East Asian philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G218-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 23, 2024, from

3. Ars contextualis: the art of contextualizing

The ‘two-world’ metaphysical order inherited out of classical Greece has given the Western tradition a theoretical basis for objectivity – the possibility of standing outside and taking a wholly external view of things – a ‘view from nowhere’. Objectivity is not only the basis for such universalistic claims as objective truth, impersonal reason and necessity, but further permits the decontextualization of things as ‘objects’ in our world. It is the basis on which we can separate objective description from subjective prescription.

By contrast, in the ‘one world’ of classical East Asia, instead of starting abstractly from some underlying, unifying and originating principle, one begins from one’s own specific place within the world. Without objectivity, ‘objects’ dissolve into the flux and flow, and existence becomes a continuous, uninterrupted process. Each person is invariably experiencing the world as one perspective within the context of many. Since there is only the one world, we cannot get outside of it. From the always unique place one occupies within the cosmos of classical East Asia, one construes and interprets the order of the world around one as contrasting ‘thises’ and ‘thats’– ‘this person’ and ‘that person’ – more or less proximate to oneself. Since each and every person or thing or event is perceived from some position or other, and hence is continuous with the position that entertains it, each thing is related to and a condition of every other.

In the human world, all relationships are continuous from ruler and subject to friend and friend, relating everyone as an extended ‘family’. Similarly, all ‘things’, like all members of a family, are correlated and thus interdependent. Every thing is holographic in entailing all other things as conditions for its continued existence, and is what it is at the pleasure of everything else. Whatever can be predicated of one thing or one person is a function of a network of relationships, all of which combine to give it its role and to constitute its place and its definition.

There is no strict notion of identity that issues forth as some essential defining feature – a divinely endowed soul, rational capacity or natural locus of rights – that makes all human beings equal. In the absence of such equality, the various relationships which define one thing in relation to another are qualitatively hierarchical and contrastive: bigger or smaller, more noble or more base, harder or softer, stronger or weaker, more senior or more junior. Change in the quality of relationships between things always occurs on a continuum as movement between such polar oppositions.

The general and most basic language for articulating such correlations among things is metaphorical: in some particular aspect at some specific point in time, one person or thing is ‘overshadowed’ by another; that is, made yin to another’s yang. Literally, yin means ‘shady’ and yang means ‘sunny’, defining in the most general terms those contrasting and hierarchical relationships which constitute indwelling order and regularity (see Yin–yang).

It is important to recognize the interdependence and correlative character of the yin–yang kind of polar opposites, and to distinguish this contrastive tension from the dualistic opposition implicit in the vocabulary of the classical Greek world, where one primary member of a set such as Being transcends and stands independent of, and thus is more ‘real’ than the world of Becoming. The implications of this difference between dualism and correlativity contrast are fundamental and pervasive.

To continue the ‘person’ example, generally in East Asian philosophy, a particular person is not a discrete individual defined in terms of some inherent nature, but is a centre of constitutive roles and relationships. These roles and relationships are dynamic, constantly being enacted, reinforced and ideally deepened through the multiple levels of natural, cultural and social discourse. By virtue of these specific roles and relationships, a person comes to occupy a place and posture in the context of family, community and world. The human being is not shaped by some given design which underlies natural and moral order in the cosmos, and which stands as the ultimate objective of human growth and experience. Rather, the ‘purpose’ of the human experience, if it can be so described, is more immediate; it is to coordinate the various ingredients which constitute one’s particular world here and now, and to negotiate the most productive harmony out of them. Simply put, it is to get the most out of what you have here and now.

Citing this article:
Ames, Roger T.. Ars contextualis: the art of contextualizing. East Asian philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G218-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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