…and joined a group of scholars in launching a new group blog of Chinese and Comparative philosophy — Warp, Weft, and Way.
This blog will remain on line indefinitely for archived reference, but postings and discussion will continue over at the new blog. I hope you will join the discussion over there. Please change your links and I invite you to follow my posts and those of my colleagues at the new place.
Please note that all the posts from this site are also archived at Warp, Weft, and Way. Please note also that any quoted material from this blog should abide by academic reference standards as spelled out, for example, in this summary of MLA style. Thanks.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Neo-Taoism”, by Alan Chan (at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, formerly of National University of Singapore’s philosophy deparment), just became available on October 1. From He Yan and Wang Bi to Guo Xiang — everything you wanted to know about post-Han Daoism, encyclopedically considered; here’s a teaser:
Both He Yan and Wang Bi were known for their expertise in the Yijing. Both were deeply interested in the Laozi. The fifth-century work Shishuo xinyu (New Accounts of Tales of the World), which is indispensable to understanding early medieval Chinese literati culture, relates that He Yan was working on or had just completed a commentary to the Laozi, but when he saw Wang Bi’s Laozi commentary, he recognized the superiority of the latter and reworked his own into two essays on the Dao and “Virtue” (de) instead (4.7 and 4.10). Wang Bi’s Laozi and Yijing commentaries occupied a privileged place in the formal xuanxue curriculum later, and arguably they remain the most important philosophical treatment of the two classics today. However, it should be noted that both He Yan and Wang Bi wrote on the Confucian Lunyu as well. Through their extant writings, we gain a good view of the central concerns of Neo-Daoist philosophy.
From the Jin shu account cited above, He Yan was credited with having introduced the concept of wu into mainstream Chinese philosophical discourse. Whether that was historically the case is unimportant; what is certain is that the concept of wu plays a pivotal role in xuanxue philosophy. The question is what does it mean?
The concept of wu gains prominence from the Laozi and has been variously translated as “nonbeing,” “nothing,” “nothingness,” or “negativity.” In classical Chinese, wu generally conveys the sense of “not having” something—e.g., “not having a name” (wu ming)—and functions as the opposite of the common word you, “having” something. In the Laozi, it seems to have been used as an abstract noun as well. Specifically, the Laozi declares that wu is the source of all beings (chapter 40) and the basis of all functions (chapter 11). To He Yan and his contemporaries, there is little doubt that the meaning of Dao is to be sought in the concept of wu; but, it does not follow that they all understood the latter in the same way.
He Yan’s writings exist only in fragments today. The most important are (1) his commentary to the Lunyu, which was, however, a collective effort jointly submitted to the throne with several other scholars, and (2) quotations from two of his essays entitled Wuming lun (Discourse on the Nameless) and Dao lun (Discourse on Dao) preserved in later sources. In the former, He Yan explicitly defines the Dao as “that which does not have anything” (wu suo you zhe ye). In what is left of the Dao lun, He Yan writes:
Beings depend on wu in coming into existence, in becoming what they are. Affairs on account of wu come to fruition and become what they are. Now, one tries to speak about wu, but no words could describe it; name it, but it has no name; look at it, but it does not have any form; listen to it, but it does not give any sound. Then, indeed, it is clear that the Dao is complete. Thus, it can bring forth sounds and echoes; generate qi-energies and things; establish form and spirit; and illuminate light and shadows. What is dark obtains its blackness from it; what is plain obtains its whiteness from it. The carpenter’s square is able to make a square because of it; the compass is able to make a circle because of it. The round and the square obtain their form, but that which gives them their form itself does not have any form. The white and the black obtain their name, but that which gives them their name itself does not have any name.
Few scholars in early medieval China would question the general assertion that the Dao is the “beginning” and “mother” of all things, as the Laozi phrases it (chapter 1). There was also widespread acknowledgement of the namelessness and formlessness of Dao. “The Dao that can be spoken of is not the constant Dao,” after all, as the opening words of the Laozi famously declare. The real issue is how can that which transcends language and perception be said to be the creative source of all beings?
According to He Yan, the solution to the mystery of Dao lies in recognizing its “completeness” or undifferentiated wholeness (quan). Precisely because the Dao is whole and complete, it is able to bring forth heaven and earth and the myriad creatures. For the same reason, in its undifferentiated fullness the Dao does not have any particular form, and as such cannot be pinned down conceptually and named. Even the term “Dao,” as the Laozi makes clear, is but a metaphor, a “forced” effort to reference that which is ultimately ineffable (chapter 25), a point which He Yan also emphasizes in his “Discourse on the Nameless”: “The Dao fundamentally does not have a name (dao ben wu ming) [i.e., what the word “Dao” stands for cannot be named]. Thus, Master Lao [i.e., Laozi] said he could only force a name on it.”
Put differently, indeed the Dao can only be described as wu, in the sense that it does not have any distinguishable feature or property characteristic of things. On this reading, wu does not signify ontological absence but on the contrary attests to the fullness and fecundity of Dao. More precisely, through a process of differentiation, the Dao generates the yin and yang qi-energies that constitute all phenomena. The Laozi has also made the point that the Dao is “undifferentiated and complete” (chapter 25). This is now shown to be the source of the yin and yang qi—vital forces, pneumas, or loosely, “energies”—that engender, shape and sustain life. In this respect, He Yan adhered generally to the yin-yang cosmological theory established since the Han dynasty. Properly understood, the nothingness of Dao has important implications for ethics and political philosophy.
Comments, questions, etc are welcome, as usual.
A little blogging while I’m running around and setting up the transition to the group blog…
Chad Hansen’s translation of the Daodejing is available now. I happened to see it at the Yale Book Store, did a double-take, and snatched it up. It has a kind of boutique feel to it, literally — the hardcover has an elegant silky-cloth finish with an embossed 道 on the front; the paper quality seems expensive; there are myriad glossy photos and art reproductions throughout. This attention to reader aesthetic experience suggests that the volume is not primarily meant for scholarly reference, most scholars being more utilitarian about the print quality of their reading material. On the other hand, what translation of the Daodejing after Legge’s really targets an academic audience? Nonetheless, I’m always a sucker for translations of the DDJ by scholars that I like.
The translation differs from what I remember of the one he had on line for a while (that page is no longer available from Hansen’s website — why?!). It’s more elegant, I think, but of course remains faithful to Hansen’s guidance-dao/performance-dao, non-mystical interpretation. Since chapter 1 is usually how people tend to judge translations of the DDJ, here is Hansen’s version, including his titular heading for it:
DAOS, NAMES, AND PUZZLES
Ways can be guided; they are not fixed ways.
Names can be named; they are not fixed names.
“Absence” names the cosmic horizon,
“Presence” names the mother of 10,000 natural kinds.
Fixing on “absence” is to want to view enigmas.
Fixing on “presence” is to want to view phenomena.
These two, emerging together, we name differently.
Conceiving of them as being one: call that “fathomless”.
Calling it “fathomless” is still not to fathom it.
…the door to a cluster of puzzles.
The volume is not without notation. There is a brief, readable Hansen-commentary for each chapter, in the section following the full translation of the text. Here is the beginning of his commentary on chapter 1:
You ask, “Where is the way” I say: “Over there.” I have dao-ed you to a dao. The way I recommend consists of other signposts, markers, or structures that you can follow correctly — or not, just as you can follow my “over there” correctly or not. If a 道 dao can guide or recommend something (also written 道 but used as a verb), then it’s not a constant dao.
What is a fixed or constant dao — one you can’t get wrong; one to which you do not need to be guided? The movements of the stars and celestial objects trace a constant or fixed dao. You do not ask, and I can’t tell you, how to digest an apple. The process of digestion is fixed. The normal biological processes of life are naturally fixed.
The key difference between recommendable ways and fixed ones is words (名 ming, “names”) and their counterparts — signs, markers, demonstratives and gestures…
I think that’s about as clear an explanation of Hansen’s approach to the DDJ as I’ve read by him.
Comments, requests for how Hansen translated line x of chapter y, etc are welcome.
Reviewed by friend of the blog, Justin Tiwald, at NDPR: http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=17606
It’s good to see updated translation of Wang Yangming and Lu Xiangshan’s Neoconfucianism. What else would be nice to have in English?
I’m working on the transformation of things. Thanks for being patient. I may actually blog before the transformation occurs; we’ll see. I’ll take more suggestions here for the name of the new blog, if something strikes your fancy. That’s still up in the air. Names that are named are not constant names…
My apologies for the long lapse in blogging. As it turns out, I can’t simply sit reverently facing South in order to direct an academic program. I will begin blogging again in earnest next week.
Also, in the near future I would like to turn this blog more formally into a group endeavor, with an appropriately more general blog name, and will be seeking a willing and able cadre of co-authors for that purpose. I will make the effort to contact some people I have in mind, but if you are interested and feel qualified, I invite you to send me a message via email.
Just wanted to share a snippet from a book I just read, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. It’s an excellent book, very readable, that is part social theory and part personal history of someone who left philosophy, as a profession, but kept it with him into his career as a motorcycle mechanic. The primary thrust in the book is to rethink the partitioning off of manual labor as a non-thinking, non-intelligent activity and at the same time to rethink the social engineering that has taken place in the past century of turning labor in general, whether white or blue collar, into something that is divorced from types of activity that contribute to human excellence. You might say it’s a book against the trends in contemporary life that promote both mindlessness and alienation from the “mechanism” of the world. The book is written with style and without any pretentiousness. Great reading; I finished the entire book on a 5 hour flight.
Apropos this blog, I thought there was some excellent resonance in the book with the “skill-mastery” portions of the Zhuangzi, particularly in the ways that Crawford talks about how “freedom” and “autonomy” have been co-opted by the consumer ethic that has taken over our lives. Here’s a bit of it:
…there is a whole ideology of choice and freedom and autonomy, and that if one pays due attention, these ideals start to seem less like a bubbling up of the unfettered Self and more like something that is urged upon us. This becomes most clear in advertising, where Choice and Freedom and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities and all the other heady existentialist slogans of the consumerist Self are invoked with such repetitive urgency that they come to resemble a disciplinary system. Somehow, self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old.
Thinking about manual engagement seems to require nothing less than that we consider what a human being is. That is, we are led to consider how the specifically human manner of being is lit up, as it were, by man’s interaction with his world through his hands. For this a new sort of anthropology is called for, one that is adequate to our experience of agency. Such an account might illuminate the appeal of manual work in a way that is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but rather simply gives credit to the practice of building things, fixing things, and routinely tending to things, as an element of human flourishing. (pp. 63-4)
Crawford’s discussion of music that follows this, reminded me of the Zhuangzi skill passages, not so much in style, but in content:
The errors of freedomism may be illuminated by thinking about music. One can’t be a musician without learning to play a particular instrument, subjecting one’s fingers to the discipline of of frets or keys. The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an ongoing submission. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this is incidental rather than primary — there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music that can be expressed mathematically. … These facts do not arise from the human will, and there is no altering them. I believe the example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making. These limits need not be physical; the important thing is rather that they are external to the self. (p. 64)
Crawford discusses music and its consumption as an example of the loss of the type of agency discussed above:
In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways. Such hardness is at odds with the ontology of consumerism, which seems to demand a different conception of reality. The philosopher Albert Borgmann offers a distinction that clarifies this: he distinguishes between commanding reality and disposable reality, which corresponds to “things” versus “devices.” The former convey meaning through their own inherent qualities, while the latter answer to our shifting psychic needs.
As an instance of “the eclipse of commanding reality and the prominence of disposable reality,” Borgmann focuses on music. People play musical instruments a lot less than they used to; now we listen to the stereo or iPod. An instrument is “arduous to master and limited in its range,” whereas a stereo is undemanding and makes every sort of music instantly available, granting us a kind of musical autonomy. (p. 65, emphasis added).
So, according to Crawford a sort of increase of freedom, or autonomy, afforded by consumer culture also “enables” a lack of interest in pursuing agency-promoting activity. Ultimately, he argues, this makes human life worse.
Comments welcome, as always.
Andrew Cullison of SUNY Fredonia has set up a survey “…for philosophers to collectively gather useful information about philosophy journals,” here. I’ve advised him to add the main Chinese and comparative philosophy journals, in addition to Dao (which was the only one of them on a prior journals wiki). So, fairly soon, you’ll see Dao, Philosophy East and West, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, and Asian Philosophy. The survey is easy and the more of us who provide feedback, the better the information will be. I would urge anyone here who’s had experience with any of those journals to go over and participate.
Following up on some things we discussed about filial piety on a previous post, I’ve had some thoughts about the nature of family relationships and their moral relevance, particularly with respect to filial piety, but with some hopes for expanding the thoughts more systematically to other aspects.
The Confucian ideal seems to be that the duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are central, in at least two ways:
1) The duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are overriding — they override any duties or obligations that derive from other relations, be they standing relations (subject and ruler, ruler and minister, subject and subject, etc.), or incidental ones based on circumstances (sheep-thief and sheep-owner, chariot-driver and someone run over by chariot-driver, etc.).
2) The duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are paradigmatic — they provide the paradigm, or model, for thinking about what our other duties or obligations are like and how we should think about them. So, for example, the ruler should think about his relationship to his ministers or to his subjects in ways that are modeled on the parent-child relationship.
That represents, I think, a common portrayal of the Confucian view. The questions I have are about how such a view might be justified. There are so-called “special relationships” that some contemporary moral theorists like to talk about, that are based on more or less standing relationships we find ourselves in, sometimes not entirely out of choices that we may have made. But these relationships can involve important moral aspects like trust and deep emotional bonds based on instinctive and cultivated care. The most obvious relationship like this is the parent-child relationship. But in that relationship, it’s always seemed to me like there’s an important asymmetry. As parents, we bring children into the world and it is most often out of some choice or other that we made. But of course the children had no such choice (that’s not the asymmetry I’m interested in) and for many years of their lives, they are in most ways “at our mercy” — they tacitly trust us to take care of them and to prepare them for a relatively happy adult life. Most parents love their children and so the point about trust might seem to without saying, but that’s not always the case and even loving parents don’t always feel particularly fond of their children. So, care is something that we owe to our children, as Kant (through Barbara Herman, among others) might say, even when we don’t on occasion feel like caring for them.
The moral asymmetry, I think, is when we look at the relationship from the side of the children. What is it that they owe to us? (Or, more pressing for many of us, what do we owe our parents?). I’m not so sure how to answer that. One way to characterize the Confucian view is that children owe their parents obedience, allegiance/loyalty, and gratitude — as I suggested about Analects 13.18 in the aforementioned post. But let me introduce Analects 17.21, which says:
Zai Wo asked about the three years’ mourning for parents, saying that one year was long enough….The Master said, “If you were, after a year, to eat good rice, and wear embroidered clothes, would you feel at ease?” “I should,” replied Wo. The Master said, “If you can feel at ease, do it. But a superior man, during the whole period of mourning, does not enjoy pleasant food which he may eat, nor derive pleasure from music which he may hear. He also does not feel at ease, if he is comfortably lodged. Therefore he does not do what you propose. But now you feel at ease and may do it.” Zai Wo then went out, and the Master said, “This shows Yu’s [i.e. Zai Wo’s] want of virtue. It is not till a child is three years old that it is allowed to leave the arms of its parents. And the three years’ mourning is universally observed throughout the empire. Did Yu enjoy the three years’ love of his parents?” (Legge translation)
One way of expressing filial piety is through this expression of mourning. But it really doesn’t work well to think of this on a duty or obligation model. If we think about it on the trust model, the three years spent in “the arms of its parents” are based on what the parents already owe to the child. The parent doesn’t create a subsequent debt by caring for the child, right? But maybe the child, later in life as an adult, comes to appreciate that parental care nonetheless. At that point, it seems like that’s a nice thing, but not only isn’t it morally relevant, I’m not sure it is desirable to think of that sort of appreciation as morally relevant. “I’m really glad that I was lucky to have such caring parents” and “I’m really grateful to my parents for caring about me” are slightly different sentiments, but of a kind. Call them the “fortunate child” or “grateful child” sentiments; they are of a kind because they recognize the virtues of the parents but don’t imply that those virtues then create a debt on the child’s part.
I think for filial piety, at least, to be plausible the view has to be understood in ways that aren’t tied to the duties or obligations of children to their parents. As someone who grew up in a fairly traditional Korean family and in traditional Korean diaspora communities, I get the sense that “on the ground” the Confucian view does require a heavy sense of duty and obligation from children toward their parents — not so much of gratitude or fortune. But what should the sense of duty and obligation toward parents be based on? I don’t think it can plausibly be based on gratitude toward them; being grateful to someone doesn’t seem like grounds for owing them things or having duties toward them, at least not in a strict moral sense. Or does it?
As always, discussion is welcome!
I don’t know; I’m a bit skeptical. Someone convince me otherwise.
How Confucianism could curb global warming
China openly debates the role of Eastern thought in sustainability.
By James Miller
from the June 26, 2009 edition
Kingston, Ontario – Now here’s a curveball to secular Western policy experts: China’s intellectuals are openly debating the role of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in promoting the Communist Party’s vision of a harmonious society and ecologically sustainable economic development.
Nowhere is the question of what to do about the environment more vital than in China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – especially because scientists agree that climate change disproportionately affects the poor and the disenfranchised and that climate change will affect future generations far more than the present.
Yet the general impression of China’s role in issues relating to environment is one of foot-dragging because it hasn’t bought into a Western model to address it.
But Pan Yue, China’s vice minister for environmental protection, is calling for China to capitalize on traditional Chinese religions in promoting ecological sustainability.
He says, “One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between humans and nature. Different philosophies all emphasize the political wisdom of a balanced environment. Whether it is the Confucian idea of humans and nature becoming one, the Taoist view of the Tao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years. It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society.”
And this just might work.
As The New York Times recently reported, China is in the midst of a transformation to cleaner forms of energy.
Although much of China’s energy needs are still met by inefficient, coal-fired power stations with poor track records in terms of emissions, China has begun to invest heavily in cleaner coal technology in an effort to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.
Because of this, the International Energy Agency reduced its estimate of the increase in Chinese emissions of global warming gases from 3.2 percent to 3 percent even as the same agency raised its estimate of China’s economic growth. China is managing to increase its economic output at a greater rate than its emissions.
This is good news for everyone.
But buried innocuously in the middle of this report was the startlingly frank statement of Cao Peixi, president of the China Huaneng group, China’s largest state-owned electric company.
When asked about his company’s decision to invest in more expensive but cleaner technology he replied: “We shouldn’t look at this project from a purely financial perspective. It represents the future.”
The $64,000 question facing economists and politicians across the world is how to make decisions that take into account the big picture beyond the “purely financial perspective.”
This is a hard question for Western economic and political theorists to answer, because their theories are based on the Enlightenment view of the self as an autonomous, rational individual.
But how are we to make decisions that take into account the interests of those who have not yet been born?
Being respectful to the interests of past and future generations is key to the Confucian view of the self and groups. To the question, “Who am I?” the Confucian answers, “I am the child of my parents and the parent of my children.”
Confucianism begins from the proposition that human beings are defined by kinship networks that span the centuries. From this perspective the interests of the individual are bound up with the interests of the kinship group as it extends forward and backward across the generations.
This will be a key factor in the way China handles present and future environmental issues.
Consider the views of Jiang Qing, a leading Confucian intellectual. According to a recent report by Daniel Bell, a political theorist at China’s Tsinghua Univeristy, Mr. Jiang proposes a political system that can take into account the interests of those who are typically ignored in modern democracies, such as foreigners, future generations, and ancestors.
“Is democracy really the best way to protect future victims of global warming?” he asks.
As China assumes a greater leadership role on the world stage, we can expect the emergence of a variety of models of sustainable development rooted in a plurality of cultural traditions, including Confucianism.
The time when Westernization was the only credible model of development is over.
(James Miller is a professor of Chinese studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston. He is currently researching the relationship between religion, nature, and modernization in China.)