Chinese philosophy

Chinese philosophy originated during the “Spring and Autumn Period” and the “Warring States Period”, a period known as the Hundred Schools of Thought, which saw significant cultural and intellectual developments. Although much of Chinese philosophy begins in the Warring States period, its elements have existed for thousands of years: some can be found in the Book of Changes, an ancient compendium of divination dating from about 672 BC.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the term zhexue, borrowed from the Japanese language, was adopted in China to convey the notion of philosophy; an expression that literally means “knowledge to become a wise man” and that, in the Confucian perspective, should be understood as the wise man’s ability to deal with the problems inherent in the human condition. In this sense, philosophy is knowledge, practical knowledge, not theoretical or speculative: however, if one wanted to find in China the same tendency to build imposing systems of thought that is typical of the Western tradition, the idea of a Chinese philosophy would not only be problematic, but also rather inadequate, because 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, since it is indeed problematic, if not impossible, to write about it or to deal with it in the recurrent or more familiar sense. Nevertheless, the need felt in the course of the twentieth century to write a history of Chinese thought or philosophy did not originate in China, but came, among 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 thus 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 acquired abroad, which was considered an essential analytical tool. The three most important 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 the seeds of the later philosophical-cosmological reflection, it was only in the very first perception of the universe that the Chinese established an ordered system of correspondences, harmonious and necessary, between the human body, the political body and the celestial bodies or, more generally, between natural entities, the earth and the sky. 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 to even in the most ordinary moments of human life, and is constantly invoked to guide, as if it were an imperative, the action of man, especially that of the sovereign: “He who rules – said Confucius – by virtue of his virtue may 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 period (3rd century B.C. – 3rd century A.D.), such as, to mention just two, the Huainanzi (“Book of the Huainan Master”) and the Chunqiu fanlu (“The Lush Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals”), attributed to Dong Zhongshu. What is impressive is the detailed correspondence developed in the Huainanzi between the four seasons, five phases, nine sections, and 366 days of the sky on the one hand, and the four limbs, five organs, nine orifices, and 366 joints of the human body on the other. It is this profound correspondence between the cosmos and man that led Dong Zhongshu to consider man as the supreme being. Not only is man a microcosm in and of himself, but every ordered form of his action bears the same disposition, manifests the same nature. Thus, the State in general, as a regulated and organized form of human life, and the imperial State and administration in particular, are themselves microcosms and therefore in direct correspondence with the cosmos. Even this concept had its 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 relationship, was that which correlated the territories of the earth with the celestial ones, and then also with the units of the celestial administration. In fact, since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), almost every city or administrative unit had its patron deity, whose functions in the heavenly administration corresponded exactly to those of the earthly magistrate. It is evident, then, that in this cosmos all the parts, without any rule and in a perfectly natural way, are disposed to react to each other, remaining in a state of spontaneity and immediate sympathy. And in musical harmony the Chinese found the most convincing empirical demonstration of the profound cosmic register.

It is not surprising, then, that some numerical series (five, eight, and twelve) that recur in cosmological doctrines refer in part 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, 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 has been used to indicate the primordial substance of the cosmos, which forms solid bodies through aggregation and ephemeral ones through dissolution. Qi can also differentiate itself and become Yin, Yang or one of the “five phases” (wu xing), thus facilitating connections and mutual actions everywhere, because it can be both the material basis of an action and the action itself. Each process unfolds according to an active (yang) and latent (yin) movement of phases, as seen in the slow but constant succession of the seasons of the year. Even in the most powerful state of Yang, the Yin bud is preserved, and vice versa. For example, an old man can be Yang to a woman, but Yin to a young man.

This duality, that of Yin and Yang, was soon adopted as a classification principle and applied to philosophy, social relations, medicine, and more. Above all, however, it was used to describe and explain the dynamics of certain recurring processes: the succession of the seasons, the natural cycle of human life, the rise and fall of 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, and so on. Moreover, the identification of each phase is not so much with the materially given natural element or its substance, but rather with its quality or with a certain kind of action or activity. This philosophy or idea of correspondence has for centuries provided ideas and concepts that have been essential to the development of certain knowledge, even proto-scientific, such as astronomy, medicine, divination, alchemy, geomancy, etc. The Chinese doctrine of alchemy, for example, was generally based on ideas of the correspondence between the macrocosm and the microcosm, and thus practitioners used to consider materials, tools, and even individual operations as the living and perceptible expression of the microcosm, where every entity, every change, and therefore every reaction was exactly similar to the work or daily processes of nature.

The Analysis of Human Nature. The Chinese interest in human nature stemmed from the need to understand man’s intimate constitution, both to better guide his ethical-political behavior in the world and to specify his 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 BC, 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 only in terms of sheng, that which 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 BC, sheng is man’s physical activity, that is, his sensory and emotional life. But human nature can also be understood in a more limited sense, referring only to man’s desires. For example, Mozi in the 5th century B.C., when dealing with the basic human constitution, often dwells only on certain desires, those of life, material well-being, and honor. Having received life as a gift from heaven, human beings in their natural state are moved only 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, although he sometimes seems to recognize in man in his natural state a benevolent disposition toward beings of his own kind. The peculiarities of human nature can also be seen in the ethical inclinations that are common to all human beings; thus Mencius subtly argues about justice, the sense of justice (yi) that the human heart (xin) has in itself, and places it above the instinct to feed and reproduce, which is noted instead by Gaozi. He thus opposes any notion of benefit, of advantage (li), as the effect of a selfish impulse, both in the sense of Yang Zhu, that is, what is useful for the sole preservation of one’s own life or nature, and in the sense of Mozi, that is, what is legitimate only after it has benefited others. Mencius also views human nature as a condition, a state that must be constantly cultivated and therefore developed.

Moreover, in some texts, such as Zhuangzi, a Taoist work of the 3rd to 2nd century B.C., human nature, although it has no particular connotation or specificity, reveals a disposition of man, his spontaneity. In every circumstance, event or fact, man must react spontaneously, although doctrines or ethical principles do not fail to exert their influence. The empty heart (xu), free of any prejudice, will then be like a clear mirror or water that reflects everything without the slightest distortion. In this way, man can return to his original natural state. Mencius is obviously the origin of the idea of human nature held by the Confucians of the Song-Ming era (10th-17th century AD), such as Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, who regarded the heart as the source of ethical inclinations and dispositions; however, if in Mencius’ doctrine inclinations had to be cultivated continuously in order to develop ethical principles, these Confucians regarded these principles as already active in the human heart. Therefore, man’s actions must be aimed at restoring the original state of the heart so that both ethical principles and his behavior in general can manifest themselves naturally and without hindrance.

Various other and more eclectic conceptions of human nature have emerged over the centuries. For example, some philosophers of the Han Dynasty, well aware of the teachings of Mencius and Xunzi, affirmed the original goodness and wickedness of human nature. Dong Zhongshu believes that there are seeds of both good and evil in human nature, and that man, like Heaven working through Yang and Yin, must subordinate this to that, and therefore subordinate evil to good. Yang Xiong (active between the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.) views human nature as a mixture of good and evil; and Wang Chong, in the 1st century A.D., concludes that the diversity of human beings expresses a diversity of nature, and that the different conceptions of human nature of Mencius, Xunzi, and Yang Xiong reveal precisely the diversity of the human species. And other Confucian thinkers of the Tang (7th-10th century) and Song (10th-13th century) eras also speak of different degrees of human nature. On the other hand, every concept of human nature is more or less closely related to the perception of the universe.

For Mencius, Tian (“Heaven”) is a supreme entity that originally gave man a peculiar nature that is already ethically predisposed and oriented. Therefore, man has no choice but to follow this orientation, which is a visible sign of heaven’s will: man serves heaven and manifests a natural fidelity. Moreover, Tian, as the supernal source of all the 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 that also affects the social life of man, since the norms that order and regulate his conduct are in truth also a human completion of the heavenly work. Both Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi, Song Confucians, also understand human nature in terms of the metaphysics of li (“principle”) and qi (“vital energy” or “material energy”). In fact, human 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, because the action of qi can differ qualitatively from person to person.

The Doctrine of Knowledge. The Chinese term xin can be translated as “mind” or “heart”: it is man’s guide in the sense that it directs his actions. Since xin is in the world, it receives requests from the world and guides man’s action precisely by moving from these requests. The sensory organs work in the world, and by discriminating they offer xin a certain world: sweet and bitter, black or white or red, and so on. What is important is that the subject, the human being, is in the world, not in the mind, and that the faculty of the senses, or xin, is the ability to discriminate or distinguish 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 discriminate, to appropriately divide the realities of the world, and thus to guide man’s actions. In China, as in Chinese philosophy itself, there has always been a profound sense of the reality of the world, which over the centuries has led to an almost reluctant inclination to skepticism; even when doubts have been raised about the reality of knowledge, no one has ever come to reject its validity in its entirety, if not the need to express and affirm higher degrees of knowledge.

Moreover, the doctrine of knowledge has never been understood as separate from that of reality and from a certain more general 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 conception of knowledge is affirmed, in which even the study of detail is never reduced to knowledge of the detail itself, but, like all cognitive activity, serves to reveal the complex system of densely woven relationships of the universe. Thus, it is not only the knowledge of things, facts, processes, etc. of nature, but also 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 as a way of justifying contemporary science or any of its expressions. It is well known that in the course of time China developed an extraordinary empirical science and often amazing techniques, but this never had a disruptive effect on the doctrine or philosophy of knowledge, as happened in the West; and this also because such a philosophy is only one part, and certainly not the most important, of the complex of Chinese philosophies. Without postulating systematic procedures or a universal method of knowledge, Chinese philosophy has recognized a variety of ways to verify empirical knowledge of things and to classify what is derived from it.

In the Yijing and in some commentaries (zhuan) on this classical text – which already reached a form very similar to that later accepted at the end of the Western Zhou dynasty (11th – 8th century B.C.) or in the period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (8th – 3rd century B.C.) – 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, 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 are possible because 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 sensitive experience into knowledge of things, hence into ideas, concepts, and names of things themselves. That the knowledge of the world is correct is verified by the correctness of man’s actions. By virtue of this, any knowledge can be corrected by moving away 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, especially through a natural interaction between them and the human mind and body. The Chinese term Xian, the thirty-first hexagram of the Yijing, expresses this condition of mutual action, interaction, and knowledge. The complete observation of things and the natural and spontaneous interaction with them are a source of reflection for man, and thus of knowledge of his own nature and spirit. It is a 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 consisting of heaven, earth, human beings, and a multitude of things, all of which are knowable according to their changes and natural interactions. All beings have the power of change, and this change in turn brings about an intrinsic law. Now, man can understand this becoming, can actively interact in the world of reality, and therefore in human society, and contribute to its maintenance and harmony. In this context, Confucius deepens the theme of knowledge: knowledge of others (zhiren), knowledge of the mandate of Heaven (zhi tianming), etc.. It is a knowledge that concerns both things in their concreteness – and thus people, social norms and rules of conduct – and the profound nature and raison d’ĂȘtre of life and reality. Man can then know, have direct experience, and act correctly for the perfection of his own nature and for the harmony of the world.

Observing and studying the nature of things, especially human affairs and the effects produced on the political and social levels, is a moral and historical experience for man. In fact, what man observes, studies, and thus knows, is not something abstract, independent, detached from reality, but it is things, human beings, historical facts, world events, which are related to and interact with man himself. If the original goodness of man’s nature comes from heaven and is his gift, as Mencius affirms, then man must dedicate himself to cultivating and developing this gift by living ethically. To know, then, is to study and reflect on human nature in order to reveal its intimate and potential moral disposition. In this way, man also knows heaven, the true and only source of his moral nature. And this is ultimately the deepest knowledge of reality.

Man’s mind, nature, and body, according to Mencius, are manifestations of “qi” (“vital energy”), albeit distinct, just as “qi” is the energy that creates and animates everything that exists between heaven and earth, and is the vital and moral nature of 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 similarity 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. From another perspective, Xunzi sees Heaven as a reality governed by its own regularity and laws, acting independently of human will and intention; therefore, 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 the action of the natural forces of Yin and Yang.

Therefore, there is no connection between human action and heaven; if anything, there is a radical separation. The human mind, according to Xunzi, is capable of observing and experiencing the things of the world and at the same time using their specificity to order and establish the rules of a language, always with the aim of impressing a beneficial development on political and social life. This can be seen very well in his doctrine of “correcting names” (zhengming) and “removing obnubilation” (jie bi). The human mind knows things and creates concepts, ideas, both to describe them and to identify them. This process is not arbitrary or a priori, but arises from the very human experience of things in the world and the always human ability to organize, classify, and order that experience.

The choice of names, then, is a conventional act, necessary to identify, signify, and indicate the things of the world. Nevertheless, it does not exclude human knowledge, although naming, using language, and knowing occur simultaneously. Xunzi’s admonition to remove all obfuscation from the mind reveals the importance of knowing the truth in its entirety. Often, he says, man is dominated by a single idea or a single thought, and thus loses the totality and breadth of truth. Therefore, to know the whole truth is not to formulate a doctrine, but to remove from the mind any 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, certainly contributed to the definition of 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 nature depends on the investigation of things, and thus on the growth of knowledge, while the Zhongyong, in turn, simply shows man the path that leads from the perception of reality and the feeling of sincerity (cheng) to ultimate reality, since sincerity is the nature of truth, of reality, and thus the path to heaven, which is manifested in the nature of the wise as an inclination to the good and a moral intention.

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