Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Philosophy of Liezi

Thomas Riggins

Number 14 in a series on Chinese Philosophy from a Marxist Perspective

“Well, that was a good dinner Fred. Are you ready to discuss Lieh Tzu?”

“There isn’t much to discuss Karl. Only four pages of text in Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] devoted to him.”

“He has to be in there for something. What’s his claim to fame?”

“Why don’t you look in your Great Thinkers of the Eastern World book?”

“I will, then its back to Chan. James D. Sellman wrote this article on Lieh Tzu. Listen to this: ‘Liehzi is the third major classic of philosophical Daoism (Taoism). As with the other two classics--- the Laozi (Lao Tzu) and the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), the author and the date of composition of the Liehzi are obscured by a lack of historical evidence...”

“At least we know we have the third Taoist classic-- all four pages of it in Chan!”

“And note this from The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. ‘Lieh-tzu was fond of transmitting his ideas and thoughts by reinterpreting ancient folk tales and myths. A characteristic feature of his view of life were mechanical processes, not admitting of free will.’”

“We will see something of that aspect of his thought in the last section I’ll read Karl.”

“It sounds a lot like Wang Ch’ung to me.”

“Let me tell you Karl, that I don’t think Lieh Tzu’s book is really third in rank. Chan says its unoriginal, except perhaps for his skepticism, and borrows heavily from Chuang Tzu. We should also note that the book dates from around 300 AD and that Lieh Tzu lived around 400 BC! so how many of his own views are present is questionable. The book is a compilation by much later scholars. Also the section right after Wang Ch’ung and before Lieh Tzu in Chan is on the Taoist Huai-nan Tzu. He dies in 122 BC and Chan calls him ‘the most prominent Taoist philosopher between ancient Taoism of the fourth century B.C. and Neo-Taoism of the third and fourth centuries A.D.’”

“So why did we skip him?”

“Chan says his ‘originality is negligible.’ He just reiterated Lao and Chuang. And he was very politically active not just taking the world as it comes. He had to commit suicide due to a failed plot of rebellion. He was also rationalistic like Wang Ch’ung and the Lieh Tzu.”

“So Taoism is not so passive as we have been led to think! Lets get back to ‘Lieh Tzu’ then.”

“The selection is divided into A and B sections. Section A is called ‘The Yang Chu Chapter.’”

“ Yes, I remember Yang Chu from our discussion on Mencius. Yang was the fellow who advocated egoism and wouldn’t sacrifice even one hair to help the world.”

“That’s right Karl. Here is the quote from Mencius: ‘7A:26. Mencius said, ‘Yang Chu’s choice was “everyone for himself.” Though he might save the entire world by plucking out a single hair, he would not do it.’ The ‘Yang Chu Chapter’ is included as one of the eight chapters (its actually number seven) of the Lieh Tzu, but it was probably a separate work, according to many scholars, and just ended up being part of the Lieh Tzu when it was eventually compiled in the Third Century AD.”

“Go ahead and read some of the chapter.”

“The following is Lieh Tzu’s view of life. He starts by saying how ‘Pain and sickness, sorrow and suffering, death [of relatives] and worry and fear’ take up so much of one’s life.’ Then he asks, ‘This being the case, what is life for?’ “

“If he were Sartre he might say its not ‘for’ anything!”

“But he has a negative view anyway. He says, ‘Being alone ourselves, we pay great care to what our ears hear and what our eyes see, and are much concerned with what is right and wrong for our bodies and minds. Thus we lose the great happiness of the present and cannot give ourselves free rein for a single moment. What is the difference between this and many chains and double prisons?’”

“The Buddhist view to be sure! Life is suffering.”

“He goes on, sounding Taoist to me, ‘Men of great antiquity knew that life meant to be temporarily present and death meant to be temporarily away. Therefore they acted as they pleased and did not turn away from what they naturally desired. They would not give up what could amuse their own persons at the time. Therefore they were not exhorted by fame. They roamed as their nature directed and would not be at odds with anything.’”

“Chan calls this Taoism?”

“He calls it ‘negative Taoism’. He says this compilation of writings came about because, as many scholars suggest, ‘that at the time of political chaos in the third century, some writers, trying to escape from intolerable situations, utilized the names of Lieh Tzu and Yang Chu and took refuge under the purely negative aspects of Taoism.’”

“That political chaos was occasioned by the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD and the contentions of three kingdoms fighting each other to build up an Empire again (the states of Shu, Wu and Wei.) Wei finally won out and set up the Tsin Dynasty which lasted until 420. Just thought you would like to know the history.”

“Thanks for the info Karl. I have one last quote from Yang here; ‘Yang Chu said, “The myriad creatures are different in life but the same in death. In life they mat be worthy or stupid, honorable or humble. This is where they differ. In death they all stink, rot, disintegrate, and disappear. This is where they are the same. However, being worthy, stupid, honorable or humble is beyond their power, and to stink, rot, disintegrate, and disappear is also beyond their power. Thus life, death, worthiness, stupidity, honor, and humble station are not of their own making. All creatures are equal in these, [that is, they all return to nature]. The one who lives for ten years dies. The one who lives for a hundred years also dies. The man of virtue and the sage both die; the wicked and the stupid also die. In life they were (sage-emperors) Yao and Shun; in death they were rotten bones. Thus they all became rotten bones just the same. Who knows their difference? Let us hasten to enjoy our present life. Why bother about what comes after death?”...’.”

“Spoken like a true Taoist, or perhaps, a contemporary secular humanist. What do we have from the rest of the Lieh Tzu?”

“Chan has two sections so we can get a ‘feeling tone’ from Lieh’s philosophy.”

“A ‘feeling tone’? An interesting term you lifted from Christopher Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality.”

“Actually I lifted it from you Karl. You use it a lot when we discuss art and I know you like Caudwell.”

“Its a good term Fred. In art or philosophy or a poem, when you experience these things, besides their rational content they should also provide a ‘feeling tone.’ Caudwell maintained that all our experience is a fusion of objective and subjective reality. I would say the larger our intellectual and emotional consciousness, the larger our understanding of the world. We have a larger intellectual world and a world of feeling tones (i.e., of emotional responses) for having studied Chinese philosophy as well as Western philosophy.”

“That’s why I said ‘feeling tone’ Fred. The type of feeling tone in this case is not just ‘pure’ emotion but a feeling we get from rationally directed emotional understanding. Reason ruling emotions in a Platonic or Spinoza sense. Does what follows ‘feel’ like Taoism from what you know about it. If it does and we can rationally explain why then our emotions and reasons are harmonious.”

“We are getting too far afield here Fred. Read the passages.”

“This is from the one on ‘Skepticism.’ We have a discussion between King T’ang of Yin [part of the Shang Dynasty] and his minister Hsia Chi. The King wants to know about the existence of the past and asks ‘don’t things have before or after.’ Hsia Chi tells him ‘There is no ultimate in the beginning or end of things. The beginning may be the end and the end may be the beginning. Who knows their order? As to what exists outside of things or before the beginning of events, I do not know.’ Next King T’ang asks, ‘Is there any limit to the above, the below, or the eight directions?’ Hsia Chi responds, ‘If there is nothing, then it is infinite. If there is something, then there must be a limit. How do I know?’”

“Looks to me like King T’ang should get a new minister since Hsia doen’t know anything.”

“Very funny Karl. But this is the nature of skepticism. I think Hsia is trying to make the point that people, even kings, ask a lot meaningless questions that don’t have much to do with the important things in life. Here is a more practical question. The King wants to know what the world outside of China is like. Hsia tells him the world outside China is just as the same as China. He knows from traveling around many places and talking to people from remote places. He then speculates, ‘ From this I know the regions within the four seas, the four wildernesses, and the four outermost regions are no different. Thus the lesser is always enclosed by the greater, and so on without end. Heaven and earth, which enclose the myriad things never reaches a limit. Likewise, the enclosing of heaven and earth never reaches an end. How do I know that there is not a greater universe outside our own? This is something I do not know?’”

“He has the same basic ignorance of the ultimate nature of reality as do our contemporary speculative cosmologists.”

“That he does. He ends by saying, ‘Those who maintain that heaven and earth are destructible are wrong and those who maintain that they are indestructible are also wrong. Whether they are destructible or indestructible, I do not know.’ He adds, however, that practically speaking this type of knowledge doesn’t affect our lives. ‘However, it is the same in one case and also the same in the other.’ In other words what difference does it make to us if, to use a modern example, if the Sun explodes in four billion years or not!.”

“This is a bit like Confucius’ refusal to discuss abstract metaphysical problems divorced from the real world. In Lieh it is called ‘skepticism.’ The feeling tone I am getting is that Taoists shouldn’t bother themselves with such questions.”

“What do you think of this last excerpt on ‘Fatalism’? ‘Effort said to Fate (Ming, Destiny), “How can your achievement be equal to mine?” “What effect do you have on things,” replied Fate, “that you wish to compare with me?” “Well,” said Effort, “longevity and brevity of life, obscurity and prominence, honorable and humble stations, and poverty and richness, are all within my power.”’ Effort is making quite a claim here. I guess we like to think these things may be in our control. But Fate produces examples along the line of ‘why do bad things happen to good people’ if its all due to Effort. Finally Fate says, ‘If what you mentioned were all within your power, how is it that one enjoyed longevity while the other suffered brevity of life [i.e., wicked King Chou vs. Yen Hui, Confucius’ favorite student, who died young), that the sage was obscure while a violator of virtue was in a prominent position, that the worthy had a humble station while the stupid enjoyed honor, and that the good were poor but the wicked were rich?’ Then ‘Effort said. “If, as you say, I have no effect on things, then are things, being what they are, the result of your control?” “Since you already speak of it as fate,” replied Fate, “how can there be any control? As for me, if a thing is straight, I push it straighter, and if it is crooked, I let it remain so. Longevity, brevity of life, obscurity, prominence, humble and honorable stations, and richness and poverty all come of themselves.”’”

“Well, Fred, it looks like Effort gets kicked out of the picture entirely. Perhaps it would be better for us, as opposed to Lieh, to agree that Fate pushes things along or leaves them alone, but that Effort joins in on the side of agents so that Effort is also present when the results ‘all come of themselves.’ “

“That makes more sense to me Karl, and I don’t want to get into a big discussion on ‘freedom vs. determinism’, but what you propose is NOT the negative Taoism of the Lieh Tzu.”

“C’est la vie.”

Well its getting Late, Karl. How about we meet for breakfast then come back here and discuss some more Neo-Taoism, especially Kuo Hsiang?”

“OK Fred, see you tomorrow.”

The Philosophy of Wang Chong (Wang Ch'ung)

Number 13 in a series of dialogues on Chinese philosophy from
a Marxist perspective.

by Thomas Riggins

“Well Fred, that was a nice lunch. Are we ready to discuss our next Chinese thinker?”

“You mean Wang Ch’ung? I am, but maybe you should put him in context. I’m not really familiar with the historical background. Chan speaks of the ‘Western Han’ period from 206 BC to 8 AD and the ‘Eastern Han’ period from 25 to 220 AD. Wang was living in this latter period, but there is a gap of sixteen years! “

“I’ll give you a brief update from where we left off in the Ch’in Dynasty. “

“I remember the Ch’in Dynasty from our discussion on the Legalists.”

Karl walked over to his book case and pulled down a blue paperback. “I’m going to base this on Jacques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization. I read this book a few years ago when my TV was in the shop.”

“Fill me in.”

“Basically it goes like this. In the 3rd Century BC the Ch’in Kingdom expanded and conquered the six or seven other major independent states in China and by 221 BC had established the first historical empire in Chinese history. The Ch’in ruler, Prince Cheng, then called himself huang-ti or ‘august sovereign.’ Notice the word ‘august.’ By choosing to translate huang based on the title of Augustus Caesar we assimilate Chinese reality to a Western understanding. But no harm done in this instance. Huang-ti is the title of the Chinese supremo so we translate it ‘emperor.’ Prince Cheng is known as the first [shih] emperor so we call him by the name Shih Huang-ti. He lived from 259 to 210 BC. He died prematurely, please note, from taking Taoist [religious not philosophical ] elixirs for youth and longevity so this should remind us, especially the Taoists among us, not to mess with Mother Nature!”

“Get on with it!”

“The Legalists, as you remember, influenced Shih Huang-ti who was fairly intolerant. He thought that in order to hold his empire together everyone should basically think the same way-- his way.”

“We’ve seen how successful that tactic is!”

“In 213 BC Shih Huang-ti ordered the destruction of all books (he kept copies for his files) in order to get rid of different ways of thinking. So there was a big bonfire in his capital city Hsien-yang. He also wiped out all his critics that he could find. But he overdosed on his Taoist potion three years later and his son became emperor (Second Emperor). By the way, that big terra cotta army that has become so famous of late, as a big Chinese tourist attraction, that’s from the recently discovered tomb of Shih Huang-ti.”

“Oh yeah! That’s a famous discovery. You see stuff about the terra cotta army everywhere.”

“To make a long story short, after the death of Shih Huang-ti all sorts of revolts and insurrections broke out against Second Emperor and the Ch’in state was gone by 202 BC. It was replaced by the Han Dynasty founded by Han Kao-tsu (Liu Chi, one of the rebels). This dynasty lasted until 220 AD with one interruption by a usurper named Wang Mang who ruled from 9 to 23 AD. Wang Ch’ung lived right in the middle of this period, more or less, from c. 27 to 100 AD or so.”

“Are we ready to get into his philosophy now?”

“Almost Fred. I just need to point out that after the book burning of 213 BC a new script for writing developed and all the texts that survived were copied or reconstructed with this script. This was called ‘new text’ and, please note, that Tung Chung-shu’s philosophy was developed on the basis of the new texts.”


“So this. Under the Emperor Wu Ti (147-87 BC) a big discovery was made of a cache of the ancient Chinese classics from before the Ch’in period. They were found hidden in Confucius’ old house! These were written in the old script and a school grew around them called the Old Text School.”

“I see. There were differences between the same works depending on whether they were old texts or new texts.”

“That is exactly right. The upshot of all this is that the mystical magical tendencies of Tung derive from the new texts. Wang Ch’ung based himself on the old texts and these became the orthodox version of the classics. Here is what Gernet says (p.165)-- i.e., ' that the victory, after the Han period, of the old texts ‘was to cause the almost total disappearance of the vast esoteric literature of the Han period, and it was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that certain scholars and philosophers took it into their heads to rehabilitate the forgotten tradition represented by the works of Tung Chung-shu’ and others.”

“So Tung really is only of historical interest.”

“Yes, and I should note Wang Ch’ung was dormant as well until a couple of centuries ago. Now, Fred, what have you got there on Wang Ch’ung?”

“Here is what Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] says, and I’m glad for the digression into history-- it makes Chan a little clearer. He lists six characteristics of Wang’s intellectual environment. 1.) Dominance of Confucianism-- thanks to Tung Chung-shu by the way. 2.) The Yin-Yang mysticism had corrupted Confucianism into less than rational positions-- also thanks to Tung. 3.) Man and Nature were reciprocally influencing one another. 4.) Omens and unexplained events were to be interpreted in the light of #3. 5.) Heaven had ends and purposes but it was ‘not anthropomorphic.’ Its ‘will’ could be determined by omens and such. 6.) Spiritual beings abounded and could also influence us by means of signs and wonders. ‘Wang Ch’ung rose in revolt against all these prevalent beliefs.’”

“Yes, he is considered a rationalist or a naturalist according to what I’ve read. But I don’t think he surpasses Hsun Tzu.”

“OK. The quotes I’m going to read to you all come from Wang’s book The Balanced Inquiries, or Lun-heng.”

“Lets hear them!”

“This is called ‘On Original Nature’-- chapter 13: ‘Man’s feelings and nature are the root of government by men and the source of ceremonies and music. Therefore as we investigate the matter, we find that ceremonies are employed to check the excess of the nature and feelings and music is used to regulate them. In man’s nature there are the qualities of humbleness, modesty, deference, and compliance. Hence ceremonies have been instituted to adjust them to their proper expression. In men’s feelings there are the qualities of like and dislike, pleasure and anger, and sorrow and joy. Hence music has been created to enable their feelings of reverence to be expressed everywhere. Nature and feelings are therefore the reason why systems of ceremonies and music have been created.’”

“Good explanation.”

“He continues: ‘Shih Shih of the Chou ( Chou Dynasty: 1111-249 BC) maintained that in nature some are born good and some are born evil. Take the good nature and cultivate it, and goodness will develop. Take the evil nature and cultivate it, and evil will develop. Thus in nature some belong to yin (passive cosmic force) and some belong to yang (active cosmic force), and some are good and some are evil. It all depends on cultivation.’”

“ Shih Shih was a third generation Confucian, but I don’t go for some are born good and some evil. I’m holding out for nurture not nature. I agree with Wang about ‘cultivation’ but I think in general we are born neutral and we turn out as we are cultivated in whatever society we are born into.”

“Well Wang seems to like Shih Shih as he goes on to maintain that both Mencius and Hsun Tzu are wrong about human nature being at birth one (good) or the other (evil). He also attacks Tung Chung-shu’s position that Mencius and Hsun Tzu were both correct as the former was talking about yang (nature) and the latter about yin (feelings). But Wang thinks its more complicated as both nature and feelings are a mixture of yin and yang.”

“How does Wang resolve all this?”

“His thesis is: ‘The truth is that in nature, some people are born good and some born evil. It is just as some people’s capacity is high and some people’s is low.’ And so he concludes, ‘At bottom I consider Mencius’ doctrine of the goodness of human nature as referring to people above the average, Hsun Tzu’s doctrine of evil nature of man as referring to people below the average, and Yang Hsiung’s (53 BC - AD 18) doctrine that human nature is a mixture of good and evil as referring to average people.’”

“Yang Hsiung?”

“Chan has a little three page chapter on him right before Wang. He is mostly remembered of the theory that Wang mentions.”

“There seem to be a lot theories about this Fred, and they all seem non-verifiable. Anyway, since all the sages agree that it is education that brings about the correct activity all the theories are practically equivalent. A pragmatist would think they are all the same in the long run.”

“Chan has a comment on this as follows: ‘Wang’s own theory is new but it is not a real advance, for the presence of either good or evil is not explained. In accepting Yang Hsiung’s theory of mixture as referring to average people, he seems to believe in three grades of human nature.... However, his main thesis is dualism. Inasmuch as the Western Han period is characterized by a dualistic approach to human nature, in terms of good nature and evil feelings, Wang’s own dualism, in terms of good and evil natures, shows little progress.’”

“So we have a dualism of some sort-- either of natures or of nature versus feelings?”

“Thus far Wang hasn’t particularly distinguished himself. I will now turn to ‘On Spontaneity’-- his chapter 54.”


“He says, ‘When the material forces (ch’i) of Heaven and Earth come together, all things are spontaneously produced, just as when the vital forces (ch’i) of husband and wife unite, children are naturally born. Among the things thus produced, blood creatures are conscious of hunger and cold. Seeing that the five grains are edible, they obtain and eat them. And seeing that silk and hemp can be worn, they obtain and wear them. Some say that Heaven produces the five grains in order to feed man and produces silk and hemp in order to clothe man. This is to say that Heaven becomes a farmer or a mulberry girl for the sake of man. This is contrary to spontaneity. Therefore their ideas are suspect and should not be followed.’”

“This must be the aspect of his thought that leads to his being called a naturalist.”

“I think you are correct Karl. He continues, ‘Let us discuss these concepts according to Taoism. Heaven (T’ien, Nature) gives forth and distributes material force universally into all things. Grains overcome hunger and silk and hemp save people from cold. Consequently people eat grains and wear clothing of silk and hemp. Now, that Heaven does not purposely produce the five grains and silk and hemp in order to feed and clothe man is very much like the fact that there are calamities and strange transformations but not for the purpose of reprimanding man. Things are spontaneously produced and man eats them and wears them, and material forces spontaneously change [in strange ways] and people are afraid of them. To talk otherwise may be agreeable to the minds of people. But if lucky influences from Heaven are intentional. where would spontaneity be, and where would non-action (wu-wei) be found?’”

“It looks like his naturalism stems from his study of Taoism. But this is also the Confucianism of Hsun Tzu or at least very similar to it .”

“Listen to this: ‘Someone asks: Man is born from Heaven and Earth. Since Heaven and Earth take no action [that is, Karl, they just are as they are] and since man is endowed with the nature of Heaven [and Earth] , he should take no action either. And yet he does take action. Why?’”

“A good Taoist question Fred. What does Wang say?”

“He says, ‘I reply: A person who is rich and pure in perfect virtue is endowed with a large quantity of vital force and is therefore able to approximate Heaven in being spontaneous and taking no action. Those who are endowed with little vital force do not follow moral principles and do not resemble Heaven and Earth. They are therefore called unworthy. By that is meant that they are not similar to Heaven and Earth. They are therefore called unworthy. Since they do not resemble Heaven and Earth, they do nor belong to the same class as sages and worthies and therefore take action.’ And he concludes, ‘Heaven and Earth are like a furnace. Their work is creation. Since the endowment of the vital force is not the same in all cases, how can all be worthy?...’”.

“I have a problem with Wang about this Fred.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t like the idea of transmission of virtue or worthiness being based on Nature. I understand that people are worthy and unworthy but I’m not going to grant that it is due to their original vital force given at birth by Heaven or some such idea. I don’t see that the view that some people are born good and some evil is actually an advance on Mencius or Hsun Tzu. They at least don’t break humanity into two contrary groups-- the worthy and the unworthy based on what we today would call hereditary principles. Except in rare and unusual instances Mencius and Hsun Tzu at least hold to the basic unity of humanity. We can all be sages with the right education in both of their systems. But in Wang’s I don’t see that this is the case. There is a ‘class’ of sages and worthies based on an original endowment of vital force. However progressive Wang is with regard to rejection of spirits and omens, etc., he is definitely a social reactionary with regard to his ideas on the origin of a ‘class’ of worthies.”

“I tend to agree with you about this Karl. But lets see what else Wang has to say.”

“Go on.”

“He says, ‘The way of Heaven is to take no action. Therefore in the spring it does not act to start life, in summer it does not act to help grow, in autumn it does not act to bring maturity, and in winter it does not act to store up.... When we draw water from wells or breach water over a dam in order to irrigate fields and gardens, things will also grow. But if rain falls like torrents, soaking through all stalks, leaves and roots, in an amount equivalent to that in a pond, who would prefer drawing water from wells or breaching water over a dam? Therefore to act without acting is great. ‘”

“I get it Fred. If we just follow nature things will work out for us. But, you know, sometimes we are forced to act whether we like to or not. Wang’s Taoist view, however, does have a lot of merit. Look what our economic system based on private profit is doing to the environment!”

“Here is Chan’s comment about all this. ‘The net effect of Wang Ch’ung’s naturalism is to depersonalize Heaven and to deny the existence of design in any form. One would expect that his rationalism and naturalism would promote the development of natural science in China. Joseph Needham, however, has suggested that instead of fostering the development of science, Wang actually deterred it, for according to Needham [Science and Civilization in China], there must be a lawgiver before there can be natural laws. If Wang Ch’ung were alive, the first question he would ask would be, “What is your evidence to prove it?”’”

“And quite rightly so Fred. Needham misses the ball here. Hsun Tzu had the same idea about Heaven and Naturalism before Wang came along so why didn’t he get blamed for retarding science? The reason is that major intellectual events such as the growth and development of science are not due to this or that individual but to the circumambient cultural forces of a given historical environment in toto.”

“So you don’t need a ‘lawgiver’?”

“I don’t think so, but at least the notion of regularity such as the nonpersonal nous postulated by Anaxagoras. ‘Spontaneity’ may be a confusing concept from the scientific point of view if it implies that there is no regularity involved, which I don’t think is what Wang and the Taoists mean.”

“Now we come to his ‘Treatise on Death’, his chapter 62. We have a view similar to that of Epicurus! Wang says, ‘People today say that when men die they become spiritual beings (kuei, ghosts), are conscious, and can hurt people.... If a man has neither ears nor eyes (senses), he will have no consciousness.... When the vital forces have left man... [The whole body] decays and disappears. It becomes diffused and invisible, and is therefore called a spiritual being (kuei-shen, earthly and heavenly spirits).... When a man dies, his spirit ascends to heaven and his flesh and bones return (kuei) to earth, and that is why an earthly spiritual being (kuei) [and a heavenly spiritual being (shen) ] are so called. To be an earthly spiritual being (kuei) means to return (kuei) .... To be a heavenly spiritual being (shen) means to expand (shen). When the expansion reaches its limit, it ends and begins again. Man is born of spiritual forces. At death he returns to them. Yin and Yang are called kuei-shen. After people die, they are also called kuei-shen).... After a man dies he does not become a spiritual being, has no consciousness, and cannot speak. He therefore cannot hurt people.’”

“Today we would call that a secular humanist position.”

“Chan also has additional selections of Wang’s views. This one, from Chapter Five, concerns ‘Accidence vs. Necessity’: ‘Crickets and ants creep on the ground. A man lifts his foot and walks across it. Those crickets and ants he steps on are pressed to death, whereas those he does not step on remain completely alive and unhurt. When fires sweep through wild grass, that which has been pressed down by wheels does not burn. Some ordinary folks are delighted and call it lucky grass. Now, what the feet do not step on and what the fire does not reach are not necessarily good, for the lifting of the foot and the spread of the fire are accidental.’”

“So what goes down, goes down not as a result of Heaven’s ‘plan’ its just sort of random-- i.e., accidental. He doesn’t mention necessity at all in what you read Fred. This more than anything might explain the failure on his part to have stimulated the growth of science, not, as Needham said, the lack of a ‘law giver’. We are like crickets and ants in the face of Nature.”

“This is his view on ‘Strange Phenomena’ -- chapter 43: ‘As the ruler acts below, the material force of Heaven comes after man accordingly. But I say: This is also doubtful. For Heaven can activate things, but how can things activate Heaven? Why? Because man and things are bound by Heaven and Heaven is the master of man and things.... Therefore man living in the universe is like a flea or louse being inside a garment or a cricket or an ant inside a hole or a crack. Can the flea, louse, cricket, or ant, by being obedient or disobedient, cause the material force inside the garment or the hole to move or to change? Since the fleas, louse, cricket, or ant cannot do so, to say that man alone can is to fail to understand the principle of the material force of things. As the wind comes, trees’ branches swing. But trees’ branches cannot cause the wind.’”

“Crickets and ants again! This is pretty good in some respects for the first century AD. Just think of the kinds of superstition about things like this even today. But there is a down side.”

“And what might that be Karl?”

“The science problem again. It's this passive attitude towards Nature or Heaven. Humans are different from crickets and ants in the Western tradition. We are rational animals says Aristotle. Bacon set out to understand Nature and control it. ‘knowledge is power,’”Nature to be commanded must first be obeyed,’ etc. So we learn about the material force, unlike the crickets and ants, and use it to our advantage. Failure to think in these terms inhibited the development of theoretical science more than a lack of a ‘law giver.’”

“You have a point Karl. Now, another question. Have you ever wondered why bad things happen to good people?”


“Well then, here is Wang on ‘Fate’ (Chapter Six): ‘With respect to man’s appointment of fate, when his parents give forth their vital forces, he already gets his fortunes and misfortunes.’”

“Sounds like genetic determinism! Don’t tell me Wang is a nature over nurture determinist.”

“Hold your horses Karl. Let me finish with Wang’s ideas here. ‘Man’s nature is different from his fate. There are people whose nature is good but whose fate is unlucky, and there others whose nature is evil but whose fate is lucky. Whether one is good or evil in his conduct is due to his nature, but calamities and blessings, and fortunes and misfortunes, are due to fate. Some people do good but get calamities. This is a case of good nature but unlucky fate. Some people do evil but get blessings. This is a case of evil nature but lucky fate.”

“So what can this mean? The transformative power is neglected here-- good and evil is by nature he says. And fate is due to the vital force from the parents? I think I know where he is coming from here, but I see you only have one quote left so let me return to this with a little end presentation I have here.”

“OK. I think we see the philosopher kings putting in an appearance in this last quote. It's from chapter 56 ‘The Equality of Past and Present.’ Here is what he says, ‘The world was well governed in earlier ages because of sages. The virtue of sages earlier or later was not different, and therefore good government in earlier ages and today is not different.... In ancient times there were unrighteous people, and today there are gentleman of established integrity [as in olden times]. Good and evil intermingle. What age is devoid of them?’”

“And that is the end of Chan on Wang?”


“Well, before we say goodbye to Wang, I want to be sure we have him down pat, as it were, so I will make a few concluding remarks.”

“Go ahead.”

First, I just want to list here the five ‘Major Ideas’ that are attributed to Wang. This list is from Randall L. Nadeau’s article on Wang in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World. The list sums up our discussion.”

“So list the list.”

“OK. 1. Natural events have natural causes. 2. Beliefs in gods, ghosts, and supernatural phenomena are superstitious falsehoods. 3. There is no correspondence between human events and natural phenomena; the processes of nature are not influenced by human behavior and have no moral significance. 4. There is no correspondence between moral virtue and personal destiny; fortune and misfortune are the result of fate. 5. Human nature may be good or evil; those of good nature can become evil, and those of evil nature can become good.”


“Just about. Our discussion and my list indicate that Wang Ch’ung was pretty much of a rationalist, but he had one weakness of his era.”

“Such as?”

“It appears that number three on the list above may have to be modified since he had a weakness for astrology. Jacques Gernet writes, ‘Criticizing the notion of individual destiny (ming)... he sees the diversity of human destinies as the result of three independent factors: innate physical and intellectual aptitudes, the chance combination of circumstances and accidents, but also-- and here Wang Ch’ung shows how much he remains a prisoner of his age-- the astral influences which acted on the individual at his birth (p.165).’”

“Well then, as they say, ‘his virtues were his own, his vices those of the age.’ Lets go have dinner. Then whom shall we discuss?”

“Take Chan along to bone up. We’ll talk about the Taoist Lieh Tzu or Liezi whose work dates from around 300 AD.”

Monday, September 27, 2010


ANTI-DÜHRING: Part One: Philosophy -- Classification & Apriorism

Thomas Riggins

There are eleven chapters in Part One of Anti-Dühring which deal with the topic of philosophy. This part begins with Chapter Three: "Classification. Apriorism."

Dühring, Engels informs us, believes philosophy is the supreme form of the consciousness of all the PRINCIPLES of willing and knowledge and, since all the forms of being are studied by consciousness, then these principles must appear to consciousness as objects of philosophy. Being thus appears to us under three headings-- as the form of the universe, as Nature, and as the human world. Being appears to us in that order as a logical progression.

What Dühring proceeds to do is deduce the structure of the world system and the role of the human sciences from this logical structure produced by his philosophical consciousness. This is IDEALISM and quite the method used by Hegel half a century before. Dühring is quite confused as the facts relating to the nature of the universe and humankind are to be discovered by the study of Nature and History and the logical structure arrived at by philosophers is only valid, insofar as it is valid, because it is derived from experience of the external world not because it is imposed upon it.

Idealists were struck by the fact that the laws of thought and the laws of nature were in such close correspondence but failed to see that the laws discovered by the human brain were so discovered because the brain is a part of nature. Thus, "it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis also products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature's interconnections but are in correspondence with them."

Dühring's idealism leads him, Engels says, to view human consciousness as not human! Here are Dühring's own words: It's "a degradation of the basic forms of consciousness and knowledge to attempt to rule out or even put under suspicion their sovereign validity and their unconditional claim to truth, by applying the epithet 'human' to them." But consciousness (human) and knowledge (human) have only developed through the process of evolution in human brains. How can Dühring think they have some kind of transcendental existence?

Engels writes that "no materialist doctrine can be founded on such an ideological basis." But let us see if we can salvage some of Dühring's idea here. Granted that A=A is a human concept developed in a human brain. But A=A appears as a basic law of thought -- it would hold for any rational consciousness including non-human extraterrestrial rational beings. So we can agree that A=A or Reason may not be limited to just the human brain or to the Earth.

Engels says that Dühring, by separating thought from being a human product "has to sever it from the only real foundation on which we find it, namely man and nature." Well, maybe "thought" can be severed from the human brain-- how can we rule out that some other star system does not have intelligent life that reasons on the basis of A=A. But still this would be the result of a process of nature, the natural conditions of this other star system. So Engels is still basically correct, but Dühring too has his point: that rational consciousness may exist independently of humanity(even though we have yet to discover any other rational creatures in the universe). But it is no "degradation" to Reason to call it human.

Engels main point remains true-- we understand the world structure not from our minds but THROUGH our minds. In this sense we don't need philosophy "but positive knowledge of the world" that is "not philosophy, but positive science." I think Engels goes too far when he suggests "if no philosophy as such is any longer required, then also there is no more need of any system, not even of any natural system of philosophy." I want to suggest that we still need philosophy. DIAMAT itself is a philosophical system based on scientific realism or naturalism (materialism). Just a few sentences later in Anti-Dühring Engels himself makes some observations that suggest that we will still need philosophy.

I will argue that Engels, in fact, proposes ideas remarkably similar to what Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) the great English skeptic will say, some seventy years later than Anti-Dühring, is the nature of philosophy. Here is Russell, from the introductory remarks to his HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY: "Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All DEFINITE knowledge-- so I should contend-- belongs to science; all DOGMA as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man's Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man's Land is philosophy." Needless to say, when some kind of definite knowledge is discovered in No Man's Land it quickly moves on over into science leaving philosophy behind.

Now, what Engels has to say about knowledge is pretty much the same as Russell, so much so that Engels, save for stylistic differences, could have himself penned Russell's words. What does he say? Engels says that the goal of science is to give a complete description of nature. The mind, via perceptions of the external world, constructs a mental image of "the world system." The scientific world view is the result of an interconnection between the processes of nature and our mental image of them.

But, Engels says, it is not possible for us to attain a complete scientific description of this interconnection. If we ever attained a complete understanding of nature, the mind and history, it would mean knowledge "had reached its limit." If we made society in agreement with this absolute knowledge it would be the End of History ('further historical evolution would be cut short). "This is absurd, it is nonsense", says Engels.

Humanity faces a big contradiction. We strive to attain absolute knowledge, but due to the nature of the world system and of mankind, it is unattainable. "Each mental image of the world system is and remains in actual fact limited, objectively by the historical conditions and subjectively by the physical and mental constitution of its originator." This being the case every advance in knowledge brings about new conditions and new problems ad infinitum. So, as it were, there will always be a speculative No Man's Land where philosophy will be located between dogmas of the past on one side and definite knowledge on the other.

So, Engels rejects Dühring's concept of Being. He also rejects his ideas about mathematics. In pure mathematics, Dühring says, the mind works "with its own free creations and imaginations" with regard to figures and numbers it deals with ideas which are "the adequate object of that pure science which it can create of itself" and so with a "validity which is independent of PARTICULAR experience and of the real content of the world."

Engels agrees that the particular experience of individuals can be left out of account, 2+2=4 will still be 2+2=4, but rejects the idea that in mathematics the mind is only working "with its own creations and imaginations." Ideas of number and figure "have not been derived from any source other than the world of reality." [Since the "mind" is part of that world this would seem to follow ipso facto.] Engels means they are "borrowed exclusively from the external world" and do "not arise in the mind out of pure thought." [Whatever is "pure thought" anyway?]

Higher mathematics can become very abstract and seemingly removed from the empirical world but this is the result of the historical evolution of mathematical thought that seems to result in "the free creations and imaginations of the mind."

The truth is, Engels says, "Like all other sciences, mathematics arose out of the NEEDS of men." As knowledge evolves the concepts and laws derived from concrete reality become more and more abstract until they seem to be independent of their mundane origins. They then begin to appear "as something independent, as laws coming from outside, to which the world has to conform." This is what has happened with economics and political science. The economic laws of capitalism, an economic system created by mankind after a long social evolution, now appear as independent economic laws to which all economic life must conform. We make the idols we worship.

So much for chapter three of Anti-Dühring. But I should remark that Engels makes a few more remarks about mathematics that, while they are not crucial to his argument, have been attacked as showing confusion with regard to his understanding of the axiomatic method and the relation of mathematics to logic. Anyone wishing to pursue these criticisms should start with a paper by Jean van Heijenoort, "Frederick Engels and Mathematics" available on the internet.

Stay tuned.
[Anti-Dühring 3]

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Anti-Dühring: The General Introduction

Thomas Riggins

Modern Socialism, says Engels, is the product of the class war between capitalists and workers and the irrational anarchy rampant in capitalist production. Its theoretical elaboration is descended from the French philosophers in years just prior to the Great French Revolution. In a note we are informed that the FIRST socialists were Morelly and Mably.

Morelly published THE CODE OF NATURE in 1755. Nobody really knows anything about "Morelly" and this name might have been a pseudonym for either Francois-Vincent Toussaint OR Denis Diderot. Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (1709-1785) published ENTRETIENS DE PHOCION in 1757.

Engels says the French thinkers just before the Revolution were "extreme revolutionists" and means that as a compliment. They did not accept any authority except REASON. "Reason became the sole measure of everything." Engels then quotes HEGEL on the Revolution as a "dawn of a new day" the advent of the Kingdom of Reason. "All thinking beings," Hegel wrote in The Philosophy of History, "participated in celebrating this holy day."

Today we know that this "holy day" was not of Reason but was "the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie." Great as the French thinkers were (especially Rousseau with his Contrat Social) they could not "go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch." And we should keep this in mind too when we read Engels (and Marx)-- these giants of the nineteenth century-- in the twenty-first century.

Capitalist development was still in its infancy in the eighteenth century and the bourgeoisie put itself forward as the representative of all the classes being oppressed by feudalism. The bourgeoisie, the workers, and peasants comprised "the people" against the exploiters (the feudal nobility). But there are always hints of the coming struggle between the bourgeoisie and its class allies. Engels gives three examples:
1. The Reformation-- The Peasant's War-- Thomas Münzer, the Anabaptists.
2. The great English Revolution-- The Levelers.
3. the great French Revolution [Engels likes to put "great" in front of any revolution]- Babeuf.

Engels says even though the workers as a class were just beginning to form in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were still thinkers that had begun to express the interests of the future class, although in a utopian manner [Thomas More "Utopia" 1516, Thommaso Campanella "City of the Sun 1623]. Then came 'the three great utopians"-- i.e., Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen. What the three had in common, according to Engels, is that they presented systems of universal social salvation and did not base themselves on the working class as such.

All these systems, Engels says, end up in "the dust hole" just because they are as irrational as the bourgeoisie that they represent: in the last analysis they just can't work to liberate humanity. "To make a science of socialism," Engels says, "it first had to be placed upon a real basis."

So, part of the real basis was rooted in the French philosophers -- materialism and revolution, but something else was still needed-- dialectics. And that was provided by HEGEL. Hegel's philosophy was the high point of German philosophy. "Its greatest merit was taking up again of dialectics as the highest form of reasoning.

Hegel made advances on the philosophy of Aristotle ("the Hegel of the ancient world") and developed ideas first enunciated by the ancient Greeks. Other philosophers responsible for laying the real basis for socialism as a science who Engel's mentions are Heraclitus, Descartes, Spinoza, Diderot and Rousseau.

The Greeks saw a world in flux and change, everything in motion and change (for the most part at least, there were major exceptions) and they laid the foundations of modern science, also the Arabs (Muslims) of the middle ages contributed, but real modern science actually dates from the middle of the fifteenth century. Due to the influence of thinkers such as Bacon and Locke, Engels says, the idea of flux and dialectical thinking was given up and people began looking at the world as made up of unchanging forces and objects subject to immutable mathematical laws. Engels calls this "the metaphysical mode of thought" characterizing the eighteenth century. It will have to give way to the dialectical mode of thought before socialism can be scientific.

This won't be so difficult because, as Engels says, "Nature is the proof of dialectics" and the biggest blow against the metaphysical outlook was struck by DARWIN whose theory of evolution reveals a biological world in constant change and flux. But this theory can also be extended to the solar system and the universe itself as revealed by KANT and LAPLACE and their formulation of the nebular hypothesis which put an end to NEWTON'S eternally enduring universe. HEGEL, of course, saw the course of human history as an evolutionary development. So, by the mid nineteenth century the natural, biological, and human sciences were all poised to be studied with the dialectical method.

Hegel's idealism proved inadequate to a correct understanding of the world. Hegel's view was that the flux and change of evolution was the reflection in the material wold of the development and manifestation of the Absolute Idea, which when once achieved would then arrive at rest. Engels considered this an unresolvable contradiction-- that world of flux would end up at rest. So idealism is replaced by MATERIALISM which sees the process of change as unending. But Engels may have a contradiction too. Why should the social question end with the arrival of socialism. If flux is eternal why would not a socialist world also change and break up (as we have apparently seen happen around 1989-91)?

Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. Lets stay with Engels' intro. We have arrived at scientific socialism based on science and a materialist outlook. We can make sense of the social question without resorting to metaphysics or utopian schemes. A scientific study of how capitalism works, that is the world economic system currently in place, is now possible. The secrete of capitalism is not revealed simply by enumerating its bad social consequences. That won't tell us how it works. The secrete is to reveal how SURPLUS VALUE works, how unpaid labor "is the basis of the capitalist mode of production."

There is a short second part of the introduction, "What Herr Dühring Promises"[2] this is about six pages. I am only going to say a few words about this section. It is basically a series of quotes from Dühring's works showing what a ridiculous megalomanic he was. He claimed to have arrived at the absolute final truth about philosophy, science, socialism, etc., and anyone who disagreed with him was simply backwards and wrong. Engels mocks Dühring's oversized ego in this section.

Well, this is enough on the Introduction to Anti-Dühring. I will now proceed to Part One "Philosophy" and go over the fourteen chapters devoted to this topic. Keep in mind, that Engels doesn't see any role for modern philosophy over and above the role of science for understanding the world-- except for logic and dialectical thinking.
[Anti-Dühring 2]

Friday, September 10, 2010

Why Did Engels Write Anti-Dühring?

Thomas Riggins

In the 1870s the German professor Eugen Dühring joined the German Social Democratic Party. He made a lot of friends and began interpreting socialism along lines that were new and different and which he thought were more in accord with modern science. Engels' German comrades asked him for clarification on some of these new views as Dühring was starting to collect a following. Engels, however, was busy doing other things. But after three years of requests he decided to write the book ANTI-DÜHRING: HERR EUGEN DÜHRING'S REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE. This book became one of the most important of the so-called Marxist "classics" and is a basic foundational document for the understanding of DIAMAT (Dialectical Materialism).

In this article I will make some comments on the prefaces to the work (there are three for the three German editions made in Engels' lifetime) before going on to review the First Part of the work, that devoted to philosophy, to try and situate it in our time at the beginning of the 21st century.

Engels tells us that Anti-Dühring is an extension of the world view first developed by Marx in his book THE POVERTY OF PHILOSOPHY, then extended by the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and DAS KAPITAL. To make sure that this solo flight would properly represent their joint philosophy, Engels read aloud the whole manuscript to Marx and the latter even wrote a chapter for the book (chapter ten of part two). I note this because many people today try to divorce the thought of Marx from that of Engels and maintain that Anti-Dühring is a deviation from Marx's philosophical views which were more sophisticated than those of Engels.

In order to write the book, Engels first took eight years to review the math and natural sciences of his day. The reason he did this was to convince himself that the laws of the materialist dialectic of motion which he and Marx had detected at work in history and in the evolution of human consciousness, were equally at work in Nature. These laws were first developed by the German philosopher G.W.F. HEGEL but, Engels says, in a "mystic form." Once stripped of this form, Marx and Engels were able to apply the dialectical method to both the natural and historical sciences.

Engels was aware that the charge might be made that the dialectic was being forced upon Nature from the outside and that the "facts" were being forced into the straight jacket of the theory. This serious charge is still made today by the bourgeois opponents of Marxism. Engels however says that he did all he could to avoid this: "to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectic into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it."

Engels lived in a time of rapid scientific advance towards the end of the 19th century. Only a few years before he wrote the second preface to his book, he says, the LAW OF THE CONSERVATION OF ENERGY was propounded ("the great basic law of motion") but it was put forth NOT qualitatively but only quantitatively as the "indestructibility and uncreatabilty of

But now (1885-- the time of the second preface) Engels sees a more dialectical approach as scientists are beginning to discuss THE TRANSFORMATION OF ENERGY which when fully understood will remove "the last vestige of an extra mundane creator." A mere ten years after Engel's death (1895) Einstein published his famous equation E=mc2.

Engels says we still see rigid barriers in Nature-- the wave vs particle theory of light had not yet bloomed into quantum physics-- but had he lived I don't think Engels would have been thrown off by such seeming contradictions. Contradiction is the essence of dialectics. He writes that: "The recognition that these antagonisms and distinctions, though to be found in nature, are only of relative validity, and that on the other hand their imagined rigidity and absolute validity have been introduced into nature only by our reflective minds-- this recognition is the kernel of the dialectical conception of nature."

So, the purpose of the book is to reaffirm the scientific nature of Diamat, to exclude the erroneous accretions of Herr Dühring, and to demonstrate that modern science, including Diamat, is the result of a long tradition of philosophical development whose two poles (as we shall see) include Aristotle and Hegel.

Engels thinks that science must "assimilate the results of the development of philosophy during the past two and half thousand years" to avoid basing itself on some bogus world view [as the Nazi movement later did] and to also get rid of its metaphysical (i.e., mechanistic and non-dialectical) baggage which is "its inheritance from English empiricism."

In the next article I will look at the two part introduction to Anti-Dühring.
[Anti-Düring I]