Chinese philosophy

Towards the end of the 19th century, the expression zhexue, borrowed from the Japanese language, was adopted in China to convey the term philosophy; an expression which literally means «knowledge to become a wise person» and which, in the Confucian perspective, should be understood as the wise man’s ability to deal with issues inherent to the human condition. In this sense, philosophy is a knowledge, a practical knowledge, not theoretical or speculative: if however, one wanted to find in China that same tendency to build imposing systems of thought, typical of the Western tradition, the idea of a Chinese philosophy would be not only problematic but also rather inadequate, as in China it was a completely different experience, not reducible or assimilable to already known thoughts and systems.

Thus, the idea of a history of Chinese philosophy is an obvious linguistic loan from the West, as it is in fact problematic, if not impossible, to write about it or deal with it in the recurrent or more familiar sense. Nevertheless, the need, felt in the course of the 20th century, to still write a history of Chinese thought or philosophy did not originate in China, but came, like other things, from the West; thus recourse was made to Western philosophical concepts and doctrines in order to interpret the meaning of the Chinese classics and therefore of the schools of thought. In fact, those Chinese scholars and philosophers who wrote about the history of philosophy also had a solid knowledge of Western philosophy, often gained abroad and considered an essential analytical tool. The three most authoritative examples of this trend are Hu Shi (1891-1962), Feng Youlan, and Lao Sze-kwang (prop. Lao Siguang, b. 1927).

Cosmological reflection

Although in some mythical Chinese representations of the world one can trace germinal elements of the subsequent philosophical-cosmological reflection, it was only in the very first perception of the Universe that the Chinese fixed an ordered system of correspondences, harmonious and necessary, between the human body, political body and celestial bodies or, more generally, between natural entities, Earth and Heaven. It is a correspondence that invests the whole, from small to large, often represented in numbers, in articulated parts of a whole, in species, etc.; it recurs in the classical texts of the Chinese tradition, where it is not infrequently referred even to ordinary moments of human life and continually recalled to guide, as if it were an imperative, the action of man, especially that of the sovereign: «He who governs – said Confucius – by means of his virtue can be compared to the pole-star, fixed in its place while all the lesser stars pay homage to it» (Lunyu, Dialogues, II, 1).

Moreover, the correspondence between man and the elements of the natural order was the subject of extensive discussion in some works of the Han era (3rd century B.C. – 3rd A.D.), such as for example, to mention just two, in the Huainanzi («Book of the Huainan Master») and in the Chunqiu fanlu («The Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annal»), attributed to Dong Zhongshu. Impressive, in fact, is the detailed correspondence, developed in the Huainanzi, between the four seasons, the five phases, the nine sections and the 366 days of the sky, on the one hand, and the four limbs, the five organs, the nine orifices and the 366 joints of the human body, on the other. It is precisely this profound correspondence between cosmos and man that prompted Dong Zhongshu to consider man as the superior being par excellence. Not only is the man in and of himself a microcosm, but every ordered form of his action bears the same disposition, manifests the same nature. Thus, the State in general, as the regulated and organized form of human life, and in particular the Imperial State and administration, are themselves microcosm and therefore in direct correspondence with the cosmos. Even this conception had antecedents in the Shang era (18th-11th century B.C.), but it reached its full formulation only during the Han Dynasty, precisely to legitimize its system and administrative functions. Offices and functions found a correspondence with the five directions of space, as we read in the Huainanzi, and more generally with the structure of cosmic space and time.

A further extension of this correspondence, which offered fixed models of relation, was that which correlated the territories of Earth with the celestial ones and then also with the units of the celestial administration. And indeed, since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), almost every city or administrative unit had its patron deity, whose functions in the celestial administration corresponded exactly to those performed by the earthly magistrate. It is therefore evident that in this cosmos all the parts are, without any prescription and in a completely natural way, disposed to mutual reaction, remaining in a state of spontaneity and immediate sympathy. And within musical harmony, the Chinese found the most convincing empirical demonstration of the profound cosmic register. It is not surprising, then, that some series of numbers (five, eight and twelve) recurrent in cosmological doctrines partly refer to similar numerical series belonging to music (five notes, eight voices, etc.), nor that they have also been applied to other fields, such as meteorology and medicine and the art of good government; so that every entity or phenomenon of the natural order reacts with favor or adversity to the way it is exercised. Similarly, the Chinese character qi was also used to indicate the primordial substance of the cosmos, which forms solid bodies by aggregating, and the ephemeral ones by disintegrating.

Qi can also differentiate itself and become yin, yang, or one of the «five phases» (wu xing), thus facilitating bonds and mutual actions everywhere, because it can be both the material foundation of action and the action itself. Each process develops according to an active (yang) and latent (yin) movement of phases, as it appears in the slow but constant succession of the seasons of the year. Even in the most powerful condition of yang the yin bud is preserved, and vice versa. Thus, for example, an old man can be yang in relation to a woman, but at the same time yin in relation to a young man. A duality, that of yin-yang, which was soon assumed as a principle of classification, and applied to philosophy as much as to social relations, medicine, and more. However, it served above all to represent and explain the dynamism of certain recurring processes: the succession of the seasons, the natural cycle of human life, the rise and fall of the dynasties.

Change in the world and of the world is a complex of changes, better understood and described in detail as «five phases». Phases that are a process of mutual production: wood (mu) produces fire (huo), fire produces earth (tu), earth produces metal (jin), metal produces water (shui), water produces wood, etc. The identification, moreover, of each phase is not so much with the natural element materially given, or with its substance, but rather with its quality or with a certain kind of action or activity. This philosophy or thought of correspondence has for centuries provided ideas and concepts that were essential to the development of certain knowledge, even proto-scientific ones, such as astronomy, medicine, divination, alchemy, geomancy, etc. The Chinese doctrine of alchemy, for example, was generally based on ideas of correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm, and thus practitioners used to consider materials, tools, and even individual operations, as the vivid and perceptible expression of the microcosm, where every entity, every change and therefore every reaction was precisely similar to the work or daily processes of nature.

The analysis of human nature. The Chinese interest in human nature derived from the need to understand the intimate constitution of mankind, both to better orient its ethical-political conduct in the world and to specify its role and function in the order of the Universe. The Chinese term xing, often translated as «nature», derives from sheng (which means «life; to be born; to produce»); the term ren is equivalent to «human being» (or «human beings»), hence the habit of referring to «human nature» with the expression renxing or, more simply, xing. Human nature can be understood in a biological sense, as Yang Zhu does in the 4th century B.C., when he speaks of «keeping one’s life intact» (quan sheng) or «one’s nature»” (quan xing), referring to human health and longevity. Similarly, Gaozi, a contemporary of Mencius, seems to refer to xing taking into account the only sheng, that is, what perhaps gives life to human beings; for him, human nature is preserved in the individual through the instinct to feed, and over time through the innate tendency to reproduce.

In the Guanzi, a work whose main nucleus was formed around 250 B.C., sheng is the bodily activity of man, that is, the sensory and emotional life. But human nature can also be understood in a more limited sense, with reference only to man’s desires. Thus, in the 5th century B.C. Mozi, in dealing with the basic human constitution, often dwells only on certain desires, those of life, material well-being, and honors. Having received life as a gift from Heaven, men in their natural state are moved exclusively by their own desires, without caring for their fellow human beings or family members. A similar use is found, in the 4th-3rd century B.C., in Xunzi, though he sometimes seems to recognize a benevolent disposition for beings of his own kind in man, considered in his natural state. In the ethical inclinations shared by all men, one can also see the peculiarity of human nature; thus Mencius subtly argues about righteousness, the sense of justice (yi) that the human heart (xin) has in itself, putting this before the instinct to feed and reproduce, remarked instead by Gaozi. In this way, he opposes any idea of benefit, of advantage (li), as an effect of a selfish impulse, both in the sense of Yang Zhu, that is, of what is useful for the sole preservation of one’s own life or nature, and in the sense of Mozi, that is, of what is legitimate only after having benefited others. Mencius also considers human nature as a condition, a state that needs to be constantly cultivated and therefore developed. Moreover, in some texts, e.g. in Zhuangzi, a Taoist work of the 3rd-2nd century B.C., human nature, although not bearing any particular connotation or specificity, reveals one disposition of man, his spontaneity. In every circumstance, or event, or fact, man must react spontaneously, although doctrines or ethical principles do not fail to exert their influence.

The empty heart (xu), devoid of any preconception, will then be like the clear mirror or water that reflects everything without the slightest distortion. Thus man can restore his original natural state. From Mencius obviously originates the idea of human nature professed by the Confucians of the Song-Ming era (10th-17th century A.D.), such as Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, who thought of the heart as the source of ethical inclinations and dispositions; if however, inclinations had to be continually cultivated in Mencius’ doctrine in order to develop ethical principles, these Confucians consider these principles as already active in the human heart. Therefore, man’s action must strive to restore the original state of the heart, so that both ethical principles and his behavior, in general, may manifest themselves naturally and without impediment. Various other and more eclectic conceptions of human nature have taken place over the centuries. There was, for example, that of some philosophers of the Han era who, well aware of the doctrines of Mencius and Xunzi, affirmed, respectively, the original goodness and wickedness of human nature.

Dong Zhongshu believes that there are seeds of both goodness and evil in human nature, and that man, like Heaven working through yang and yin, subordinating this to that, must, therefore, subject evil to good. Yang Xiong (active between the 1st-century B.C. and 1st-century A.D.) considers human nature as a mixture of goodness and evil; and Wang Chong, in the 1st century A.D., concludes that the diversity of humans expresses a diversity of nature and that the different idea of human nature of Mencius, Xunzi and Yang Xiong reveals precisely the variety of the human species. And other Confucian thinkers of the Tang (7th-10th century) and Song (10th-13th century) era also speak of various degrees of human nature. On the other hand, every conception of human nature is more or less intimately connected with the perception of the Universe. Mencius considers tian (the «Heaven») as a supreme entity, which originally gave the man a peculiar nature, already ethically predisposed and oriented. So man has nothing else to do but follow that orientation, visible sign of the celestial will: man serves Heaven, manifesting a wholly natural fidelity. Moreover, tian, as the supernal source of all richness and regularity of the natural order, entrusts to man, according to Xunzi, the continuation, and completion of his creative and life-giving work. A work which also affects the social life of man, since the norms which order and regulate his conduct are in truth also a human completion of the heavenly work. Both Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi, Confucians of the Song Age, also understand human nature from the metaphysics of the li («principle») and qi («vital energy» or «material energy»). In fact, man’s nature is good as a moral nature and it is so because of the action of li alone, but as a mixture of li and qi it can be as good as it is bad since the action of qi can differ qualitatively from man to man.

The doctrine of knowledge

The Chinese term xin can be translated as «mind» or «heart»: it is the guide of man, in the sense that it guides his action. Being in the world, xin receives solicitations from the world and thus guides man’s action, precisely by moving from those solicitations. The sensory organs operate in the world and, by distinguishing, they offer xin a distinct world: sweet and bitter, black or white, or red, etc. What matters is that the subject, man, is in the world and not in the mind and that the faculty of the senses or of xin is the ability to discriminate or discern one thing from another, the human being from another being, good from evil. Ultimately, xin exists in the world and acts in it with the peculiar disposition to distinguish, to appropriately divide the realities of the world, and thus to guide man’s action.

In China, as in Chinese philosophy itself, there has always been a profound sense of the reality of the world, which has led to almost shying away, over the centuries, from the inclination to skepticism; even when doubts have been raised about the reality of knowledge, none have ever come to reject its validity in its entirety, if not for the need to express and affirm higher degrees of knowledge. Moreover, the doctrine of knowledge has never been understood as separate, distinct from that of reality, and from a certain more common pragmatism. Instead, knowledge is part of reality itself, and therefore its doctrine is nothing more than a part of the doctrine of reality. Thus a significantly holistic idea of knowledge has been affirmed, in which even the investigation of the detail is never reduced to the knowledge of the detail itself, but serves, as the entire cognitive activity, to reveal the complex system of the densely woven relationships of the Universe.

Therefore, it is not just the knowledge of things, facts, processes, etc. of nature, but similarly of values, virtues, and above all of ultimate reality. Nor has the doctrine of knowledge ever been directly or exclusively linked to the development of science and technology, nor has it ever been considered a way to justify the present science or one of its expressions. It is well known that over time China developed an extraordinary empirical science and often prodigious techniques, which, however, never had a disruptive effect on the doctrine or philosophy of knowledge, as it instead happened in the West; and this was also because such philosophy is only a part, and certainly not the most important, of the complex of Chinese philosophies. Not having postulated systematic procedures, nor a universal method of knowing, Chinese philosophy has recognized a variety of ways to verify empirical knowledge of things and to classify what is derived from it. In Yijing and in some commentaries (zhuan) on this classical text – which already towards the end of the Western Zhou dynasty (11th – 8th century B.C.), or in the period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (8th – 3rd B.C.), reached a form very similar to that later accepted – one finds the first formulation of the Chinese doctrine or philosophy of knowledge, based on a complete experience and observation of reality, be it the Universe or the small world of man. This knowledge ensures that man acts correctly and more importantly makes decisions in accordance with it.

To know means to observe everything in its entirety and it is an activity expressed by the Chinese term guan, the twentieth hexagram of the Yijing: it is an observation that sees things as they are in nature (big and small, far and near, etc.) and in particular their mutual relations in the total system of reality. It is through the senses that the true nature of things is revealed to man; the knowledge of the «ten thousand things» (wanwu) matures precisely from the observation of their multiple peculiarities. The modes of observation are many, and all possible since the mind is naturally in a state of «great pure enlightenment» (from Qingming). The mind is originally endowed with cognitive power, so much so that it orders and organizes the sensitive experience into the knowledge of things, hence ideas, concepts, and names of things themselves. That the knowledge of the world is right is ascertained by the correctness of man’s actions. By virtue of this, any knowledge can be rectified, moving from the effects of unrighteous actions. But the correctness of knowledge is also verified by the fact that it is the things themselves that manifest and make themselves known, thanks especially to a natural interaction between them and the human mind and body. The Chinese term xian, the thirty-first hexagram of Yijing, expresses this condition of mutual action, interaction, mutual knowledge. The complete observation of things and the natural and spontaneous interaction with them are for man a source of reflection and therefore of knowledge of his own nature and mind. It is direct knowledge and deeper experience of things and nature, which is not limited to a simple sensory experience. Reality and being are inseparable, necessarily interrelated, so much so that knowledge is never elevated to pure abstraction.

Since the time of Confucius the world of reality has been conceived as made up of Heaven, Earth, human beings, the multiplicity of things: all of them knowable according to their changes and natural interactions. All beings bear the power of change and this change, in turn, brings an intrinsic regularity. Well, man can come to understand this becoming, can actively interact in the world of reality, and therefore of human society, and contribute to its maintenance and harmony. In this context, Confucius deepens the theme of knowledge: knowing others (zhiren), knowing the mandate of Heaven (zhi tianming), etc. It is a knowledge that concerns both things in their concreteness – and therefore people, social norms and rules of conduct – and the profound nature and raison d’êtreof life and reality. Man can then know, have direct experience, act correctly for the perfection of his own nature, and for the harmony of the world. Observing and investigating the nature of things, and above all human affairs and the effects produced on the political and social level, is for man an experience both moral and historical. In fact, what man observes, investigates, and therefore knows is not something abstract, independent, detached from reality, but they are things, human beings, historical facts, world events related, and interacting with the man himself. If the original goodness of man’s nature descends from Heaven, and thus is its gift, as Mencius professes, then man must dedicate himself to the cultivation and development of that gift, living ethically.

To know therefore means to investigate and reflect on human nature, in order to reveal its intimate and potential moral disposition. Man thus also knows Heaven, the true and only source of his moral nature. And this, ultimately, is the deepest knowledge of reality. The mind, nature, and body of man are, according to Mencius, manifestations of “qi” («vital energy»), although distinct; just as, on the other hand, “qi” is the energy that creates and animates everything that exists between Heaven and Earth and is the vital and moral nature of the ultimate reality. One understands, then, why human nature and mind are full of “qi” and why the moral disposition is inherent in human nature. There is, then, an intimate commonality between man’s mind and the nature of Heaven, so much so that his being and that of the Universe are almost interchangeable. This is true harmony, true unity between man and Heaven, and therefore between men themselves, experienced through knowledge and identification with Heaven. In another perspective, Xunzi considers Heaven as a reality governed by its own regularity and laws, which acts independently from human will and intentions; so the wise man must not know Heaven, but reveal its regularity and deeper principles, especially to preserve and support the activity and development of man and society. This implies a knowledge of the succession of the seasons and of the action of the natural forces yin and yang. There is, therefore, no link between human action and Heaven, if anything, there is a radical separation. The human mind, according to Xunzi, is able to observe and experience the things of the world and, at the same time, to use their specificity to order and set the rules of a language, always with the aim of impressing a beneficial development to political and social life. This emerges very well from his doctrine of the «rectification of names» (zhengming) and «removal of obnubilation» (jie bi).

The human mind knows things and establishes concepts, ideas, both to describe them and to identify them. This process is not arbitrary or aprioristic, but it derives from the human experience itself of things in the world and the ability, always human, to organize, classify, and order this experience. The choice, then, of names is a conventional act, necessary to identify, signify, and indicate the things of the world. Nevertheless, it does not preclude human knowledge, although naming, using language, and knowing to happen at the same time. Xunzi’s exhortation to remove all obfuscation from the mind reveals how important it is to know the truth in its entirety. Often, according to him, man is dominated by a single idea, or a single thought, and thus loses the totality and expanse of truth. Knowing the whole truth is not, therefore, equivalent to the formulation of doctrine, but to the removal from the mind of all partiality of views, doctrines, or ideas. Finally, the Daxue («The Great Learning») and the Zhongyong («The doctrine of the mean»), two chapters of the Liji («Book of Rites»), one of the canonical texts, have certainly contributed to defining the doctrine or philosophy of knowledge, as developed in the tradition of classical Confucianism. In fact, the Daxue merely laconically emphasizes how much the perfection of one’s own nature depends on the investigation of things, and therefore on the growth of knowledge, while the Zhongyong, in turn, simply indicates to man the way that brings from the perception of reality and the feeling of sincerity (cheng) to the ultimate reality, as sincerity is the nature of truth, of reality, and therefore the way to Heaven that manifests itself in the nature of the wise, as an inclination to good and a moral intention.

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