A new debate about alterity

By Pablo Ariel Blitstein *

Twenty-five years ago it was the American Other (1); today it is the Asian Other who triggered a heated debate in French intellectual circles. This new Other looks, however, quite different: while the American Other was surrounded by the nostalgia felt for someone who disappeared from history, the new Asian Other is burdened with the distressing uncertainty of someone present yet not well known. The new debate started off in the academic discipline of sinology –a discipline which seemed unlikely to arouse strong passions. Yet a debate that began amongst sinologists has recently earned huge attention of intellectuals, journalists and the wider public: the topic is cultural alterity, and last words are not to come soon. In a France excessively worried about its "national identity" and about the preservation of "Republican values"(2), both anxieties are linked to the problem of cultural alterity. Regarding China, the hopes and fears accompanying China’s rise to a new superpower aggravate the urgency to re-think the differences separating France and Europe from this Chinese Other. A new world order is emerging in which France, for many reasons, feels increasingly displaced.

The first intervention in this French-speaking controversy about the Other came from Switzerland. Jean François Billeter, an important Genevan sinologist, wrote a harsh pamphlet (3) against an equally important Parisian sinologist, François Jullien (the first is more esteemed in sinological circles, but the second is more recognized by the general public and by some prestigious intellectuals). What was the reason that led Billeter to write such a pamphlet, whose title is precisely Contre François Jullien? In his own words, the "considerable influence" of François Jullien seems to him “pernicious” (4): the work of Jullien, based totally on "the myth of China’s alterity" (5), is said to follow the ideas of contemporary Chinese scholars who are less critical of the "despotism" of imperial China, amongst which Billeter points out Mou Zongsan in particular (6). Jullien, like Mou, take imperial thought for the essence of Chinese thought, whilst it really was the result of imperial despotism, as Billeter argues. Jullien goes then further and opposes this essentialized Chinese thought to an essentialized “Western thought” – an approach which, Billeter concludes, is neither historical nor critical, and which gives a justification for the authoritarian tendencies of present China.

Against Jullien’s conception, Billeter tries to situate Chinese thinking in its historical context. With a slightly naïve conception of the relation between ideology and social conditions, and an exaggeratedly rigid vision of historical development, Billeter reduces the pre-republican Chinese thought (a "captive” thought, “that was applied only to the means, methods and maneuvers" (7) ) to a "leak" of imperial power, which would have served it to "naturalize" its own existence. Jullien was seemingly not able to – or simply didn’t want to - look at this historical base of imperial thought. We can summarize Billeter’s accusation against Jullien’s comparative method with the following words, taken from his book : “From one work to the other, [Jullien] opposes classical Greek thought to what he calls ‘the thought of the literati’ – the first one because he considers it the basis of Western thought, the second one because it constitutes ‘Chinese thought’ for him. He has resuscitated a powerful myth in French memory: the myth of ‘philosophical’ China that constitutes, by all accounts, the other par excellence, the inversion and the equivalent of our world".(8) Against this myth, Billeter calls for an acknowledgement of the "common substrate" of human experience and for the universality of individual freedom and responsibility. "When I say ‘we’, it is clear that I do not speak of Europeans taken collectively, neither of Chinese taken collectively, but of responsible and free individuals, that is to say, of what we call ‘persons’".(9)

The answer came soon. Billeter had criticized a supposed alterity of principle, more related to the China of Pierre Ryckmanns (Simon Leys) (10) than to the one of Jullien, and thus made himself an easy target for an elaborated and sturdy response. Jullien soon rose to the challenge and published a response that gave a precise and rich exposition of his own comparative method (11) - yet the tone sometimes slipped into insults ad hominem. Jullien starts with a correction: he does not propose, like Ryckmanns, an "alterity of principle", but discovers it in the research process itself, when trying to identify the differences between “Chinese” and "Western" thought. The alterity of China is not a principle of his research, but a result. His method, he explains, has been the same one all along his books: his starting point is a western discourse, in French, on China, not an abstract discourse beyond time and space. This discourse is focused on a "heterotopy" (a term he borrows from Foucault), namely, on a thought which is far away in space – Chinese thought - and which helps him shake the fundaments of the western discourse that was his point of departure. Once shaken, he begins to develop certain marginal possibilities within western language and thought to express Chinese thought in a more appropriate way. And finally, after that process of research and reflection, he goes back to the classical notions of western thought (mostly to ancient Greece, but also to 18th and 19th century philosophy) to compare them with the Chinese notions. "Outside is", says Jullien, "a piece of information (a fact); the other, as it has been known since Plato’s Sophist, is the tool of a philosophical grammar. It is the necessary instrument for every dialectic elaboration. Just as I have emphasized, the outside is verified, whilst alterity - if there is such a thing - should be built, and this is only achieved through an act of reflection – reflection in its proper sense - between the two fields concerned. It is precisely to this sort of progressive construction of the alterity that I have devoted to from essay to essay: a construction of alterity between China and Europe, in order to push these two separate thoughts out of their mutual in-difference and to push them towards gradually constituting the new settings and theoretical directions that will help identify the differences between the two" (12).

With such an assertion of his own method, Jullien continues to show at the same time that it is Billeter, not him, who adopts a position of principle. The postulate of a common basis in human nature, together with the vindication of free and responsible persons, are real axioms, or "positions of principle" in a thought that Jullien characterizes as "weak", "little solid" and incapable to test his method. He also sustains that this kind of thought finally falls into an innocent eurocentrism. "I would have liked having had a true adversary", he regrets with a slight tone of sarcasm (13). Nevertheless, there was more in this debate than the personal objections of two sinologists. Numerous other intellectuals decided to intervene in the debate. Such illustrious personalities as Alain Badiou, Barbara Cassin and Bruno Latour backed Jullien (14) and openly defended him (In fact, Cassin and Badiou are senior editors of the series in which Jullien’s response was published). Other scholars, more cautious, followed a different road, perhaps due to the fact they were not entirely convinced by neither of the two adversaries. Billeter’s attack, and even his article answering Jullien’s "response" (15), were not sufficiently argued. Jullien’s response, in turn, failed to clear the doubts about his position regarding the topic of alterity. Granted that his “alterity” was a "construction", nothing explains why alterity should be a permanent traitof this construction, unless the objective was that his comparative method would keep working eternally in the same way: it seems that he studies China only to satisfy his particular method of comparison, and not that there is a method that has been produced to understand China (or Europe, for that matter). Another aspect of the same problem is his binarism: Why should China and Europe be opposed to each other? Why do we have to build two blocks that always remain unconnected and opposed? Such duality is a methodological step in the research, according to Jullien. Yet surely, that step should be overcome so that understanding can advance: if not, any historical problem, any social contextualization, any precise definition of the object of study will be eliminated at the expense of the polarity China-Europe. (The simple fact of referring to Europe instead of France, Germany or England is already the outcome of this fixation). It is true that Jullien does not propose an "alterity of principle"; but alterity is continuously reproduced by the univocal character of his method. In effect, nothing forces the scholar to assume alterity at the beginning or at the end of his research. And so it seems that for Jullien it is really only an assumed alterity – an alterity which is posited a priori or a posteriori - which justifies the study of China all together.

At this juncture of the debate other sinologists, in particular some who are closer to social sciences like history, anthropology and sociology, propose a different approach to the problem of Chinese alterity. In the prologue of a recently published book there are allusions to this debate, without a direct reference to the two rivals. Those allusions were made by Anne Cheng, another important representative of French sinology. She proposes to end "the process of reduction of complex realities to an essence, to an intellectual object that is easy to be manipulated" (16). And she adds: "At a time when the Huntington’s thesis about the clash of civilizations find echo in geopolitics and media, it seems urgent to stop, not only with orientalism, but fundamentally with binarism, that tendency to build a reality based on dichotomies (East/West, China/Greece, etc.) The more seductive those theories are”, she argues, “the more they flatter a natural tendency to symmetry as well as to a narcissistic return to one’s self." (17) China is condemned to be viewed through a binary focus, one of "us and them", which prevents to see its internal complexity. That complexity becomes visible, on the contrary, when particular phenomena are studied. Such phenomena can be interesting in themselves beyond the fact that they take place in China (a China, then again, that is increasingly becoming more familiar and less "other"). That is what the authors in this book edited by Anne Cheng try to do (18) in detailed studies of politics, society and intellectual history of China.

The problem of binarism and the question of alterity are of utmost significance for society and politics in today’s France. The interpretation of the differences between two “cultures” (and of selected elements of different cultures) is only one moment in a wider process. To limit oneself to the axiom of alterity, or to transform it into the objective of any comparison, results in an ossification of differences, and in a freezing of the boundaries between such cultures (which become then “cultural blocks”). As Gérard Noiriel points out, there are now public intellectuals such as Alain Finkielkraut who propose to build a "French identity" based on the "French thought" of the Enlightenment: the "ethnic" identity claimed by Maurice Barrès at the beginning of the XXth century has been transformed into a cultural and ideological identity, that opposes French culture to the "communitarisms” - that is to say, to the “communities” of immigrants that support values "opposed" to those held by the Republic (19). The controversy between Billeter and Jullien does not directly take issue with such political problems in France. Both of them support their approaches with serious intellectual work. Nonetheless, the way in which the first caricatures imperial culture, or the way in which the second builds a cultural "Other" opposed to a European "we", run both the risk of falling into the same type of ethnocentrism that Noiriel criticizes. In a world in which migration movements accelerate, the possible consequences of this type of ethnocentrism are evident.


* Pablo Ariel Blitstein. Ph.D student at the National Institute of Eastern Languages and Civilizations (INALCO), Paris. Area of research: cultural and social history of Imperial China. His research is financed by the French Ministry of Education. He teaches at the INALCO.

1. Tzvetan Todorov, La conquista de América. El problema del otro (The Conquest of America. The problem of the other), Buenos Aires: Siglo veintiuno, 1987. (First edition in French: 1982)
2. V. infra, note 19.
3. Jean François Billeter, Contre François Jullien, Paris: Allia, 2007.
4. Billeter, p. 7 From now on, all the translations from French are of Mr. Blitstein 
5. Ibid., p. 9.
6. Ibid., pp. 66-67. Mou Zongsan (1909-1995) is one of the greatest Chinese thinkers of this century. His thought is a synthesis of Kantian philosophy with the Neoconfucian tradition of Lu Jiuyuan (1139-1193) and Wang Yangming (1472-1528). He tries to expose the differences between the traditions of European and Chinese thought, and is known as one of the most eminent representatives of the so-called "new contemporary Confucianism".
7. Billeter, p. 67
8. Billeter, p. 34.
9. Billeter, p. 83.
10. Simon Leys is the nickname of Pierre Ryckmanns, a prestigious sinologist, who became famous in the "Maoist" years of the 1968’s France.  His essay Les habits neufs du Président Mao (President Mao’s new clothes)made French Maoism shout in anger.  His position regarding alterity does not leave any doubt:  "The Chinese civilization presents the irresistible fascination of what is completely "Other"; “China is the other pole of the human experience" ("Connaître et méconnaître the Chine" (To know and not to know China), Le Magazine Littéraire, not 455, July-August 2006, p. 6; quoted by Jullien). 
11. François Jullien, Chemin Faisant: connaître the Chine, relancer the philosophie.  Réplique à ***, Paris: Seuil, 2007. 
12. Jullien, p. 86
13. Jullien, p. 141.
14.  In: Chartier, Pierre (dir.), Oser construire.  Pour François Jullien (Dare to build.  In favor of François Jullien), Paris: Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2007.
15. Jean François Billeter, « François Jullien, sur le fond », Monde chinois, autumn of 2007, n. 11, pp. 67-74.
16. Cheng, p. 9, in:  Anne Cheng (dir.), La pensée en Chine aujourd' hui (Today’s thought in China), Paris:  Gallimard, 2007.
17. Cheng, p. 9
18. That does not mean that all those who participated in this book are opposed to the two main adversaries of the debate.  Vandermeersch – one of the best French sinologists, and an important figure recognized by Jullien, Cheng and Billeter - has expressed in public his support to Jullien in this debate.  But his methodology of work is very different from that of the two sinologists. 
19. Gérard Noiriel, A quoi sert la identité nationale"? (¿What is the use of national identity?), Marseille: Agone, 2007, pp. 76-80.  For the relation between this speech with Sarkozy’s discourse in his presidential campaign and with the formation of a new nationalism, see pp. 92 to 99.