Zhu Xi's Pure Practicality: The "Self" in Traditional Chinese Thought.

Copyright 2015 by Harold P. Sjursen 

Draft not for citation or quotation.

[This draft needs citations, standardization of the Romanization of Chinese words in Pinyin, and the addition of Chinese characters for key terms.]


I.These reflections address two perennial topics of philosophy the self and practicality within the context of the neoConfucian
tradition in general and Zhu Xi’s commentary on classic texts in particular. Only when the self is discussed in connection with practicality can its centrality and perspicacity in neoConfucian
thought, both political/ethical and metaphysical/cosmological,
become evident. The neoConfucian concept of self provides a key to neoConfucian thought as a whole, but the effort required to conceive of this “self” demands a suspension of the Western metaphysical and pragmatic legacy. If this suspension can be maintained the possibility of entering into the frame of
neoConfucian thought without the distortions of western categories opens before us.

About the Confucian tradition it is generally accepted that the common good, understood as the wellbeing of the hierarchy of social institutions ranging from family to state, requires the subordination of the individual to the body politic. The notion of inviolable personal rights which must needs be protected by political institutions, indeed which even provides the fundamental justification for political sovereignty, has no basis in Confucian thinking. Remarkably, the neoConfucian “self”, through the paradigm of self-cultivation, is conceived as simultaneously supporting the centrally important doctrine of individual moral responsibility while denying any sense of
autonomy to the individual moral agent. Respect for the institutions of family and government, sincere adherence to established rituals and pieties and generally holding the common good above one’s own private desires was the Confucian path to a happy and well-ordered life which avoided conflict and
excess passion to the highest degree possible. These are practical solutions to mundane problems. Such practicality, in the Confucian view, demands the subjugation of the self to the commonweal. On this basis Confucian philosophy could be summed up as a set of instructions for practical living which only minimally indulge individual or private concerns. It seems unlikely,then, in Western terms, that Confucian philosophy could harbor a well developed notion of self. In the Song dynasty, however, Confucian thinkers offered a new set of emphases to
the orthodox Confucian doctrines. Their teachings reflect what has been called the inward turn in Chinese thought. Prompted by various foreign challenges, ranging from the loss of the Northern plains to Jürchen invaders to the growing influence of Buddhism in China, the turn inward raised the question of principle (li). It asked for an underlying meaning, valid independent of practical success or failure, to support Confucian moral
teachings. In this quest for “principle,” the “self” was given new status. This self, neither individualistic nor privatistic, was grounded in principle and practicality. Zhu Xi was the key figure among the Song thinkers to investigate principle and practicality. He is recognized as one of the great
synthetic thinkers in Chinese history, consolidating and expanding the positions of his Song predecessors,
especially Chou Tuni and Ch’eng I. Not only was he devoted to Confucian thought, he was also familiar with and influenced by Buddhist and Taoist positions. His work is contained in his annotations of classic texts, his correspondence and memorials, and his recorded conversations. Thus his viewpoint is always reactive and present in some form of dialogical exchange. References to Zhu’s thought are in this context.

If, then, our considerations of self must navigate away from the artificial moorings of Western essentialism, subjectivity and dialectics and direct itself towards a practically situated self, a thing/event emerging out of the interpenetration of thought and action (word and deed as unity), we must first consider practicality itself before attempting to understand the cosmological components which informed Chu Hsi’s viewpoint. The status of “practicality” in the neo-Confucian
tradition (as several terms, but most especially his is
rendered) is ambiguous and the focus of much dispute. As Chungying Cheng has put it:

“Confucian philosophy is practical in the sense of being concerned with morality, social interaction, and political activity, but it is not practical in the sense of being concerned with economy and technology. If we call practicality
in the former sense moral practicality and in the latter sense utilitarian practicality, we may say that the Confucian philosophy in general is a philosophy of moral practicality but not of utilitarian practicality.”

This distinction, while accurate, only indicates part of the problem in understanding the neo-Confucian approach to the practical. The moral practicality of neoConfucianism
is marked by its lack of consequentialism. Unlike act utilitarianism, neo-Confucian morality does not contemplate action according to how effectively it promotes a consequent benefit. For reasons that will become clear, and in order to contrast it with a consequentialist view, neo-Confucian
moral practicality will here be called “pure practicality.”
Much of the dispute surrounding the status of “practicality” in Confucian and neo-Confucian thinking arose in response to John Dewey’s influential lecture tour of China in 1919 — 1921.
Pragmatism was at that time allegedly discovered as an established Chinese philosophy in the work of the 17th century thinker, Yen Yuan. In 1921, Liang Ch’ich’ao, discussing the “YenLi School and the Modern Stream of Educational Thought,” said:

“Since Dewey’s lecture tour in China, pragmatism has become a fashionable teaching in our educational circles. This [is] … a welcome phenomena. Three hundred years ago in our country there were a Mr Yen Hsichai and his disciple, Mr Li Shuku. They established a school, commonly known as the YenLi school. Their ideas were similar to those of Dewey and his colleagues, and in certain ways their ideas were more penetrating than those of Dewey and his colleagues.

Yet as Tu Weiming has clearly demonstrated, when Yen Yuan’s thought is reviewed within its context, viz., Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism, it offers very little support either for a pragmatic or utilitarian outlook. Despite the great appeal of John Dewey to Chinese intellectuals and the claim that his philosophy had antecedents in Chinese thought, this is not supported by a careful reading of the texts. What is found instead is an entirely different kind of practicality; one in some ways more akin to existentialist notions than to the
pragmatic theories of Pierce or Dewey. The similarity with existentialism, which of course has clear limitations, derives from the correlation found in Song neo-Confucianism between inner experience and concrete activity. In a manner that resonates more with Sartre than Dewey, neo-Confucianism understands consciousness as action. The near equivalence of consciousness and action is the basis of pure practicality in neo-Confucianism. This practicality obtains when the self, as the conjunct of nature and mind, is governed by principle.

Confucius said:

"Through nature men are alike. Through practice they have
become far apart." "Only the most intelligent and the most stupid do not change."

Neo-Confucian thinkers interpreted these remarks in light of Mencius' teaching of the "Four Beginnings" and human virtue. It is through practice that virtue is attained, but the sense meant is not practicing the virtues. Practice refers to what here is called pure practicality within the process by which li becomes
manifest in and to the mind. To clarify the meaning of this, the neo-confucian use of the terms qi, li, xing, and xin must be explained.

Qi is perhaps best described as the vital energy of everything. It is dynamic and everchanging, oscillating between the poles of yin and yang. At the yin or mental pole qi is quiet, hidden, contracted into itself. In this condition qi is most
receptive. The other extreme, the yang or physical pole of qi, is the complete opposite. This mode of ch'i is active, evident, expansive; because it is less refined and more turgid, its natural receptivity is greatly diminished. By itself
qi does not produce objects or things/events, but is the noumenal basis of all experience. Individuation and the genesis of things/events as phenomena is the stamp of li. Li is the transcendental principle of all things, accounting for the phenomenal existence of things/events through the individuation of qi. Every thing/event exhibits li; each is what it is because of li. To know a thing is to know its li. The continuous interaction of qi and li is the most fundamental trait of nature. Xing, or nature, is principle (li). It is called nature rather than principle because principle refers to what is common to all things/events in the world, while nature is principle in itself. Nature is principle in the sense of being the ens realisimus of all reality. To know nature in its highest and most complete depiction is to know xing. The written character for xing is made up of two parts: sheng, which means to produce, and xin, which means mind. This compound accurately expresses the full meaning of xing.

If nature conceived as principle produces mind, then that activity of mind which discloses principle is a matter of self discovery. As the principle of mind is disclosed moral purpose, called the way of heaven (tao, t'ien ming), is apparent to self. This is the moral sense of knowing principle which is basic to
pure practicality. Neo-Confucianism elaborates this notion in relation to the concepts of substance and function.

"The mind has substance and function. That it embodies all principles is substance and that it responds to all events is function."

"Being in the state of absolute quiet is substance, and immediately penetrating all things when acted on is function." "The substance of the mind is nature, referring to its state of tranquility, and the function of the mind is feeling, referring to its state of activity. "When the mind is tranquil before the
feelings are aroused, the total substance is eminently empty like the mirror and level like the balance, being calm there all the time."

The substance of the mind is principle; the function of the mind is the moral purpose of the self. The tranquility of mind that allows the effective stamp of li obtains when qi is constituted as yin. One cannot control the oscillation of qi so there can be no moral techne or utilitarian ethic. The tranquility of mind
is also called the harmonization of feelings. The harmonization of feelings is an adjustment between the mental and physical poles of qi within the self. This harmonization and adjustment is the actualization of an experience. Zhu Xi says:

“Xin is that which correlates yin and yang and resides in qi."

"Self" in neo-Confucian thought is li viewed from the perspective of practical experience. When li is viewed from the perspective of the practical, the question of moral purpose dominates. Self is the category under which the issue of
moral purpose is taken up. Self, as li in its dynamic interaction with the flux of qi, achieves its moral purpose when the harmonization of feelings with nature is realized in actual experience. It is from this perspective that the neo-Confucian
self can be called the agency of pure practicality. Its moral purpose consists in the ironic project of self redescription. It is both a given thing/event emerging out of the manifestation of li in qi and itself an ordering principle aware of its ordering. Self cultivation consists in precisely this ironic redescription; its medium is ritual wherein an individual actively practices toward passive receptivity.

Perhaps the most simple elicitation of this notion is found in the attitude Zhu Xi maintained toward certain of the ritual practices meant to heighten understanding. For him, indeed for Confucians in contrast to Buddhists, such practices were not postures to evoke an alterior state of enlightenment. His
devotion, e.g., to the practice of Quiet Sitting, was itself a virtue and neither the measure of virtue nor an activity instrumental toward some goal beneficial to the self. This is consonant with his idea of the meaning of self cultivation.
Self cultivation was not a therapy; not developmental nor corrective. Self-cultivation was that nurturing described by Mencius which is neither forced nor threatened. For Zhu Xi self cultivation is non instrumental in this sense due to the spontaneous interaction of li and qi.

Remarks of Zhu Xi about Quiet Sitting help to illustrate how, for him, self-cultivation, self discovery and self realization the project of the self in pure practicality is spontaneous, unforced and noninstrumental. Li Tung taught that Quiet Sitting allowed one to see the disposition before the feelings of
pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy have been aroused. In other words Quiet Sitting was a mode of tranquility representing the mental (yin) pole of qi. As such it is the natural condition of the "self" in which the "Four Beginnings" are evident to introspection. For the most part Zhu Xi agrees with this
assessment, although he thinks even this tends toward an incorrect instrumentalism. He said:

"There is no harm if one sits quietly and understands principle, but it will not do simply to insist on quiet sitting. When one understands principle clearly and thoroughly, one is naturally quiet. Nowadays people generally insist on Quiet Sitting in order to avoid things. That will not do. ... [But] if one's mind is excited, how can one perceive principle? One must be quiet before principle emerges. What is called Quiet Sitting
simply means not to have anything to bother one's mind. Only then will principle come out. As principle comes out, one's mind will be even clearer and more quiet." 

The quest for principle in this sense is exactly what is meant by pure practicality. The centrality of pure practicality to human moral purpose is already suggested in the first sentence of the Analects of Confucius. There it is stated:

"The Master said, 'Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application (hsi)?' "

The striking thing about this comment is the implication of practical activity as learning. The word hsi means both to learn and to practice (etymologically interpreted the character depicts a bird learning to fly) and in the Analects refers to the process by which learning is interiorized. The implication in the Analects is that the interior life and the practical are reciprocal functions of each other. In neoConfucian thinking this reciprocity becomes a near identity. It is in this sense that pure practicality, the identity of thought and action, is the basis of the neo-Confucian conception of self.

One might, on the other hand, be tempted to read the Confucian notion of self as consonant with the teaching of wu wei or Buddhist teachings of vacuity. Indeed Chu Hsi despite the occasional stridency of some of his later criticisms of Buddhism nonetheless remained influenced by some of its metaphysical
teachings. Yet the Confucian "self" is best characterized as a principle of action or as agency, not no naction
or receptivity. The cultivation of "self" as a moral discipline to the level of superior or profound person (chun tzu) is at the
very heart of Confucian teaching.

As a practical thinker Zhu Xi took specific positions on matters of current political interest. These were informed in profound ways by his readings of numerous texts including those attributed to Confucius and Mencius, works of Taoism and Buddhism, the writings of his neo-Confucian predecessors Chou
Tuni and the Ch'eng brothers and, most importantly, the I Ching and the Chung Yung and Da Xue. Because of the intersection of mind and nature in the self these latter two texts were by Chu Hsi considered together. Each constituted a chapter in the ancient Li Chi ("Book of Rites") and were selected, edited and annotated by him as two of the "Four Books" to be the canonical basis of Confucian learning. The Da Xue primarily addresses
political and social issues while the Chung Yung deals with psychology and metaphysics. As Wing tsit Chan succinctly put it:

"The Great Learning discusses the mind but not human nature, whereas with the Doctrine of the Mean the opposite is true." 

These two short texts exhibit in their reciprocality the interpenetration of social political history and metaphysics. This interpenetration is, if anything, extended by Zhu Xi.
The Da Xue sums up the Confucian political, moral and educational programs under the so called Three Items, viz., "Clear Character," "Loving the People" and "Abiding in the Highest Good." This is articulated according to the famous Eight Steps which begin with the "Investigation of Things."
Although the Ta Hsüeh does not explicitly discuss metaphysical issues, it does present the "Investigation of Things," which is a mode of ontological inquiry, as the starting point in moral and social life. The claim is not, however, that an "ought" follows from the "is". Although difficult to conceive in
this manner, it is as if the "is" and "ought" mutually cause in
a non-mechanistic sense each other. Practical considerations penetrate nature (xing) but nature (Dao) is already in mind (xin) as principle (li). This approach is completely consistent with the general Confucian emphasis on learning and provides the inseparable foundation for Zhu X’s own metaphysical speculations.

Chu Hsi's metaphysics are, to a large extent, an elaborate explanation of the "Eight Steps." Indeed Zhu Xi was so confident that his metaphysical understanding was correct that he took the extraordinary step of rearranging the ancient test of the Classic in order to have the section on the "Investigation of Things" appear before that on the "Sincerity of the Will." To
Zhu Xi  ko wu meant to investigate things, both inductively and deductively,on the premiss that "principle" (li), the reason of being, is inherent in all things. The specified subjects of the Chung Yung are (1) "Human Nature" and (2) the "Way to Heaven." According to the text, Human Nature, endowed by Heaven,
is revealed through the states of equilibrium and harmony, which are themselves "the condition of the world" and the "universal path (Tao)." The way of heaven transcends time, space, substance and motion and is also unceasing, eternal and evident. The unceasing, eternality of the universal tao of heaven refers to the constant and undeniable fact of change in experience.
In Zhu Xi’s view, derived largely from the Yi Jing, change occurs in a cyclical process with stages that follow a sequence. To pass through all the stages constitutes completion (ch'eng). But in nature as a whole the process of change is unending, since the vital energy (qi) forever expands and contracts. The completion of an individual human life does not mark the
cessation of the expansion and contraction of ch'i. The self is preserved because qi continues through the life of the family or clan, indeed is never ending. The metaphor of plant growth through generations of agriculture for the persistence of human vital energy in nature is clear. In this image the self
is reseeded,season upon season, bearing the same fruit.The never ending process of nature, however, is not always obvious. The truth of nature consists in its transition from a state of being hidden to one of being revealed. What is hidden or subtle (yin) becomes manifest. This is stated explicitly in Chung Yung:

"There is nothing more visible than what is hidden." (See below.) 

For Zhu Xi the hidden and the revealed are the modes in which nature manifests itself. He says: 

"Tao combines substance and function and also what is hidden and
what is revealed." 

The hidden and the revealed are the attributes of principle
(li). The Da Xue asserts the famous Confucian notion, central to
understanding the claim that metaphysics and social political
issues interpenetrate, that individual self-cultivation
and the attainment of the good society are not only linked but that the former is a necessary condition for the latter. The famous formulation of this position in Chapter Five of the Da Xue is the point of departure for much of Zhu Xi’s thought. It reads as follows:

1. When things are investigated, knowledge is extended;
2. When knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere;
3. When the will is sincere, the mind is rectified;
4. When the mind is rectified, the personal life is cultivated;
5. When the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated;
6. When the family is regulated, the state will be in order;
7. And when the state is in order,
8. There will be peace throughout the world.
In this context the salient points to be noted are: 1) The process is initiated with the investigation of things; 2) Inward states of being "establish" political conditions; 3) Self-cultivation is political action; 4) The inevitable consequence
is universal harmony. Consider these four points in order.

1. The Investigation of Things: Zhu Xi uses three expressions when
discussing the relationship between the knower and the known. They are "T'i wu," "Chu wu," and "Ko wu." "T'i wu" refers to knowing the thing through one's body; "chu wu" the immediate contact with the thing; "ko wu" the acquaintance with the thing by way of investigation. Although on all three levels this sort of knowledge is empirically derived, it is also a matter of rational formulation. Zhu Xi specifically states that "knowledge comes from thought."
2. Inward States of Being Establish Political Conditions: This statement should not suggest a mind/body or inner/outer
dualism. From Zhu Xi’s point of view and indeed generally in the Confucian worldview the whole is to be understood cosmologically: "mind" (xin) and "nature" (xing) are one with
mind being a microcosmic specification of nature. The cultivation of mind therefore contributes to the refinement of all nature much as tending to one's yard contributes to the beauty of the entire landscape. The individual yard is a contingent delimitation of the whole landscape; its individuality can brevised at any moment.
3. Self-cultivation is Political Action: Thought when completed or perfected through the investigation of things (ko wu) is already action insofar as it orders or rectifies the environment which is its extension. This simple notion, that thought and action do not differ, except as they are hidden or evident, is fundamental to Zhu Xi’s theory. Indeed it is this point which, to some, makes Chinese thought seem unscientific, even to express something akin to magic. Zhu Xi maintains, however, that this unity is discerned in experience. It is precisely at this point where "pure practicality" appears. This practicality is the conscious corridor unifying the interior and exterior lives; it is thinking as praxis. It is what is attained by the superior person and is the sine qua non of ideal statecraft. In the sense suggested above with reference to Quiet Sitting, the occasion of this unification is ritual. However, it is not mere ritual, empty ritual, but that which is the true expression of sincerity, i.e., the sincerity of pure practicality.
4. The result of the Chain is Universal Harmony: "Everything under Heaven" responds to and is part of total process. A stable political situation is not the only goal of such discipline. Zhu Xi’s comment on this section of Da Xue makes all this clear.
"The meaning ... is this: If we wish to extend our knowledge to the utmost, we must investigate the principles of all things we come in contact with, for the intelligent human mind is certainly formed to know, and there is not a single thing in which its principles do not inhere. It is only because all principles are not investigated that knowledge is incomplete. ... After exerting oneself in this way [i.e., investigating the principles of things] for a long time, will one achieve a wide and far reaching penetration. Then the qualities of all things ..., the refined or the coarse, will be apprehended, and the mind, in its total substance and great functioning, will be perfectly intelligent. This is called the
investigation of things. This is called the perfection of knowledge."

By the "perfection of knowledge" Zhu Xi refers to the condition of mind (xin) where principle is clear and the way of heaven is in force. The perfection of knowledge could also be called the "harmonization of feelings." It is in this fashion that one achieves a "wide and far reaching penetration." Before turning to Chung Yung, a word about its title. In the Analects (sayings) of Confucius Chung Yung is often translated "the mean," denotes moderation, but in this case chung means what is central and yung what is universal and harmonious. (Thus Tu Wei ming renders Chung Yung as Centrality and Commonality.) The former refers to human nature, the latter its relation to the universe. The title asserts that there is harmony in human nature and that this
harmony underlies our moral being and prevails throughout the universe. In short, human kind and nature form a unity. This notion is prominent throughout traditional Chinese philosophy. The Chung Yung states:

"What Heaven [t'ien] imparts to humans is called human nature. To follow our nature is called the way [tao]. Cultivating the way is called education. The way cannot be separated from us for a moment. What can be separated is not the way. Therefore the profound person [chun tzu] is cautious over what is not
seen and apprehensive over what is not heard. There is nothing more visible than what is hidden and nothing more manifest than what is subtle. Therefore the profound person is watchful over himself when alone. Before the feelings of pleasure, anger, joy and sorrow are aroused it is called equilibrium [chung]. When these feelings are aroused and each and all attain due measure and degree, it is called harmony [yung]. Equilibrium is the great foundation of the world and harmony its universal path. When equilibrium and harmony are realized to the highest degree, Heaven and earth will attain their proper order and all things will flourish."

And again Chu Hsi's comment:

"It shows clearly that the origin of the way is traced to Heaven and is unchangeable, while its concrete substance is complete in ourselves and may not be departed from. [Then] it speaks of the essentials of preserving, nourishing and examining the mind. Finally, it speaks of the meritorious achievements and transforming influence of the sage and the profound person in their highest degree."

The organic unity of the life of the mind, politics and the operations of nature is once again asserted. That they did cohere and interpenetrate was not, from the point of view of Chinese philosophy, very surprising. Indeed, as demonstrated
above, this supposed unity seemed to answer to experience. What was to be wondered at was not that it all hung together, but how, and this investigation was to begin with "things at hand,"
the phenomena of everyday life, viz., social and political
affairs. Zhu Xi’s highly editorialized rendition of two short chapters from the Book of Rites, his emphasis on the Mencian tradition of Confucianism and his use of the Yi Jing to elucidate the transcendent character of experience together present his philosophy or "metaphysics" of mind. This metaphysics is not intended as a science of first principles, but rather as a purely descriptive account of mind and nature as disclosed in experience. It is fully within the horizon of
experience and presumes no further foundation. Yet despite the contingent experience and presumes no further foundation. Yet despite the contingent and perspectival character of this investigation, Zhu Xi finds in it the basis for political action and social commitment which was the objective of the
inward turn. For Zhu Xi science does not copy nature and mind is not the mirror or reality. Metaphysical propositions are not logically certain distillations from the given truth of what is. Rather understanding derives from experience because mind and nature interpenetrate: mind and nature "dwell" in each other.

This metaphysics of mind is not the propedeutic to ethics but rather emerges from ethics. Ethics derives from pure practicality, which is the experience of moral purpose through
the recognition of li as it is actualized in the self. The
pure practicality of the self implies the self's moral agency, while at the same time situating the self within the harmony of all nature. The actualization of experience is itself moral action because harmony with the natural order is obtained.

Summary: In Zhu Xi’s "metaphysics", which combines social ethics with ontological cosmology, principle (li), mind (xin) and nature (xing or sometimes t'ien) are coextensive, an interpenetrating dynamic unity. In this account of the patterns of things/events a strict material/immaterial distinction
cannot be made; reality is simply not conceived along those lines. The "self" is described within this context. The concept of self indicates the neo-Confucian interest in the question of moral purpose. "Self" is an individual's historically contingent account, given from the perspective of pure practicality and within the domain of experience, of the principle (li) of mind/nature (xin/xing).

Thus understood "self" is actually the ironic project of self
redescription based on the receptivity and reaffirmation of the way of heaven as it is contingently patterned within the qi of one's own existence.

 Zhu Xi (1130 - 1200)

Zhu Xi (1130 - 1200)