Feng Youlan (馮友蘭, 冯友兰, Féng Yǒulán; Wade-Giles: Fung Yu-lan) (1895–1990) was a Chinese philosopher who was important for reintroducing the study of Chinese philosophy, regarded as the outstanding Chinese philosopher of the twentieth century. Feng sought to promote philosophical interchange between East and West. His famous two-volume History of Chinese Philosophy (1934), a systematic examination of Chinese philosophy from a Western philosophical viewpoint, exposed the West to an organized overview of Chinese thought for the first time. As Feng said, “While the intellectual leaders of the [earlier] second period were interested in pointing out the difference between the East and the West, we are now interested in seeing what is common to them.” At the same time, the book re-ignited an interest in Chinese philosophy in China, among scholars who, living amidst the scramble to modernize their country, had neglected the value and intellectual heritage of Chinese traditions. Feng helped to turn the attention of Chinese intellectuals back to their own heritage, and to encourage them to examine this heritage from the perspective of Western philosophy.
Born in 1895, Feng lived through a period of turmoil and transition in China, experiencing the Sino-Japanese War of 1907, the fall of the Ch’ing dynasty during the 1911 rebellion, two World Wars and the establishment of communism in China. As a youth in China, he began to be exposed to Western philosophy through the translations of Fen Yu. Sent abroad in 1918 to Columbia University, he studied under the American pragmatist John Dewey. After publication of History of Chinese Philosophy Feng continued to pursue the interaction between Eastern and Western thought, although during the Maoist Cultural Revolution he was censored for producing “idealistic philosophy.” He was later allowed more academic freedom, and remained in China until his death in 1990.
Feng was born on December 4, 1895 in Tanghe County, Nanyang, Henan Province, China, to a middle-class family of landowners. He received his primary education from his parents and private tutors. In 1910 he entered Chung-Chou Institute in Kaifeng, where his teachers exposed him to the nationalistic and revolutionary ideas which were spreading through China before the revolution of 1911. He was awarded a provincial scholarship to study at the Chung-kuo Hung-Hsueh (China Academy) in Shanghai. It was a progressive school and offered a course in logic using Western textbooks translated into Chinese by Yen Fu. He studied philosophy at Shanghai University, then at Beijing University, where he was able study Western philosophy and logic as well as Chinese philosophy.
After the disastrous Boxer Rebellion against foreigners in China in 1900, the Manchu government had adopted more progressive policies encouraging interaction with Japan and the West. These policies included an expanded program to send promising young scholars to study abroad, some of them supported by funds from the indemnity payable to the United States as part of the Boxer peace settlement. Upon his graduation in 1918, Feng traveled to the United States, where he studied at Columbia University on a Boxer Indemnity grant. There, he met, among many philosophers who were to influence his thought and career, John Dewey, the pragmatist, who became his teacher. Feng gained his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1923, though he spent the last two years working on his thesis (A Comparative Study of Life Ideals) back in China.
He went on to teach at a number of Chinese universities (including Guangdong University and Yanjing University), and in 1928 became professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University in Peking. It was while at Tsinghua that Feng published what was to be his best-known and most influential work, a two-volume History of Chinese Philosophy (1934; rev. ed., 1952–1953), presenting and examining the history of Chinese philosophy from a Western viewpoint. This work established his reputation and remains the standard general history of Chinese philosophy. It also reignited an interest in Chinese thought.
In 1939 Feng published Xin Li-xue (Hsin li-hsüeh, New Rational Philosophy, or Neo-Lixue), in which he converted certain twelfth-century Neo-Confucian assertions about the world into formal logical concepts. These he dealt with in a systematic manner that was new to Chinese philosophy, which traditionally had largely used assertion and metaphor. Lixue was the philosophical position of a small group of twelfth-century neo-Confucianists (including Cheng Hao, Cheng Yi, and Zhu Xi). Feng's book took certain metaphysical notions from their thought and from Daoism (such as li and tao) and converted them into formal logical concepts, analyzing and developing them in ways that reflected Western philosophical tradition, to produce a rationalistic neo-Confucian metaphysics. He also developed, in the same way, an account of the nature of morality and of the structure of human moral development.
When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, the students and staff of Beijing's Tsinghua and Beijing universities, together with Tianjin's Nankai University, fled their campuses. They went first to Hengshan, where they set up the Changsha Temporary University, and then to Kunming, where they set up Southwest Associated University. When, in 1946, the three universities returned to Beijing, Feng went again to the United States to take up a post as visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent the academic year 1948-1949 as a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii.
While he was at Pennsylvania, news from China made it clear that the communists were on their way to seizing power. Feng's friends tried to persuade him to stay in the United States, but he was determined to return; his political views were broadly socialist, and he felt optimistic about China's future under its new government.
Once back home, Feng began to study Leninist thought, but he soon found that the political situation fell short of his hopes. By the mid-1950s his philosophical approach was being attacked by the authorities. He was forced to repudiate much of his earlier work as idealistic, abstract and devoid of historical and practical character; and to rewrite the rest, including his History, in order to fit in with the ideas of the Cultural Revolution. From 1957 to 1963 he was harshly attacked by Marxist-Leninist critics for continuing to promote an idealistic philosophy, but he remained in China. After enduring much hardship, he finally saw a relaxation of censorship, and was able to write with a certain degree of freedom. He died on November 26, 1990, in Beijing.
Feng continues to be known mostly for his History of Chinese Philosophy, which was translated into English in 1937 by Derk Bodde and is still in print. This book not only used Western philosophical methods to provide a systematic interpretation of Chinese philosophy for Chinese scholars, but made the thought of Chinese philosophers intelligible to Western readers for the first time. The theme of contrast and comparison between the East and the West, ancient and modern, permeated all of his work, and he continually showed how one could help in understanding the other. Although he has received the most recognition for his role as a historian, Feng was in fact an original and influential philosopher in his own right, deserving of greater attention.
In 1934, at the Eighth International Congress of Philosophy, Feng spoke these words:
China is now at a present that is not the natural growth of her past, but something forced upon her against her will. In the completely new situation that she has to face, she has been much bewildered. In order to make the situation more intelligible and to adapt to it more intelligently, she has to interpret sometimes the present in terms of the past and sometimes the past in terms of the present. In other words, she has to connect the new civilization that she has to face with the old that she already has and to make them not alien but intelligible to each other. Besides interpretation, there is also criticism. In interpreting the new civilization in terms of the old, or the old in terms of the new, she cannot help but to criticize sometimes the new in the light of the old, and sometimes the old in the light of the new. Thus the interpretation and criticism of civilizations is the natural product in China of the meeting of the West and the East and is what has interested the Chinese mind and has constituted the main current of Chinese thought during the last fifty years.
…while the intellectual leaders of the first period were interested primarily in interpreting the new in terms of the old, we are now also interested in interpreting the old in terms of the new. While the intellectual leaders of the second period were interested in pointing out the difference between the East and the West, we are now interested in seeing what is common to them. We hold that if there is any difference between the East and the West, it is the product of different circumstances. In different circumstances men have different responses. If we see the response with the circumstances that produce it, we may probably say with Hegel that what is actual is also reasonable. Thus we are not interested now in criticizing one civilization in the light of the other, as the intellectual leaders of the first and the second periods did, but in illustrating the one with the other so that they may both be better understood. We are now interested in the mutual interpretation of the East and the West rather than their mutual criticism. They are seen to be the illustrations of the same tendency of human progress and the expressions of the same principle of human nature. Thus the East and the West are not only connected, they are united. (Feng Youlan, excerpted from Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Philosophy, 1934)
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