Chinese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

1. Chinese thinking as ars contextualis

Our traditional Western senses of order are grounded upon cosmogonic myths that celebrate the victory of an ordered cosmos over chaos. Chaos is a ‘yawning gap’, a ‘gaping void’; it is an emptiness or absence, a nothingness; it is a confused mass of unorganized surds. Hesiod’s Theogony tells how the yawning gap of Chaos separating Heaven and Earth was overcome by Eros – love thereby creating harmony (see Hesiod). The Book of Genesis tells how, from a ‘dark, formless void’, order was created by divine command. In the Timaeus, Plato’s Demiurge ‘persuades’ the disorganized, intransigent matter into reasonable order, providing ‘a victory of persuasion over necessity’. Classical Chinese culture, on the other hand, was little influenced by myths which contrasted an irrational Chaos with an ordered Cosmos. The relative unimportance of cosmogonic myths in China helps to account for the dramatically different intellectual contexts from which the Chinese and Western cultural sensibilities emerged.

In the Western tradition, thinking about the order of things began with questions such as ‘What kinds of things are there?’ and ‘What is the nature (physis) of things?’ This inquiry, which later came to be called ‘metaphysics’, took on two principal forms. One, which the scholastics later termed ontologia generalis (general ontology), is the investigation of the most essential features of things – the being of beings. A slightly less abstract mode of metaphysical thinking, scientia universalis (universal science), involves the attempt to construct a science of the sciences, a way of knowing which organizes the various ways of knowing the world about us. Both general ontology and universal science interpret the order of the cosmos. Both suppose that there are general characteristics – the being of beings, or universal principles – which tell us how things are ordered.

Neither of these forms of metaphysical thinking were influential in classical China. One reason for their unimportance is reflected in the character of the Chinese language. Simply put, the classical Chinese language does not employ a copulative verb. The Chinese terms usually used to translate ‘being’ and ‘not-being’ are you and wu (see You–wu). The Chinese you means, not that something ‘is’ (esse in Latin) in the sense that it exists in some essential way; it means rather that ‘something is present’. ‘To be’ is ‘to be available’, ‘to be around’. Likewise, wu as ‘to not be’ means ‘not to be around’. Thus the Chinese sense of ‘being’ overlaps ‘having’. A familiar line from the Daoist classic the Laozi or Daodejing, which is often translated ‘Not-being is superior to Being’, should more responsibly be translated as ‘Not-having is superior to having’ (or as a Marxist-inspired translator has rendered it, ‘Not owning private property is superior to owning private property’). The Chinese language disposes those who employ the notions of you and wu to concern themselves with the presence or absence of concrete particular things and the effect of having or not having them at hand. Even in recent centuries, when the influence of translating Indo-European culture required the Chinese language to designate a term to do the work of the copula, the choice was shi, meaning ‘this’, thus indicating proximity and availability rather than ‘existence’. One must assume that the practical, concrete disposition of Chinese thinkers is both cause and consequence of this characteristic feature of linguistic usage.

Perhaps the best designation for the most general ‘science’ of order in the Chinese tradition would be ars contextualis. ‘The art of contextualizing’ contrasts with both scientia universalis and ontologia generalis. Chinese thinkers sought the understanding of order through the artful disposition of things, a participatory process which does not presume that there are essential features, or antecedent-determining principles, serving as transcendent sources of order. The art of contextualizing seeks to understand and appreciate the manner in which particular things present-to-hand are, or may be, most harmoniously correlated. Classical Chinese thinkers located the energy of transformation and change within a world that is ziran, autogenerative or literally ‘so-of-itself’, and found the more or less harmonious interrelations among the particular things around them to be the natural condition of things, requiring no appeal to an ordering principle or agency for explanation.

The dominant Chinese understanding of the order of things advertises an important ambiguity in the notion of ‘order’ itself. The most familiar understanding of order in the West is associated with uniformity and pattern regularity. This ‘logical’ or ‘rational’ ordering is an implication of the cosmological assumptions which characterize the logos of a cosmos in terms of causal laws and formal patterns. A second sense of order is characterized by concrete particularities whose uniqueness is essential to the order itself. No final unity is possible in this view since, were this so, the order of the whole would dominate the order of the parts, cancelling the uniqueness of its constituent particulars. Thus, ‘aesthetic’ order is ultimately acosmological in the sense that no single order dominates.

The crucial difference between these two senses of order is that in the one case there is the presumption of an objective standard which one perforce must instantiate; in the other, there is no source of order other than the agency of the elements comprising the order. In the West, mathematical order has been thought the purest. In China, by contrast, any notion of order which abstracts from the concrete details of this-worldly existence has been seen as moving in a direction of decreasing relevance. Rational order depends upon the belief in a single-ordered world, a cosmos; aesthetic order speaks of the world in much less unitary terms. In China, the ‘cosmos’ is simply ‘the ten thousand things’. The belief that the things of nature may be ordered in any number of ways is the basis of philosophical thinking as ars contextualis.

Each of these understandings of order existed at the beginnings of both Western and Chinese cultures, and both have persisted as interpretative options within them. It so happens that in the course of their respective histories, the two cultures made distinctly different choices which led to the variant senses of order as grounds for the organizing of personal, social and cosmic environs. These differing senses of order are reflected in the fact that the nineteenth-century Japanese had to coin the term tetsugaku (philosophy) to translate the Western philosophic tradition and to recover its Japanese counterpart, and that this same expression was soon thereafter imported into China as zhexue for the same purpose. The need to invent a term to refer to ‘philosophy’ suggests at least that these cultures had to reorganize patterns of indigenous intellectual experience in ways previously unfamiliar to them.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Chinese thinking as ars contextualis. Chinese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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