically, that ‘‘a Titanistic spirit can be said to inspire militarism, environmental pollution and degradation, and the possible misuse of genetic engineering. If left unchecked,Titanism might destroy or radically change life as we know it on earth’’ (p. 3). Such hyperbole undermines the credibility of Spiritual Titanism, and will likely prompt readers to question whether it should be considered reliable scholarship or an exercise in learned yet partial religio-philosophical polemic. Specialists in Indian philosophy will most probably find the assessments of Jainism, Samkhya, and Yoga in Spiritual Titanism, which consume most of the monograph, rather dated, reliant as they are, for example, on the writings of Zimmer and Karl Potter’s 1963 study, Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies.(2) Spiritual Titanism allows that early Buddhism, although humanistic, avoids Titanism, but adds that later Buddhism endorses a Hindu-like version of Titanism, one mitigated only by its premodern search for a return to a ‘‘primordial unity and totality.’’ Rather than premodernism, however, the monograph advocates a ‘‘postmodern reconstruction of the self ’’ as ‘‘relational and social’’ (p. 15).
In this regard, it finds in the Confucian concept of ren ‘‘the best Chinese answer to spiritual Titanism’’ (p. 16). More generally, the volume lauds Daoism and Xunzi’’s Confucianism as expressions of perspectives most antithetical to Titanism, emphasizing as they do the impossibility of human beings achieving divine qualities. While interesting, the weakest portion of Spiritual Titanism is its brief, often elementary analyses of Chinese philosophical texts. Readers of the volume cannot help but notice that despite the expanse of material dealt with and the myriad romanized terms from Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and Japanese, there is little that is addressed with the authority of a specialist relying first and foremost on primary sources. Perhaps most problematic is the extent to which Gier’s analyses are driven by his tendency, quite anachronistic, to see all of religio-philosophical history in terms of categories such as premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism. Gier has little use for modernism, which he associates with a set of ‘‘dualistic distinctions’’including those of ‘‘fact and value, subject and object, public and private, science and faith, politics and religion, theory and practice’’ (p. xiv).
Most disturbingly, Gier sees ‘‘these modernistic distinctions’’ as having been, ‘‘arguably, the cause of institutionalized racism (a modernist invention), militarism, social disintegration, and environmental degradation’’ (p. xiv). Recoiling from a return to the premodernist ‘‘dissolution into the One,’’ Gier unabashedly sides with the postmodernists--messiah-like theorists in his presentation of Titanism and its alternatives. Gier further divides postmodernism into ‘‘constructive postmodernism’’--his team--and ‘‘deconstructive postmodernism,’’ which, he warns, lands one in an ‘‘amorphous dissipation in Derridean differance’’ (p. xiv).
David Ray Griffin’s ‘‘Introduction to SUNY Series in Constructive PostmodernThought’’ amplifies the apocalyptic outlook informing Gier’s analyses. For example, it states: "Whereas the word modern was almost always used until quite recently as a word of praise and as a synonym for contemporary, a growing sense is now evidenced that we can and should leave modernity behind--in fact, that we must if we are to avoid destroying ourselves and most of the life on our planet. . . . [T]he continuation of modernity threatens the very survival of life on ourplanet. This awareness, combined with the growing knowledge of the interdependence of the modern worldview with modernity’s militarism, nuclearism, patiarchy [sic], global apartheid, and ecological devastation, is providing an unprecedented impetus for people to see the evidence for a postmodern worldview and to envisage postmodern ways of relating to each other, the rest ofnature, and the cosmos as a whole." (pp. xxi, xxv)
Griffin acknowledges, however, that philosophical postmodernism, associated with the writings, he claims, of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and Kristeva, ‘‘tends to issue in relativism . . . and seems to many thinkers to imply nihilism’’ (p. xxiii). Seeking to reform postmodernism, Griffin describes a ‘‘revisionary, constructive, or--perhaps best--reconstructive’’ postmodernism that does not attempt to delegitimize all worldviews so much as it tries to offer ‘‘a postmodern worldview through a revision of modern premises and traditional concepts in the light of inescapable presuppositions of our various modes of practice’’ (p. xxiii). Griffin foresees this reconstructive activity as issuing in ‘‘a postmodern world . . . postmodern persons, with a postmodern spirituality, a postmodern society, and ultimately a postmodern global order’’ (p. xxiv).
Another characterization of the brand of postmodernism pushed in Spiritual Titanism might be conservative postmodernism, since it seeks to ‘‘salvage a positive meaning not only for the notions of selfhood, historical meaning, reason, and truth as correspondence, which were equated with modernity, but also for notions of divinity, cosmic meaning, and an enchanted nature, which were central to premodern modes of thought’’ (p. xxiv). Sensibly, Griffin admits that constructive postmodernists do not ‘‘hold the naively utopian belief that the success of this movement would bring about a global society of universal and lasting peace, harmony and happiness, in which all spiritual problems, social conflicts, ecological destruction, and hard choices would vanish’’ (p. xxv). It recognizes, instead, that there is perhaps a ‘‘transcultural proclivity to evil deep within the human heart, which no new paradigm, combined with a new economic order, . . . will suddenly eliminate’’ (p. xxv). Nevertheless, Griffin rightly contends that ‘‘the human proclivity to evil in general, and to conflictual competition and ecological destruction in particular, can be greatly exacerbated or greatly mitigated by a world order and its worldview.’’ Yet without compelling proof, Griffin ominously asserts that modernity ‘‘exacerbates it about as much as imaginable’’ (p. xxvi). Griffin concludes his polemic with the confession, ‘‘This series, making no pretense of neutrality, is dedicated to the success of this movement toward a postmodern world.’’
Without launching a defense of modernity, and to a certain extent admitting some of the charges leveled, this review will add, as a word of caution for those enthusiastic about the new age, that not all bad paradigms are followed by better ones, and many new ideas vanish even before their novelty does. Most problematic, there is little to convince the skeptic that the constructive postmodernist world so touted in this volume will be significantly better than the one it seeks to redefine.
On a less comprehensive level, Spiritual Titanism’s analyses are often unpersuasive, despite the declarative form they often take. For example, the notion that Jains, due to their supposedly modernistic, titanistic tendencies, in some sense contribute to or exacerbate tendencies toward environmental degradation is difficult to accept, especially when one realizes, as Gier’s Preface admits, that Jains are at ‘‘the forefront of India’’s environmental movement’’’’ (p. xiv). Also problematic for this messianic, constructive postmodern project is its heroicization of one of the least liberal and environmentally friendly Chinese paradigms, that of Xunzi, a thinker who is not wholly incommensurate philosophically with the perspectives of the ruling elite in the People’’s Republic, an elite responsible for more ecological degradation than any other extant regime. Inadvertently, Gier villifies the good guys in the trenches engaged in righting the ecosystem, while idolizing those who have helped to create a nightmare of their habitat.
Even as it espouses relatively positive analyses of ancient Chinese philosophies, Spiritual Titanism advances numerous questionable interpretations of the same material. For example, Gier declares that ‘‘the Daoist self is . . . fully relational but, especially in Zhuangzi, exhorted to sever all contacts with society’’(p. 15). Elsewhere Gier states that ‘‘Zhuangzi’s philosophy appears to join Yoga Titanism in affirming an antisocial self, which although living in the world, remains disengaged from it’’ (p. 207). In yet another passage, Gier explains that ‘‘the social-relational Confucian self, which melds with constructive postmodernism, is rejected in the Zhuangzi (the sage’s self is distinctly nonsocial, in terms of the necessity of relating to other human beings . . .)’’ (p. 220). However, William A. Callahan’’s recent study, ‘‘Cook Ding’s Life on the Whetstone: Contingency, Action, and Inertia in the Zhuangzi,’’ in Wandering at Ease in theZhuangzi, edited by Roger Ames, has established, quite convincingly, that the Zhuangzi advocates an engaged activism rather than any retreat away from society. Brian Lundberg’’s essay, ‘‘A Meditation on Friendship,’’ in the same volume, has made a similar point.(3) Gier’’s characterization of Zhuangzi as an advocate of a ‘‘distinctly nonsocial self ’’ is at best a polemical exaggeration and at worst an egregiously mistaken reading of the text.
Along other lines, Spiritual Titanism faults Roger Ames and David Hall fortrying ‘‘to deify Confucius and the Confucian sage in general,’’ claiming instead that ‘‘most Confucian philosophers never viewed Confucius as a deity’’ (p. 178). In making these claims, Spiritual Titanism seeks to preserve one of its protagonists, the non-Titanistic Confucians, as advocates of the spiritually correct Asian philosophical stance. However, in doing so, it clearly brackets out a tendency of East Asian religio-philosophical history toward the apotheosis of Confucius and other Confucians, which has persisted throughout Chinese and East Asian history. Gier attempts to settle the matter via proclamation that ‘‘Confucius was not divinized as a savior; rather he was canonized as the saint of the literati’’ (p. 178)--but in doing so clearly subscribes to a Christian notion of the divine. Hall and Ames, in noting the deification of Confucius, have hardly pioneered a novel interpretation so much as they have rehearsed a well-known phenomenon of Chinese religio-philosophical history. In the West, an understanding of this phenomenon dates back to the Rites Controversy of the seventeenth century. Gier, eager to find a praiseworthy paradigm in Asian philosophy, too quickly dismisses the divinization of Confucius, and thus undermines the credibility of his study.
Other remarks made in passing, yet equally askew, reveal that SpiritualTitanism rests too heavily on secondary sources to be deemed authoritative overall. One last example, perhaps, will illustrate this point. In discussing Steve Odin’s The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism, Gier offers a facile etymology of the Japanese word ningen (Chinese: renjian), a notion central to Watsuji Tetsuro’s understanding of the self. According to Gier, ningen is ‘‘composed of two Chinese characters, one meaning individual and the other meaning society’’(p. 175). Supposedly, this interplay between ‘‘individual’’ and ‘‘society’’ establishes the relational nature of Watsuji’’s view of the self. Without denying the latter point, it should be pointed out that the nin (Chinese: ren) in ningen refers to a human being, a person, or people, and not something as Western as an individual. Also, the gen (Chinese: jian) in ningen refers to ‘‘the space between or among,’’ indicating the presence of a human being in the realm of others, that is, among people. To suggest that gen simply refers to ‘‘society’’ is to mischaracterize, via hyperbolic translation, the notion: after all, is one ‘‘in society’’ when in the company of another person(s), or simply among friends? It is noteworthy that this compound appears early on in the title of chapter 4 of the Zhuangzi (‘‘Ren jian shi’’ ), where it signifies something akin to ‘‘inthe world among other people,’’ indicating what might rightly be called, in a very interpretive way, the social nature of Zhuangzi’s philosophy. Oddly enough, while Gier consistently asserts that the Zhuangzi advocates withdrawal from societyand social relations, when he glosses the character ningen, which figures prominently in the thinking of the "Inner Chapters" of the Zhuangzi, he all too eagerly renders it figuratively as ‘‘society.’’ This inconsistency, while perhaps minor in itself, is indicative, it seems, of the relatively polemical nature of the monograph as a whole.
John Allen Tucker is an associate professor of Asian history at East Carolina University, in Greenville, North Carolina, specializing in Sino-Japanese thought, with a particular concentration in Japanese Neo-Confucianism of the Tokugawa period.
1. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India, ed. Joseph Campbell (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1956).
2. Karl H. Potter, Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies (Westport: Greenwood, 1963).
3. William A. Callahan, ‘‘Cook Ding’s Life on the Whetstone: Contingency, Action, and Inertia in the Zhuangzi,’’ and Brian Lundberg, ‘‘A Meditation on Friendship,’’ both in Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi, ed. Roger T. Ames (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000), pp. 175-196 and 211-218, respectively.
COMING DOWN FROM THE IVORY TOWER: A REPLY TO JOHN TUCKER
Let me first address the categories of premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism. My application of these terms cannot be anachronistic as Tucker claims, because I define them in a conceptual, rather than chronological sense. I believe that comparative philosophy can be a successful enterprise because of a very simple assumption. We are all homo sapiens sapiens and we all share the same brains and physiologies. This means that behind some very dense cultural constructions we can expect to find a basic core of human functions and concepts. In a seminal article on Aristotle, Martha Nussbaum argues for "features of our common humanity" that includes mortality, body, pleasure and pain, cognitive capability, and practical reason. (1) On this basis I maintain that if a text or oral tradition contains elements of premodern, modern, or postmodern thinking, as I define in them in chapter two of my book, we can conclude that we have thinkers from different cultures conceptualizing things, such as a self-contained, atomistic self, in instructively similar ways.
The principal difference between constructive and deconstructive postmodernists is that the latter rejects a common humanity and eventually lands in an extreme relativism. They also differ on claims of normative reason and the canons of evidence, with the former reaffirming these essential tools. They do agree, however, on the fact that each of us, as cultures and individuals, do take a point of view and that the complete objectivity that modernism seeks is impossible. This means that comparative philosophy can be both normative and critical, judging some views to be incoherent, not doing justice to experience, discriminatory, or not adaptable to current historical conditions. Tucker himself demonstrates a point of view in his inclination to defend modernism and a bias, which I share, for environmental sensitivity. We have to learn that there is nothing unscholarly about defending a point of view.
Tucker is wrong to imply that I reject premodernism and modernism in favor of postmodernism. He very carefully quotes David R. Griffin, who explains that the constructive postmodernist attempts to ‘‘salvage a positive meaning not only for the notions of selfhood, historical meaning, reason, and truth as correspondence, which were equated with modernity, but also for notions of divinity, cosmic meaning, and an enchanted nature, which were central to premodern modes of thought’’ (ST, p. xxiv). Contrary to Tucker’s charges, here it is clear that the constructive postmodern philosopher takes the best of premodern and modernist thinking and synthesizes it into a coherent vision that can help to heal a broken world. Tucker surely exaggerates when he repeatedly uses the terms "apocalyptic" and "messianic" to describe such a sober and thoughtful program.
The contemporary academic can no longer afford the luxury of the presumed neutrality of the Ivory Tower, an aspect of modernist objectivity that has allowed society to ignore us, just as traditional academics have eschewed the challenge of a normative vision for humankind. Tucker finds it "disturbing" that I try to identify the origins of racism, militarism, and environmental degradation, but if academics do not do this we condemn ourselves to irrelevance and ridicule. When Tucker feels that he has to insert [sic] after my use of the word "patriarchy," we see the stubborn refusal of some contemporary thinkers to face the effects of millennia of male domination and oppression.
Let me now respond to the charge that defining deity in terms of the attributes omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence reveals a Christian bias. Tucker has ignored the fact that Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism define deity in the same way. (I strongly disagree with Tucker that any major Chinese philosopher deified Confucius, no matter how deity is defined.) Interestingly enough, the Hindu gods do not have these attributes (they cannot exist without ingesting amitra), but the point of my thesis is that some humans, according Jainism and Samkhya-Yoga, can and do take on these attributes. In his introduction to The Yoga Sutras, Rammurti S. Mishra sums up what I call spiritual Titanism: "Deep in the tiny atom of the psyche lies hidden a tremendous force which will lead the psyche to the point of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence if this force is released properly, systematically, and chronologically’’ (ST, 99).
As a comparative philosopher working across all the world’s great traditions, I do indeed rely on many secondary sources and translations, but Tucker’s claim that I rely on "rather dated" material (Zimmer and Potter) for Jainism and Samkhya Yoga is false. I quote Zimmer and Potter only in passing and for Jainism rely heavily on the translated texts (22 citations) and contemporary Jaina philosophers with publications dates mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. P. S. Jaini, considered by some to be the greatest scholar in this area, gave a positive appraisal of a draft of chapter 4, and it was eventually published in a refereed journal. (Jeffrey Long of Elizabethstown College, a solid, up and coming Jaina scholar, is a great fan of the book.) For Samkhya Yoga I was indebted to Mircea Eliade and Gerald Larson.
Tucker misreads me completely when he claims that I charge the Jainas with environmental insensitivity. Here are my exact words: "Although as a philosopher I am thwarted in my belief that practice ought to follow theory, I should rejoice in the fact that, even though they are conceptually handicapped by a Manichean dualism and an extreme individualism and anthropocentrism, the Jainas can nevertheless be great champions of nonviolence and ecological concern" (ST, xiv). I am completely baffled by Tucker’s indictment that I "villify the good guys in the trenches engaged in righting the ecosystem." He needs to offer some evidence for this claim. Please also note Tucker’s rather explicit point of view.
Although I took pains to make the point clear, Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism, because of their strong monistic tendencies, are not, as Tucker writes, "mitigated only by [their] premodern search for a return to a ‘‘primordial unity and totality"; on the contrary, they are completely different from the radical pluralism of spiritual Titanism. In my view mysticism and Titanism exclude one another. The selves of Sankhya-Yoga and Jainism are isolated "social atoms," even more so than the social atoms of libertarian political philosophy.
Tucker contends that my chapters on Chinese philosophy are the weakest in the book, but each of them was vetted by sinologists P. J. Ivanhoe, Edward Machle, and Paul Kjellberg. (Two of the chapters were published in refereed journals.) Tucker must not have read my sections on Xunzi very carefully because, using Machle’s new translation I was able to absolve Xunzi of the charge that he was a proto-technologist. And even if he was, it was not possible for his works to have much effect because he was promptly forgotten and only rediscovered in the 20th Century, far too late to be responsible for two millennia of environmental destruction before the Chinese Communists.
With regard to Zhuangzi’s anti-social tendencies, I made it clear that his "knackmasters," as Ivanhoe calls them, are the exception to this. Tucker refers to the fourth chapter of the Zhuangzi, which A. C. Graham entitles "Worldly Business Among Men" (ren jian shi), and he argues that the ren here is the same ren that I praise in Confucius. If you read the chapter carefully, you will see that Zhuangzi’s Confucius is ridiculing ren as a social virtue and advises his disciple Yan Hui to retreat and preserve his energies so that he can "roam free inside the cage." The chapter is a relentless attack on Confucian morality and the view that virtues are "straight" and normative. As usual, Zhunagzi subverts the norm by praising the crooked tree and the crippled man, both "useless" according to conventional standards. Except for the knackmasters, the Zhuangzi is filled with anti-social characters who do not embody the Confucian virtue of ren.
Except for the knackmasters, the Zhuangzi is filled with anti-social characters who do not embody the Confucian virtue of ren. In Chapter 2 a Daoist sage instructs the Confucian musician Yancheng Ziyou about the pipes of tian, with the strong implication that Confucians possess only "little knowledge" and that their virtues follow the wrong musical model. In Chapter 7 the sage Huzi retreats from the world and appears as if he is dead. His disciple Liehzi finally learns that he, too, must reject the Confucian "carved gem" and return to the Daoist "unhewn block." Immediately following this story is the dramatic tale of the Hundun, whose friends unwittingly thought they were doing him a big favor by giving him the portals of perception by which he could become, among other things, a social being. Even the Daoist immortals are more social than Zhuangzi's sages.
I challenge Tucker to name a major Chinese philosopher who deified Confucius. Of course he was elevated in Chinese popular religion and the imperial cult, but that obviously was not my claim. My article "On the Deification of Confucius" was published in Asian Philosophy, a refereed journal, and Ames and Hall chose not to respond to my criticism of their position. Instead, Ames invited me to give a lecture in his department at the University of Hawai’i.
As a comparative philosopher with "seven league boots" I have fought specialists such as Tucker all my career and I have endured their taunts about not knowing the language and the texts. I am grateful, however, to those who are able to look beyond the confines of specialties and appreciate the efforts of the generalist scholar. Therefore, I would like to conclude with praise for Wendy Doniger, Christopher Chappell, Arthur Herman, P. S. Jaini, Jiyuan Yu, Jeffrey Long, Jeffrey Kripal, Roger Ames, P. J. Ivanhoe, and many others.
1. Martha Nussbaum, "Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach" in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, eds. French, Uehling, and Wettstein (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp. 32-53.