Neo-Confucian philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G004-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 18, 2019, from

8. The Ming dynasty (1368–1644)

The Ming period marked a revival and development of Lu Xiangshan’s challenge to the Cheng–Zhu orthodoxy. One of the earliest figures in this movement was Chen Xianzhang, also known as Chen Baisha (1428–1500). Chen argued that the strong dualism of the Cheng–Zhu school did not reflect the central neo-Confucian belief in the inherent unity between human beings and the universe. In particular, the strong distinction between li and qi tended to value speculative theory and the intellect at the expense of practical concerns and the emotions. This resulted in a general distrust of feeling and intuition and a gross overemphasis on the intellect and study of the classics as the proper methods of moral self-cultivation.

Chen argued for the inherent unity of human beings and the universe. He also promoted the idea that human beings spontaneously move in harmony with the natural realm and fail to do so only when they impose their own selfish ideas upon the world. In this latter view in particular, as well as in several other aspects of Chen’s thought, one can see the influence of the early Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi.

Chen’s criticism of the Cheng–Zhu school’s overreliance on intellect and study and his belief in the reliability of spontaneous intuitions to guide human action shifted the focus of moral self-cultivation away from study of the classics and speculative philosophy and towardss reflection and self-scrutiny. One could describe this as a shift towards ‘subjectivity’, but only with the qualification that he believed the intuitions of properly cultivated individuals would agree in every significant respect. He was not advocating individual expression in the modern Western sense of expressing one’s unique individuality; he was encouraging the discovery and personal expression of a shared, transpersonal mind. Any strong sense that one’s actions were uniquely one’s own was a sign of selfishness – not of the moral mind. Chen’s views greatly diminished the prestige of the classics as the ultimate source of moral knowledge. In his view, individuals possessed a moral sense that was at least equal in value as a moral guide.

A related feature of Chen’s views is his belief that moral judgments are highly context-sensitive. The difficult situations one encounters in life are so complex, nuanced and specific that no appeal to rules or precedents could ever provide adequate guidance. Fortunately, each person possesses an inherent moral guide which one can make contact with and engage through a process of reflection and inner self-scrutiny. This aspect of Chen’s thought further eroded the status of the classics and with it the plausibility of the Cheng–Zhu school’s entire approach to moral self-cultivation.

Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. The Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Neo-Confucian philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G004-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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