Neo-Confucian philosophy

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

5. The Song dynasty (960–1279) (cont.)

Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi were brothers responsible for the mature statement of neo-Confucianism. They elevated the notion of li (‘pattern’ or ‘principle’) to a pre-eminent position and identified the ‘pattern’ within things and events with tianli (heavenly principle), the pattern of the entire universe. Here we see an explicit statement of the idea (discussed in §2 above) of the universe being present in each of its parts. Cheng Yi is credited with the famous dictum: ‘Li is one but its manifestations are many.’ The Chengs also explicitly equate this universal pattern or principle with xing (nature) and xin (mind) (see Xing; Xin (heart-and-mind)).

The Chengs do not talk about the notion of taiji and show little concern with how the universe evolved. Their metaphysical scheme consists of two fundamental notions: li (pattern) and qi (ether) (see Li; Qi). They are dualists but of a special kind. While they believe the universe is composed of these two constituents, they insist that li cannot be found apart from qi, and qi without li would lack any shape or meaning. In a sense, the distinction between them is logical and not actual. For both brothers, the mind is li, and we come to understand the things of the world when we match up the li in our minds with the li of individual things and events (thus explaining the notorious problem of how we can recognize something as right). Most people are born with impure endowments of qi which prevents the li of their minds from properly matching up with things. Moral self-cultivation is the process of refining one’s qi to remove the impediments to the li within. The ultimate result is complete and perfect knowledge of both self and the world.

The brothers differ most in their views concerning how to carry out this process of self-cultivation. Cheng Hao was the more mystical of the two and emphasized the power of moral intuition (in the sense of a feeling rather than an insight). He believed in a universal, creative spirit of life, ren (benevolence), which permeates all things just as qi permeates one’s body. Playing on the multiple senses of the word ren, he likened an ‘unfeeling’ (that is, non-benevolent) person to one with an ‘unfeeling’ (paralyzed) limb. Neither realizes the unifying ‘oneness’ of themselves (in the case of the former, this involves failing to feel that he is ‘one body’ with all things). For Cheng Hao, the task is to locate and pay attention to this inner feeling and allow it to guide one throughout one’s life.

Cheng Yi presented a more developed and detailed philosophical system. His method of self-cultivation urges one to awaken the li within the mind by perceiving the li within the world. One could do this by carefully attending to one’s daily affairs, but since the classic texts of Confucianism present these ‘patterns’ in their clearest and most accessible form, the primary source for such understanding was study of the classics. In either case, as one came to understand a given li one was to tui (‘extend’ or ‘infer’) its interconnection with other li until one achieved a complete and comprehensive understanding of them all. This process must be carried out with an attitude of jing (reverential attention) in order to insure that one’s knowledge is affectively appropriate as well as cognitively accurate. Such knowledge is zhenzhi (real knowledge) as opposed to changzhi (ordinary knowledge) (see Knowledge, concept of). Cheng Yi illustrates this distinction with an allegory about people who ‘know’ (that is, they have heard) that tigers are dangerous versus one who ‘knows’ because he has been mauled.

Both brothers employ a scheme of learning sketched in another text that was to become central to neo-Confucianism, the Daxue (Great Learning). One was to zhizhi (extend knowledge) by gewu (investigating things). For Cheng Hao, this involved a regimen of introspection and internal self scrutiny with the aim of correcting any errant thoughts. For Cheng Yi, the process was more externally directed: one came to understand the world by a careful inspection of paradigmatic cases in the classics and practical problem solving in one’s own life (see Moral education; Moral development; Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy).

Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. The Song dynasty (960–1279) (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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