Three Types of Philosophical Wisdom:

Greek, European, and Chinese

Thomé H. Fang



Translated by


Sandra A. Wawrytko


The Kumarajiva Project

Thomé H. Institute





"Of all that is written I love only what a man has written with his blood. ...

Whoever writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read, but to be learned by heart.

In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak; but for that one must have long legs.

Aphorisms should be peaks—and those who are addressed, tall and lofty."

----F. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra[1]


There is no better introduction to Professor Fang’s short essay "Three Types of Philosophical Wisdom" than the words of Nietzsche as quoted above.

In one word, it is a gem!

Since the essay’s first appearance in l937, it has remained a rare classic, a marvel, in its field, scintillating with a peculiar charm and glow of its own to be found hardly anywhere else, even among the author’s other writings. As astutely observed the late Professor Te Chen, Chinese University of Hong Kong, no one could ever undertake to write such a masterwork without having devoted at least twenty years to comparative studies of the philosophies East and West![2]  And we have reasons to believe that the author will be remembered by posterity even only for this short essay.

The essay was composed in l937, on the eve of the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. Nazism was rampant in Europe and militarism loomed large in Asia. It is marked by a youthful exuberance of vitality and passion combined with precocious maturity of insight and judgment. Addressing the cause of war and, with it, of human tragedy, the philosopher proclaims: "lack of wisdom, thy name is human!" It is a work written not only in blood and aphorisms, but with wisdom and compassion, care and concern--with profound concern about the future of philosophy and human culture at large.

In this essay the author, then aged 38, still young for philosophers, cast his prajñ~-eye to survey ancient and modern, East and West, and carried his readers through the spiritual adventure across three great cultural traditions--Ancient Greece, Modern Europe and Classical China--from peak to peak. Despite his youth, his legs were long enough, addressing those who were, in spirit or Geist, tall and lofty enough!

Our impressions can be summarised as follows:

Firstly, this essay intrigues the readers with its startling brevity and wide-ranging scope. Just imagine in a work about twice the length of The Work of Laotzu (believed to be the shortest in the world’s philosophic classics, next only to The Yoga-Sñ tra of India), it covers nine strains of thought in three traditions, epitomizing each with a key phrase, three patterns of culture and three types of wisdom! Expressed in a highly condensed and compact way, it contains so much in so few words, as the Chinese artistic idiom puts it, "exhibiting a vista of thousands miles within the span of a square foot." Small in magnitude, comprehensive in coverage, and lofty and synoptic in vision. Ir is indeed a pocket edition de luxe of comparative philosophy. It is not only one of the shortest world classics, but also among the shortest of the author’s entire works, second only to "Poetry and Life," Key Note Speech to the Second World Congress of the Poets in l973, which is of quite a different nature.

Secondly, it fascinates the readers with its rather "odd," but concise, coherent, and systematic form of presentation, reminiscent of Leibniz’ Monadology and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The same strategy was used again in his magnum opus: Chinese Philosophy: Its Spirit and Its Development, wherein the system of Tai Chen’s thought is reconstructed in light of the emergent evolution theories of Loyd Morgan and Samuel Alexander. The virtue of such an approach is that, with maxim convenience, it facilitates quick reference to the main ideas contained in its main clauses and exhibits their logical interconnexions in meaning and import.

Thirdly, it impresses the readers with its rather peculiar idioms of expression in a sustained style: abundant with aphorisms and epigrams, austere but elegant in diction. It is not without certain impressionistic touches, now abstruse and now lucid, and tinctured alternately with a Buddhistic overtone and the flavor of Chinese classicism: some parts read like the Buddhist Sñ tras; some parts, like ancient Chinese classics of the pre-Ch’in period. This feature makes for its peculiar charm in the original, but presents an almost insurmountable difficulty for the translator. As a philosophic writer, Professor Fang was a perfectionist with regard to style, his workmanship flawless. On the appearance of his first book Science, Philosophy, and the Significance of Life early in l926, he was at once hailed as "the Santayana of China" by his old friend and colleague, Professor Chuan Hsia-ping (Zeng-gu), Department of Classic Chinese Literature, National Central University. Sixty years later, his American friend and colleague, Professor Dale M. Riepe of the State University of New York at Buffalo, spoke of Fang and Santayana as "spiritual brothers!" who see "eye to eye the contribution which religion makes to knowledge." As Nietzsche rightly noticed, "the best and the worst part of a work is untranslatable."[3] In our present case, of course, only the former applies.

Fourthly, this essay surprises its readers with amazing plentitude and suggestiveness in substance and content. Richly loaded with condensed ideas and insights, it contains materials sufficient for multiple volumes, whether in the field of Chinese philosophy or in that of comparative studies. It contains something not even found in his major work Chinese Philosophy: Its Spirit and Its Development! His celebrated formulation, in Whiteheadian-Bergsonian language, of the fundamental principles in Chinese metaphysics, Lebensanschauung and Weltsanschauung, was first conceived here in broad outlines, only to be fully carried out in book form, e.g., The Chinese View of Life (l956) followed by the above-mentioned magnum opus. As regards its import for the advancement of comparative philosophy and culture, it lays out the blueprint for Ideals of Life and Patterns of Culture, by incorporating into the original framework the Indian tradition, thus making a quartet of "Four Types of Philosophical Wisdom." Analogous to the trifold structure in each of the other three cultures, the entire Indian tradition is epitomized by the Upanishadic, the Buddhistic, and the Bh~gavad-gitaic spirits, of which understandably the Upanishadic is predominant.

Fifthly, it is crucial and, even indispensable, to the understanding of Professor Fang’s own philosophical development. On the one hand, it distills the end-results of his early work of research and reflection over two decades (l9l8-38). On the other hand, it marks a turning point, a bulwark, as well as a link between his early and later thought, hence serving as a harbinger of his subsequent development. As we have learned from the author’s own account, initially he had intended to add another seventeen chapters to his early work, Science, Philosophy, and the Significance of Life in l926 [4]; and to expand five to six times his mid-career work, "Hegel’s Philosophy: Its Present Day Predicament and Its Historical Background" in l957. Unfortunately, his wishes remain unfulfilled! The reason is not far to seek, in view of the circumstances under which "Three Types of Philosophical Wisdom" was written. Because of the war he felt called upon to pay closer attention to his own philosophical and cultural heritage. As a result, his center of interest shifted from the West to the East, from indepth studies of western thought to carrying out the ambitious program of a philosophical assemblage of the major traditions of world philosophy in a comparative perspective. At this juncture, in 1939, he was visited in Chungking by Dr. Servapalli Radhakrishnan, the great spokesman for India and her cultural heritage--philosophical and spiritual. He accepted the latter’s friendly challenge to serve the same cause for China. In terms of priority he put writing on Chinese philosophy before the comparative project. His premature passing in l977 nipped the latter in the bud! What a permanent loss to twentieth century world philosophy, and to the treasure of wisdom for humankind as well!

Sixthly, it shows the readers the great virtue of incompleteness. Obviously in the studies of comparative philospohy and culture, no one can claim perfect exhaustiveness, not even Spengler or Toynbee! "Three Types of Philosophical Wisdom" leaves the readers a great deal more to be desired, of course: for example, what about the Indian, the Hebrew or Judeo-Christian, and Islamic traditions? His deliberate silence, say, on the Indian tradition reveals his great virtue of modesty, sincerity and integrity as a philosopher, scholar, and thinker. As he tells us in his monumental work, Lectures on the Chinesse Mahª yª na Buddhism, "I am interested in Buddhism very early in my life as a young man at twenty or so; but as I fully realized its complexities and intricacies, I decided to refrain from talking about it until I had made out its head and tail."[5] He spent at least forty years on Buddhism until eventually he agreed to "open his mouth," i.e., to lecture on the subject. As a result, the Buddhist part accounts for the largest portion--40%--of his complete works, totaling some five thousand pages, of which two thousand pages are devoted to Buddhism. Of these 300 pages are in English and 1,700 pages in Chinese! His lectures on the Hua Yen School (Avatamsaka) have been acclaimed to be unrivalled in the last two thousand years. We have reason to believe that D. T. Susuki was not much impressed with the contemporary Chinese scholarship in Buddhism until he met Professor Fang in Honolulu, HawaiI, 1964, of whose achievement he spoke with high admiration to his disciples such as Professor Chung-yuan Chang.[6] Professor Fang approached Hua Yen Buddhism more as a philosophy than as a religion from a comparative perspective, full of sympathetic appreciation, constructive insight, and critical acumen. References had been made to other traditions, too, such as the Judeo-Christian, though rather briefly, both in his lecture series and in the "Outline" of Ideals of Life and Patterns of culture: Prolegomena to A Comparative Philosophy of Life.

Finally, this essay clarifies for the readers his relationship with Nietzsche. In Fifty Years of Chinese Philosophy: form 1898 to 1950 Father O. Brière treats Professor Fang as having been "profoundly influenced" by Nietzsche in the development of his early thought; but, we must add, not without qualification. Professor Fang is a great sympathetic appreciator of "an infinite variety of vivid values" (Whitehead); Nietzsche is no exception. He accepted Nietzsche’s emphasis on value, especially the idea of "transvaluation of all values"; not his emphasis on "power," much less "brutal power"; the will to power (die Wille zu Machte) is the will to making, to creating [the creative impulse, that is]. He is naturally inclined to endorse to Nietzche’s call for great appreciation, rather than for great contempt. The last part of this essay clarifies a great deal about his relationship with that most controversial figure in modern philosophy. Influences from other sources are detectible, too, between the lines, such as Spengler, E. Spranger, and particularly Goethe. Even the term "Morphology of Culture" is derived--through Spengler--from Goethe as the original source.

For these many reasons, highlighted above, this short work, this small classic, is chosen to appear as the inaugural volume in the series of our Translation Project. We hope that it may serve as an invitation to Fang Studies, although we regret that it sounds like a Prelude to the Unfinished Thought Symphony a masterwork forever unheard! an "appetizer," yet with the main course of the gourmet so painfully unavailable!

Efforts have been made on the part of the translators to keep as closely as possible to the original (e. g., including the antithetic sentential structure), while aiming at maximum accuracy and readability. Traditore traititore! ("Translators are traitors!") We only wish we have betrayed the esteemed Master as little as we could. We aim at intelligibility, fidelity, and elegance, a threefold standard for good translation laid down by Yen Fu (Jidao), the late President of the University of Beijing and a well-known translator of Western classics in later 19th century China.

Professor Frederick von Hayek, the 1974 Nobel Prize Winner for Economics, had wished to meet with Professor Fang in Taipei, 1976. The meeting somehow never took place; but Dr. Hyaek was reported to have remarked to his interviewer: "Professor Thomé H. Fang is a great philosopher of contemporary China; but, unfortunately, too little of his works has been translated in the West!"[7] May such a regret from Dr. Hayek serve here, at least in part, as a raison d’être for this Project.




Sandra A. Wawrytko


The Kumarajiva Project

Thomé H. Fang Institute





[1] Cf. Freddrick Nietszche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, in Walter Kauffman, ed. & tr., The Portable Nietszche (New York: The Viking Press, 1967), p.152.

[2] As Dr. Te Chen related to our translator Suncrates in 1969, when they were schoolmates at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Il.

[3] Cf. Walter Kauffman, Ibid., p. 54.

[4] Cf. Thomé H. Fang, Science, Philosophy, and the Significance of Life (Shanghai: The Commercial Press; reprinted in Tapei: The Rainbow Books, 1960), "Preface," p. 2; "Hegel’s Philosophy: Its Present Day Predicament and Its Historical Background," in Creativity in Man and Nature (Taipei: The Dawn Cultural Enterprise :Ltd. Inc., 1983), p. 251.

[5] Cf. Thomé H. Fang, Lectures on Chinese Mayhayana Buddhism, a series of lectures (Taipei: The Dawn Cultural Entrprise, Ltd. Inc., 1983), p. 341.

[6] In July, 1972, the Department of Philosophy at University of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI, sponsored the Symposium on the Philosophy of Wang Yangming to celebrate the Fifth Centennial of the great philosopher of 15th century China. It was attended by Chinese scholars such as Thomé H. Fang, Wig-sit Chan, T’ang Ch’ün-I, Mou Tsung-san, Chung-yuan Chang, Nelson Wu, Chung-ying Cheng, Wei-ming Tu, Suncrates (George Sun), etc. At one of the receptions during the session Professor Chang confirmed on D. T. Suzuki’s high admiration of Professor Fang, referring to Fang’s presentation as "marking the crowning achievement of the 1964 East-West Philosophers’ Conference."

[7] Cf. Hsu Ching-min, "A Philosophy of Economics and Man: Interview with Professor Friedrich von Hyek," Universitas: Monthly Review of Philosophy and Culture, Vol I, no. 12, serial no. 22, 1975, p. 14.