Neo-Confucian philosophy

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

9. The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) (cont.)

Many of these ideas were taken up and developed into a powerful challenge to the Cheng–Zhu school by the most important Ming thinker, Wang Yangming. Like Chen, Wang emphasized that the goal of moral self-cultivation was to realize that one was ‘one body’ with all things. Also like Chen, he believed in an innate faculty of moral intuition and the critical need to rely upon this faculty in making moral judgments. And like both Lu Xiangshan and Chen, Wang believed that the mind itself is li (principle) (see Li). However, Wang developed these ideas in novel ways and combined them with others of his own design to produce a much more sophisticated and powerful philosophical system than either of these earlier thinkers.

Wang borrowed a term of art from Mencius in order to describe our innate and infallible moral sense: liangzhi (pure knowing). Liangzhi is an ever-present faculty that will spontaneously guide us in making proper moral judgments if only we can succeed in eliminating the selfish desires which normally obstruct it. We eliminate these by bringing them to complete awareness, where they are consumed by the light of liangzhi. The task is to maintain a constant state of internal scrutiny, monitoring our nascent thoughts to ferret out and eliminate any existing or emerging selfish thoughts.

Given this picture, Wang took issue with Zhu Xi’s teachings on moral self-cultivation (see §6). Zhu believed that the major focus of one’s effort should lie in coming to understand li by engaging in gewu, the ‘investigation of things’ (in other words, investigating the principles in the classics and in the world). Wang first objected to Zhu Xi’s emendation and rearrangement of the text of the Daxue in support of this view, and advocated the original form of this classic. According to Wang, the original text shows that gewu is not a preliminary step in a process of acquiring knowledge of li; rather, it refers to the act of preserving the inherent integrity of the mind by ‘correcting one’s thoughts’. The task of moral self-cultivation thus does not rely upon the acquisition of knowledge through empirical inquiry, but rather the restoration and preservation of the mind through the elimination of incorrect (that is, selfish) thoughts (see Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy).

According to Zhu Xi’s interpretation of the text, one is to first cultivate one’s virtue in order to care for all people. Wang insisted that these are simply different aspects of the same event. One cannot cultivate oneself without caring for others, and properly caring for others is cultivating oneself. Zhu Xi’s view created a false division between the moral mind and the universe; Wang insisted that they were one. Zhu Xi’s view also created a division between moral knowledge and action which Wang insisted was both wrong and pernicious. Wang’s response to Zhu on this issue resulted in his most well-known teaching: the unity of knowledge and action.

Wang relied upon the distinction, first developed by Cheng Yi, between ‘real knowledge’ and ‘ordinary knowledge’ to argue that anyone who really knew any moral truth must necessarily act upon it. Such action was a necessary constituent of real knowledge. One actually had to engage in filial activity in order to know what filial piety really is, and all those who possessed such knowledge would spontaneously act in accordance with their knowledge when faced with an appropriate situation. People who claim to know filial piety but do not act filially simply do not really know.

Wang saw his approach as addressing the most severe consequence of the Cheng–Zhu view. Wang believed that Zhu Xi’s approach led people to regard moral self-cultivation as one thing and the affairs of their lives as another. Wang saw Zhu as counselling people to study the classics and calm themselves through quiet sitting in order to improve themselves morally, and then go out and face the world. Wang insisted that this could never work. First, like Lu and Chen before him, he insisted that the moral problems we face are extremely context-sensitive; no appeal to precedents or rules of conduct can provide us with the guidance we need. As Wang was fond of pointing out, the sages had no such precedents when they acted.

Wang’s deeper objection concerned the efficacy of Zhu Xi’s method of self-cultivation. Wang did not believe that studying moral theory or contemplating moral paradigms contributed to one’s moral development. Such pursuits often had the exact opposite result, for they easily became sources of additional selfish thoughts. In order to improve oneself morally, one needed to work on the actual moral problems of one’s own life. Only these engaged one both cognitively and affectively, and only solving such ‘real’ problems would result in moral improvement.

This antinomian aspect of Wang’s thought opened up moral self-cultivation to a much wider range of people, for one no longer needed to be a highly-educated intellectual to grasp the true meaning of the classics (in fact, such an approach would actually lead one farther from self-cultivation). It also gave to his thought an existential flavour; one was made profoundly aware of the weight of one’s individual responsibility for one’s own moral well-being. The anxiety of such an awareness may even have been critical to gaining true moral understanding. However, Wang’s ‘existentialism’ differs in significant ways from most of its Western advocates. Unlike Kierkegaard, Wang held ‘God’ to be within each individual and reflected in every feature of the universe; unlike Sartre, existence for Wang does not precede essence for they are one and the same: the mind is principle. Properly cultivated individuals faced with similar situations would render similar judgments.

The idea that the mind itself is li led Wang to one of his most controversial teachings, known as the Four Sentence Teaching. In his Chuanxilu (Instructions for Practical Living), he said, ‘There is neither good nor bad in the mind itself. Good and bad are the activity of thoughts. To know good and bad is pure knowing. To do good and eliminate bad is gewu [correcting one’s thoughts]’. The first sentence of this teaching seems to contradict not only the central neo-Confucian belief in the innate goodness of the mind, but also Wang’s own claims about liangzhi. Perhaps Wang is saying that in itself the mind, being the sum of all the principles in the world, is simply how things are in their natural state. In such a state the predicates good and bad are simply inappropriate; they apply only in cases where there is an agent striving either to do good or bad actions. But the mind in itself has no intentions; it just is as it is. Similarly, the people who attain the highest state of moral self-cultivation are not aware that they are doing good. Those who have such thoughts are still striving for goodness and run the risk of becoming ‘obscured’ by selfish attachment to their own moral progress. The actions of sages, on the other hand, simply happen through them. Thus while the actions that result from the fully cultivated mind (that is, the mind itself) will all be good when seen from the perspective of those who observe them, the mind itself is neither good nor bad. Even to say that what the mind does is good is to view its actions from the perspective of the unenlightened. While this view of things profoundly diminishes a person’s sense of individual agency, it also lends to their actions a remarkable feeling of necessity.

In the closing years of the Ming dynasty, Wang’s ideas – in particular the Four Sentence Teaching – were interpreted by several of his later followers as warranting idiosyncratic judgments of right and wrong. Several of these followers became quite controversial, and a few even died in prison. Later neo-Confucians were to blame these individuals and, by implication, Wang himself for the eventual downfall of the dynasty. While such claims are clearly absurd, they do reveal the perception among the educated elite that the more radical of Wang’s later followers showed a degree of independence that many found uncomfortable if not dangerous. These thinkers threatened the order and hierarchy characteristic of Confucian society and advocated such ‘radical’ ideas as the intellectual and moral equality of women. With the fall of the Ming, these ideas and the intellectual tendencies that gave rise to them came to a halt in a general and dramatic reaction against what was viewed as the Song–Ming drift into radical subjectivism. In its place emerged a movement that again called for a return to ‘true’ Confucianism based upon a solid ‘objective’ approach to the classics.

Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) (cont.). 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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