A Geneological Prelude: KŌSHŌGAKU as Lexicology


Before outlining the terms of the debate, a brief overview is in order of the formation of kōshōgaku and the ideological ground Nishi had tread when wielding it.  Typically translated “evidential learning,” the methodology should be traced to parallel developments in 18th-century sinophonic Confucian scholarship visible across northeastern Asia.[3] The most pronounced emergence of this mode of scholarship is witnessed in the Lower Yangzi Basin.  In fact the term kōshōgaku (Ch. kaozheng xue) originates with the coteries of literati that gather there after the Manchu takeover in 1644.  As Benjamin Elman compellingly argues in his landmark study of the 17th- and 18th-century Lower Yangzi academic communities, the shifts in intellectual and philosophical orientation that take shape during this period are rooted in the convergence of a few, critical historical and social realities.  While not an intellectual movement, kaozheng xue proponents had subtle political motivations in directing their empirical and inductive methods toward the Confucian canon.  This fact is belied in part by the region’s gradual rise to cultural dominance.   Centers of learning in Fujian, Guangdong, and Hunan had become, Elman remarks, “tributaries of or reactions against” (12) Jiangnan trends.[4] This is primarily a result of the region’s history of great scholarly patronage, supported by the lucrative salt trade and a culture encouraging of scholarly advancement.  By the end of the Ming reign the Jiangnan region had become a hub in a book trade network that extended across northeast Asia.  At the onset of Qing rule, Jiangnan boasted the highest per capita of jin shi degree-holders – the highest ranking in the imperial examination system.

Dominance, however, did not translate into willingness to engage in politics, and neither did it necessarily afford the freedom.   Rather, concerns with practical problems in astronomy, math, water control and land reclamation drove refinement of their philological methods.  Social critique, in turn, grew from the scholar’s encounters with obstacles due to corruption or poor leadership.   Social critic Dai Zhen (1724-1777), for example, developed a simple method of glossing (xunku) in order to determine the precise meaning of li, or principle, in the Mencius.  However this also enabled him to wield the text against Song morality metaphysics, which he felt were the latest in a series of misinterpretations disfiguring the Confucian tradition, and thereby recover the text’s original revolutionary flavor.[5]  Of course, Dai Zhen was not without his critics.  Ultimately, though, it was the shrewd redirecting of these energies on the part of the Qing government toward storage and annotation of the Siku quanshu that prevented aggravated outbreaks from developing among competing schools.  It is likely, too, the enormous capital behind this imperial sponsorship helped raise the profile of these philologists (among whom Dai Zhen was an important innovator) in centers of learning beyond the frontiers of the imperium. 
From historicist and sinocentric vantages, the patterns of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Tokugawa Confucianism would seem to reflect a history of irregular contact with continental trends.  For instance, Hayashi Razan (1583-1657), an important disseminator of Confucian scholarship, produced a philosophical lexicography based on Chen Beixi’s (1159-1223) Xingli ziyi (Jp. Seiri jigi; lit. “Human Nature and Principle”), or The Meanings of Neo-Confucian Terms, that would catalyze a proliferation of philosophical lexicons in the 17th and 18th centuries.[6]  Later critics, notably the Meiji-period pioneer of history of philosophy Inoue Tetsujirō (1856-1944) and the postwar literary scholar Maruyama Masao (1914-1996), would dismiss this work as a recapitulation of Zhu Xi ecumenism – precisely the tradition against which many Qing proponents of kaozheng methods had been working.[7]  However, as Noguchi Takehiko has argued in a number of contexts, the lexicons that followed Hayashi’s exegeses gave Zhu Xi’s annotations of Mencius pride of place as a model of scholarship, responding in part to Hayashi’s own exhortation to “proceed from [Beixi’s] Ziyi to other sagely Confucian works in seeking the minds of the ancient sages.”[8]  Thus, for these Confucianists behind Mencius lay the historical Mencius, whose analytical orientation to the Lunyu (Jp. Rongo, The Confucian Analects) could be analogous to their own but whose meanings would only emerge warped by time.  As Ogyū Sorai (1666-1728) would write:

Those who know me know I prefer [what I call] lexicography and that recently, having confined myself to
scholarship, I have picked up the Six Classics to study them in earnest.  I knew more or less that the words of old are not the same as today’s, and so I have demanded [this principle] of previous scholarship concerned with the Qin and Han [writings].  Thus I came to realize the blindness of Song Confucianists: they had read the ancient words as if they were contemporary with their own.  Indeed it is true – the old meanings are submerged (botsu) in the caverns of their li.[9]

 John Tucker cautiously extends Razan’s influence through Sorai and ultimately to Nishi Amane’s philosophical lexicon, pointing out that the Meiji-period intellectual initially glosses the term philosophy with seiri, the same compound that appears in the Razan text.  While establishing a direct link is out of the scope of this paper, the continued use of glossaries at the back of philosophical texts well into the Taishō period (1912-1926) suggests at the very least semantic grunt work remained at the core of analytical methods.  For Nishi, and the younger generation of early-Meiji intellectuals that includes Ōgai and Shōyō, what we can state is that the fundamental problem is that of establishing the ground of the pre-judgment. In other words, their concern as public intellectuals lay not only with the particulars of the conceptual systems (their endorsed technology of thought) but with providing the conditions of understanding generally, which entails both rhetorical as well as performative aspects in introducing that technology.



[3] Kōshōgaku in the Meiji context has typically been treated as a historiographical endeavor narrowly concerned with the production of facts at the expense of general laws of history.  This is likely due to its association with Confucian scholarship, which had consistently been the object of negative scrutiny since the promulgation of bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment) immediately after the Restoration.  This paper emphasizes the methodology’s politically provocative beginnings as well as its hermeneutic depth, both of which have been elided by old assumptions of the sterility of Confucian scholarship.  While the recent linguistic turn in literary historical criticism has offered great insight into the interplay of Confucian and Western modes of textual criticism during the Meiji period—primarily through an appeal to intertextuality— I would like to suggest further that the facts of kōshōgaku are not inert but rather employed in a manner such that they entail a horizon of experience or meaning.

[4] Elman, Benjamin, From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China (Harvard University Press, 1984). This is an oft-cited intellectual history of early-modern Chinese Confucianism. For a discussion of what is at stake in Elman's positioning kaozheng scholars as "revolutionary" hermeneutists see Quirin, Michael, "Scholarship, Value, Method and Hermeneutics in Kaozheng: Some Reflections on Cui Shu (1740-1816) and the Confucian Classics," in History and Theory Vol. 35, No. 4 (Dec. 1996), pp. 34-53.

[5] Tai equates careful revision of Neo-Confucian annotations with the rectifying of the human mind; Mencius, Tai argued, contains the essentials for such a reform: “Today, people by disregarding [the issue] of orthodoxy or heterodoxy wrongly call [their views in accord] with moral principle (li)—all on the basis of personal opinion.  They thereby bring disaster down upon the people.  Therefore, I had to write the Evidential Analysis [of the Meanings of Terms in the Mencius].”  See Elman, pp. 16-19 and the critical introduction to the English translation by Chin and Freeman.

[6] It is important to note Chen’s work was acquired during Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s (1536-1598) ill-fated invasion of Korea.  The Korean kingdom was an important intellectual conduit for Japanese scholars; see Totman’s Early Modern Japan, especially his section on Hideyoshi, pp. 44-56.

[7] What was true for the early modern philological practice of kaozheng xue also seems to hold for kōshōgaku: neither necessarily was developed for the purpose of supplanting a cosmology but rather for rediscovering a context conceived to be discontinuous with the present.  The question of this gap does not go away during the Meiji period; for a discussion of how it is parlayed into questions of national history, see Tanaka, Stefan, Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts into History (University of California Press, 1993).

[8] Quoted in Tucker, John Allen, “Reappraising Razan: The Legacy of Philosophical Lexicography,” in Asian Philosophy Vol. 2, No. 1 (1992), pp. 41-60.  For a discussion of the importance of Mencius to early-modern Japanese intellectuals, see Noguchi Takehiko, Ōdō to kakumei no aida: Nihon shisō to Mōshi mondai (Chikuma Shobō, 1986).

[9] Quoted in Noguchi, pp. 108-09.