A Philosophical Defense of Culture

Perspectives from Confucianism and Cassirer

By Shuchen Xiang

Subjects: Chinese Religion And Philosophy, Confucianism, Continental Philosophy, Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Hardcover : 9781438483191, 284 pages, June 2021
Paperback : 9781438483207, 284 pages, January 2022

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Table of contents



1. Humanism and Language: Cassirer and the Xici (系辞)

2. Li Xiang Yi Jin Yi (立象以尽意): Giving (Symbolic) Form to Phenomena

3. Shi Yan Zhi (诗言志): Giving (Poetic) Form to Qing (情)

4. Wen Yi Zai Dao (文以载道): Giving (Linguistic) Form to Dao

5. Zhi You Wen Ye (质犹文也): Giving (Human) Form to the Self

6. Wu Yi Wu Wen (物一无文): Organic Harmony


Appendix 1: Definitions of Wen

Appendix 2: A Brief History of Wen

Appendix 3: Partial Translation of Song Lian's "The Origins of Wen" (Wenyuan 文原)

Works Cited

Draws on two different but strikingly similar streams in our world tradition to argue for the contemporary philosophical relevance of “culture.”


In A Philosophical Defense of Culture, Shuchen Xiang draws on the Confucian philosophy of "culture" and Ernst Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms to argue for the importance of "culture" as a philosophic paradigm. A defining ideal of Confucian-Chinese civilization, culture (wen) spans everything from natural patterns and the individual units that make up Chinese writing to literature and other refining vocations of the human being. Wen is thus the soul of Confucian-Chinese philosophy. Similarly, as a philosopher who bridged the classical age of German humanism and postwar modernity, Cassirer implored his and future generations to think of humankind in terms of their culture and to think of the human being as a "symbolic animal." The philosophies of culture of these two traditions, very much compatible, are of urgent relevance to our contemporary epoch. Xiang describes the similarity of their projects by way of their conception of the human being, her relationship to nature, the relationship of human culture to nature, the importance of cultural pluralism, and the role of the arts in human life, as well as the metaphysical frameworks that gave rise to such conceptions. Combining textual exegesis in classical Chinese texts and an exposition of Cassirer's most important insights against the backdrop of post-Kantian philosophy, this book is philosophy written in a cosmopolitan mode, arguing for the contemporary philosophical relevance of "culture" by drawing on and bringing together two different but strikingly similar streams in our world tradition.

Shuchen Xiang is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and the Institute of Foreign Philosophy at Peking University, China.


"…this original book has inspired us to reflect fruitfully on a wide range of important issues in the methodology of comparative philosophy as well as philosophy of culture. Any attempt to develop a successful defense of culture in the future should definitely start with this book as a point of departure." — Dao

"…an appealing and practical entry into the world of current comparative philosophical inquiries that can benefit as much the students of Chinese religions and moral philosophies as the researchers of general culture and value theory." — Religious Studies Review

"…[a] groundbreaking work … There is much to applaud in this book. First, the author particularly singles out wen as a central thread in Chinese cultural consciousness and bases her case on an extensive study of pre-Qin, classic texts. Second, she shows exceptional ability in connecting Cassirer's and, more broadly, German idealists' philosophical insights to classic Chinese texts, thereby pointing to new possibilities of doing comparative philosophy." — Journal of Asian Studies

"…A Philosophical Defense of Culture remains a profound book … [it] raises a fundamental question about how we look at the world and conduct our life if we accept that we are symbolic animals. This is a question that both the Chinese thinkers and Cassirer raise, and this question is significant if we view the world as both empirically real and symbolically represented. Regardless of whether we fully accept the Cassirer question, it is clear that A Philosophical Defense of Culture pushes us to think more deeply about the role of symbols in our life and in our globalized world." — Journal of Chinese Studies