A Tu (圖) is Worth…
I was thinking about Zhou Dunyi’s Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate (taijitu 太極圖).
Well, about the general idea of such diagrams (tu) really. I’ve been a relative ignoramus about this, but some reading that I’ve been doing recently about whether or not Chinese characters are ideographs got me thinking about diagrams (there are very vehement denials of that thesis by linguists recently, from DeFrancis onward; I think Chad Hansen defends a version of the thesis, though he must have figured out a way to do it without relying on any “language of thought” assumptions). Apparently there was a movement, or “school” of diagrams and numerology. Robin Wang writes in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“From the Han dynasty through the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912 CE), there was a consistent tension between two schools of thought: the school of xiangshu (images and numbers) and the school of yili (meanings and reasoning). At issue between them is how best to interpret the classics, particularly the Yijing. The question often was posed as: ‘Am I interpreting the six classics or are the six classics interpreting me?’
For the school of Xiangshu the way to interpret the classics is to produce a figurative and numerological representation of the universe through xiang (images) and shu (numbers). It held that xiangshu are indispensable structures expressing the Way of heaven, earth and human being. Thus the school of Xiangshu takes the position that ‘I interpret the classics’ by means of the images and numbers. The emphasis is on the appreciation of classics. The school of Yili, on the other hand, focuses on an exploration of the meanings of the classics on the basis of one’s own reconstruction. In other word, the school of Yili treats all classics as supporting evidence for their own ideas and theories. The emphasis is more on idiosyncratic new theories rather than the explanation of the classics. In what follows, our inquiry focuses on the legacy of the Xiangshu school.”
Does anyone know whether what Wang means by the “am I interpreting the classics or are they interpreting me” question is explicit in texts? That would be interesting, I think, for its early hermeneutic sophistication–depending on how early the question is made explicit I suppose.
Anyway, as usual, I have puzzles about diagrams–by now some of you have figured out that “puzzling” is my first approach to anything. One is about how a diagram is helpful. I assume it can display certain relationships through spatial metaphor better than linear discourse could. But how, in general, is a spatial metaphor very helpful for relaying information about non-spatial relationships? Related to that puzzle, I wonder whether sometimes the metaphor itself becomes something that needs explanation and ends up being unhelpful. Take the taijitu, for example. The diagram is, presumably, supposed to be helpful in explaining cosmological relationships. Every time I look at it however (or more to the point, every time a student asks about it), I feel like the diagram is itself a mystery. There’s further irony in the existence of the difficult commentary literature that develops around what the diagram is meant to convey. So, is the diagram helpful in this case or has it only generated an “epi-problem” over and above the cosmological relationships it was meant to clarify?
I wonder if there is something that makes this a general problem or just an issue for particular diagrams, such as the taijitu.
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