Forging a New Epistemology about Philosophy and Science: Joseph Needham’s Translation of Zhu Xi’s Concept of Li 理
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AbstractThis paper will examine Joseph Needham’s (1900–1995) translation of Zhu Xi’s (1130–1200) concept of li 理. Zhu Xi is recognized today as the most influential thinker in Chinese history since the twelfth century. His concept of li (which has been translated variously as “principle,” “law,” “reason,” “organization,” “pattern,” “order,” and many other expressions) invites creative interpretations about the cosmological reality via the change or renewal of given categories of knowledge. Needham was the first Western translator who brought his view of Zhu’s concept of li to bear on central concerns in modern natural sciences. My paper will adopt the theories by Arthur Schopenhauer (language learning as mapping new conceptual spheres), Willard Van Orman Quine (translation and epistemology, translation according to one’s conceptual scheme, and the indeterminacy of meaning in translation), and James St. André (retranslation as argument), to investigate how Needham’s translation of Zhu’s concept of li creates a new epistemology about philosophy and science.

In light of Schopenhauer, Quine, and St. André, my paper will analyze Needham’s translation of li in the context of his conceptual scheme, focusing on how he explores new conceptual possibilities and develops new arguments about philosophy and science. In his Science and Civilization in China (1956, vol. 2), Needham translates li as “organization” based on his argumentation about Zhu’s cosmology as a natural philosophy of organism. For Needham, li foregrounds Zhu’s systematic account of the universe as characterized by naturalism and immanent patterns of organisms. However, Needham does not use his view of the naturalistic and immanent trait of Zhu’s li system to suggest the superiority of Western thinking on the supernatural and transcendent. Instead, through his translational argumentation, he values and celebrates such naturalism and immanence in Zhu’s system. He uses the translation “organization” to formulate new ideas about matter, energy, nature, and evolution. Accordingly, his translation also re-conceptualizes “natural philosophy” as a new sphere of knowledge, which stimulates and embraces innovative inquiries into the meanings of philosophy, science, and their interconnection across the Chinese and Western traditions. Overall, my paper demonstrates how Needham’s translation of li creates a new epistemology (theory of knowledge) about philosophy and science. Ultimately, my paper highlights how Needham, in translating and building arguments about Zhu’s concept of li and li system, redefines and correlates philosophy and science as a holistic new epistemic approach to understanding the cosmological reality.
Acceptance Date15/05/2019
All Author(s) ListI-Hsin Chen
Name of ConferenceCUHK Research Summit Workshop – Crossing Borders: Sinology in Translation Studies
Start Date of Conference13/06/2019
End Date of Conference15/06/2019
Place of ConferenceThe Chinese University of Hong Kong
Country/Region of ConferenceHong Kong
LanguagesEnglish-United States

Last updated on 2019-11-10 at 09:37