A favorable aspect about focusing on an ancient classic like Sun Tzu's Art of War is its prevalence in the modern world. This popularity attracts the brightest academic minds, because a more educated following over time demands it.
Today we are fortunate to have with us one of those bright academic minds, Dr. Paul R. Goldin, professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. He earned his PhD from Harvard University, where his dissertation was on the philosophy of Xunzi. He is author of Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi, Confucianism, The Culture of Sex in Ancient China, Routledge Handbook of Early Chinese History, and others, namely his most recent book, The Art of Chinese Philosophy: Eight Classical Texts and How to Read Them (published by Princeton University Press).
The Art of Chinese Philosophy has insightful discussions of The Analects of Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Sunzi, Xunzi, and Han Feizi. So for Sonshi readers, buy this book for Sun Tzu, and you will also be rewarded with wisdom from other famed Chinese philosophers.
In The Art of Chinese Philosophy, Dr. Goldin wastes little time in Chapter 7 where he dives right into Sun Tzu's passages. Having read all levels of interpretations and explanations of bingfa over the years, we can confirm that Paul Goldin provides readers with a renewed understanding and appreciation of Sun Tzu, especially with commentaries like this one:
"The term translated here as 'situational power' is shi 勢 (Old Chinese *ŋ̊et-s), which literally means 'setting' and is derived from she 設 (*ŋ̊et), 'to set up.' Thus shi refers to the 'setting' of a battlefield, with its inherent yet transient advantages and disadvantages. The shrewd commander, who knows how to read the 'setting,' will infer the most advantageous position and strategy, and smash his foe almost as a matter of pure physics. This 'external boost' is decisive, moreover, for in most real-world encounters, forces are relatively evenly matched."
And this one:
"The word 'anomalousness' (qi 奇) has two powerful connotations: as the antonym of 'regularity' (zheng 正), it refers here to the advantage of surprise that is attained by avoiding predictable formations and attacks, but qi is also a standard term for anomalies such as ghosts and shooting stars. Sunzi’s commander is as terrifying to an enemy as an omen of woe."
In a lecture Dr. Goldin gave at the University of Michigan, someone in the audience asked him what "fungible" meant, a word he used in his lecture. He explained it's an accounting term which means "money that's not tied to a specific budget." This and the following example show how his multidisciplinary mindset allows him to seek and grasp the varying contexts of classical Chinese thought:
"It is not possible, with our incomplete knowledge, to determine whether Sunzi took the idea from Laozi, Laozi took the idea from Sunzi, or both texts simply reflect the military culture of the time. But Sunzi departs from anything to be found in Mozi or Laozi when it explains how the enemy should be defeated if not by direct assault."
In a modern world that seems to value hyper specialization, it is certainly refreshing that even in the area of ancient Chinese study, there are nonetheless individuals who understand the value of an interdisciplinary approach. If widely implemented, there would be more communication and collaboration between great minds, sharing knowledge and building upon each other's knowledge. The benefits would be immeasurable to society. That's how discovery and innovation happen, even -- or, should we say, especially -- in the classics. Such a light to the world can be found in The Art of Chinese Philosophy, a masterpiece.
Below is our interview with Paul Goldin. Enjoy!
SONSHI: You are a professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania and your main area of research is in Warring States China. Tell us how you first became interested in ancient China. Was it a childhood interest or did that interest develop later in life?
GOLDIN: My high school started offering Chinese in 1986-87 (I think I was in tenth grade), and I took it because I wanted to learn a non-Indo-European language. Much later, I recalled an experience at that same school (Hunter College High School, in New York City) that changed my life, though I certainly didn't recognize it at the time. The school had invited an old Chinese gentleman (I wish I knew who it was) who analyzed a famous poem by Li Bai (years later, I was able to tell that it must have been "At Yellow Crane Tower") word by word, and after about forty-five minutes I realized that everything he said was a reasonable inference from the poem, and not one part of his long interpretation was boring. And the poem consists of just four lines. It struck me that the Chinese language must be very rich if so much meaning could be packed into just four lines, so I resolved to learn it. I didn't anticipate quite how hard it would be.
When I started studying Chinese language and culture more seriously, in college and graduate school, I wasn't immediately sure of which field or time period appealed to me most, but as I read Warring States philosophy, that question answered itself.
SONSHI: Related to the previous question, how did you first learn about Sun Tzu's Art of War? What were your initial impressions and how did your view of the book evolve over time?
GOLDIN: It was not until well after I had earned my Ph.D. The attitude toward Sunzi in the 1990's was a bit disdainful. The text was being touted by rather too many retired military officers and armchair strategists (not to mention Wall Street impostors) for the comfort of most academics, and it was not included in most standard treatments of classical Chinese philosophy (whether in print or in the classroom). The translation by the Denma group (published in 2002, I believe), helped me appreciate the philosophy of the text, and when I finally read it seriously, it was impossible not to notice that it is written in some of the most beautiful Chinese you will ever see. Tight, terse, without a single wasted syllable, and very powerful. Like a hard and sharp sword. It also immediately helped me understand certain concepts in other Chinese philosophical texts (such as shi 勢, which means something like "power derived from one's position," in Sunzi the power that one attains by wisely taking advantage of the layout of the battlefield). I would not have been able to write The Art of Chinese Philosophy without Sunzi.
SONSHI: You have a new book out! It's titled, "The Art of Chinese Philosophy: Eight Classical Texts and How to Read Them." We understand this book took you over 15 years to complete and you dedicated it to your father, who mentioned it on his deathbed. Your book has critical insights regarding eight works of classical Chinese thought: the Analects of Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Sunzi, Xunzi, and Han Feizi. Why did you decide to write this book, and how would enthusiasts of Chinese philosophy benefit?
GOLDIN: Teaching an introductory survey over the years convinced me that I have new interpretations of every one of these classic texts, and I may as well write them up, because no one else will. (I can't guarantee that every reader will like them, but I can guarantee that every reader will find new perspectives.) The idea was hatched around 2004, when an anonymous referee for a press, reviewing an earlier book of mine, wrote something to the effect of, "Well, it's good, but Goldin is capable of writing a masterpiece--why doesn't he do that instead?" That hit me hard, because it was a criticism, of course, but it was presented as one of the highest compliments that one could pay (to a writer, at any rate). So this is my attempt at a masterpiece. It's one reason why the book has taken me so long to compose.
SONSHI: One item of discussion in your book "The Art of Chinese Philosophy" is the authorship of the eight works. Why do you think traditionalists feel the need to pin a Chinese classic to one sage author instead of multiple authors? Should our approach of a classic text change because it was authored by multiple authors?
GOLDIN: That's a great question, and the answer is complicated because I think there's more than one factor at play. There are traditional Chinese ideas underlying the notion that the great philosophical texts must have been written by great men: ideas in Chinese aesthetics that attribute momentous utterances to rare and immensely talented individuals who respond authentically to the stimuli of their times. Since the texts in question are undeniably great, they must have been written by great men. (Eventually, the theory came to accept the possibility that great texts could be written by women too.) I don't deny that the many contributors to these texts were immensely talented, but a model of single authorship isn't even remotely tenable for any text before Xunzi (and even that one has a complex history). So why can't we just be honest and tailor interpretations that fit the known historical facts? (I went to Harvard, and our motto was "Veritas." I can't peddle something I don't truly believe in.) As I argue in the introduction, this does not do harm to the texts or their ideas. It only enriches them--as I try to show.
Then I suspect there are forces in the modern academy that are conducive to perpetuating the fiction that Laozi was a wise old man who wrote Laozi, Zhuangzi a wise old man who wrote Zhuangzi, etc. In philosophy departments (I thank my lucky stars that I'm not in a philosophy department), the Chinese philosophy faculty often finds itself on the defensive, faced with the unrelenting demand to justify itself. And I think this has led to the habit of affirming Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, etc. as counterweights to Plato, Hume, Kant, etc. You have your galaxy of stars, but we have stars too! It's not a great strategy, in my opinion, because it allows the Eurocentrists to dictate the terms of the debate. And it has led to the congruent urge to locate and promote a Chinese analogue of every -ism that happens to be in vogue in Western philosophy. So Mencius becomes a virtue ethicist, Mozi a utilitarian, etc. The baseline is always Western; somehow it never occurs to anyone to ask, for example, whether Jesus Christ was a junzi.
SONSHI: From your experience, what has been the number one misconception of the Chinese classics? Conversely, during your past research, what has been your biggest surprise about classical Chinese thought or culture that you didn't expect?
GOLDIN: Breaking down clichés has been the most rewarding aspect of my research. In every case, the truth is more interesting than the platitude that has been allowed to stand in for it. The Chinese had no creation myth? Wrong, the truth is actually very interesting. The Chinese were monists and never bothered with mind-body problems? Wrong, the truth is actually very interesting. The Chinese were communitarians who thought the interests of the individual should be subordinated to those of the community? Wrong, the truth is actually very interesting. I could go on and on. I've observed this pattern often enough that I now expect the truth to be very interesting.
SONSHI: Are ancient Chinese works, which can sometimes be non-deductive and paradoxical, relevant or of value to the modern world? For example, should Sun Tzu's Art of War be a reference for today's military leaders? What are the benefits and the caveats?
GOLDIN: I don't have the expertise to declare whether Sunzi is still useful for today's military leaders, but many of them seem to think so, and my guess is they're right. There's no doubt that Sunzi is highly respected in the U.S. armed forces. The insightful essays accompanying the Denma translation point out the indebtedness of the famed Warfighting manual to Sunzi, and I'll add one more piece of evidence that I've collected: the phrase "shock and awe," which we kept hearing in the initial phases of the invasion of Iraq. (As that enterprise soured, you started to hear "shock and awe" less and less.) But where did it come from? I've never found a persuasive explanation, and I'll bet dollars to donuts that it comes from zhenwei 震威 (which means--you guessed it, "shock and awe"). And if that hunch is right, it yields an interesting inference: somebody in the Department of Defense was reading Sunzi in the original Chinese, and with traditional commentary, because zhenwei does not, in fact, appear in Sunzi; it appears in a commentary on Sunzi. I actually discuss this in the book briefly. Shock and Awe (1996) is the title of a strategic handbook by Harlan K. Ullman and others, and they refer to Sunzi repeatedly.
Last year, I presented my ideas about Sunzi to the cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. They loved it. As do I.
SONSHI: Regarding the non-deductive reasoning of classical Chinese thought, why do you think Eastern philosophers chose that line of reasoning instead of a more deductive, syllogistic reasoning employed by Western philosophers like Aristotle?
GOLDIN: That's another great question, because the preference for non-deductive argumentation was clearly a cultural choice. It's not as though classical Chinese writers were unfamiliar with deductive arguments, because they did use them, as I point out in the book. I'm not positive of the answer, but I proposed a couple of explanations. First, one of the ideals of philosophizing in Chinese was that one's utterances should be patterned and appealing (this is another theme in Chinese aesthetics), which led to a penchant for metaphor, meiosis, irony, and other literary devices that are not easily reconcilable with syllogistic argumentation. (Not often does a syllogism have outstanding literary merit.) Second, Chinese philosophy (from the very beginning--this was a hallmark of Confucius's teaching) insists that the audience has to participate, and this may have discouraged deductive arguments, which are supposed to be valid in any place and at any time. (I think the way I put it in the book was "Modus tollens is as valid in Dallas as in Krasnoyarsk.") One way to convey that judgments (especially moral judgments) are not universally valid, because they depend on the identity of the agents involved, is to avoid deductive arguments.
SONSHI: What are you currently working on? Tell us more about it!
GOLDIN: With my repeated references to Chinese aesthetics, you might have guessed the answer to this question: I'm working on a book on Chinese aesthetics. The topic is fascinating and woefully neglected. It has been bothering more and more that when most people say things like "I do Chinese philosophy," they really just mean ethics (or maybe political philosophy, but Chinese political philosophy and Chinese ethics are very close). But there is a rich Chinese literature on questions like the nature, origins, and purposes of art, how it is to be judged, and so on. Philosophers call that aesthetics, so why don't they pay attention to these sources? About five years ago, when I made my second attempt to read and comprehend the sprawling work called Wenxin diaolong (The Literary Mind Carves Dragons--nobody has conclusively explained the title, though I do think I now understand what is meant by "the literary mind"), I was transfixed, and understood that this had to be my next project. Once again, I won't guarantee that every reader will like them, but I can guarantee that they'll find new perspectives.
[End of interview]