Shengren – Chapter 1.4.1 – The Philosophers

Nun hat die Philosophie den Grund aller Erfahrung anzugeben; ihr Object liegt sonach nothwendig ausser aller Erfahrung.[1] [Now, philosophy must formulate the principle of all experience; its object therefore lies necessarily outside all experience.]

– Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Erste Einleitung in die Wissenschaftslehre

In the above quote, Johann G. Fichte repeats once more what we already knew: philosophy is necessarily void of experience because its object, the philosophical object, is outside of all experience. The philosopher believes that human affairs can be studied without taking part in the real social world, in a similar way to the scientist who believes that nature should be studied in isolation from the human world. In this respect, both the philosopher and the scientist are Western concepts (as well as Western terminologies), and are essentially materialistic in spirit. In fact, in order to make the reader believe that a particular philosopher is concerned, however pretentious, with humanist problems, one would have to add “the humanist” to the philosopher: being materialist is a precondition of the philosopher, because of the nature of the philosophical object – being a humanist is not. A sage, the true humanist, relates to the world – the philosopher, always isolating his philosophical objects, dissociates it.

Philosophy is eponymous – it also lends its name to the highest degree of formal education that a Western country (and now the Westernized world) has to offer: the Doctor of Philosophy. The name and prestige suggests that academia places great hopes on philosophy and the philosophical approach: systematic thinking, logical argument, and sound judgment. The philosophical approach in the humanities is just as precious to Western scholarship, than is the scientific approach in the sciences. Apart from academic philosophers who title themselves “PhDs”, “philosopher” is also an honorable name for any great Western thinker, a person that has contributed to the history of thought of not only Germany, but mankind. But just because the world today embraces Greek terminology, it does not mean that the East should deny its own traditions. The Chinese world for university is daxue大学. When daxue is back translated, it says Great Learning. Daxue or Great Learning is the name of Confucianism’s most prominent text (the first of the Four Great Confucian Classics), with the famous opening line:[2]


What the Great Learning teaches, is to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.[3]

The Chinese name for university originates from that Ancient text, the Daxue, and the Daxue in Confucius’ terms is the way of the sages, it cultivates virtuous people on their way to attain the highest level of human perfection: to become 圣人shengren. The modern Western (and now global) concept of “university” is quite a different one: it trains theories and technologies. The 大学Daxue (of the Confucian Classics) concentrated on the human person; the Western university concentrates on the objects of study. Thus, the shengren and daxue appeal to the humanist nature of the Chinese; the philosophers and university appeal to the materialist nature of the West.

That especially the Germans withheld or denied Chinese concepts was no surprise. Western countries in general cross-referenced and venerated each others great thinkers, philosophers. And by forcing Greek terminology onto all other world cultures, the West reserves all the right for the final explanation. Profoundly, because philosophy has such a long intellectual tradition starting with Greek antiquity, Western culture really has not cultivated any other name or concept of similar significance (other than philosopher) to accolade a great thinker. Philosopher is the only kind of great thinker they know. Other names or titles do not even come close to it. Granted, in Germany, a Dichter (poet) goes a long way: Schiller and Goethe are known as Germany’s two greatest Dichter. Denker (thinker) is used usually only as signifier (and to make the venerable title a bit longer) in addition to the field in which that person has contributed most, for example: Goethe, der Dichter und Denker; or even: Deutschland, Das Land der Dichter und Denker (Germany, land of the poets and thinkers). If the title philosopher does not apply intuitively, for example for Franz Kafka, that person’s main occupation, for Kafka it is: “Schriftsteller” (writer, novelist), is preferred instead. The title or name “Weiser” is unheard of in Germany. Germany is inexperienced at the veneration of sages (Weisenverehrung is not a word in Germany, I just made it up). Germany instead venerates saints (Heiligenverehrung), a legacy of Christianity. Since the Germans are ignorant of sages and sagehood, they call all Eastern sages “Heilige”, just as they are used to call Christian saints “Heilige”. The entire world is modeled this way in Germany: Greek Philosophen or biblical Heilige. Countless foreign terminologies are eliminated this way by the Germans, and their greatest victory so far is the elimination of the shengren.

From a German point of view, it is understandable: A Weiser is not an occupation, career or profession in Germany; and it is also no title for veneration, since sage culture was dead and buried since the Greeks (as opposed to living and striving in China). Becoming a Weiser, like the Confucian highest goal is the becoming of a shengren (sage), is not a priority in Western Christianity; and wisdom is not a priority in broad German culture; knowledge is. Everyone gets wise as he or she gets older. No one gets so wise and so old that Germany would be impressed by that person’s accumulated wisdom, though. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the social anthropologist, was right that Eastern societies have developed “theories of inter-connectiveness of all life forms” that were more complex and a thousand years more advanced.[4] Although Levi-Strauss had an idea about China, he had no name for the shengren. Eastern cultures have sages and sagehood, Germany doesn’t. Not even the most sagely German and European thinkers have been called sages: Jacob Burckhardt, Karl Marx, Hegel, Voltaire, Giambattista Vico, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Augustine of Hippo, and Orosius; those are all “die Philosophen” – never “die Weisen”.

      German scholars knew it was at best dubious to call Eastern sages “Philosophen” or “Heilige”. Even Richard Wilhelm, who called sheng(en)Heilige” throughout his missionary career, admitted at some point that “Kungtse ist kein Philosoph im europäischen Sinn […] Sondern er ist eine praktisch-schöpferische Natur”[5] [Confucius is not a philosopher in the European sense of the word…, but instead he is of a practical-creational nature]. Karl Löwith, a social anthropologist, wrote in his analysis of East and West: “Die klassische östliche Weisheit ist etwas anderes als griechische Philo-sophia [sic] und europäische Wissenschaft”.[6] [Classical Eastern wisdom is very different from Greek philosophy and European sciences and humanities]. But what kind of scholarship was this? Turning down the shengren, or refusing to call a shengren a shengren, or Weiser, or sage, but instead a “philosopher”, and his teachings “philosophy”, when it was apparent and confessed that a shengren was not a philosopher and his teachings were no philosophy at all? That very exact name, shengren, spread all over the China’s 2500 years of history of thought. The Germans, small-minded and ignorant, killed the shengren the moment they spotted him. Such error did the Germans (and many other European individuals) commit, a collectively committed blunder of epic proportions, that could in all its grandness only be compared, as said in the foreword, with Christopher Columbus having called the Native Americans “Indians”. Only that Columbus miscalculated the size of the earth,[7] while the Germans overestimated the size of their brains. When a scientist discovers a new species or specimen, he or she will give a new name to that species or specimen; otherwise how can the scientist express himself or communicate the novelty of his discovery with the scientific community? That’s exactly what the European orientalists did, by the way, when they discovered the spiritual beings in the Buddhist canon: the bodhisattvas. So, why did almost all the German philosophers, missionaries, and orientalists like Wolff, Hegel, Gützlaff, and Wilhelm, etc., used familiar, over-used, and admittedly misplaced Western concepts to describe the new concepts such as shengren they found in China?

      Hegel, the great philosopher, used that very approach: when he discovered a new concept or had a new idea, he came up with new terminology for it, like An-und-für-sich [In and for itself] or An-sich [In itself] and Für-sich [For itself]; isn’t that fun? Re-using under-used terminology was only occasional permissible, but not without assigning a new definition to that terminology, like Hegel’s Begriff [Concept] or Unmittelbarkeit [Immediacy]. However, in general the re-using of common terminology was a bad habit; “Philosophy” is a Greek concept that permeates European cultural identity and history of thought; “Heiliger” is a biblical saint; those were the least suitable names for China’s Confucius and the shengren. New concepts needed new names. Hegel knew that.

Most orientalists and missionaries did not bother. In various ways, the Germans made it their mission to bring Greek philosophy and Christianity to the East, and it was convenient that Oriental traditions of thought provided the German scholarship with such a great sport and steady target: the essence of German China Studies was this: how terribly un-philosophical the Eastern “Philosophen” were at philosophy; and how spiritually immature the Eastern “Heilige” were at Christianity.

[1] Fichte, 1794

[2] Da Xue, Chinese text project, 2006-2010

[3] Legge, The great learning, 1893

[4] Lévi-Strauss, 1975, pp. 384-385

[5] Wilhelm, 1925, p. 64

[6] Löwith, 1966, p. 17

[7] Zinn, 2003, pp. 1 ff.