Itō Jinsai (1627–1705)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G116-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 18, 2019, from

Article Summary

Itō Jinsai, along with his contemporary Yamaga Sokō, pioneered the kogaku, or ‘Ancient Learning’, philosophical movement of Tokugawa Japan. Kogaku reacted against the allegedly stifling and excessively metaphysical ideas of Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism. In making his call for a return to the ancient Confucian teachings, Jinsai produced one of the first and most systematic visions of Confucian philosophy.

A lifelong resident of Kyoto, the imperial capital, Jinsai made his call for a return to the ancient Confucian teachings of the Analects and the Mengzi (see Confucius; Mencius) in isolation from the samurai regime based in Edo (now Tokyo). He published little in his day, being content with a life of dignified poverty teaching numerous students, including townspeople and court nobles, at his Kogidō, or ‘School of Ancient Semantics’. Nevertheless, Jinsai’s ideas circulated nationally through pirated editions of his writings. One such unauthorized publication sparked the interest of Ogyū Sorai, then living in Edo, in kogaku. Ogyū Sorai wrote to Jinsai, praising his ideas and requesting a teacher–disciple relationship, but Jinsai, then within a year of his own death, never responded. About a decade later, Ogyū Sorai formulated his own kogaku system, which systematically attacked Jinsai’s ideas even as it advanced upon the trail Jinsai had blazed. Despite Ogyū Sorai’s critiques, Jinsai’s ideas, as popularized and published by his son and successor Itō Tōgai, prevailed in the eighteenth century as the most humane variety of classical Confucianism.

Jinsai’s philological methodology derived largely from the Xingli ziyi (The Meanings of Neo-Confucian Terms) of Chen Beixi (1159–1223), a philosophical lexicon systematically defining some twenty-five key concepts as understood by Zhu Xi, the master synthesizer of neo-Confucian philosophy in East Asia. The Xingli ziyi, first promoted in Japan by Hayashi Razan (1583–1657), appeared in several seventeenth-century editions as Tokugawa scholars sought to fathom the new metaphysical philosophy of neo-Confucianism. No sooner had Chen Beixi’s lexicon conveyed the essence of Zhu Xi’s ideas, than its philologico-lexicographical methodology gave rise to systematic critiques of Zhu Xi’s philosophical semantics by Sokō, Jinsai and then Sorai.

Jinsai’s Gomōjigi (The Meanings of Terms in the Analects and the Mencius) was patterned after the Xingli ziyi. The word jigi in Jinsai’s title is the Japanese for ziyi (the meanings of terms), part of Chen Beixi’s title. However, the Gomōjigi repeatedly criticizes Chen Beixi, taking issue with him even as it appropriates his methods. Themes developed in the Gomōjigi owe much to the ideas of Luo Qinshun (1465–1547), a Ming dynasty scholar who espoused loyalty to Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism even while criticizing it. The critiques of Luo Qinshun and Jinsai in turn reflected Zhu Xi’s open-minded call for critical scrutiny in philosophy. The Jinsilu (Reflections on Things at Hand), edited by Zhu Xi, quips, ‘By doubting the indubitable, one greatly advances’.

Jinsai’s ideas ultimately transcended their Chinese sources, producing one of the first and most systematic, philologically-based visions of Confucian philosophy ever articulated in East Asian intellectual history. Japanese scholars often note that Jinsai’s ideas predated, by nearly a century, those of Dai Zhen, the famed Qing dynasty scholar of ‘Evidential Learning’ whose critiques of Zhu Xi took much the same form as those of Jinsai.

Breaking with the neo-Confucian dualism of principle and material force, Jinsai proclaimed that all things consist of a unitary, primal material force, and that alone. His metaphysics assumed vivacious activity, unlike Zhu Xi who claimed that the original nature of humanity could only be glimpsed in quietistic meditation (see Xing). Jinsai saw the human mind as an energetic, active endowment, not as a quiescent, motionless entity (see Mind, philosophy of; Xin). He valued human feelings, contending that they are the innate roots of moral behaviour. He praised jin, or empathetic moral concern, along with other ancient Confucian virtues as integral elements of michi, or the true Way of human conduct. Perfection of the latter made one a gentleman, the ideal proffered by Jinsai in place of Zhu Xi’s notion of sagehood. Religiously, Jinsai did affirm the neo-Confucian line in explaining ghosts and spirits as the activities of the psycho-material forces of yin and yang (see Yin–yang). Though generally a tolerant and broadminded thinker, Jinsai argued in a famous essay that the Daxue (Great Learning) was not an authentic Confucian text because it devalued the emotions in ways that Confucius never had (see Daxue).

Citing this article:
Tucker, John Allen. Itō Jinsai (1627–1705), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G116-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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