Chinese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 23, 2021, from

2. The dominance of correlative thinking

Rational or logical thinking, grounded in analytic, dialectical and analogical argumentation, stresses the explanatory power of physical causation. In contrast, Chinese thinking depends upon a species of analogy which may be called ‘correlative thinking’. Correlative thinking, as it is found both in classical Chinese ‘cosmologies’ (the Yijing (Book of Changes), Daoism, the Yin–Yang school) and, less importantly, among the classical Greeks involves the association of image or concept-clusters related by meaningful disposition rather than physical causation. Correlative thinking is a species of spontaneous thinking grounded in informal and ad hoc analogical procedures presupposing both association and differentiation. The regulative element in this modality of thinking is shared patterns of culture and tradition rather than common assumptions about causal necessity.

The relative indifference of correlative thinking to logical analysis means that the ambiguity, vagueness and incoherence associable with images and metaphors are carried over into the more formal elements of thought. In fact, the chaotic factor in the underdetermined correlative order has a positive value as an opportunity for personalization and self-construal. In contradistinction to the rational mode of thinking which privileges univocity, correlative thinking involves the association of significances into clustered images which are treated as meaning complexes ultimately unanalyzable into any more basic components. In the Western tradition we are familiar with correlations such as those present in the humour theory of medicine, Pythagorean numerical correlations, Kepler’s correlation of the perfections of the trinitarian God, the world and the soul, and so forth (see Hippocratic medicine; Pythagoras; Kepler, J.). Astrological charts provide the most familiar illustration of correlative thinking. But, as may be seen particularly (although not exclusively) in the discussion of Daoist philosophy, correlativity is not only an anthropocentric mode of signification. The Daoist notion of de – ‘particular focus’ or ‘virtuality’ – extends the context of signification to all phenomena (see Daoist philosophy; De).

Correlative thinking is the primary instrument in the creation, organization and transmission of the classical curriculum in China, from the Book of Songs to the Analects to the Yijing (see Chinese Classics; Confucius; Yijing). Perhaps the most overt illustrations of the Chinese resort to correlative thinking in the classical period are to be found in the period of the Han dynasty (206 bcad 220). During the Han period, vast tables of correspondences were employed to identify and organize the sorts of things in the natural and social world which were thought to provide a meaningful context for one’s life. One such set of tables, called ‘tables of five’, compared ‘the five phases’ (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), ‘the five directions’ (north, east, south, west and centre), ‘the five colours’ (green, red, yellow, white, black), ‘the five notes’, and so forth. Other types of correlation employed the twelve months, the twelve pitches, the twenty-eight constellations, the heavenly roots and the earthly branches. Such classifications include body parts, psycho-physical and affective states, styles of government, weather, domestic animals, technological instruments, heavenly bodies and much more.

One of the important devices for making such correlations is the contrast of yin and yang, literally, ‘the shady side’ and ‘the sunny side’ of the mountain (see Yin–yang). These notions were employed to identify alternative patterns of hierarchical relationship. The old teacher, Laozi, is wiser than his young student and hence ‘overshadows’ him in this respect. Laozi is yang and the student is yin. The student, however, is stronger physically than the old master, and hence in physical prowess the student is yang to Laozi’s yin. When these various strengths and weaknesses defining the relationship can be balanced to maximum effect, the relationship is most productive and harmonious. It is clear from this illustration that yang and yin are by no means to be understood as ‘cosmic principles’ or ontological contrasts rooted in the very nature of things. Rather, they are heuristics helpful in reading and characterizing the world as concretely experienced in a variety of ways.

Though the contents of many correlative schemata are often prima facie the same as the subject matters of the Western natural sciences, there is a crucial difference in the manner they are treated. In China, correlations were not employed as a means of dispassionately investigating the nature of things. Correlative descriptions are, in fact, prescriptions. Correlative schemes oriented human beings in a very practical manner to their external surroundings. Thus, the Chinese were concerned less with astronomy than with astrology; they were far more enthusiastic in the development of geomancy than geology. Science was always understood as ultimately subject to prevailing human values.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. The dominance of correlative thinking. Chinese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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