Interpretation–Historical or Creative?

John Makeham, in his 2003 Transmitters and Creators, argues that the attempt by some scholars to make Confucius relevant to contemporary concerns without study of the main Chinese commentaries and commentarial traditions on the Analects is a mistake. Although I am certainly in agreement that we should worry about the historical context of the Analects in Chinese society after the 5th century BCE, I disagree with Makeham that the project of bypassing the commentarial tradition and working directly from the Analects for interpretation is not useful. It seems to me that both projects would be desirable in the ideal situation (if every academic were a sinologist or philosopher). Granted, the ideal situation does not hold, and thus we might have a healthy discussion over which project (the historical project or the creative project) should take precedence–but it still seems that the creative project is not prima facie undesirable. One could argue that the Chinese commentarial traditions have affected our own interpretations of the Analects, whether we’re aware of it or not (infecting us through our teachers, who got it from their teachers, and so forth…), but this situation is not essentially different from that of Zhu Xi, He Yan, or any of the other Chinese commentators (ancient or modern), many of whom attempted to give their own interpretations of the Analects free of close analysis of the commentarial tradition as it existed at their time. We can’t avoid the fact that each commentator on the Analects attempted to interpret the text so as to make it relevant to their social and political situation, and these considerations were often separate from historical concerns. This fact is part of what makes the commentarial literature so interesting, as it is far from uniform. If this is so, however, then such projects should be as important today, as we ourselves may become part of the living Confucian tradition. If we see the Analects and the Confucian tradition(s) in general as historians, we may end up looking at it as antiquarians. This is certainly important (especially in academia), but there is also a central place (also in academia) for creative and approaches to interpretation of the Analects and other important ancient texts.

One response to “Interpretation–Historical or Creative?

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell

    I absolutely agree with you: this sounds like the sour grumblings of a pedant. Any text of philosophical value is certainly worthy of close, unaided scrutiny apart from the commentarial traditions that follow it. Sometimes it really helps to read, say, Plato, without the baggage of scholarly apparatus and debates that surround interpretations of this or that dialogue. There’s no compelling reason why both the ‘historical’ and ‘creative’ projects can’t flourish in unison and even, Heaven forbid, learn something from each other (yes, the learning can cut both ways).

    Your argument here trumps that of the well-established scholar….

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