Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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The Yijing (I Ching)’s Philosophical Value

Someone asked me recently about the Yijing (“Why don’t you teach it in your Asian philosophy courses?”). I have to admit, I’ve never seen any philosophical value in it, even construing “philosophical” very broadly. If I’m wrong, I’m glad to be corrected. It’s an interesting relic of divination; beyond that . . . I’m not sure.

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January 31, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy

12 Comments

  1. I thought the same thing until a professor pointed out that the appendix of the I Ching is somewhat valuable for understanding the philosophical/cosmological underpinnings. I think the book should be briefly presented by the professor, but it shouldn’t be assigned to read.

    Comment by Seth | January 31, 2008

  2. My 2 cents….

    I think it depends on the schedule of your course. It seems that some philosophers believe that I-Ching is philosophical valuable (e.g. Fung Yu Lan, Mou Zongsan, etc.). And it is somewhat related to Confucianism and Daoism. If your course is only designed for introducing Chinese philosophy (and chinese culture for the diversity requirement), then probably I-Ching can be a topic for a lecture or two. But if your course is designed for Asian philosophy in general, then there may not be enough time to teach I-Ching.

    Comment by Benedict Chan | January 31, 2008

  3. Simply put – I am astonished.

    However I suppose it depends on the sort of philosophy you promote / teach.

    It appears to me that the Yijing underpins or informs both Daoist and Confucian thinking.
    Founded in correlative thought the Yijing is a coherrant philosophy centred on choices of action / inaction; choices / no choices; inspiration / manifestation (or realization). Yet it proposes that these are no always opposites but sometimes complementary pairs. If the Yijing is not a philosophy with these complex propositions then the simple Greek Cartesian proposals are not worth the paper etc.

    As I say, remaining strictly polite: I am astonished at your thought.

    I can only asume that you have not had the oportunity to examine it in any detail.

    Comment by Kevin | January 31, 2008

  4. Kevin; thanks for being polite–that should go without saying. What text are you looking at? No doubt I haven’t examined it in great detail, partly because the detail seems to involve commentaries that assign great significance to certain trigrams for determining whether some ruler should act in some way or not. But I don’t see the philosohical basis for that in the text. Correlative thinking has always struck me as interesting because it imagines the universe to have macro and micro parallels that resonate in patterns we might be able to detect. That sounds like interesting protoscience. Where’s the correlative thinking in the Yijing? That’s not rhetorical; I’m genuinely interested.

    Comment by Manyul Im | January 31, 2008

  5. I agree with Kevin and for similar if not the same reasons. Yijing “commentary” is probably most interesting, philosophically speaking. Michael Nylan, A.C. Graham, and Bo Mou, among other students of Chinese worldviews (I thought it too tedious to list everyone that came to mind) seem to provide us (directly or by implication) with sufficient reasons for taking a philosophical interest in the text (e.g., Mou comes up with a novel construal of the meaning of yin/yang as a result of his philosophical exploration of the Yijing). And we might presume some philosophical significance if only because of the Yijing’s elevated status in the literary corpus of the Confucian tradition, including the fact the Confucius saw fit to speak about the text.

    Correlative thinking and analogical reasoning are at least of some philosophical interest and the role they play in Chinese thought and human reasoning in general is, I would think (and especially after A.C. Graham, as well as research in cognitive psychology), worthy of systematic exploration (exemplifying, perhaps, one ‘kind’ of rationality). In short, I think you might re-consider your appraisal of the philosophical value of the Yijing (and one need not worry about according philosophical respectability, as a by-product or spillover effect, to divinatory practices).

    With the utmost respect, I wonder if your willingness to dismiss the Yijing may in part be a reflection of professional anxiety or thinly veiled professional concern about the possibility of being christened philosophically suspect by some of one’s more ideologically inclined or tendentiously anal colleagues (e.g., those that remain a bit irritated if not puzzled that anything outside Western civilization has ample and independent philosophical merit) if one shows an interest in such things (after all, there is a more or less canonical history of the discipline, as well as topics thought basic or central and those deemed less and much less so, hence consigned to the periphery or even thought beyond the pale: hence, to entertain them is to in some measure to place oneself on the periphery or beyond the pale).

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | January 31, 2008

  6. Patrick; I’m not so much dismissing the Yijing as somewhat perplexed at the traditional presumption of its philosophical content. I think there are contemporary scholars, including the ones you’ve mentioned, who still take that presumption seriously. Also, my professional anxieties or concerns give no direction with regard to interest in the Yijing; any success in my career has been due to willingness of people already in steeped in study of Asian philosophy to say more or less nice things about my work. And in any case, if I found something philosophically interesting about the Yijing, I’m confident I would be able to show at least the open minded Western philosophers that it was interesting.

    To be more forthcoming about this post, I should say that I’m currently working on the *influence* of divination practices on early Chinese philosophical ideas about the power of language (terms and speech–ming 名 and yan 言). It’s just that I don’t “see the philosophy” in those divination practices themselves–though again, I’m open to being persuaded. I have to admit, I don’t really see how Bo Mou bases his interpretation of the Yijing on the text itself as much as on later Han dynasty readings of it. But to be honest, I may not have read his work on this carefully enough. Maybe you or someone else reading this blog has…

    Comment by Manyul Im | January 31, 2008

  7. I’m happy to dispense with (and forget) my last paragraph above.

    I agree about not “seeing philosophy” in divination practices as such, be it those of the Yijing or oracle bones (which is a narrower question than that of the philosophical value of the Yijing).

    Your article sounds enticing. Although not, strictly speaking, a philosophical volume, it brings to mind topics discussed in the book edited by Christopher Lupke: The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (2005). Anyway, I look forward to your article.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | January 31, 2008

  8. Perhaps I don’t understand the term philosophy, as used in this discussion. How can Chinese philosophy be studied without its foundation? Before Konzi and Laozi there was the Zhouyi. In the modern period, how can we understand the Song Dynasty in China without the Yi, as reflected in the work of Zhu Xi, Shao Yong, Zhou Dunyi, and my favorite, Cheng Yi?

    To view the Yi as a book of divination alone would is possible in the early part of the Zhou, but the canon itself contains phrases that are philosophical in nature, notably: ‘No rise without a descent, no going without a return’.
    The cyclical nature of the Yi is in itself a founding concept of Chinese cosmology, and thus the philosophy that is to intimately interconnected with it.

    In short, of course it’s a book of philosophy as well as divination. To limit it to cover one corner of the world is like describing Moby Dick as a whaling manual.

    Comment by Han Fei | February 4, 2008

  9. Han Fei,

    [And at the risk of wearing out my welcome here]
    While I may not go so far as to characterize the Yijing as a “book of philosophy,” I agree that it has philosophical significance. A nice illustration of this is Chung-yin Cheng’s chapter, “Reality and divinity in Chinese philosophy” in Eliot Deutsch and Ron Bontekoe, eds., A Companion to World Philosophies (1997). There he discusses the ontocosmology of taiji and dao and the “theory of reality” that had such a formative influence on Daoism. Reality is characterized (and further elabortated upon) as “inexhaustible origination,” a “polar-generative process,” a “multi-interactive harmony,” a “virtual hierarchization,” a “recursive but limitless regenerativity,” and as an “organismic totality.” So it would seem we find fundamental metaphysical ideas animating the Yijing, some of which are later developed in different ways in both Confucianism and Daoism. So, that analysis appears to support the spirit if not the letter of your comment.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 4, 2008

  10. Erratum: Chung-ying Cheng (and ‘elaborated’)

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 4, 2008

  11. Manyul, Could you please define or explain what you mean by “philosophical”? Some Asian thought or intellectual tradition cannot be captured by “philosophical” framework, which is defined by contemporary Western philosophy.
    Yes, in a sense, we may not find any philosophical value in Yijing. As you might know, Korean neo-Confucian scholar, Yi Ga-hwan, also urge Chong Yagyong, one of well-known neo-Confucian scholar, not to study Yijing because Yijing is very vague, illogical, and random. In other words, it implies that one can see whatever one wants to see in Yijing.
    I think, it could be hermeneutically significant in the history of Chinese philosophy. Many Chinese intellectuals like Wang Bi, Cheng Yi, and Zhu Xi etc. tried to analyze the book with their own philosophical ideas even if we at least consider them as philosophical thinker.
    So, What I am saying is to read Yijing as philosophical text depends on your understanding of what philosophy is.

    Comment by Chan Lee | February 5, 2008

  12. Hi Manyul,

    I tend to agree, concerning the text of the Yi, at least. The Xici commentary is of great interest in understanding one variety of early Chinese metaphysics. In a survey course, I think it’s worth explaining how the Yi embodies a correlative, numerological worldview and articulates the belief in a natural order that follows regular, cyclical patterns. But the text itself is not engaged in philosophical discussion or debate.

    The relation of the Yi to pre-Han philosophical discourse is in some respects analogous to the relation between Euclid’s Elements and classical Greek thought.

    Philosophical value comes in several flavors or modes, I think. One is that a text itself presents reflective, critical discussions of recognizably philosophical issues. Except perhaps for a few isolated remarks, the Yi itself does not do this. Another might be that, though the text doesn’t present such discussions, it tends to inspire or is the subject of them in other texts, ancient or contemporary.

    Whether or not we think the Yi scores high on this point probably depends on what era of Chinese thought we’re looking at. No doubt it is important in Song-Ming thought. But if we ask what role it plays in the discourse preserved in the pre-Han texts we think of as philosophical, the answer is: only a very peripheral one. (One reason is that the people who wrote those texts were probably members of a different social group than those who studied the Yi.) And the interest of contemporary work on it pales by comparison to that on the Lunyu, Mozi, et al.

    Many people who refer to the Yi as foundational to the Chinese philosophical tradition I think are using the word “philosophy” broadly, more in the sense of “natural philosophy.”

    Comment by Chris Fraser | February 6, 2008


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