Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.36

Lisa Raphals, Knowing Words: Wisdom and Cunning in the Classical Traditions of China and Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. Pp. xviii + 273. $39.95. ISBN 0-8014-2619-7.

Reviewed by Hu Ying, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Stephen G. Salkever, Bryn Mawr College.

The design of this book, a volume in the Myth and Poetics series edited by Gregory Nagy, is to use the Homeric and classical Greek distinction between Odyssean metis and the scientific and propositional knowledge associated with concepts like theoria and episteme as a point of departure for a discussion of texts from two different periods of Chinese writing: the great philosophical texts of the Warring States period (403-222 B.C.) and two Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) novels. Since most of this fascinating study deals with ancient and medieval Chinese texts, it may not be of immediate professional interest to most readers of this review. But Knowing Words can nonetheless be of great value and surprising accessibility to Hellenists as well as Sinologists, since in it Raphals initiates a comparative study of the two classical literatures that blends a sophisticated theoretical perspective on the tasks of interpretation, rare competence in both languages and literatures, an unusual clarity of style, and the ability to make sharply focused interpretive arguments. By attending to this study that gracefully brings into dialogue two literary traditions that had no historic contact with one another, readers whose education is less extensive than Raphals' (and this includes nearly all of us, and certainly the present reviewers) can glimpse some of the central problems and possibilities of cross-cultural literary analysis. On display here are some remarkably new ways of thinking about familiar as well as unfamiliar texts by bringing them into a kind of dialogue with one another.

The ostensive motive for the study is to test Detienne and Vernant's claim1 that there is something universal about the "semantic field" surrounding the Greek word metis by seeing if there is anything that corresponds in classical Chinese to "metic intelligence," to the notion of a kind of wisdom that is both morally problematic and discursively indirect. Raphals uses the broad semantic range of the Chinese term zhi as principal source in her quest for equivalents for metis, and asks whether (and if so how) the tension between theoretical understanding and intuitive cunning is addressed by her Chinese texts, and hence whether some such tension may be a universal feature of the human attempt to articulate the varieties of human intelligence. It may be doubted whether such a broad proposition can ever be demonstrated. But we suggest that there is also a less ambitious (perhaps more metic and less scientific) way of characterizing Raphals' inquiry -- Can reading Chinese texts from the perspective of a Greek problematic yield interesting and fresh readings? -- and in terms of this implicit question the book is both a clear success and an open invitation to the rest of us to see whether similar benefits can be obtained by reading Greek texts with a variety of Chinese concepts and distinctions in mind. Insofar as it follows this second interpretive path, Knowing Words provides unique instruction in how readers of classical Greek texts and others in the humanities might achieve a genuine multiculturalism without reducing literary analysis to a parody of social science.

The substance of the first half of the book is a careful mapping of the various schools of the Warring States period. These schools include Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, Militarism, zongheng and several others. True to the spirit of a period in which the various philosophical schools were constantly in contention with each other, Raphals presents each school in cross-reference to the others, sometimes literally one in terms of the other. For example, having discussed the Confucians and the Militarists, she re-frames the picture: "Put in terms of the Sunzi, Mencius and Xunzi [Hsün Tzu] advocate the use of zheng, straightforwardness, in all circumstances and dismiss the need for use of qi, craftiness" (124). Both zheng and qi are Militarist terms, and using them to characterize the Confucians is particularly illuminating. Thus the book effectively shows the external dialogues among the various philosophical schools of the classical period. As it proceeds to discuss the later development of these concepts, to the time when Confucianism became the state endorsed dominant discourse, these hypothetical dialogues become more and more contentious.

Within each school, Raphals also presents a corresponding internal dialogue, such as the one between Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi, the leading figures of the Confucian school of thought. She traces the wide range of meanings of such concepts as knowledge, wisdom, craft, and cunning in their relation to the question of the meaning and value of speech. At the end of each chapter there is a section on "semantic field," giving a crisp picture of the range of possibilities and their interrelation. Raphals is especially helpful in relating the basic theme of metis to the particular concerns of each of the philosophical schools. For example, the discussion of the intricate correlations between the concept of wisdom and ren, or humanity, in the Confucian philosophy, reveals further the depth of the meanings of zhi, or wisdom. This concept is then further pitted against another concept crucial to Confucianism as well as Taoism, the concept of wei, or purposive action. What the reader witnesses is then a continual re-contextualization in the midst of careful textual reading.

The second half of the book takes on two classical Chinese novels of the sixteenth century. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a perfect choice to illustrate the tension between the Confucian understanding of knowledge and the Militarist understanding, as the novel attempts to reconcile precisely that tension in the figure of huge Liang. This character is at different points presented as both a Confucian moral paragon and a cunning military strategist. The second novel Raphals engages, Journey to the West, adds yet another dimension to the picture, namely the tradition of Chinese Buddhism. The Buddhist conception of fangbien, or convenient method, adds considerable complexity to the general discussion.

The second half of the book would have been stronger if the tensions between the various understandings of wisdom were played up more. It would have been particularly good to see some analysis of traditional and modern scholarship concerning the novels, which might also seem, in the light of Raphals' discussion, to have been engaged in the larger debate of the philosophical understandings. It would, for example, be interesting to see a semantic field drawn for the various and conflicting readings of Zhuge Liang, similarly to what Raphals does for each philosopher in the first half of the book. This would be especially interesting for The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, since the edition Raphals uses is demonstrably different from several early historical or semi-historical versions, thus leaving behind the traces of contending interpretations.

The book as a whole is a daring comparative study that successfully uses metis as a point of departure to bring together a number of interrelated texts and issues. At times, however, especially in the concluding sections of chapters, the book's professed methodology -- testing the Detienne and Vernant hypothesis about the universality of the metis semantic field -- works like a straitjacket on Raphals' otherwise supple readings. There seems to be an excessive drive toward a bifurcation in the analytic results so that there will always be "two attitudes" toward the understanding of language, or knowledge, or metis, whatever the topic is. This apparent bow in the direction of a scientific outlook fails to do justice to the fine readings that Raphals has done. Ultimately, consideration of the semantic field of metis may or may not prove to be the infallibly best strategy for bringing to light interesting debates and puzzles about modes of intelligence. What matters more is what Raphals has successfully shown in her discussions of the philosophers, the great variety and shades of difference that come out as each school and text is situated in relation to others, in multiple dialogues with others.

But this scientistic methodological constraint is less evident in the actual language of her practical criticism. When concluding her remarks on the Confucians, Raphals' language goes nicely comparative: "Xunzi's insistence ... places Confucian tradition between the Scylla of a moral knowledge without any ultimate source and the Charybdis of an ethic that explicitly rejects any form of moral relativism" (49). And again: "Mohism and Confucianism in turn differ from the more 'Nietzschean' views of Taoists and Militarists" (51). This language is consistent with the interpretive principle that her work most often follows in practice, that of continually re-contextualizing one school in terms of another, one tradition in terms of another. This to us seems a more appropriate comparative strategy.

What remains to be done is to see each in terms of the other, not just one (the Chinese) in terms of the others (the Greek, the French). There are some provocative hints at the end of the book concerning Sophocles' character Antigone and the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi displaying different varieties of the strategy of the wu wei, of shunning any action aimed directly at controlling circumstances. But it would also be interesting, for example, to see Detienne and Vernant in terms of Mao Zonggang, the author/critic of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In other words, the analytic method itself should also be open to re-contextualization and to dialogic contestation. The straitjacket of theory may then become supple as Sunzi's military strategies, to be used according to a given situation, and always in response to an opponent. As the opponent devises counter-strategies. Always in reciprocity.


  • [1] Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, trans. Janet Lloyd (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978).