Léon Vandermeersch (1928-2021) on the differences between Western and Chinese rationalities

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Received today the newsletter of INSTITUT RICCI – Centre Sèvres, Paris.

Actualités de novembre 2022
Le 19 octobre dernier, l'Institut Ricci a rendu hommage le temps d'une journée au grand sinologue disparu il y a un an, Léon Vandermeersch. A partir de son étude de la divination et de la naissance de l’écriture en Chine ancienne, il a mené une réflexion de fond sur les différences entre rationalités occidentale et chinoise, qualifiées respectivement de « téléologique » et « morphologique ». La journée a permis d’évoquer son apport à la compréhension de la Chine et, surtout, de convaincre les participants qu’il faudrait un colloque plus substantiel qui permettrait une évaluation approfondie de cet apport.

Google Translate:

November 2022 news

On October 19, the Ricci Institute paid tribute for a day to the great sinologist who died a year ago, Léon Vandermeersch. Based on his study of divination and the birth of writing in ancient China, he conducted a fundamental reflection on the differences between Western and Chinese rationalities, qualified respectively as “teleological” and “morphological”. The day provided an opportunity to discuss his contribution to the understanding of China and, above all, to convince the participants that a more substantial symposium would be needed which would allow an in-depth evaluation of this contribution.                                                                                                              

I have long been aware of Professor Vandermeersch's work in these areas and am much intrigued by his findings.  I will be keen to learn what a symposium on these topics might uncover.


Selected readings


  1. JPL said,

    November 4, 2022 @ 12:36 am

    What are people who use the term talking about exactly when they use the term 'rationalites/rationalities', what are the differences between the two "rationalities" that are described by the different labels "teleological" and "morphological" (at what point do the differences lie?), and what might the equivalences be between them such that they could possibly both be described as forms or manners of 'rationality'? E.g., do they both require as a sine qua non the provision of (good) reasons in support of assertions, whether or not the speaker is asked to do so? Are they talking about principles of logic, e.g., rules of inference and requirement for evidence supporting empirical claims, or are they talking merely about socially conventional styles of argument, e.g.? These questions were provoked by the use of the term "rationalities" (plural), and I wondered why Prof. Vandermeersch or the Ricci Institute expressed whatever it is they were trying to express that way. (It could be an interesting question if that term is clarified.)

  2. Pau Amma said,

    November 4, 2022 @ 4:17 am

    That translation is very good overall, but "discuss its contribution" should be "discuss his contribution" (that is, Léon Vandermeersch's).

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2022 @ 9:04 am

    @Pau Amma

    Thank you for the correction.

    Fixed in the o.p. now.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2022 @ 10:06 am


    Thank you for your excellent observations and questions. In partial recompense, I offer here the following quotations from one of Vandermeersch's books that speaks to your concerns:


    Léon Vandermeersch, Les deux raisons de la pensée chinoise : divination et idéographie (Gallimard, 2013).

    9-Cet ouvrage est consacré à la démonstration de la thèse suivante : la profonde différence entre la culture chinoise et la culture occidentale, qui divergent l’une de l’autre d’autant que l’écriture idéographique s’éloigne de l’écriture alphabétique, a son origine dans l’opposition entre, en milieu cehinois, une pensée primitivement guidée par une forme très sophistiquée de divination, et, en milieux gréco-latin et judéo-chrétien, une pensée primitivement guidée par des croyances religieuses.

    12-« La manticologie recherche rationnellement des correspondances entre les phénomènes naturels eux-mêmes. Elle part, pour commencer, de leur apparentement par la typologie des signes divinatoires qui se rapportent aux uns et aux autres, mais poursuit la spéculation ainsi amorcée en se guidant sur des analogies des formes entre les phénomènes eux-mêmes, à la lumière d’une ‘morpho-logique’ structuraliste.

    Google Translate:

    Léon Vandermeersch, The two reasons for Chinese thought: divination and ideography (Gallimard, 2013).

    9-This work is devoted to the demonstration of the following thesis: the profound difference between Chinese culture and Western culture, which diverge from each other as much as ideographic writing moves away from writing alphabetical [VHM: distances itself from alphabetical writing], has its origin in the opposition between, in Chinese circles, a thought primitively guided by a very sophisticated form of divination, and, in Greco-Latin and Judeo-Christian circles, a thought primitively guided by religious beliefs.

    12-Manticology rationally seeks correspondences between natural phenomena themselves. It starts, to begin with, from their relationship by [VHM: to] the typology of the divinatory signs which relate to one and the other [VHM: to one another], but continues the speculation thus begun by being guided by analogies of the forms between the phenomena themselves, in the light of a structuralist 'morpho-logic'.

    [Thanks to John Lagerwey]

    N.B.: Please refer to the French original as authoritative representations of Vandermeersch, not the GT version, even with my minimal emendations.


    Within a day or two, I will make a separate post based on quotations from Vandermeersch's Wangdao that answers your questions at much greater length and in greater detail.

  5. JPL said,

    November 4, 2022 @ 6:17 pm


    Thank you so much for your response. The report did seem intriguingly interesting, so thanks for the excerpts, and I'm looking forward to your further explications. (Although I've never focused any research on it, I've long been disturbed by conventional anthropological accounts of the reasoning of so-called "primitive" cultures in Africa; they seem to completely misunderstand the basic rationality, e.g., of the reasoning of practitioners in a legal context, especially in the investigation of crimes, and fail to account for where their principles depart from modern European practices.)

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