Tsang in Oxford in 2012

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

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.[1] Today he and his wife Tse Wai Yee live in Hong Kong. They have two sons, Tze Yee and Tze Yan.

Education and work

Tsang attended church-operated public schools[2] 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.[3] From 1968 to 1970 he was a philosophy tutor[4] 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[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] Eventually, he worked out a thesis[8] 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

In the light of Wittgenstein on "language games", Lévi-Strauss on "ritual and myth" and Freud on "ideas and dreams",[9] 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,[10] with the event of the Crucifixion as an exemplary instance.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

The sublime is concerned with the notion of a limit to what can be said and thought and willed.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18] For the sublime is but a notion in the mind and heart of the person in relation to the object, any object,[19] which is confronted as sublime.[18] 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.[20][21]

Reference to St Anselm

The Sublime: Groundwork towards a Theory is concerned with language, thought and ultimate reality; as such, the book is a sequel to Tsang's master's thesis on logic, language and religion, which concludes with the possibility of God's existence and the relevance of St Anselm's "faith seeking understanding" to the question of God's existence.[22] "Faith seeking understanding" is the original title of Anselm's Proslogion. The Epilogue of The Sublime [23] alludes to, without affirming, two central ideas in the Proslogion: that God is Existence (“I am that I am.” Exodus 3:14), as explained in Anselm's ontological argument; and that man is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).[24] Before engaging in the sublime, Tsang had been interested in existential wonder, which is wonder at the world of our existence and our existence in the world.[25] An experience of the sublime, which is an intensified awareness of our self-realization at a life-limit, is existential wonder occasioned by an object construed as connected with going to the limit of some human possibility,[26] and here the person may further respond in faith, seeking to understand what lies at the limit.[27]

The Epilogue of The Sublime concludes with the self-fulfilling conception of the devout Christian in imitation of Christ the Son of God (John 14:6) under totally adverse conditions,[28] attaining the sense of eternity[29] in the active reflective order.[30] Here is an example of the person of faith seeking to understand what lies at the limit of some human possibility, despite its inevitable subjectivity, even if unreachable, albeit ultimately desirable.[31]


The Sublime is recognised in some quarters as ‘an important work offering a viable theory for the concept of "sublime" in philosophy’.[32] Among those who consider the theory to be acceptable are Alasdair MacIntyre,[33] an influential moral philosopher, and Cyril Barrett,[34] a renowned aesthetician and art critic.[35] However, as has been pointed out, the theory as proposed, even if it is viable, needs to be spelled out further.[36]



  1. ^ A picture of Tsang (center) with siblings taken in Kau Yan Church, Hong Kong in 1946.
  2. ^ Kau Yan School, then College (1949–1961), and St. Paul's College (1961–1963).
  3. ^ The University of Hong Kong Gazette, Vol. XIV, No. 2, p. 17 & Vol. XVII, No. 2, p. 21.
  4. ^ The Chinese University of Hong Kong Bulletin, Vol. 5, Issues 1–8.
  5. ^ See HKBU e-News, Wed. 12 May, 2004.
  6. ^ Tsang, Lap-Chuen (1991) "Wittgenstein, World and Wonder", New Blackfriars 72 (850): 269–277; reprinted in Tsang (1998), pp. 147-160.
  7. ^ Tsang (1998), pp. vii, xiii-xiv.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ See also references in the book to F.C.T. Moore, Dan Sperber, Martin Hengel, Martin Hollis, Bernard Williams, Carl Jung, Robert Campbell Roberts, Harry Frankfurt and Malcolm Budd.
  10. ^ Tsang (1998), p. 25.
  11. ^ Tsang (1998), pp. 45-46.
  12. ^ Tsang (1998), p. 7.
  13. ^ Tsang (1998), p. 81.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Tsang (1998), pp. ix–x.
  17. ^ Tsang (1998), p. 59.
  18. ^ a b Tsang (1998), p. 14.
  19. ^ Any object, be it a thing, an event, a thought, an action, a situation, or the like. Tsang (1998), p. 25.
  20. ^ Tsang (1998), p. xi.
  21. ^ See further explanation of the theory in Alasdair MacIntyre's "Foreword" to Tsang (1998), pp. ix–xii.
  22. ^ Tsang Lap Chuen, Logic, Language and Religion (MA Thesis, University of Hong Kong, 1968), pp. 27-30 & 120-1.
  23. ^ Tsang (1998), pp. 133-4.
  24. ^ St Anselm, Proslogion (1078), Prologue & Chapters 1-3.
  25. ^ Tsang (1998), p. 149.
  26. ^ Tsang (1998), pp. xiii–xiv, 25, 81 & 104. From the typewritten comments on Tsang's penultimate draft (1991) of The Sublime, it can be said that F.C.T. Moore first pointed out this aspect of "going to the limit of some human possibility" as being central to the experience of the sublime (Tsang (1998), p. 104).
  27. ^ Tsang (1998), pp. xiii, 70–1, 89 & 132-4; see pp. 147-160 on the ontological thrust of existential wonder in Wittgenstein. For discussion of this aspect of the sublime in human activities other than the religious and moral, see, e.g., David Stipp, A Most Elegant Equation: Euler's Formula and the Beauty of Mathematics (New York: Basic Books, 2017), pp. 7-15, 138-163. Stipp's formulation of the sublime (p. 145) explains in brief the central idea of Tsang’s theory in terms of the Kantian sublime with MacIntyre's emphasis on its inherent connection with the limit of some human possibility (Tsang (1998), pp. ix–x, 3, 17 & 104). The afore-explained theory of the sublime, with emphasis on its threefold kind experienced in a threefold manner (Tsang (1998), p. 101), may be treated as of historical relevance. It can be said that Tsang’s theory is the concept of the sublime explicated in a language regardless of Kant's transcendental idealism (Tsang (1998), pp. 137–145, esp. pp. 142-4).
  28. ^ The Christian follows in Jesus' footsteps in all aspects of life, i.e., body, mind and spirit; which can be said to be the main themes of Kant’s trilogy of practical reason, pure reason and judgment. As to our coming unto God, Kant has argued that, when man confronts the sublime in a natural or experiential object in actual life, he can realize himself as a rational and free being transcendent of the natural or social order. For Kant God is the most sublime of all and the Crucifixion, as the ultimate manifestation of the moral law in man in defiance of the natural and social order, is an exemplary instantiation of the sublime. Cf. Leszek Kolakowski on the Crucifixion in an article which appeared in the weekly paper of the Polish association of atheists and freethinkers in 1965, quoted in Sign of Contradiction by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) (New York: Seabury, 1979), p. 106. (Cf. Karlheinz Gerlach, Die Freimaurer im Alten Preußen 1738–1806 (Innsbruck: Studien Verlag, 2014), p. 24; see Kant, Ref. 22.) See Tsang (1998), pp. 56-7 & p. 133 (note 15). (In the experience of the sublime, Kant also intends to unite, in an attempt to integrate his critical philosophy, the theoretical and practical aspects of man's reason in the empirical dimension.) Tsang (1998), pp. 137-145.
  29. ^ The Christian believes that "[God] has put a sense of eternity in people's minds." (Ecclesiastes 3:11 (GW)) As to 'the sense of eternity', cf. 'the viewpoint of eternity' (sub specie aeternitatis) in Wittgenstein, Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus (1922), trans. D.F. Pears & B.F. McGuinness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), 6.4-7, esp. 6.45. (Cf. Wittgenstein, "Isn't it strange that such a book as Ecclesiastes was included in the canon?" Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rush Rhees (Oxford Paperbacks, 1984), p. 143. Cf. Tsang (1998), p. 157 & p. 160 (note 43).) See Tsang (1998), pp. 148-9. It can be said that, as an ontological treatise, The Sublime begins and ends where the Tractatus ends.
  30. ^ Tsang (1998), pp. 133-4. The Christian in imitation of Christ the Son of God can be construed as constituting an Ontological Argument a posteriori, by fact, for the existence of God in human form, whereas Anselm's argument is an Ontological Argument a priori, by logic, for the existence of God as Necessary Being. The Christian believes that the love of God raises the human being to share in the Godhead (1 John 4:16; see Tsang (1998), p. 78 note 21) and that, from his being (ontos), man knows that God must be (Ecclesiastes 3:11 and Luke 17:21; and, by way of reason in faith, see, e.g., St Anselm, Proslogion, Prologue & Chapters 1-3). In this connection noteworthy is Jesus' preference for the title "Son of Man" above all honorific epithets (see esp. Luke 22:66-71 (KJV) with Luke 22:70 in Greek-text analysis). The title "Son of Man" occurs 86 times in the entire New Testament while the title "Son of God" appears nowhere in the early church's oral tradition (kerygma) about Jesus. In Acts Paul is the first to call Jesus "Son of God" (Acts 9:20). (See The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown inter alia (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), Vol. 2, pp. 772-3. The historical data about the titles of Christ cited here are removed but confirmed between lines in The Jerome Biblical Commentary for the Twenty-First Century, with a Foreword by Pope Francis, edited by John J. Collins inter alia (London: T & T Clark, 2022), pp. 145-163, 1450-2 & 1481-4.) Cf. William P. Alston, "The very special impression made by Jesus of Nazareth on certain of his contemporaries was expressed by calling him the Son of God." "Religion," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. & The Free Press, 1967), Vol. 7, p.142; quoted in Tsang (1977), "Religion and Analysis," unpublished paper, note 8. On Wittgenstein's view that religious language at work is religious life in action, see, e.g., Tsang (1989), "God, Morality and Prudence: A Reply to Bernard Williams," The Heythrop Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 433–8, esp. pp. 434 & 437.
  31. ^ Cf. Wittgenstein; also Confucius (see, e.g., The Analects, “Yong Ye,” Chapter 22). Tsang (1998), pp. xiii, 2–3, 16-7 & 133-4. The Christian believes that he abides in God and God in him (1 John 4:16 (see Tsang (1998), p. 78 note 21)), while he seeks further understanding in faith; but St Anselm also seeks further understanding by logic alone, hence his frustration in Proslogion (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:13). (Cf. Wittgenstein, "For all you and I can tell, the religion of the future will be without any priests or ministers. ... It is my belief that only if you try to be helpful to other people will you in the end find your way to God." Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rush Rhees (Oxford Paperbacks, 1984), p. 114. Cf. Tsang (1998), p. 157 & p. 160 (note 43).) See, e.g., Tsang (1994), “The Samaritan Act and the Reality of Altruism,” unpublished paper on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Cf. Tsang (1998), p. 42 & p. 56 (note 33). (The afore-cited Biblical verses, i.e., Exodus 3:14, Genesis 1:27, Ecclesiastes 3:11 (GW), John 14:6, Luke 22:66-71, Acts 9:20, 1 John 4:16, Luke 17:21 and 1 Corinthians 13:13, are so presented as to understanding the Christian as coming unto God in Jesus' footsteps. (Matthew 6:10))
  32. ^ See, e.g., its entry in PhilPapers, Google Books and WorldCat.
  33. ^ See MacIntyre's "Foreword" to Tsang (1998), pp. ix–xii.
  34. ^ See Barrett's review of the book in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 88, No. 350 (Summer, 1999), pp. 231–234.
  35. ^ 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.
  36. ^ As pointed out by MacIntyre and Barrett. MacIntyre's "Foreword" emphasizes the limit of some human possibility in an experience of the sublime and Barrett's review the viewpoint of eternity in Wittgenstein's existential wonder. See Ref. 27 & 29 hereinabove.