Transforming Knowledge into Wisdom: a review of The Collected Works of Feng Qi

Book Reviews

East China Normal University Press, 1996-1998

Reviewed by YU Zhenhua, Department of Philosophy, East China Normal University

Feng Qi (1915-1995) was one of the few original, systematic philosophers in the second half of the 20th century in mainland China. His unique contribution to philosophy is his theory of wisdom. He is also remembered for his expertise on the history of Chinese philosophy. The Collected Works of Feng Qi, published by East China Normal University Press from 1996-1998, provides us a wonderful access to Feng Qi’s intellectual legacy.

Feng Qi was born in a farmer’s family in Zhuji County, Zhejiang Province. He was enrolled in the department of philosophy at Tsinghua University in 1935, where he studied with Jin Yuelin (1895-1984), Feng Youlan (1895-1990), etc. His study was interrupted because he was actively involved in the anti-Japanese war. He resumed his study in 1939 in Southwestern Associated University joined by Tsinghua University, Peking University and Nankai University. After finishing his B.A., he entered graduate school and finished his M.A. thesis in 1944. Then he taught at Yunnan University, Tongji University, Fudan University, and from 1951 on, he settled down at East China Normal University. He passed away suddenly in March 1, 1995.

“The debate between science and metaphysics” in 1923 was one of the most important events in 20th century Chinese philosophy. It was basically a debate between metaphysicians and positivists. In response to the debate between science and metaphysics, different schools of thought emerged in the 1930’s -1940’s. Among them, the most prominent are the Tsinghua school of realism, modern Neo-Confucianism and Chinese Marxism. Jin Yuelin and Feng Youlan were the leading figures in the Tsinghua school of realism. The most important modern Neo-Confucian philosophers in this period were Liang Shuming (1893-1988), Xiong Shili (1885-1968) and He Ling (1902-1992). In the Marxist camp, Li Da (1890-1966), Ai Siqi (1910-1966) and Mao Zedong (1893-1976) were among the most important. It was in these two decades that the most influential philosophical systems of 20th century China emerged. At that time, China was embroiled in the anti-Japanese war and the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists. The harsh wartime situation stimulated the creativity of Chinese philosophers who wanted to contribute their part to the salvation and rejuvenation of China. That difficult time witnessed a flourishing of philosophy with lasting consequences.

The philosophical landscape in China changed dramatically after 1949 when Marxism became the dominant ideology. The Tsinghua school of realism ceased to exist after the nationwide restructuring of higher education in 1952, which changed Tsinghua University from a comprehensive university into a polytechnical university. There was no room in mainland China for idealistic Modern Neo-Confucianism, and Xiong Shili’s disciples such as Mou Zongsan (1905-1995) and Tang Junyi (1909-1978) went to Hong Kong and Taiwan. During the Cultural Revolution, the only type of philosophy to exist in mainland China was dogmatic Marxism. The richness and complexity that had marked the philosophical landscape before 1949 disappeared.

Feng Qi was trained in the Tsinghua school of realism, but he was also attracted to Marxist philosophy. He had a genuine belief in Marxism, but refused to be a dogmatic Marxist. A free thinker in the Chinese Marxist tradition, he was humiliated in the Cultural Revolution. His diaries and manuscripts were confiscated and lost forever. But his strong personality and his optimism about the future of China saved him from despair. Although he could not find a safe place to preserve his manuscripts, he found that his brain was a safe place for his thoughts. So he continued his philosophical exploration. Later, reflecting on his experience in that period, he said: “Regardless of what kind of situation one is in, one should always keep one’s mind free. This is a defining quality of a lover of wisdom.”

The nightmare of the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. Subsequently, China started reform and opening up. With the emancipation of thought of the post-Mao era, the vigorous learning process of Chinese philosophy before 1949 resumed. Feng Qi was very excited about the coming of this new age. He cherished the hard won academic freedom and worked extremely hard. His most important work was done in the 1980’s and 1990’s when he was over 60 years old.

The central philosophical problem that concerned Feng Qi was the relation between knowledge and wisdom. In his view, the most important epistemological questions discussed in the history of (both Chinese and Western) philosophy are the following: (1) Can objective reality be captured by sensation? (2) How is universal, necessary knowledge possible? (3) Can logical thinking grasp concrete truth (for instance, the principle of the unity of the world and the principle of the development of the universe in the first place)? (4) How is the ideal personality to be cultivated? Generally speaking, the first two questions belong to the category of scientific knowledge, the latter two to the category of metaphysical wisdom. In Feng Qi’s view, with the development of modern science and the decline of traditional metaphysics, a narrow conception of epistemology took shape in the West, according to which epistemology should focus on the first two questions and reject the latter two. But Feng Qi was unsatisfied with epistemology in a narrow sense and argued for a broad conception. He insisted that epistemology should not only inquire into the possibility of scientific knowledge, but also the possibility of metaphysical wisdom. Feng Qi’s interest in epistemology in a broad sense was first made explicit in his Master’s thesis entitled “Wisdom” (1947). The paper centered on the problem of how metaphysical wisdom is possible. After a lifelong philosophical journey, Feng Qi, in his later years, formulated his philosophical goal as follows: To expound the dialectical movement of the knowing activity of human beings from ignorance to knowledge, and further from knowledge to wisdom, on the basis of Marxist practice-based philosophy. The title of volume 1 of the Collected Works of Feng Qi is Knowing the World and knowing the Self. In this book, Feng Qi tackled the aforementioned four epistemological questions head on and elaborated his epistemology in a broad sense.

Feng Qi is known for his famous saying: “Transform theory into method and transform theory into virtue.” Originally, Feng Qi formulated this slogan to answer the question of how to mediate theory and practice. He suggested that we need to attach great importance to two intermediary links, namely, method and virtue, when we try to mediate theory and practice. But later, this slogan gained new meaning. It became the organizing principle of his theory of wisdom. Here “theory” denotes his epistemology in a broad sense, “method” indicates his methodological reflections, “virtue” his reflections on freedom, value, and virtue. Volume two of the Collected Works of Feng Qi is The Dialectics of Logical Thinking; volume three is Human Freedom and Truth, Good and Beauty. According to Feng Qi, Knowing the World and Knowing the Self is the trunk of his theory of wisdom, The Dialectics of Logical Thinking and Human Freedom and Truth, Good and Beauty are its two main branches.

Feng Qi was also a well-known expert on the history of Chinese philosophy. He was a firm believer and practitioner of the Hegelian conception of the relation between philosophy and its history: while philosophy is a summary of the history of philosophy, the history of philosophy is the unfolding of philosophy. What makes Feng Qi’s version of the history of Chinese philosophy distinctive is that in his treatment of the history of Chinese philosophy from the pre-Qin period to 1949 the emphasis is philosophical rather than historical. Volumes 4, 5, and 6 of the Collected Works of Feng Qi are devoted to his The Logical Development of Ancient Chinese Philosophy, and volume 7 to his The Revolutionary Process of Modern Chinese Philosophy.

Volume 8 is entitled The Pursuit of Wisdom. It is a collection of articles which were originally published from 1979-1994. Volume 9 is The Pursuit of Wisdom: the Appendices, a collection of papers that were not included in volume 8. The most important paper in this volume is his “On Wisdom” (1947). Volume 10 is Philosophical Lectures and Philosophical Correspondences. In it, readers will find Feng Qi’s lectures on his mentor, Jin Yuelin. His correspondences with close friends show vividly the personal aspect of his theory of wisdom. At the end of the volume is a biography of Feng Qi composed by his wife.