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Roger Ames speaks at 7th Yan Fu Academic Lecture Series

Peking University, April 18, 2015:On the 2nd of April, students, professors and press gathered at theDianjiao Building of Peking University to attend a lecture on Chinese comparative philosophy titled “ ‘Knowing’ as the ‘Realizing of Happiness’ ” by Professor Roger Ames. The lecture is a part of the 7th Yan Fu Academic Lecture series, a series of philosophical academic lectures created in the name of Yan Fu, renowned Chinese scholar of the late 19th century.The event was sponsored by the Department of Philosophy, the Peking University Taoism Research Centre as well as the Confucian Society of Peking University, and hosted by Professor Zheng Kai.


After thanking the sponsors and hosts of the event, Professor Ames began his lecture by acknowledging Yan Fu as one of the most highly respected scholars among translators of philosophy. According to Ames, when it came to good translation work, Yan Fu emphasized three characteristics: expressivity, refinement and accuracy, which was the focus of his lecture.Ames pointed out that one of the constant challenges in comparative philosophy, especially when it came to translating a foreign culture into a different language, is preventing one’sownworldviews or culture from interfering with the interpretation, as proposed by I.A. Richards. ‘One of the greatest dangers faced by Western Sinologists is allowing their own idealism, materialism and realism to interfere with their understanding of traditional Chinese philosophy,’ says Professor Ames.He points out thatwhile one language is often insufficient in describing certain words and ideas of another, effective comparisons can still be made because of ‘Langue’ and ‘Parole’, conceptual constructs distinguished by linguist Saussure. Professor Ames also recognized other challenges in the field of comparative Chinese philosophy such as Orientalism and the tendency of profound asymmetry in making cultural comparisons.


Professor Ames went on to discuss taking philosophical traditions on their own terms and preventing ‘shoe-horning’. He demonstrates this through a ‘focus-field conception’ approach of looking at a subject: in traditional Chinese medicine, the heart-mind () is representative of the general health of the body, and yet without the body the heart is nothing but muscle, indicating that life is holistic, processual, relational and gerundive. “Living isn’t contained within our skin; we walk because there is ground beneath us, we breathe because there is air around us,” says Professor Ames, pointing out that just like everything else, the heart-mind in cannot be described on its own without consideration for its interconnectedness with other entities. Ames proposes that this resonates with Whitehead’s aesthetic and logical order in the sense that all details are implicated in others. ‘…[Thus,] the highest form knowledge is perceiving the cosmos as one,’ says Professor Ames.


Finally, Professor Ames uses the anecdote ‘The Happy Fish” from Zhuangzi to illustrate his theme: ‘knowing’ as the ‘realizing of happiness’. In this passage, Zhuangzi and Hui Shi find themselves on a bridge contemplating the carefree fish in the river below. According to Professor Ames, the shared experience between sentient human beings and remote animals such as fish allows one to tap into this interrelatedness and know intuitively that the fish are happy. Through this analogy, Professor Ames derives three conclusions: knowing is collaborative and radically situated, knowing is performative and realizes something and thirdly, knowing is perlocutionary in that the knowers and the known, the enjoyers and the enjoyment are inseparable aspects of the same occasion. 


The lecture was followed by a lively question and answer session, during which students put forth a variety of questions ranging from philosophical interpretations tomodern social phenomena. While Professor Ames answered the questions, he mentioned his concept of Confucian role ethics, an ethical theory based on filial piety. The event concluded with a closing speech by Professor Chen Qiaoying, who supplemented some of his own insights and thanked Professor Ames for an exciting and informative lecture.



Background info:

Professor Roger T. Ames is a professor at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Hawaii and a longtime friend of Peking University. He is the current president of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy (SACP), and also serves as editor of Philosophy East and West as well as China Review International. His primary areas of research and interest include comparative philosophy and Confucian philosophy. He also often cooperates with other scholars to translate classical text.He is presently advocating Confucian role ethics as an attempt to take this philosophical tradition on its own terms.


Reported by: Candice Liao Shunyi

Edited by: Zhang Jiang