From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
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Saturday, March 24, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Introduction

[a] Cyclical RF
I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine—someone with whom I have spent inordinate amounts of time over the last quarter century. His name is Marcel Granet, and he is from France. I met Professor Granet (1884-1940) during my first year as a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and he has been my constant companion ever since—accompanying me all over the world, appearing in many of my classes, and climbing with me up and down all of China's sacred mountains (especially those sacred mountains). The cyclical patterning that I find so riveting in Chinese cosmology and centuries of thinking about China's sacred mountains appears prominently in all of Granet's writings. It is the reason that this series is entitled La Pensée Cyclique—Cyclical Thought.
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[b] UC RF
During the fall and spring of the 1987-1988 academic year, I participated in a seminar on French sociological thought given by the sociologist Edward Shils. At the same time, I began a year of classical Chinese study, covering five separate courses, with Donald Harper, an early China specialist in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Chicago. By the middle of October, I had heard the name “Marcel Granet” mentioned several times by Professors Shils and Harper. Why hadn't I heard of him before?, I wondered.

Over the course of the year, I heard his name many more times, but I became more and more puzzled as time went on. In my seminars and my outside reading, it appeared to me that Marcel Granet was being claimed by sociologists and China scholars, respectively, with few clearly articulating where he fit into either scholarly tradition. There was a broad range of agreement on one point, however—he was a highly imaginative and brilliant scholar. Maurice Freedman puts it succinctly in his introductory essay at the beginning of the English translation of La religion des chinois (The Religion of the Chinese People).

       Nobody familiar with French thought between the Wars is likely to be surprised 
       to see a book by Marcel Granet in a series devoted to sociology, but it might at 
       first seem odd that  work entitled The Religion of the Chinese People should 
       appear as a contribution to “interpretive sociology.” It looks more like sinology 
       or ethnography. As a matter of fact, even if it had been merely either of those 
       things, it would have been worth translating, for it is to my mind the best single 
       brief work on the subject. Yet its significance goes deeper. It is an important 
       document in the annals of Durkheimian sociology.  And it was written by a 

[c] Social thought RF
As Freedman intimates, neither sociology nor Chinese studies really has a place anymore for Marcel Granet. The situation is far worse today than it was even in Granet’s own time. Freedman notes that sociology has distanced itself in many important respects from the study of societies other than Western industrial ones. The study of China today (something that, in a more innocent time, used to be called sinology, a term with which Granet and his peers were quite comfortable) is almost wholly innocent of sociological insights of the kind made by Granet and his colleagues more than sixty years ago. During the 1920s and 1930s, when Granet was in his scholarly prime, it was not at all unusual for sociologists to explore written materials from other societies for use in the their comparative work. In the late nineteenth century, there was an even more intense focus on Chinese society on the part of many scholars who would become known as founders of academic sociology, with Max Weber and Emile Durkheim being two of the most prominent. The fields were linked.

Even as a sinologist, Marcel Granet was also hardly alone in his interest in sociological theory—in France and beyond.  Most scholars of China were well-acquainted with the writings of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Marcel Mauss, among others. Indeed, the rise of both disciplines from esoteric or personal studies to fully academic disciplines coincided to a very great extent. The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries saw both fields "cement" their academic statuses in substantial ways—with university professorships created where none existed before. During Granet’s prime in the years between the world wars, each discipline entered (depending on how one counts) a second or third generation in which methodology and theory was ever more precisely defined. By the beginning of World War II, sociology had been taught in major universities for several generations and Chinese studies had begun to take hold as an academic concentration in Europe and North America.
[c] Social persuasion RF

More than seventy years after Marcel Granet’s death, however, relatively little has been written about his life or his scholarship, and the contrast with publications on his teacher, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), or his close friend, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), is stark. It occurred to me, as I studied with Professors Shils and Harper in their seminars, that what was needed to remedy the situation was a retrospective of Granet’s work that included not only all of his published writings, but the writings of the sinological and sociological traditions that inspired him. 

Even though I went on to other areas in my own graduate studies, this “synthetic project” continued to intrigue me, to the extent that I offered a seminar of my own on Marcel Granet in the Continuing Education program at the University of Chicago in 1991, and two others in 2002 and 2004 at Beloit College. In 2006, I received a grant from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation (the title is the same as that for this series of posts) to study Granet. My mountain project grew directly out of that grant, and this series of blog posts is for me a way of introducing Granet to a wider readership and exploring ways to further our understanding of his odd and brilliant scholarship
***  ***
My main "academic" point is simple, and it dovetails quite nicely with a biographical approach to Marcel Granet. For the last seven decades, scholars have read Granet's works (or neglected them) through the lens of their current-day disciplines. I maintain, however, that we will never adequately interpret Marcel Granet’s work without understanding the sociology behind his sinology. It is precisely Granet’s rich background in sociological theory that makes him appear strange to scholars of China. It is why they neglect most of his books and even why they fail to understand the one they admire (the untranslated La pensée chinoiseChinese Thought).

Sociologists have been even more neglectful of Granet’s scholarship, although the reasons are at least easier to understand. The more Granet's research engages details of Chinese literature, philosophy, and history, the less sociologists have read it. It is as if they have given him back to the sinologists because of their inability to read Chinese texts.  
[d] Intersecting RF
The reason that I am teaching and writing about Marcel Granet is quite direct—almost no one else has done so and the neglect is a stain on our studies, a pox on both our houses. Although writers occasionally give voice to the fact that Granet must be understood as both a sinologist and a sociologist—and as a student of two eminent mentors, the sociologist Emile Durkheim and the sinologist Edouard Chavannes—they rarely follow through and engage the complex issues and texts that make up Granet’s oeuvre.

It is true that China scholars have an advantage in this regard, since they know the Chinese textual tradition so dear to Marcel Granet in a way that is closed to sociologists without knowledge of Chinese. That those same China scholars have, almost to a person, failed to read deeply in the French sociological tradition is inexplicable. More than seventy years after his death, few scholars have written more than a handful of pages that directly address the sociology behind Granet’s sinology, and the sinology behind his sociology.  The work of a truly great scholar and fascinating human being has thus been needlessly marginalized.

My purpose is quite humble, and you might want to think of this series as a cluster of writings that amount to a very long review essay on Granet and his work. I have worked through a wide range of sources in French and Chinese, reviewing in the process all of Granet’s writings as well as his sociological and sinological influences. It is the very least that a truly great scholar deserves.
[e] Sociomagical RF
Back in graduate school a quarter century ago, it seemed straightforward (everything does before we realize how much time everything takes). Then, as now, my goal was to reread, with care and diligence, all of the major works of Marcel Granet, Marcel Mauss, Emile Durkheim, Granet’s sinological mentors and students, and the Chinese sources that formed the core of Granet’s work—the French sociological journal L’année sociologique and a solid core of Chinese texts from the Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties.  Even that initially "modest" aim has contained enormous challenges, but it appears to me that we will never begin to understand any great scholar's work without returning to those sources that were his inspiration. And it's as simple as that. In order to put Marcel Granet back together again—to reintegrate the Granet of the sociologists and the Granet of the sinologists—it is a "straightforward" matter of reading, and thinking carefully about, everything he wrote...and everything he read.

These posts present just a little bit of the work that is coming out of that engagement. 

[1] Maurice Freedman, "Marcel Granet, Sociologist" in Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 5. 

Granet, Marcel. The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman]. New York: 
     Harper & Row, 1973.
[f] Square RF

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