Reply To: Chinese philosophy

  • Encyclios

    April 2, 2023 at 4:31 PM

    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.