Monday, February 3, 2014

131. Neo-Confucianism

 In the Han dynasty, from about 200 BC, Confucianism was adopted as the national philosophy of China, which yielded a strong bureaucratic system. However, in time Confucianism became ossified, and rival views from Taoism and (from around 800 AD) Buddhism gathered influence. In contrast with the moral and regulatory force of Confucianism, Taoism was against extensive institutional regulation and preferred room for natural impulse. While Confucianism focused on practical things, Taoism better satisfied the urge for an underlying metaphysics.

Confucianism was oriented towards order, rules, ritual, social responsibility, and filial piety. That is in danger of stifling innovation and yielding formalism and stagnation, blocking the creativity of deviance . Or is this view of mine the typical Western bias towards individualism? In this blog I have argued the importance of collaboration and trust and the empathy needed for it. I am seeking a middle path between self and other, and between stability and change.  

From the 11th century AD neo-Confucianism tried to develop a new synthesis, with a re-absorption of Confucianism. This was inspired, in part, by the fear that Taoist metaphysical speculation would go overboard at the expense of practical things, and ‘the negative attitude of the Buddhists toward life in the world and their preference for retreating from active social life … would undermine the ancient forms of Chinese social organization’ (quoted from John M. Koller’s survey of Oriental philosophies, 2nd edition p.  306).

There is a need to reconcile opposites of stability and change, order and disorder, self and other, good and evil, and that is what Taoism, in particular, aims to establish.

However, one source of tension is that while Buddhism and Confucianism are non-religious and non-metaphysical, Taoism proposes Tao as a metaphysical entity, the source of both being and non-being, a fundamental principle and source, without characteristics, which cannot be named, and which functions through the world and is indistinguishable from it. This resembles Spinoza’s notion of God.

A source of tension between Confucianism and Taoism is that in contrast with Confucianism Taoism is non-interventionist. From its metaphysical view of the harmony and perfection of nature it wants to let things work out for their perfection naturally, left to themselves. This led to a split in neo-Confucianism between interventionists and non-interventionists that reminds us of the split, in the West, between socialists and libertarians. 

A similarity between Taoism and Buddhism is that the sage transcends the world of ordinary experience and cognition. In relinquishing the mind of its own the sage is at peace and one with the world. This reinforces non-interventionism.

In view of these complementarities and tensions, it is not surprising that neo-Confucianism has a variety of forms.  

However, a deep commonality of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism seems to be a sense of underlying unity, of the spiritual and the material, of substance and change, of thought and action, of knowledge and morality, of self and other.

I wonder how robust that is under incorporation of Western philosophy, as occurred later, in new Confucianism. 

Where do I stand in all this? I am trying to reconcile the oppositions between subject and object, self and other, order and disorder, and trust and control, without metaphysics, by analysing the logic of the dynamics between them. Here, I run into a fascinating possibility of a parallel with the Taoist principles of Yin and Yang, which I will discuss later.

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