Friday, April 16, 2010


Discussion Sixteen Chi-tsang [Jizang] in a series of Marxist dialogues on Chinese philosophy
Thomas Riggins

“Well Fred, are you ready to discuss Chi-tsang?”

“I read the selections on his philosophy [in Chan: Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy], but its rather confusing. I’m still sort of in a fog Karl.”

“That’s natural for anyone who hasn’t been exposed to ‘Buddhist speak.’ A real problem is that he represents a Chinese version of a philosophy that was developed in India in a different historical and cultural context than that of China.”

“That I know. Chan refers to the ‘Philosophy of Emptiness’ or ‘The Three Treatise School.’ Briefly, he points out the Chi-tsang’s school was one of the two major schools of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, that it was developed by an Indian philosopher named Nagarjuna in the Second Century A.D. and brought to China by Kumarajiva who arrived in 384 A.D. Kumarajiva translated into Chinese many Indian Buddhist texts including the three most important texts of this form of Buddhism (hence ‘Three Treatise School’).”

“And those texts were...?”

“The three are, by Nagarjuna Treatise On The Middle Doctrine and Twelve Gate Treatise and by his student Aryadeva, One Hundred Verses Treatise.”

“That’s a good summary Fred. Buddhism had been in China before Kumarajiva, but he got the ball rolling. It became very popular, powerful, and prestigious due to the unsettled political and social conditions of the times and because of its apparent congruence with Neo-Taoism which was dominant at this time: the Wei-Chin period (220-420 A.D.) we mentioned in our previous discussion.” [#15]

“OK, Karl, this needs explaining.”

“What does?”

“The term or concept which is the central point of the philosophy of the Three Treatise School, namely, Shunyata a Sanskrit word meaning ‘Emptiness’ or ‘Void’. I don’t understand what Chan means when he says this is the ‘central concept’ of this philosophy in ‘the sense that the nature and characters of all dharmas, together with their causation are devoid of reality.’ What are ‘dharmas’?”

“If we are going to play the Buddhist game I see we will have to learn some basic rules on how to play! First I’ll explain ‘dharma’ and then ‘shunyata.’ The rule book I’m using is one we have used before: The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion.”

“So you are being influenced by Wittgenstein again: Buddhism as a language game.”

“Only as a heuristic device Fred. I just want to understand what is going on and seeing how words are used, or misused, in the context of a philosophical or religious system is one way of doing so. As to whether the ‘game’ is also congruent with ‘reality’, I’ll let you be the judge, but I think as ‘Westerners’ and people committed to the Prime Directive [using logic and reason instead of faith and authority] we may be playing a different game.”

“I got it Karl. Let the game begin.”

“OK. In Buddhism the word ‘dharma’ can mean both the doctrine of the Buddha and also the law of the cosmos (Spinoza would say the law of nature) but normatively applied according to one’s karma. The dharmas are also appearances of things or the phenomena we experience as reality. In Chinese the word is ‘fa’.”

“Well, Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] explains what fa means in his Appendix and concludes that it is very difficult to translate and best left untranslated unless it means ‘the Law of the Buddha’--i.e., his teachings. ‘It connotes all things,’ he says, ‘with or without form, real or imaginary, the material or principle of an entity, something that holds on to its nature as a particular thing.’ The closest we can get in English is ‘element of existence.’ Dharma itself means ‘that which is held to.’”

“This could also be the Vedic rita and what the Ancient Egyptians called maat.”

“Now I know what dharmas are. Here is the rest of Chan’s quote. After pointing out the dharmas are ‘devoid of reality,’ he continues, ‘Thus all differentiations, whether being or non-being, cause or effect, or coming-into-existence or going-out-of-existence are only “temporary names” and empty in nature.’”

“What this means, Fred, is that things don’t have their power ‘to be’ built into themselves-- they don’t last, they come and go. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion says shunyata ‘does not mean that things do not exist but rather that they are nothing besides appearances’. This means that things ‘arise conditionally’ not on their own. There is a very big Sanskrit word for this Fred.”

“So, what is it?”

“It's the doctrine of pratitya-samutpada (‘conditioned arising’). I again quote the Encyclopedia: ‘The doctrine of conditioned arising says that all psychological and physical phenomena constituting individual existence are interdependent and mutually condition each other; this at the same time describes what entangles sentient beings in samsara (the cycle of existence).’”

“Well its a mouthful Karl. Its also translated as ‘dependent origination’ isn’t it?”

“Yes. That or ‘conditioned’ or ‘conditional arising’ or ‘interdependent arising’ or ‘conditioned nexus’ or ‘causal nexus’ among other possibilities. You get the idea. That’s what ‘Emptiness’ really means-- ‘dependent origination.’”

“What does the Encyclopedia say about this?”

“We should note that this doctrine (pratitya-samutpada) is ‘together with the anatman [no- self or no self subsisting permanent Ego] doctrine, the core teaching of all Buddhist schools. Attainment of enlightenment and thus realization of buddhahood depends on comprehending this doctrine.’ So it is very important we get this down Fred.”

“Anything specific to the San-lun, I mean ‘Three Treatise School’ ?”

“I see you used the Chinese name. But yes, the Encyclopedia continues, ‘In the Madhyamika system pratitya-samupada is equated with emptiness (shunyata). Here conditional arising is taken to show that because of their relativity, appearances have only empirical validity and are ultimately unreal.”

“Now we can turn to Chi-tsang who represents the culmination of this school in China. He lived from 549 to 623 A.D. His father was a Persian and his mother Chinese. Too bad for Chi-tsang was the fact that he was never able to mix any Chinese elements into his interpretation of the Three Treatise School: “San-lun” in Chinese (san = three). So, Chan says, the Chinese never took to it; ultimately because it was too ‘Indian’. By the ninth century it had declined. Let’s note the three foundational views of the San-lan School: 1. Two levels of truth: This is hoi polloi truth and philosophical truth; i.e., things exist vs. ‘all dharmas are empty.’ Ultimately things neither exist nor do not exist-- dependent origination being a middle way between these two extremes.”

“An Hegelian synthesis? Being, Nothing, Becoming?”

“Anyway Karl, this is why its Indian name is the Madhyamika (Middle Doctrine) School. Now, 2. The Refutation of Incorrect Doctrines: We get to Emptiness by replacing an incorrect view with a correct one, realizing that the new view is itself incomplete so it needs to be replaced, etc., until we arrive at Emptiness.”

“Fred, that is so much like the Hegelian dialectic as it is popularized with thesis--antithesis--synthesis = new thesis, etc., culminating in the Absolute.”

“Finally, 3. Eightfold Negation which is the dialectical method of argument employed by Nagarjuna and which, as Chan says, ‘denies that dharmas come into existence or go out of existence, that they are permanent or come to an end, that they are the same or different, and that they come or go away (p.359).’ Chi-tsang uses the Four Points of Argumentation to arrive at his conclusions. These points are, for any x 1) x is; 2) x is not 3) x both is and is not; 4) x neither is nor is not. Chan doesn’t seem to approve of all this. ‘It is obvious that this approach is as nihilistic as it is destructive.’”

“What writings are we going to go over?”

“Two of them: the Treatise on the Two Levels of Truth [Erh- ti chang] and the Profound Meaning of the Three Treatises [San-lun hsuan-i]. So, from the first Chi-tsang says: ‘Ordinary people say that dharmas, as a matter of true record, possess being, without realizing that they possess nothing. Therefore the Buddhas propound to them the doctrine that dharmas are ultimately empty and void. When it is said that dharmas possess being, it is ordinary people who say so. This is worldly truth, the truth of ordinary people. Saints and sages, however, truly know that dharmas are empty in nature.’”

“OK, there are the two levels.”

“That’s right Karl. He calls this the ‘first level of twofold truth.’ The second level is to grasp that for hoi polloi things have being and non-being but for philosophers they have neither. Thus Chi-tsang says, ‘Because the absolute [truth of non-being] and the worldly truth [truth of being] and the cycle of life-and-death and Nirvana are both two extremes, they therefore constitute worldly truth, and because neither-the-cycle-of-life-and-death-nor-Nirvana are the Middle Path without duality, they constitute the highest truth.’”

“This is getting problematic.”

“Hold on, big comment from Chan coming up soon.”


“Let’s go to the third level. ‘Previously it has been explained that the worldly and the absolute and the cycle of life-and-death and Nirvana are two extremes and one-sided and therefore constitute worldly truth, whereas neither-the-worldly-nor-the-absolute and neither-the-cycle-of-life-and-death-nor-Nirvana are the Middle Path without duality and therefore constitute the highest truth. But these are also two extremes. Why? Duality is one-sided while non-duality is central. But one-sidedness is an extreme and centrality is also an extreme. One-sidedness and centrality, after all, are two extremes. Being two extremes, they are therefore called worldly truth. Only neither-one-sidedness-nor-centrality can be regarded as the Middle Path or the highest truth.’”

“Clear as mud.”

“Here is Chan’s comment. Does it help? ‘The similarity of this dialectic is strikingly similar to that of Hegel and Chuang Tzu. With Chuang Tzu, both the right or the wrong, or the “this” or the “that” are infinite series and are to be synthesized in the all-inclusive Tao. It has been said that while the dialectic of Hegel includes all in the Absolute, that of Nagarjuna excludes everything from Emptiness. This is not correct, for worldly truth is not denied but accepted as such. However, like Hegel, every new synthesis is regarded as higher, and worldly truth is therefore considered inferior. In this respect, Taoism is different from both of them, for Taoism grants equality to all things, whether worldly or not.”’

“It helps somewhat, but let me read to you what I think is a little clearer.”

“Go ahead.”

“This is from Alan Fox’s commentary on Chi-tsang in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World. Fox quotes a passage from Kumarajiva’s translation of The Treatise On The Middle Doctrine: 'The Great Sage [Buddha] taught the Dharma of emptiness In order to overcome all views. If one persists in viewing emptiness as an existent [thing], Such a one cannot be saved by all the Buddhas.' This means that shunyata is actually only a heuristic device-- not an ontological commitment to a metaphysical reality! Buddha doesn’t want us to suffer, to have sorrow ( duhkha-Skt.), by being attached to things, so the doctrine of Emptiness is put forth to help us overcome duhkha -- it's for the ‘annihilation’ of sorrow or suffering-- what Hindus call Duhkha-Nirodha in Sanskrit. Fox says the point is to not commit to the doctrine of emptiness itself making it a new ‘thing’ or dharma. He says this is ‘emptying of emptiness’ or shunyata, shunyata, and then gives a quote of his own from Chi-tsang: 'One speaks of non-being only because there initially the illness of [attachment to] being. If the illness of [attachment to] being subsides, then the medicine of emptiness is discarded, and one finally realizes that the holy path has nothing to do with being and non-being. Originally nothing is asserted; subsequently nothing is denied.' This makes a lot of sense to me. ‘Emptiness’ is one of those ladders we throw away after we climb it, as we discussed earlier Fred.”

“Well I’m glad we figured this out. Now here are some selections from Chi-tsang’s the Profound Meaning of the Three Treatises. Chan has four selections from this work, namely selections 2,3,4 and 5. Let’s begin with number 2 “Causes and Effects.”

“Fine with me. Let’s do it.”

“Chi-tsang writes: ‘Some heterodoxical schools say that the Great Lord of Heaven can produce the myriad things, and that when they perish, they return to the original Heaven. Therefore they say that if the Great Lord is angry... living beings will suffer, and if the Great Lord is pleased, there will be happiness.... But Heaven is not the cause of things and things are not the effects of Heaven. They are imagined by an erroneous mind and are therefore called erroneous causes and erroneous effects. The objection is this: Good deeds invite happy reward, and evil influence bring fruits of suffering. For [this world] is the home of interactions [of cause and effect] and the realm of retribution. These schools do not understand this principle and therefore produce such falsehood.’”

“This is, for the time, very forward looking. The denial of a creator God is certainly advanced compared to Western thought at this time and would not clash with educated opinion in China. His views about karma are more problematic.”

“This next quote confuses me Karl. He speaks of effects without causes! ‘There are other heterodoxical schools that have exhaustively traced the origin of the myriad things and have found that they are derived from nothing. Therefore they say that there are no causes, but that if we presently look at the various dharmas we should know that there are effects....The shadow exists because of the body, and the body exists because of the Creator. But the Creator originated from nowhere. If the root exists of itself, it means that the branches are not caused by anything else. Therefore there are no causes but there are effects.’”

“Perhaps, to some, this way of thinking doesn’t make too much sense today. We can say that the branches are ‘caused’ by the root meaning no root, no branches. And it appears I was wrong to jump the gun and say that Chi-tsang didn’t believe in a Creator God. Not as advanced as I thought! But then again this may just be a metaphorical use of the word 'God'. Let’s use his notion of a ‘Creator’ then to argue that since God creates everything the things emanate from him as branches from roots, so thay are just him in another form-- so there are ‘effects’ but no ‘causes.’ This is pantheism. He means there is no completely separate independent reality (the ‘cause’) that produces another completely independent separate reality (the ‘effect’). This just seems to be an argument over how to use words!”

“Chi-tsang next considers the possibility that things exist ‘spontaneously.’ He is asked a question concerning the difference between ‘absence of cause and spontaneity (tzu-jan).’ Chi-tsang says, ‘Absence of cause is based on the fact that no cause exists, whereas spontaneity shows that the effect exists.’ This is very confusing, but he concludes with an observation borrowed from Lao Tzu. Chi-tsang says, ‘Cause and effect produce each other very much like long and short contrast each other. If there is already an effect, how can there be no cause? And if there is no cause,how can there be effect alone?’ “ What is he doing here? Does he believe in cause and effect or not?

“He doesn’t seem to be attached to a particular view Fred.”

“But I have to figure out what his view is first!”

“His view is that all four opinions-- there are effects and no causes, causes and no effects, both causes and effects, and neither causes nor effects are all wrong.”

“I’m trying to get this. I note he says the last of the four ‘perverse’ doctrines ‘is the most harmful’ because it maintains there is no fruit of actions good or bad.”

“I thought there was a problem about karma earlier.”

“I did too-- but he this is perverse because ‘It cuts off good for the present and produces an evil state of life for the future....’”

“His objection shouldn’t be acceptable.”

“Why not?”

“Because both ‘cuts’ and ‘produces’ are causal words and he is supposed to be rejecting causality.”

“He is rejecting and not rejecting, that’s what is confusing. Here is Chan’s comment: 'We see here the Four Points of Argumentation at work. The various theories on cause and effect are reduced to four: theories of ens [Greek for "being"], of non-ens, of both ens and non-ens, and neither ens nor non-ens. This pattern of thought is prominent not only in the Three Treatise School but in other Buddhist schools as well. Some Buddhist scholars maintain that, generally speaking, Western thought has not gone beyond the third stage, that of “both-and,” whereas the fourth stage of “neither-nor” has been reached in Emptiness which defies all descriptions.' But does not the Absolute in Western [Hegel] thought include all, the negative as well as the positive?”

“So we have to describe the world somehow Fred. I guess ‘causality’ is supposed to be a hoi polloi way of doing so.”

“Chi-tsang has another section, (3), ‘The Four subsidiary causes’ in which he discusses so-called causal effects of the four ‘subsidiary’ causes.”

“There are, if I remember Chan, the Active Cause (e.g., fire causes smoke, the Immediate Condition (e.g., smoke following on striking a match), the Objective Condition (e.g., the wood of the match), and the Upheaving Condition(e.g., the motion of the hand in striking the match).”

“You remember correctly Karl. Chi-tsang says about these that ‘If the Four Causes exist of themselves and are not produced by something else, then the myriad things, too, must not be produced by the Four Causes, and should fall into the condition of having no cause at all. Therefore if things are produced by something else, the process would be unlimited, and if there is a limit, there is no cause. From these two points, one may not believe in the existence of causes or effects.’”

“He is attacking an Indian view of Buddhism-- the Hinayana’s Abhidharma School which developed well before the Mahayana version of Buddhism subscribed to by Chi-tsang. This other school held to the reality of the dharmas and to the reality of causation.”

“Here, Karl, is a comment about that by Chan: 'The problem of causality is one of the most important in Buddhist schools. It is central in the Three Treatise School, because its basic concept of Emptiness is untenable unless causality is rejected. The four causes here remind one of Aristotle and Scholasticism. They also underlie the fact that all Buddhist schools think of plurality of causes and effects instead of the one-to-one relationship between cause and effect. They, of course, all reject the First Cause. It is also interesting to note that the argument against the First Cause here is practically the same as that advanced by the Taoists. As the Shadow in the Chuang Tzu asks, ‘Do I depend on something else to be this way? Does this something on which I depend also depend on something else?’"

“Hmmmm. Sort of like Aristotle I think. Aristotle’s causes are a little different. His ‘final cause’ is lacking here.

Also I would hardly call the reference to the Shadow an ‘argument.’ If anything it is the prelude to the reason the notion of a ‘first cause’ was developed. If we treat the the arguments against causality so seriously that Emptiness would be rejected without them are we not taking the ladder too seriously? Doesn’t the whole concept of conditioned arising involve causality of a sort?”

“Its all very mind boggling Karl.

“Well, I think Oliver Leaman’s summary in Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy explains what is going on quite nicely.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“As follows-- his comments on Nagarjuna’s views on causation: ‘Nagarjuna rejects all theories of causality that do not acknowledge the way in which everything that we take to be reality is interlinked. Causation as understood by most of the theories he attacked distinguishes between causes and effects in the sense that one side of the relation, the cause, is more real than the effect, since the latter emerges out of the former and might be regarded as part of it. Dependent origination implies that nothing has any stability or priority, and so leads to the notion of emptiness.’”

“That backs up what you said. What does Leaman say about ‘emptiness’?”

“I hope this helps. Leaman says the following: ‘Nagarjuna accepts that in absolute terms all arguments are empty, but on the relative level it is acceptable to use them to show that one cannot stay at that level if one is going to make progress.... The doctrine of emptiness should be used to cure ourselves of belief in the absolute reality of what we experience, and then it also should be expunged from our conceptual system, in just the same way that the Buddha after enlightenment was reluctant to speak and teach anymore. The paradoxical strategy of claiming that everything is empty is none the less impossible to state, since it it is self-refuting. But its supporters have a point in arguing that although the argument cannot be proposed, it could still be valid, although not once stated. In any case, one could always hold the emptiness doctrine as applying to the nature of reality, but not as describing our experience of the material world.’”

“What good is a philosophy that doesn’t explain our experience of the world?”

“This is not a philosophy Fred. It violates the Prime Directive of philosophy which is to base your views on the outcome of reason and logic. I have no idea what Leaman means when he says an “argument’ that cannot be stated can still be ‘valid.’ Validity is a property of argument forms and an ‘argument’ that cannot be stated has no form. We are in the world of religion and mysticism here and philosophy must make way for faith. This type of argument is itself empty and I would say meaningless.”

“That is harsh Karl! But now we can better understand Chan’s selection number four from Chi-tsang--i.e., ‘Existence, Nonexistence, and Emptiness.’”

“I’ve had my say. Let’s get back to the text.”

“OK. Chi-tsang is replying to objections to Nargarjuna’s version of Buddhism. He is trying to explain the dialectic by which everything seems to be denied-- no causes or non-causes, no existence nor non-existence, etc. ‘The idea of nonexistence is presented primarily to handle the disease of the concept of [absolute] existence. If that disease disappears, the useless medicine is also discarded. Thus we know that the Way of the sage has never held to either existence or nonexistence.... Once perverseness [holding one sided views] has been stopped, correctness will no longer remain. Therefore the mind is attached to nothing.’ Chi- tsang then quotes a verse from the Madhyamika shastra:

The Great Sage preached the Law of Emptiness
In order to free men from all (personal) views.
If one still holds the view that Emptiness exists,
Such a person the Buddhas will not transform.

Finally Chi-tsang says, ‘If the mind is attached to something, it is bound to it and cannot be emancipated from birth and old age, sickness and death, sorrow and grief, and suffering and distress. Therefore the Lotus Scripture says, “I (the Buddha) have used an infinite number of convenient means to lead sentient beings and to enable them to be free from various attachments.”’”

“This last sentence shows the primarily religious rather than philosophical inspiration of this treatise.”

“Finally we come to the last selection, number five, ‘Substance and Function.’ Here is a true dialectic I think. We get some insight and refrain from dogmatism-- both philosophy and religion can benefit from this attitude. ‘[T]he true nature [lakshana -Skr] of all dharmas is entirely inexplicable in speech and unrealizable in thought [Kant!]. As it has never been either absolute or worldly, it is therefore called substance..... Although it is neither existent nor nonexistent, we are forced to speak of it as absolute and worldly. Therefore we call it function. It is regarded as correct because this being both absolute and worldly is not one-sided or perverse. Therefore we called it correctness in function.... Things are produced by causes and therefore have dependent existence. That is regarded as worldly. But dependent existence should not be said to be definitely existent, nor should it be said to be definitely nonexistent. This type of dependent existence is far from the two extremes and therefore is called correctness. Worldly existence being what it is and absolute nonexistence also being what it is, dependent nonexistence should not be said to be either definitely nonexistence or definitely existent. It is far from the two extremes, and is therefore regarded as correct....’”

“Well, I think we have a good idea of what this school is trying to teach. The Madhyamika is, however, only one of the two major schools that the Chinese elite supported from the Fifth to the Seventh centuries A.D.”

“Let’s meet tomorrow for lunch and discuss this other school. the Yogacara, and its greatest Chinese representative Hsuan-tsang (Xuanzang).”

“OK Fred, see you then.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


A review of Simon's Critchley's Remarks on Quentin Meillassoux's AFTER FINITUDE

Thomas Riggins

The TLS of February 27, 2009 has a review of an important new philosophy book-- AFTER FINITUDE by Quentin Meillassoux-- translated from the French by Ray Brassier [i.e. "Back to the great outdoors" by Simon Critchley]. The title of the article is due to Meillassoux's desire to get directly back to nature. The following are some Marxist impressions. Hopefully PA [I.E., POLITICAL AFFAIRS online] will be able to print a full review of the book itself at a later date.

We are told that one of Meillassoux's targets is Kant who maintained that we have knowledge of the world as it APPEARS to us. Meillassoux wants to show that we can access "the world as it is in itself without being dependent on the existence of observers."

It is interesting to note that ScienceDaily online just recently posted an article stating that physicists have demonstrated that we can know that there is a world independent of our observation-- but it is very weird [Cf. "Finally Lenin Was Right: Scientists Say That Reality Is Real"-PaEditorsBlog 3/6/2009].

The problem seems to be with the phrase, vis a vis the world, to access "the world as it it is in itself" independent of the observer. Critchley explains that Kant thinks there is a real world independent of us but that it is mediated through our perceptual apparatus. "The external material objects that I experience in perception are nothing but "mere appearances" or "representations". But, perhaps Critchley goes too far, or is it Meillassoux as well?, in saying for Kant "the outside world exists but is only the correlate of the concepts and categories through which we conceive it." At least "outside" is not the right word to use for Kant since both space and time are for him the a priori preconditions for human experience-- the independent world does not exist in space or time as these are human ways of perception and we don't know how else to explain the world.

We are told that Meillassoux considers all this (i.e., The Critique of Pure Reason) a "catastrophe" because it has led to "correlationism." What it has actually led to is the thought that the world-- both physical and social-- is not necessarily 100% just as it appears to be to any of us. That creatures with different perceptual apparatus will see it differently and experience it differently. If there was a "catastrophe" it would have been due to Hume whose philosophy led to the skeptical positions regarding humanity's ability to know anything at all that drove Kant to write the Critique. But neither were "catastrophes." Both were milestones on the road of human self awareness which have contributed to the growth of our self knowledge.

Critchley tells us that Melliassoux's target is the form of correlationism associated with Husserl's phenomenology which "is based on the idea of a correlation between the intentional acts of consciousness and the objects of those acts...." What does this mean? Husserl uses the Greek term NOEMA to refer to an object as it is in-itself and NOESIS to refer to our thinking about it.

We take the natural standpoint in everyday life-- i.e., we are dealing with externally existing objects in a real world. For the purposes of phenomenology we abandon this standpoint, bracket the object, and just study the way it appears to our consciousness. OK, this doesn't deny the existence of the material world but it correlates the object in this way-- the thing- in- itself and the thing-for- us.

Husserl's student Heidegger is more subjective. For him the external object is determined by the noesis-- the human world is a by product of consciousness-- so, as in Kant, we can't know the thing-in-itself. So what is the problem with this way of thinking?

There are two says Critchley. First, since it keeps reason away from the things-in-themselves, it opens the door to non reasonable explanations and theories about them (i.e., irrationalism and religion) Second: "it is wrong." Well, that is being blunt!

Meillassoux thinks correlations are wrong because they can't say anything about the universe before the evolution of humans. But this is only true of the most rigid subjective idealists. Hegel (also mentioned as a correlationist) certainly believed the world to have had an objective existence before there were any people around. I can say that I think I only know the thing-in-itself indirectly by means of my perceptual apparatus and my experiences with it and yet still believe my perceptual apparatus is the product of the evolution of my species which is a recent event in the history of the universe. I neither have to "disavow" the existence of the material world nor be "an intellectual hypocrite" as Meillassoux seems to think.

So now the question is--- if we reject correlationism do we have to go back to pre-Kantian "dogmatic" metaphysics? Meillassoux proposes what he calls SPECULATIVE REALISM. Critchley says, consider the metaphysics of Leibniz. Leibniz defended THE PRINCIPLE OF SUFFICIENT REASON. For every thing that exists there must be a reason why it, rather than some other thing, exists. He ends up proving the existence of God with this [a philosopher's God, not necessarily anything anybody else would use the word "God" to describe].

This is no good, thinks Meillassoux. Speculative Reason demands an absolute notion of an independently existing reality that we can have direct knowledge of and this "God" is an untidy remnant of pre-Kantian metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. Leibniz had asked, "Why is there something rather than nothing." Meillassoux dumps the principle of sufficient reason and answers "For no reason." There is no reason why there is something rather than nothing, it just is that way. Who is it now who is cutting off reason from the origin of the universe before man?

The subtitle of the book is "An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency." The universe is not the result of necessity, but of a "brute contingent chaos," according to Critchley. Even though the principle of sufficient reason is not operative, human reason can explore the chaos and try to understand what is going on. But don't we need to believe in "reasons" to find out what is going on? Is it not just a dogmatic assertion to say that contingency is a necessity and fail to give a sufficient reason why this is so?

We have now arrived at the "most speculative claim of the book", says Critchley. And that is that mathematics is the only method we have to find some stability and truth within the chaotic contingency of reality. Critchley writes that "his book is essentially a defense of the project of the mathematization of nature that one can find in Galileo and Descartes." We are told this reflects the mathematical ontology of his teacher Alain Badiou. So reality is a chaotic contingency but it follows mathematical laws. Hmmmm.

Even if this may be fine for the physical sciences it will never due for the human sciences. Meillassoux is essentially a throw back to seventeenth century mechanical materialism. Human reality, history, psychology, the social sciences can only be understood by means of the hegelio-marxist dialectic which views this reality as in constant movement and change brought about by an inherent negativity which prevents it reduction to rigid mathematical formulae.

According to Critchley, Meillassoux accepts Hume's view of nature (including man) as "a brute contingency that cannot be rationally explained", so how then can he use mathematics to explain it. How can you explain what cannot be explained? When it is rationally explained you get (non-academic) Marxism. Yipes! Critchley fears that this "mathematical romance" has seduced its author to attempt doing what Hume's philosophy "perhaps rightly prohibits." It was Hume's philosophy that generated the line Kant to Hegel to Marx, so it looks like Meillassoux should be looking forward not backward for the solution to his problems.

Regardless of this caveat, Critchley finds the argument "absolutely exhilarating" as well as "brilliant." And while he finds the author "at his best when showing the complacency of contemporary Kantians and phenomenologists" I found myself wondering how wide spread was the kind of "correlationism" Meillassoux objects to. All those in the Marxist tradition, Positivist tradition and Analytic tradition don't seem to be affected. He objects to an early work of Wittgenstein which Wittgenstein rejected and has now only historical interest. I think he has set up a lot of straw men to knock down This will be dealt with in a formal review of the book itself.

Critchley is also impressed by Meillassoux's SPECULATIVE REALISM which upholds nature as "cold and indifferent to humans." But this idea is as old as the hills. Hume held that nature cares as much for oysters as for humans, so there is nothing new here. Meillassoux promises another book to elaborate on his ideas on Speculative Reason. I hope it doesn't have "the find-grained logic-chopping worthy of Duns Scotus" found by Critchley in "After Finitude."

Critchley himself makes three criticisms of the book. First, if we accept the view that "the world as it is in itself is the same as the world for us" and it is mathematics and science that reveals it "then philosophy becomes totally useless." Second, Meillassoux's model of science is physics which can describe the world before life, but what role is there for sciences like biology, psychology and economics"? Third, if physics reveals the world as it really is how do we account for ethics and relative value systems? Should not the one real world be reflected in every cultural understanding?

Meillassoux will no doubt be dealing with all this in his future tome. Critchley thinks it ironic that while advanced analytic thinkers, he mentions John McDowell and Robert Brandon, are incorporating the insights of Kant, Hegel and Heidegger into an update of the Anglo-American tradition, Meillassoux is moving backwards to Cartesianism [mechanical materialism--tr].

Critchley tells a story of a 1951 meeting between A.J.. Ayer and Georges Bataille. Ayer said he thought the Sun existed before man appeared, and Bataille thought the question meaningless since he was "more versed in Hegel and phenomenology" so as a correlationist he thought that "physical objects must be perceived by an observer to be said to exist."[Which, at least, is not Hegel's view at all.] Shocked by Ayer's attitude, Bataille is quoted as saying, "There exists between French and English philosophers a sort of abyss."

The abyss, however, is between those educated in philosophy and a scientific world view and those innocent of science. Bataille's views were those of Mach and Avenarius and the Russian thinkers who Lenin criticized in his work MATERIALISM AND EMPIRIO-CRITICISM. Marxism and the philosophy of Dialectical Materialism would certainly have sided with Ayer on this issue and seen Bataille as a representative in philosophy of an outmoded subjective idealism and the thinking of the declining bourgeoisie.

The present time, when the bourgeois world is once again in crisis and manifesting symptoms of decline and decadence, is not a world where philosophers need to spend their intellectual energy in trying to refute a moribund French philosophical culture that was effectively exposed as meaningless by Lenin as well as Marx and Engels many generations ago. But if that is what Meillassoux wants to do, carry coals to Newcastle, who is to gainsay him?

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Discussion Fifteen in a series on Chinese Philosophy from a Marxist point of view.

Thomas Riggins

After having a light breakfast, Karl and Fred have returned to Karl’s library to discuss Neo-Taoism.

“Well Fred, are you ready to get into Neo-Taoism? We are still dealing with thinkers in the Wei-Chin period (220-420 AD) are we not?”

“We are. We have moved on a long way from the kind of thinking represented by Tung Chung-shu. A move that has led us closer and closer to naturalistic ways of thinking.”

“Then I guess Hsun Tzu should be popular again.”

“That may be, but we are going to discuss philosophers who, while paying lip service to Confucius, wrote commentaries on the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu as a way of expressing themselves. We call them ‘Neo-Taoists.’”

“Yes, but that’s not what they called themselves as I remember. I think Fung says they were known as Hsuan Hsueh or ‘Dark’ (Hsuan) or ‘Mysterious Learning.’” [History of Chinese Philosopy vol. 2]

“That’s right Karl. Besides, the Neo-Taoists there was another group of thinkers at this time called the ‘Light’ or ‘Pure Conversation School.’ They seem to have been of minor importance-- at least from the strictly philosophical point of view.”

“And who were they?”

“Just groups of men who liked to get together and discuss contemporary issues, ethics, philosophy, etc. They hung out in bamboo groves drinking and arguing and rejecting social conventions and propriety.”

“Sounds like a wild bunch!”

“They seem to have been harmless. The most famous group was called the ‘Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove.’ We are not going to deal with them as such.”

“OK. On to the ‘Dark Learning’ of the Neo-Taoists. Who is first?”

“First is a gentleman called Wang Pi.”

“Yes, I remember studying about him. He died when he was only 23 or 24 years old-- living from 225 to 249 in Wei. That is unusually young to have left behind really important philosophical works.”

“At any rate, Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] has given us three excerpts from his writings. You ready?”


“This is from his Simple Exemplifications of the Principle of the Book of Changes [ Chou-i lueh-li]. He is trying to explain hexagrams in the I Ching. He develops the idea of ‘the one’ and the key to this passage is his statement, ‘Things never err; they always follow their principle.’ This is actually a scientific way of looking at things-- i.e., the laws of science don’t change [I mean the underlying ‘laws’ of the world which the ‘laws of science’ attempt to describe] so ‘things never err.’ The entire quote is: ‘Now, the many cannot be regulated by the many. They are regulated by the smallest in number (the one). Activity cannot be controlled by activity. They are controlled by that which is firmly rooted in the one. The reason why the many can exist is that their ruling principle returns always to the one and all activities can function because they have all come from the same source. Things never err; they always follow their principle. There is the chief to unite them, and there is the leader to group them together. Therefore, though complex, they are not chaotic, and though many, they are not confused. Hence the intermingling of the six lines in a hexagram can be understood by taking up one [of them, for one is always the ruling factor of the six] and the interaction of weakness (yin) and strength (yang) can be determined by having the basic controlling principle well established.... Therefore if we investigate things by approaching them as a united system, although they are many, we know we can handle them by adhering to the one, and if we view them from the point of view of the fundamental, although their concepts are broad, we know we can cover all of them under a single name.’”

“You know Fred, Fung Yu-lan remarks on this [HCP:2, p.180] that the key to this passage is to understand that for Wang all multiplicity stems from oneness-- just as everything in our universe goes back to or stems from the one singularity, if it really was a singularity, we call the ‘Big Bang’. This is an analogy, of course, Wang Pi didn’t know anything about the ‘Big Bang.’ He is really explaining why there is always a leading line in the hexagrams comprising the I Ching. Here is what Fung says: ‘In this passage Wang Pi’s aim is to explain the general concept underlying the statements made by the First Appendix on the separate hexagrams.’ He also says, with respect to Wang’s mentioning a ruling hexagram, that ‘he means that among the six lines comprising any given hexagram, there is always one that acts as ruler over the others. That is why he begins his treatise with the general thesis that all multiplicity must be ruled by oneness, and all activity controlled by quiescence. This is the first of his metaphysical principles.’”

“OK. We next turn to Wang’s Commentary On The Book of Changes itself. Here again we see the ‘one’: ‘Only because there is ultimate principle in the world is it possible to employ strength and uprightness completely and to drive far away those who ingratiate by flattery.... If we understand the activities of things, we shall know all the principles which make them what they are’ [On hexagram one ‘Heaven’].

“Very empirical Fred, if you ask me. Study the activities of things to determine their principles. This is consistent with a materialist world view.”

“And this next passage shows how his views apply to society and politics: ‘If one is agreeable but does not follow indiscriminately and is joyful without deviating from the Mean, one will be able to associate with superiors without flattery and with subordinates without disrespect. As he understands the causes of fortune and misfortune, he will nor speak carelessly, and as he understands the necessary principles, he will not change good conduct.’ [On hexagram sixteen ‘Happiness’] "

“A science of society is possible based on his views.”

“And no simple minded one either Karl. Listen to this: ‘[A superior man sees] similarity in general principles but diversity in function and facts.’ [On hexagram thirty eight ‘To part’] "

“To see the one in the many and vice versa is almost the definition of philosophy. Remember the Prime Directive? "

“How could I forget it?” [Use science and logic NOT emotion and religious dogma-- see Dialogue #1: Confucius].

“And the Second Directive?”

“Don’t discuss things with people who reject the Prime Directive.”

“Well, I think we get another directive about philosophy here-- based on Wang Pi. Here is Schopenhauer’s version: ‘Knowledge of the identical in different phenomena, and of difference in similar phenomena is, as Plato so often remarks, a sine qua non of philosophy.’ [The World as Will and Idea: 2nd bk, 1st aspect, sec. 22] What Plato says is, ‘’those who are able to grasp what is always the same in all respects are philosophers, while those who are not able to do so and who wander among the many things that vary in every sort of way are not philosophers...’ [Republic 484b].

“You certainly get a lot out of one sentence from Wang! Chan’s comment is: ‘Note the contrast between principle and facts. Later, in Chinese Buddhism, the realm of principles and the realm of facts constitute the two realms of existence. They are, however, not to be sharply contrasted, for they involve each other and are ultimately identical. This one-is-all and all-is-one philosophy is a common heritage of all Chinese philosophical systems-- Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist.’”

“The more we discuss Chinese philosophy, the more parallels I see to certain Western trends Fred.”

“Here is his commentary on hexagram twenty four ‘To return’: ‘Whenever speech ceases, there is silence, but silence is not opposed to speech. Thus although Heaven and Earth are vast, possessing the myriad things in abundance, where thunder moves and winds circulate, and while there is an infinite variety of changes and transformations, yet its original [substance] is absolutely quiet and perfect non-being. Therefore only with the cessation of activities within Earth can the mind of Heaven and Earth be revealed.’”

“Let me read to you what Fung says about this passage. ‘When Wang speaks of the ‘myriad things’ of Heaven and Earth and the ‘myriad transformations’ resulting from their operations, what he means is all being and all transformations, that is all phenomenal activity. But the cause of all transformations or activity must itself be unchanging and quiescent.... It cannot itself be being, for if it were, it would simply be one among all the many other kinds, and as such it could not be the origin of ‘all’ being. ‘ [HCP:2, p.181] Thus Wang maintains that non-being (wu) is the basis of being. I don’t think we just equate non-being with ‘nothingness’ either. And so we don’t anthropomorphize let us remember that the ‘mind of Heaven and Earth’ is just the set of natural principles or operant laws of physics, etc. It would be like saying if you understand general relativity you understand the mind of Heaven.”

“We will trudge along to find out because Wang Pi’s views are going to be developed by succeeding generations. Here is Chan’s remark on this passage: ‘Wang Pi is characteristically Taoistic in saying that only in a state of tranquility can the mind of Heaven and Earth be seen.... [Neo-Confucianists] maintained that the Mind of Heaven and Earth is to be seen in a state of activity instead of tranquility ‘”

“Fred, that passage from Wang on wu is also commented upon by Fung. He says, ‘Wu or “non-being” is, in Wang’s philosophy, equivalent to the “super-ultimate” or “Supreme Ultimate” (T’ai Chi) of the Book of Changes, or to the Tao of the Lao-tzu. Its functioning, however, can only be made manifest on the form of being (yu).’” [HCP:2, p.183]

“Time for our last selection--Commentary on the Lao Tzu.”

“Bring it on.”

“Chan lets us know that Wang Pi was really interested in metaphysics. He considers ultimate reality to be ‘original non-being’ or pen-wu. Its not ‘nothing’ but rather the original substance, pen-t’i, that is the basis of all existing things. He develops this idea in the Lao Tzu commentary. Chan says, ‘Where Lao Tzu had destiny (ming, fate), Wang Pi would substitute principle, thus anticipating the Neo-Confucianists, who preferred to speak of the Principle of Nature (T’ien-Ming).’”

“Are you ready to read Wang’s text?”

“Yes I am. Wang says, ‘All being originated from non-being... After forms and names appear, Tao (the Way) develops them... becomes their Mother. This means that Tao produces and completes things with the formless and nameless. Thus they are produced and completed but do not know why. Indeed it is the mystery of mysteries.’ [ch 1].”

“What else?”

“He continues, ‘Man does not oppose Earth and therefore can comfort all things, for his standard is the Earth. Earth does not oppose Heaven and therefore can sustain all things, for its standard is Heaven. Heaven does not oppose Tao and therefore can cover all things, for its standard is Tao. Tao does not oppose Nature and therefore it attains its character of being.’ [ch. 25]. He tells us ‘By Nature is meant something that cannot be labeled and something ultimate’ [Ibid.].”

“This seems to give a materialist basis to his metaphysics. What would knowledge of ‘Nature’ lead to?”

“He says, ‘The sage understands Nature perfectly and knows clearly the conditions of all things. Therefore he goes along with them but takes no unnatural action. He is in harmony with them but does not impose anything on them. He removes their delusions and eliminates their doubts. Hence the people’s minds are not confused and things are contented with their own nature.’ [ch. 29] And also, ‘How is virtue to be attained? It is to be attained through Tao. How is virtue to be completely fulfilled. It is through non-being as its function. As non-being is its function, all things will be embraced. Therefore in regard to things, if they are understood as non-being all things will be in order, whereas if they are understood as being, it is impossible to avoid the fact that they are products (phenomena). Although Heaven and Earth are extensive, non-being is the mind, and although sages and kings are great, vacuity (hsu) is their foundation. Therefore it is said that by returning and seeing [absolute quiet and perfect non-being], the mind of Heaven and Earth will be revealed.’ [ch. 38].”

“This reminds me of Buddhist notions.”

“Some Buddhist notions in China may actually come from Wang Pi! Remember, all the things that exist (‘the myriad things’) have their own unique being-- their own substance and function. Chan comments, ‘This is the first time in the history of Chinese thought that substance (t’i) and function(yung) are mentioned together.... The concepts of substance and function definitely originated with Wang Pi. They were to become key concepts in Chinese Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism.’”

“I see that Chinese Buddhism and Taoism are mixed up together, but who is influencing whom?”

“It was probably a two way street Karl. Here is how Wang Pi relates existing things to his ultimate substance. ‘The ten thousand things have ten thousand different forms but in the final analysis they are one. How did they become one? Because of non-being.... Therefore in the production of the myriad things, I know its master.’ [ch. 47].”

“So much for Wang Pi. How about Ho Yen? He was also an important contributor to this school.”

“Yes. He also died in 249 A.D., the same year as Wang Pi. Like Wang, although a Taoist, he considered Confucius to be the ‘Sage.’ That is to say, in things social and political-- in practice-- he followed Confucius, but he nevertheless turned to Lao Tzu in things metaphysical, an area that Confucius was not particularly interested in. We can see Wang’s influence in the following quote from Ho’s Treatise on Tao: ‘Being, in coming into being, is produced by non-being. Affairs, as affairs, are brought into completion by non-being. When one talks about it and it has no predicates, when one names it and it has no name, when one looks at it and it has no form, and when one listens to it and it has no sound-- that is Tao in its completeness. Hence it is able to make sounds and echoes brilliant, to cause material force (ch’i) and material objects to stand out, to embrace all physical forms and spiritual activity, and to display light and shadow.’”

“Does Chan say anything about this?”

“He has the following comment: ‘It is characteristic of both the Light Conversation movement and the Metaphysical School to reject all words and forms as descriptions of the ultimate reality. These may be used, then forgotten, as the fish trap is forgotten once the fish is caught. The whole spirit is to get at the ultimate totality, which is not to be limited even by a name.’”

“That fish analogy is similar to one used by Wittgenstein, another ‘mystic.’ Just as our Taoist friends keep saying that ‘Tao’ is unnamable and we can’t really grasp it, Wittgenstein ends his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by saying, ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them-- as steps-- to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)’”

“Very apt Karl.”

“And mystics are not the only ones to think this way.”

“What do you mean?”

“Listen to Sextus Empiricus, the Greek Skeptic, explaining how its possible to ‘know’ that you cant ‘know’--i.e., that you can use logic against logic! He says, ‘just as it is not impossible for someone, after climbing up a ladder to a higher place, to knock down the ladder with his foot after he gets up there, so too it is not unreasonable for the skeptic, after arriving at the establishment of his point by using the argument which demonstrates that there is no demonstration as a kind of step-stool, thereupon to destroy this argument itself.’”

“So Taoists are not the only ones with these problems of trying to explain what seems at first glance unexplainable. Now listen to this from Ho’s Treatise On The Nameless: ‘Now Tao never possesses anything. But since the beginning of the universe it has possessed all things and yet it is still called Tao because it can exercise its ability not to possess them. Therefore although it dwells in the realm of the namable, it shows no sign of the nameless.’”

“Hmmmm. I’m not ready to throw away the ladder.”

“Maybe this will help. Ho continues: ‘Essentially speaking, Tao has no name. This is why Lao Tzu said that he was “forced to give it a name.” Confucius praised (sage emperor) Yao, saying, “The people could find no name for him,” but continued to say, “How majestic” was “his accomplishment!” It is clear that to give a name perforce is merely to give an appellation on the basis of only what people know. If one already has a name, how can it be said that people could find no name for him? It is only because he has no name that all possible names in the world can be used to call him. But are these really his names? If from this analogy one still does not understand, it would be like looking at the loftiness and eminence of Mount T”ai and yet saying that the original material force [which makes the productions of things possible] is not overwhelming or extensive.’”

“Now I see, Fred. The names and descriptions we give to reality in order to try and understand it are ‘only what people know.’ Reality, the Tao, is much more extensive than what can be conceptualized by the human understanding. This is what Wittgenstein meant. He says it even better, right after the passage I just quoted, when he writes ‘He must transcend the propositions [Wittgenstein’s philosophical claims] and then he will see the world aright.’ Somehow or other, I think Ho Yen and Wittgenstein are are on the same wavelength.”

“Be that as it may Karl, we must now turn to another really important Neo-Taoist. His name was Kuo Hsiang [Guo Xiang] and he expressed his views in his Commentary on the Chuang Tzu. To prepare you for what is to come, let me read what Chan says is the great difference between Kuo and Wang; ‘Just as Wang Pi went beyond Lao Tzu, so Kuo Hsiang went beyond Chuang Tzu. The major concept is no longer Tao, as in Chuang Tzu, but Nature (Tzu-jan). Things exist and transform themselves spontaneously and there is no other reality or agent to cause them. Heaven is not something behind this process of Nature but is merely its general name. Things exist and transform according to principle, but each and every thing has its own principle. Everything is therefore self-sufficient and there is no need of an over-all original reality to combine or govern them, as in the case of Wang Pi. In other words, while Wang Pi emphasizes non-being, Kuo emphasizes being. To Wang Pi, principle transcends things, but to Kuo it is immanent in them.’ And Chan also notes, ‘In their philosophy of life, Kuo Hsiang differed greatly from Wang Pi in one respect. Kuo was a fatalist while Wang was not. Since according to Kuo everything has its own nature and ultimate principle, everything is determined and correct. Therefore he taught contentment in whatever situation one may find himself. Neither free will nor choice has meaning in his system.’”

“Kuo sounds like a radical pluralist. But I think modern science points towards an original unity with everything in Nature evolving from the Big Bang. At any rate, lets go over Kuo Hsiang’s Commentary.”

“First, lets note that this is not just Kuo’s Commentary. One of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove was a man named Hsiang Hsiu(c. 221-c. 300 AD) who wrote commentaries on the Chuang Tzu . Kuo’s commentary is either an edited version of Hsiang’s or an expanded version. However, it is traditionally called Kuo’s commentary!”


“There are thirty nine numbered paragraphs in Chan from this commentary , and I will begin with number three. ‘To be natural means not to take any unnatural action. This is the general idea of [what Chuang Tzu means by] roaming leisurely or freedom. Everything has its own nature and each nature has its own ultimate.’”

“This clarifies a lot Fred, especially the Taoist confusion about doing ‘nothing’-- it means ‘nothing unnatural.’ Even more interesting is the definition of man via Aristotle-- i.e., ‘rational animal’ and ‘political animal.’ One could argue that since that is the nature of humans, the Confucian approach is perfectly natural and there is no ultimate conflict with Taoism!”

“Lets look at number four: ‘Being natural means to exist spontaneously without having to take any action. Therefore the fabulous p’eng bird can soar high and the quail can fly low, the cedrela can live for a long time and the mushroom for a short time.’”

“This confirms my view. Every thing has its own nature and way of acting.”

“Listen to number five: ‘It is he who does no governing that can govern the empire. Therefore Yao governed by not governing. It was not because of his governing that his empire was governed. Now (the recluse) Hsu Yu [who refused the empire] only realized that since the empire was well governed, he should not replace Yao. He thought it was Yao who did the actual governing. Consequently he said to Yao “You govern the empire.”’” Kuo thinks Yao is a good example of governing by not governing.”

“This looks bad for my theory.”

“Just wait a minute. Hsu Yu was a recluse, his example seems to have been sitting ‘in silence in the middle of some mountain forest’ and had the approval of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Kuo seems not to have approved of their ideas in this respect and thought one should remain ‘in the realm of action.’”

“My theory is back.”

“Pay attention now to the end of number five: ‘[R]esponsible officials insist on remaining in the realm of action without regret.... For egotistical people set themselves up against things, whereas he who is in accord with things is not opposed to them.... Therefore he profoundly and deeply responds to things without any deliberate mind of his own and follows whatever comes into contact with him. He is like an untied boat drifting, claiming neither the east not the west to be its own. He who is always with the people no matter what he does is the ruler of the world wherever he may be.’”

“Oh no, Fred, that’s no good either. A drifting untied boat is a poor representation of the Ship of State. A good ruler should guide the state by certain plans and principles and not just drift along. Also, ‘being with the people’ must be interpreted as being ‘for the people’ if it is to make any sense. The ‘people’ can be wrong headed sometimes and a good ruler has to know how to counter that. I know that Chan and Fung, among others, say the Neo-Taoists rated Confucius higher that Lao or Chuang when it came to practical actions, but obviously they did not really understand Confucianism if they thought analogies such as the ‘drifting boat’ were compatible with it.”

“Well in number six he says, ‘When everything attains its reality, why should it take any action? Everything will be contented and at ease. Therefore, although Yao and Hsu Yu and Heaven and Earth are different, their freedom is the same.’”

“Yes, I understand this determinist outlook. Nevertheless, the freedom of Yao and of Heaven and Earth differs in one essential respect which is that Yao is conscious of his freedom and also self-conscious.”

“In number eight Kuo says, ‘The mind of the sage penetrates to the utmost the perfect union of yin and yang and understands most clearly the wonderful principles of the myriad things. Therefore he can identify himself with changes and harmonize with transformations, and finds everything all right wherever he may go. He embraces all things and thus nothing is not in its natural state. The world asks him [to rule] because of disorder. He has no deliberate mind of his own.’”

“I take this to mean that the sage doesn’t use his leadership position for personal emolument, but because he knows ‘the wonderful principles of the myriad things’ he rules according to the true requirements of every situation and always in the interests of the ruled. He is a philosopher king.”

“In number eleven he reinforces this objective outlook: ‘Everything is what it is by nature, not through taking any action. Therefore [Chuang Tzu] speaks in terms of Nature.... Nature does not set its mind for or against anything. Who is the master to make things obey? Therefore all things exist by themselves and come from nature. This is the Way of Heaven.’”

“The subjective interests of the sage must not try to force themselves on to reality.”

“What you just said Karl about the sage and leadership is borne out by the following: ‘If people with the capacity of attendants are not contented with the responsibilities of attendants, it will be a mistake. Therefore we know that whether one is a ruler or a minister, a superior or an inferior, and whether it is the hand or the foot, the inside or the outside, it is naturally so according to the Principle of Nature.’ And also by number 14: ‘”This” and “that” oppose each other but the sage is in accord with both of them. Therefore he who has no deliberate mind of his own is silently harmonized with things and is never opposed to the world.’”

“It's all very Stoic Fred.”

“I’ll say. How about this from number 15: ‘When their physical forms are compared, Mount T’ai is larger than an autumn hair. But if everything is in accord with its nature and function, and is silently in harmony with its ultimate capacity, then a large physical form is not excessive and a small one is not inadequate.... As there is nothing small or large, and nothing enjoys longevity or suffers brevity of life [since all natures are equal], therefore the chrysalis does not admire the cedrela but is happy and contented with itself, and the quail does not value the Celestial Lake and its desire for glory is thus satisfied.’”

“Some might say this type of world view leads to quietism, but I’m not so sure. I will say its more passive than a Confucian would be comfortable with.”

“Here is number 18, an example of the Sage vs. hoi polloi: ‘The ordinary people will consider it lack of simplicity to harmonize all the changes throughout ten thousand years. With a tired body and a frightened mind, they toil to avoid this and to take that. The sage alone has no prejudice. He therefore proceeds with utter simplicity and becomes one with transformation and always roams in the realm of unity. Therefore, although the irregularities and confusions over millions of years result in a great variety and infinite multiplicity, as “Tao operates and given results follow,” the results of the past and the present are one.’”

“And we should note that hoi polloi still exist, even as in Kuo’s day, although in some societies universal educational opportunities have brought about qualitative differences in hoi polloi. The Confucian ‘Utopian’ ideal, as the Marxist, is that some day all humans will be sages.”

“And now for some metaphysics. Listen to this from number 19: ‘If we insist on the conditions under which things develop and search for the cause thereof, such search and insistence will never end, until we come to something that is unconditioned, and then the principles of self-transformation will become clear.... ‘”

“A monistic view, Fred. Modern science, at least speculative forms of it, has this view too. The search for the so-called unified field theory-- the one big equation that unifies quantum mechanics and general relativity would, hopefully, bring it about that the ‘principles of self-transformation will become clear.’”

“This same paragraph, Karl, also rules out the existence of a religious, in the Western sense, explanation for the universe. Kuo says, “There are people who say that shade is conditioned by the shadow, the shadow by the body, and the body by the Creator. But let us ask whether there is a Creator or not. If not, how can he create things? If there is, he is incapable of materializing all the forms. Therefore before we can talk about creation, we must understand the fact that all forms materialize by themselves. If we go through the entire realm of existence, we shall see that there is nothing, not even the shade, that does not transform itself behind the phenomenal world. Hence everything creates itself without the direction of any Creator. Since things create themselves, they are unconditioned. This is the norm of the universe.’” And Chan remarks, ‘The denial of a Creator is complete. Whereas Chuang Tzu raised the question whether there is a Creator or not, Kuo Hsiang unreservedly denied its existence. Given the theory that all things come into existence by themselves and that their transformation is also their own doing, this is the inevitable outcome. Thus Taoist naturalism is pushed to its ultimate conclusion.’”

“Yes, but we must not forget that, ‘Tao operates and given results follow.’ Fung is useful at this point as he says, concerning this passage [HCP:2, p. 210], ‘The statement: “Everything produces itself and does not depend on anything else,” means merely that we cannot designate any particular thing as the cause of any other particular thing. It does not at all mean that there are no relationships between one thing and another.’ In fact he maintains that this view is compatible with Marxism! He says [Ibid., p. 112], ‘This point of view is very similar to the materialistic concept of history. The Russian Revolution, for example, was, according to this concept, the inevitable result of the total objective environment of its time; it was not caused by Lenin or any other particular individual. The statement quoted earlier, that things, “though mutually opposed, at the same time are mutually indispensable,” may also be interpreted as an illustration of Hegelian dialectic....’ So we must not think that there is no underlying unity to reality. That there is no Creator is, I take it, put forth to ward off the type of superstitious religious explanations for things that Mo Tzu tried to use to bolster his system.”

“In number 20 Kuo says, ‘When a person loves fame and is fond of supremacy and is not satisfied even when he has broken his back in the attempt, it is due to the fact that human knowledge knows no limit. Therefore what is called knowledge is born of losing sight of what is proper and will be eliminated when one is in silent harmony with his ultimate capacity. Being silently in harmony with one’s ultimate capacity means allowing one’s lot to reach its highest degree, and [in the case of lifting weights] not adding so much as an ounce. Therefore though a person carries ten thousand pounds, if it is equal to his capacity he will suddenly forget the weight upon his body.’”

“This isn’t just Taoist either. I think almost any philosopher would hold a similar outlook. It amounts to ‘nothing in excess’ and would be applauded by Plato as support for his views in the Republic on education and finding the employment best suited for each citizen.”

“In number 21 he maintains, ‘ Where does gain or loss, life or death, come in? Therefore, if one lets what he has received from Nature take its own course, there will be no place for joy or sorrow.’”

“This is a little more than human! The sage qua sage may understand this, but it is difficult to believe that qua human it would be possible to be completely exempt from all feelings of joy and sorrow. After all, Chuang Tzu, when his wife died, felt sorrow and his drum beating only meant that he did not give in to despair. And Confucius , the sage par excellence, mourned for Yen Hui.”

“I think the following, number 24, could be used to justify the extension of public education. Any Confucian would be able to subscribe to it. ‘When a thousand people gather together without a person as their leader, they will either be disorderly or disorganized. Therefore when there are many virtuous people, there should not be many rulers, but when there is no virtuous person, there should be a ruler.’”

“I agree Fred. Education leads to virtue, therefore the more educated people are the less a “leader” is needed-- i.e., a Hobbesian absolutist type leader.”

“In number 25 he says, ‘Things happen by necessity, and principle, of course, prevails at all times. Therefore if we leave things alone, they will accomplish their purpose.’”

“A scientific outlook if our goal is to understand the world. We get in trouble when we try to change it. The problem is it just cries out to be changed! At least humans think so. How can we leave things alone since it appears to be our principle to change things?”

“Perhaps we have to think of the problems that cry out for change doing so as a result of a previous disruption of principle. Reforms, even revolutions, are only attempts to reestablish principle-- at least in the social world.”

“A worthy thought, Fred.”

“Do you find any problem with the following? It is number 28. ‘The principles of things are from the very start correct. None can escape from them. Therefore a person is never born by mistake, and what he is born with is never an error. Although heaven and earth are vast and the myriad things are many, the fact that I happen to be here is not something that spiritual beings of heaven and earth, sages and worthies of the land, and people of extreme strength or perfect knowledge can violate.... Therefore if we realize that our nature and destiny are what they should be, we will have no anxiety and will be at ease with ourselves in the face of life or death, prominence or obscurity, or an infinite amount of changes and variations, and will be in accord with principle.’”

Well, lets think of a person born with a birth ‘defect’-- no arms, or only a brain stem, or something like that. Would Kuo really want to say ‘what he is born with is never an error,’ that principles ‘are from the very start correct?’”

“I guess not Karl. Maybe Kuo didn’t think this through?”

“And maybe he did!”

What do you mean?”

“I mean, using modern examples, think of the laws of genetics and heredity. These are principles of the transmission of inherited characteristics and also of the effects of outside influences on the genetic composition of DNA-- say exposure to radiation or certain chemicals. It is not by a ‘mistake’ that deformed or ‘defective’ animals are born. They are ‘defective’ only in relation to our expectations and social constructions of ‘perfection.’ In reality, the li, the principles, are always correct. A certain combination of genes, or exposure to chemicals, etc., will result in, for example, only a brain stem. That is just as much a regular feature of development as the frequency of having blue eyes. This is why, with respect to the li, Kuo says, ‘None can escape from them.’ It is not an error that a birth defect occurs! If we don’t want them we had better understand the li involved and clean up the environment and/or the gene pool.”

“It seems like this requires too much action on the part of a Taoist. What happened to the drifting boat?”

“Well, what if while you are drifting along you see rapids and a water fall coming into view? Li will take you right over Niagara. I think even Kuo would start to row his boat. That too ‘will be in accord with principle.’”

“And Chan’s comment is: ‘Determinism and fatalism are here explained in terms of principle and correctness. Fate is not something merely beyond human control or understanding; it is necessary truth. Nowhere else in Chinese thought is it asserted so strongly.’”

“Fate and determinism are always difficult concepts to reconcile with our ideas of choice and freedom. Life and death may be ‘determined,’ but you still don’t let your children play in traffic.”

“This is from number 29. ‘To cry as people cry is a manifestation of the mundane world. To identify life and death, forget joy and sorrow, and be able to sing in the presence of the corpse is the perfection of the transcendental world.... Therefore principle has its ultimate, and the transcendental and the mundane world are in silent harmony with each other. There has never been a person who has roamed over the transcendental world to the utmost and yet was not silently in harmony with the mundane world, nor has there been anyone who was silently in harmony with the mundane world and yet did not roam over the transcendental world. Therefore the sage always roams in the transcendental world in order to enlarge the mundane world.’”

“This only makes sense, Fred, if we think of the ‘transcendental world’ not in some mystic sense as ‘another world’ but rather as the world of li. Take Einstein as an example. The mundane world is the world we all share in common-- work, social relations, politics, etc. But the ‘transcendental world’ is the world revealed by physics and mathematics-- what is ‘really’ going on behind the scenes: E=mc2 and all that. So there is nothing supernatural about it.”

“Chan has a comment on this passage.”

“Let’s hear it”

“OK: ‘As pointed out before, neither Wang Pi nor Kuo Hsiang considered Lao Tzu a sage. Instead, their sage was Confucius. This is amazing, but the reason is really not far to seek. For to Kuo Hsiang, especially, the ideal person is a sage who is “sagely within and kingly without” and who travels in both the transcendental and mundane worlds. According to the Neo-Taoists, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu traveled only in the transcendental world and were thereby one-sided, whereas Confucius was truly sagely within and kingly without.’”

“Interesting, but I don’t think it entirely true, at least with regard to Chuang Tzu. I think he too traveled in the mundane world, he just didn’t focus on it-- it wasn’t his ultimate concern. As for Confucius, well he didn’t pay that much attention to the transcendental world ( the metaphysical aspects of li). He had little interest in metaphysical speculation (science) as his concerns were primarily practical. So I think for the Neo-Taoists, whatever their considerable virtues may have been, accurate historical understanding of their predecessors may not have been one of them.”

“Here is some political philosophy from number 34. ‘If the ruler does the work of his ministers, he will no longer be the ruler, and if the ministers control the ruler’s employment, they will no longer be ministers. Therefore when each attends to his own responsibility, both ruler and the ruled will be contented and the principle of taking no action is attained. We must not fail to discern the term “taking no action.” In ruling an empire, there is the activity of ruling. It is called “taking no action” because the activity is spontaneous and follows the nature of things. And those who serve the empire also do so spontaneously. In the case of ministers managing affairs, even Shun and Yu, as ministers, would still be regarded as taking action. Therefore when the superior and inferior are contrasted, the ruler is tranquil and the minister is active.... But in each case they allowed their nature to work and their destiny to unfold itself in its wonderful way. Thus neither the superior not the inferior, neither antiquity nor the later period takes any action. Who then will?’”

“We must always remember to keep in mind that ‘taking no action’ means ‘no unnatural action.’”

“And number 35. ‘The past is not in the present and every present event is soon changed. Therefore only when one abandons the pursuit of knowledge and lets Nature take its own course, and changes with the times, can one be perfect.’”

“Well, Fred, we just have to disagree here. The li are always operative and the effects of the past are in the present. Who could deny that the past of China-- its feudalism, its victimization by the West in the last couple of centuries, its invasion by Japan in World War II, is responsible for and still influences the Communist Revolution and the present day actions of the Chinese government? Kuo is just off base on this. The past is transmitted in a myriad of ways not just in writings, and the answer to the question ‘can the past exist in the present’ is yes. As for abandoning the pursuit of knowledge, Kuo’s own model for the Sage, Confucius, is remembered for saying, ‘Is it not a pleasure to learn and to repeat or practice from time to time what has been learned/’ It is the first sentence of the Analects!”

“Finally, number 39. ‘Not only is it impossible for non-being to be changed into being. It is also impossible for being to become non-being. Therefore, although being as a substance undergoes infinite changes and transformations, it cannot in any instance become non-being....’”

“This must refer to ordinary ‘non-being’-- i.e, ‘from nothing, nothing comes’-- but not to ‘original non-being’ as the major Thesis of Neo-Taoism is that everything comes from original non-being-- i.e., pen-wu ‘pure being’.”

“Time for lunch Karl. Should we do another thinker this afternoon?”

“By all means. Buddhism was coming to China just after the development of Neo-Taoism, and I think we should discuss one of the most important early Chinese Buddhists-- namely, Chi-tsang.”

“OK. Now lets get some grub