The Enlightenment in Comparative Perspective

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.2, 2014


The Enlightenment in Comparative Perspective



Han Shuifa, Ding Yun, Ma Depu and Ma Min


Editorial Note: To date, dialogue with the enlightenment spirit has been an inescapable challenge for intellectuals. This is especially so for Chinese scholars, who are poised between the twofold dilemmas of the ancient and the modern, the Chinese and the Western, and who have to explore the ageless values of the enlightenment itself while trying to determine what significance these values have for thought and practice in contemporary China. In order to advance academic exploration of these issues, Social Sciences in China Press and Wesleyan University, USA, have held the Second Chinese-American Scholarly Exchange Forum. The Forum invited scholars from China and the USA to discuss enlightenment in comparative perspective. This special issue selects representative papers from the Forum to give impetus to the relevant domestic research. Professor Han Shuifa of the Department of Philosophy, Peking University, argues that in the present day, reason still holds a position of primary importance, but it is far from being the all-perfect ideal envisaged and desired in the age of enlightenment. Reason has not formed an internally consistent and unified system; on the contrary, it has become more diversified and exhibits more inner contradictions. Research into the “third essential meaning” of the enlightenment in Kant’s philosophy aims at providing alternative methods and approaches to thinking about and researching such phenomena. Professor Ding Yun of the School of Philosophy, Fudan University, indicates that reason is the key to understanding the enlightenment. As the modern form of rational Confucian thought, Liang Shuming’s theory of reason can be considered the best example of comparative Chinese and Western thinking about reason and the examination of Chinese and Western enlightenment thought conducted on this basis. It embodies a redefinition of the Chinese-style concept of reason based on a creative interpretation of the traditional philosophy of mind. The non-religious character and moral and intuitive tendencies of the Confucian theory of reason are grounded in its theory of the emotions and have affinities with ancient Western philosophy. Professor Ma Depu, of the Institute of Political Culture and Political Civilization Construction, Tianjin Normal University, comments that the core idea of Western enlightenment is scientific reason, but although it advanced the development of modernity, it embodied a series of paradoxes, such as ‘is and ought,’ ‘necessity and freedom,’ and ‘universal and historical.’ Marxism is the true successor to the enlightenment spirit. From the perspective of Marxism, the Enlightenment is an unfinished task of ceaselessly sweeping away superstition and dogma. Professor Ma Min of the Institute of Modern Chinese History, Central China Normal University, suggested that although early modern China, unlike Europe, did not experience a complete enlightenment movement, it had indeed experienced its own process of enlightenment. Mercantilist thought represents an element of this process that should not be overlooked. In the course of this process, the values of feudal agrarian society were rejected and criticized, while the values of the newly emergent industrial and commercial society took shape and won approbation.