Tsang Lap Chuen

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Tsang Lap Chuen (Chinese: 曾立存) is a Chinese philosopher in the analytic tradition. He is known for his theory of the sublime in which he presents the notion of limit-situations in life as being central to the human experience.

Personal life[edit]

Tsang was born in Wuhua County, Guangdong, China on 7 October 1943, the son of Tsang Kwok Ying (1906–1999), District Minister of Tsung Tsin Mission (formerly Basle Mission) of Hong Kong, and Wong Kun Tsing (1916–2014), a devout Christian committed to the church and family. They moved to Hong Kong when he was two years old. Today he and his wife Tse Wai Yee live in Hong Kong. They have two sons, Tze Yee and Tze Yan.

Education and work[edit]

Tsang with Munitiz in Oxford in 2012.

Tsang attended church-operated public schools[1] before studying at the University of Hong Kong from 1963 to 1968, graduating with a B.A. in philosophy and modern languages and an M.A. in philosophy.[2] From 1968 to 1970 he was a philosophy tutor[3] at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. From 1969 to 1974, he continued his study at HKU for a PhD in philosophical method, which ended with his withdrawal due to gradual digression of his research interests. From 1975 until 2004, he was a faculty member[4] in general education and religious studies at Hong Kong Baptist University; from 1978 to 1979, its exchange professor to Malone College, USA; and, from 1995 to 2000, head of its Department of Religion and Philosophy.

From 1985 to 1991 Tsang re-enrolled for the PhD program at HKU, this time in philosophy of religion, with the research topic of existential wonder.[5] To place the topic in a historical context, his supervisor F.C.T. Moore introduced him to Kant’s Critique of Judgment on the concept of the sublime.[6] Eventually, he worked out a thesis[7] on a new theory of the sublime in the tradition of Longinus, Burke and Kant, later published as The Sublime: Groundwork towards a Theory by the recommendation of Joseph A. Munitiz, then the Master of Campion Hall, Oxford.

Theory of the Sublime[edit]

In the light of Wittgenstein on "language games", Lévi-Strauss on "ritual and myth" and Freud on "ideas and dreams",[8] Tsang develops a conceptual framework of [i] construal, [ii] evocation, [iii] affectivity and [iv] instantiation, giving a coherent account of the elements that can be distinguished in the phenomenon of the sublime,[9] with the event of the Crucifixion as an exemplary instance.[10] In the experience of the sublime, Longinus emphasises our contemplation and thought reaching the limit of the natural order of grandeur; Burke our self-preservation in situations which defy our existing capacities; and Kant our transcendence of the natural order as supersensible beings. Each of them is concerned with an aspect of the sublime which Tsang characterises, in general terms, as that which transports us to a self-realization at the limit of our existence.[11]

According to the theory Tsang proposes, the sublime is concerned with a limit-situation in life and our self-realization in it such that the core of all experience of the sublime is an intensified awareness of our self-realization at a life-limit.[12] Life-limits are of three kinds, the top limit to our being which borders on that which transcends the natural and the human, the bottom limit to our being which borders on the non-existent, and the median limit which designates the bloom of our being in its domain.[13] We come to an intensified awareness of our self-realization at a life-limit in our encounter with an object which is so construed that it elicits a set of thoughts and reactions pertaining to certain themes, including the limits of our powers and abilities, and the importance of being able to go up to or even beyond those limits.[14]

As such the sublime is concerned with the notion of a limit to what can be said and thought and willed.[15] The sublime is not an object per se, but a particular manner in which certain objects are construed and are evocative of certain thoughts and reactions.[16] There is no one common property of sublime objects, no one single emotional state in sublime experiences, which is an essential feature of the sublime.[17] For the sublime is but a notion in the mind and heart of the person in relation to the object, any object,[18] which is confronted as sublime.[17] However, from the standpoint of an external observer, one is able to distinguish in the experience of the sublime that which presupposes the universality of certain concepts and human characteristics and that which belongs to particular cultural and social forms and varies from culture to culture.[19][20]


The book on The Sublime is recognised in some quarters as ‘an important work offering a viable theory for the concept of "sublime" in philosophy’.[21] Among those who consider the theory to be acceptable are Alasdair MacIntyre,[22] an influential moral philosopher, and Cyril Barrett,[23] a renowned aesthetician and art critic.[24] However, as has been pointed out, the theory as proposed, even if it is viable, needs to be spelled out further.[25]



  1. ^ Kau Yan School, then College (1949–1961), and St. Paul's College (1961–1963).
  2. ^ The University of Hong Kong Gazette, Vol. XIV, No. 2, p. 17 & Vol. XVII, No. 2, p. 21.
  3. ^ The Chinese University of Hong Kong Bulletin, Vol. 5, Issues 1–8.
  4. ^ See HKBU e-News, Wed. 12 May, 2004.
  5. ^ See, e.g., Tsang Lap Chuen, "Wittgenstein, World and Wonder," New Blackfriars, Vol. 72, No. 850 (1991), pp. 269–277; reprinted in Tsang (1998), pp. 147–160
  6. ^ Tsang (1998), pp. vii, xiii–xiv
  7. ^ The thesis is entitled A Theory of the Sublime (1991), The HKU Scholars Hub. See also The University of Hong Kong Gazette, Vol. XL, No. 1, p. 2.
  8. ^ See also references in the book to F.C.T. Moore, Dan Sperber, Martin Hollis, Bernard Williams, Robert C. Roberts, Harry Frankfurt and Malcolm Budd.
  9. ^ Tsang (1998), p. 25
  10. ^ Tsang (1998), pp. 45-46
  11. ^ Tsang (1998), p. 7
  12. ^ Tsang (1998), p. 81
  13. ^ Tsang (1998), pp. 38–39. By our very nature, we desire affirmation at the summit, preservation at the basis, and equilibrium in the domain of being; Tsang (1998), p. 125. Typical instances evocative of the sublime in the natural order are, e.g., Mount Everest, a precipitous cliff and the fall of leaves in autumn, respectively; Tsang (1998), pp. 41–42.
  14. ^ Tsang (1998), p. 25. For instance, the Crucifixion may be construed in terms of the sublime in its three senses. As an object construed in terms of the sublime at the top limit in the affirmative mode, the Crucifixion may be looked upon as an authentic expression of autonomy at its perfection. As an object construed in terms of the sublime at the bottom limit in the preservative mode, the Crucifixion may be regarded as the infliction of the utmost torture on a human being. And then, as an object construed in terms of the sublime at the median limit in the appreciative mode, the Crucifixion may be depicted as God's act of reconciliation with man, making peace on earth. Tsang (1998), pp. 45–46.
  15. ^ Tsang (1998), pp. ix–x
  16. ^ Tsang (1998), p. 59
  17. ^ a b Tsang (1998), p. 14
  18. ^ Any object, be it a thing, an event, a thought, an action, a situation, or the like. Tsang (1998), p. 25.
  19. ^ Tsang (1998), p. xi
  20. ^ See further explanation of the theory in Alasdair MacIntyre's "Foreword" to Tsang (1998), pp. ix–xii.
  21. ^ See, e.g., its entry in PhilPapers; and Google Books.
  22. ^ See MacIntyre's "Foreword" to The Sublime, Groundwork towards a Theory, pp. ix–xii.
  23. ^ See Barrett's review of the book in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 88, No. 350 (Summer, 1999), pp. 231–234.
  24. ^ See The Irish Times, Sat. 1 January 2004; and the 'Introduction' for Cyril Barrett to "Works donated by Dr Cyril Barrett," University of Warwick Art.
  25. ^ As pointed out by MacIntyre and Barrett.