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Neo-Confucian philosophy

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-G004-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G004-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 18, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neo-confucian-philosophy/v-1

11. The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) (cont.)

The greatest philosopher of the Qing dynasty was Dai Zhen. Dai had a lifelong dedication to philosophy, but until recently was not appreciated for his philosophical contributions. He was however a highly respected mathematician, geographer, astronomer and philologist. This is largely a result of the particular Zeitgeist of the Qing, which had a profound appreciation of ‘hard sciences’ such as textual study and little tolerance for speculative philosophy. Ahead of his time, Dai denied this distinction.

One can gain a significant insight into Dai’s views by studying the form of his two major philosophical works: the Yuanshan (On the Good) and the Mengzi ziyi shuzheng (The Meaning of Terms in the Mencius Explained and Verified). Both of these are works of philosophical philology, commentaries on the meaning of key philosophical terms taken from the Confucian classics, which argue against common interpretations and provide both argument and philological evidence for a new view. Since Dai believed that the classics were the key to understanding the dao, his philosophical method necessarily contained a strong philological component. For one cannot understand the classics without understanding the words of these texts, and only sound philological method allows one to do this. On the other hand, Dai insisted that philological inquiry only had value when employed in the service of philosophy, for all inquiry should be directed towards an understanding of the dao.

His philological method reflects or perhaps more accurately prefigures his philosophical views. Dai believed one clearly cannot rely upon raw intuition in deciding the meaning of a term; one must resort to careful study of its uses throughout the classics. As one refines one’s initial theory in the light of different cases, one moves closer to the correct meaning, the one that accounts for all the cases. This approach is clearly manifested in the two works cited above, where he provides extensive evidence to argue against both the Cheng–Zhu and Lu–Wang interpretations of the key terms of Confucian philosophy. Dai convincingly demonstrates how the interpretations of both schools are not attested in the classical sources and further argues for their Daoist and Buddhist origins. Both the Cheng–Zhu and Lu–Wang schools were overly subjective in the sense that they read into the classical texts their own personal views. This is one example of a general type of error that was the focus of much of Dai’s attention.

For Dai, the most common error people make is to mistake their private ‘opinions’ (yijian) as ‘unchanging standards’ (buyi zhize). This applies to determining the meaning of a philosophical term as well as to making an ethical judgment; for Dai, these were but two sides of a very thin coin. In the case of ethical standards, one moved from ‘opinion’ to ‘unchanging standard’ by applying the Confucian Golden Rule: not doing to others what one would not want done to oneself (see Confucius). This mirrors the logic of moving from one’s initial impression of what a term means to the correct interpretation: both involve a progression from personal opinion to a comprehensive or universal view. In the specific case of ethical judgments, Dai believed that this movement led one from what is ‘spontaneous’ (ziran) to what is ‘necessary’ (biran). That is, one begins with one’s spontaneous reaction to a situation and, through an appeal to the Golden Rule, tests this reaction to see if it passes muster as a universal standard. If it does then the reaction is certified as ‘correct’, something that one ‘necessarily’ must do. If it fails this test, it is revealed as merely one’s own selfish ‘opinion’ (see Confucian philosophy, Chinese).

Dai offered a remarkably novel and powerful interpretation of the Confucian vision. He is rare if not unique among Confucians for his strongly rational and intellectualist approach towards moral self-cultivation. Yet, while he provided compelling criticisms of the Daoist and Buddhist elements within earlier neo-Confucian thought, he himself was not without such influences. Unlike early Confucians who believed that one needed to acquire or at least extend and expand one’s moral sensibility, Dai seems to have held that one already possesses the ability to make proper moral judgments. The problem for him is not that we lack the proper sense, but rather that we also have many improper reactions that must be identified and eliminated.

It is tempting to see Dai as one step away from a kind of Kantian view of ethics with his appeal to a type of universalizability criterion (see Kant, I.), but this would be to misrepresent Dai’s thought. For one thing, he believed in an inextricable link between philosophy and philology: one could not find ethical truth apart from understanding of the classics. Dai did not see the Confucian Golden Rule (itself an idea derived from the classics) as free-standing; it did not generate all and only correct ethical judgments. It was a winnowing process to determine which among our spontaneous reactions were in fact in accord with the dao. These reactions were feelings about the rightness or wrongness of a given act, and if they were found to be genuine ‘necessary’ moral feelings, then this recognition produced a profound feeling of joy within the individual. Dai was very much a Confucian defending his tradition.

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Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) (cont.). Neo-Confucian philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G004-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neo-confucian-philosophy/v-1/sections/the-qing-dynasty-1644-1911-cont.
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