Philosophers: Feng Youlan
(Fung Yu-Lan)
(1895-1990 CE)

[Life & work] | [On-line introductions] | [On-line texts]

Born in 1895 in Tanghe, in the Henan Province in eastern China, to a moderately well-to-do family (of the landlord class), Feng Youlan lived his life through a series of civil wars and political upheavals. He went to University first at Shanghai, and then (being able to find no-one who could teach him the Western philosophy and logic in which he was interested) he transferred to Beijing. He graduated in philosophy in 1918, and left on a Boxer Indemnity grant to study at Columbia University, where he met and was influenced by a number of American philosophers, including John Dewey. He returned to China in 1923, where he finished working on his thesis, gaining his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1925.

Over the following ten years he held teaching positions at a number of Chinese Universities, including Guangdong University, Yanjing University, and Tsinghua University in Beijing. The latter was known for its championing of logical analysis, as opposed to Beijing University.s more idealist style of philosophy. While at Tsinghua, he published what was to be his best-known work, the two-volume History of

Chinese Philosophy (1934); this applied a Western philosophical approach to Chinese philosophy, and became the standard work of its kind . although it had a tendency to present all Chinese philosophers as more or less clandestine positivists. In 1939 he published his Xin Li-xue (New Rational Philosophy, or Neo-Lixue), named after the 12th-century neo-Confucianists whose work had influenced his thinking, in which he developed his own logicised version of neo-Confucianism.

The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War led to Feng's flight from Beijing, together with the students and staff from Tsinghua, Beijing, and Nankai Universities, and to the formation first of the Changsha Temporary University in Hengshan, then of the Southwest Associated University in Kunming. In 1946 the Universities returned to Beijing, but Feng travelled to the University of Pennsylvania as a visiting professor. While he was there, it became obvious that the Communist forces were going to take power, but he ignored the advice of his American friends not to go back. His more or less socialist political views meant that he had great optimism for China.s new future, and on his return he began to study Marxist-Leninist thought.

However, the political climate wasn't what he had hoped for, and by the mid to late fifties Feng found his philosophical work under attack; he not only reworked and repudiated much of his earlier thinking, but had to rewrite his History of Chinese Philosophy to fit the prejudices of the Cultural Revolution. He nevertheless stayed in China, living through the worst of times, and eventually regaining some of his old freedom to think and write, which he did until his death in 1990.

Feng's philosophical position takes basic metaphysical notions from traditional Chinese thought, and develops and analyses them using the tools of Western philosophical reasoning; from this position he is then able to construct a rationalist neo-Confucianist metaphysics, together with an ethical theory that offered an account, not only of the nature of morality, but of the structure of human moral development. Feng Youlan may be best known for his history of Chinese philosophy, but he was one of the most original and influential of modern Chinese philosophers.

+ One Hundred Philosophers (2004)
U.S.A.:     Barron's Educational Books
U.K.:        Apple Press
Australia: A.B.C. Books
The book covers the history of philosophy chronologically from Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE) to Peter Singer (b.1946 CE), with philosophers from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the U.S.A., about 60% getting a page, 40% two pages. Scattered through the book are brief introductions to such topics as African, Chinese, and Indian philosophy, scepticism, women in philosophy, mind and body, the philosophy of science, and moral philosophy. The book's divided into periods, each with its own introduction and timeline of other important events. There's also a glossary, suggested further reading, and an index.
+ Feng Youlan
Wikipedia article.
+ Philosophy of Contemporary China
From the Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Philosophy, 1934; provided by the Radical Academy.

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