Chinese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 19, 2019, from

3. The organization and transmission of knowledge

The importance of correlative modes of thinking in classical Chinese culture is to be found not only in the acquisition of knowledge but also in its organization and transmission. Plato’s employment of the ‘Divided Line’ allowed for the organization of knowledge by appeal to principles of clarity and coherence which were realized with the achievement of systematic unity (see Plato). Aristotle organized the body of the known into theoretical, practical and productive enterprises by appeal to the nature of the psyche as a thinking, acting and feeling creature. In each case there is the appeal to objective principles which serve to articulate the realms of knowledge.

There is a stark contrast between these Western models of classification and the one characteristically found in the traditional leishu (encyclopedic or classificatory works) of China. Chinese ‘categories’ (lei) are defined not by the presumption of a shared essence defining natural ‘kinds’, but by an identified functional similarity or association that obtains among unique particulars. Definitions are not framed in the terms of essential features and formal class membership; instead, definitions tend to be metaphorical and allusive, and invariably entail the human subject and human values. It is the earliest reference in the canons of classical literature, rather than principled scientific explanation grounded in the canons of reason and logic, that holds the weight of authority. In these compendia, there is little interest in the objective description of natural phenomena. The concern instead is with the relationship that the various contents of the world have to the social and cultural values which shape the human experience of it. As an example, the contemporary scholar Liang Congjie points out that ‘of the fifty-five sections (bu) that make up the Taiping yulan, six of them – emperors, imperial relatives, officials, human affairs, ancestors, and ceremony – occupy thirty-five per cent of the work’ (Hall and Ames 1995).

These Chinese encyclopedic works are hierarchical, with the human being self-consciously at the centre. Further, this ‘human being’ is no abstraction but is the specific imperial Chinese person, the emperor, who commissioned the work for the benefit of those examination candidates destined to assist him in governing his empire. Again in each category, individual entries begin from the most noble and conclude with the most base: animals begin from ‘lion’ and ‘elephant’ and finish with ‘rat’ and ‘fox’; trees begin with ‘pine tree’ and ‘cypress’ and end with ‘thistles’ and ‘brambles’. The world is not described objectively through an articulation of exclusive categories and subcategories, but is divided up prescriptively into natural and cultural elements which have an increasing influence on the experience of the Chinese court as they stand in proximity to the centre. In ‘naming’ (ming) his world, the ruler is ‘commanding’ (ming) it to be a certain way.

As for the transmission of knowledge, we are accustomed to the notion that philosophical ideas are disseminated through debate and dialectical interchange in which one theory or vision confronts another and arguments ensue as to the adequacy of each. However, this manner of looking at the transmission and alteration of ideas does not well suit the Chinese context. This is true primarily because such debate is rooted in rationalistic assumptions of the sort that privilege theories as relatively coherent patterns of belief and practice, which can be articulated apart from the institutions to which they are relevant. Things were quite different in China. Ancient China overcame the threat of the tensions and conflicts attendant upon ethnic and cultural pluralism by employing the contextualizing force of the Chinese language itself as means of transmitting culture. A class of literati developed; a canon of classical works was compiled and instituted along with a continuing commentarial tradition which served to translate and perpetuate the doctrines of these classical works; an examination system based upon these texts was introduced in the early Han period and persisted with relatively little change for two thousand years, being abolished only as recently as 1905.

With the dominance of Confucian orthodoxy in China, methods of adjudicating doctrinal conflicts were refined in a manner which took as its highest value the maintenance of social stability. Beginning in the early Han period, commentaries upon Confucian texts were produced which vied with each other for proximity to the canonical center. The authors of these commentaries were almost never interested in overthrowing the authority of the canon in favour of their own ideas, but sought to enrich the authority of the classic by claiming to better understand its original meaning. Further, since tradition was the sole ready resource for norms and doctrines, critics of a particular doctrine depended as much as proponents upon a shared cultural repository. This is evidenced in the conventional use of canonical allusions to focus social and political critique. The appeal to canonical authority is again a way of reinforcing a sense of shared community, and stands in sharp contrast to dialectical arguments which reference canons of reason or logic (see Chinese Classics).

Characteristic of scholarly dispute after the emergence of Han orthodoxy is a fundamental commitment to mutual accommodation. There is a general distaste for contentiousness and an active cultivation of the art of accommodation. In the exercise of criticism, the ritual basis of order comes into play since rituals serve as patterns of deference which accommodate and harmonize differences in desires, beliefs and actions. Criticism assumes a context of common concern and becomes thereby a cooperative exercise among responsible participants that proceeds to search for alternatives on which all can agree. One important constraint on self-assertiveness, as well as an encouragement for a consensual resolution, is that critics themselves are always implicated in the existing context; hence, any criticism is ultimately self-referential. Contentiousness, by contrast, betrays a concern for personal advantage. Such self-assertion threatens to disrupt rather than reinforce or improve the harmony of the existing context. From the Analects on, an appropriateness (yi) which respects social context has been advocated as the positive alternative to self-interested benefit (li). The proper goal of critical or constructive expression in China, whether it be scholarly, social or political, is the strengthening of communal harmony.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. The organization and transmission of knowledge. Chinese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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