Xin (heart-and-mind)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G021-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 18, 2019, from

Article Summary

In the West, questions of the distinguishability of mind and matter and of rationality and emotion or sentiment are central issues within the philosophy of mind. Neither of these topics is of much interest, however, to the mainstream of Chinese thought. On the one hand, the notion of qi, the vital energizing field that constitutes all natural processes, renders discussions of the relevance of any psychophysical dualism moot. On the other hand, xin, normally translated as ‘heart-and-mind’, preludes the assumption of distinctions between thinking and feeling, or idea and affect. Xin is often translated simply as ‘heart’, but since it is the seat of thinking and judgment, the notion of mind must be included in its characterization if the term is to be properly understood. Indeed, what we often think of as ‘will’ or ‘intention’ is likewise included in the notion of xin.

In the classical period, the heart (xin) as the seat of thinking is considered to be an organ similar to the other sensing organs, but with the advantage of being able to think: ‘Organs such as those of hearing and of sight, being unable to think, can be misled by external things.… But the heart does think. Only by thinking will the answer be found’ (Mengzi 6A15). Such a characterization is not, of course, unique to the Chinese; the classical Hebrews also believed the heart to be a seat of thought and action.

The interpenetration of idea, intention and affect expressed in the notion of xin entails the conclusion that thinking is never a dispassionate speculative enterprise but involves normative judgments which assess the relative merit of the sensations, inclinations and appetites that interpenetrate our experience of the world and ourselves. Since appetites and ideas are always clothed with emotion, they are to be understood, more often than not, as dispositions to act. (We have here some basis for understanding what is often thought to be the paternalistic desire of Chinese governments, from the classical period to the present, to protect the people from the ‘disruptive’ consequences of ideas.)

Another implication of the unity of feeling and thinking is the practical orientation of most of Chinese thought. If ideas are dispositions to act, what might be thought of as theories are little more than wholesale practical recommendations. Thus it is most difficult in Chinese cultures to find contexts within which the separation of theoretical and practical activities would prevail. When, for example, Confucius said, ‘at fifteen my heart-and-mind was set upon learning’ (Analects 2.4), he was indicating his commitment to an ethical regimen aimed at self-realization. Thinking and learning are, within the Chinese tradition, oriented to the practical ends of the moral life (see Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy). As Mencius observes: ‘For a person to realize fully one’s heart-and-mind is to realize fully one’s nature and character’ (Mencius 7A1).

Western people are accustomed to think of efforts aimed at moral perfection (see Perfectionism) as involving a struggle between reason and passion, or between what we believe we ought to do and an obstreperous will that frustrates the enactment of that belief, or in the words of St Paul: ‘The good that I would do I do not do, and the evil that I would not do, that I do.’ In the Chinese tradition there is little such internal conflict involved in ethical development. The unpartitioned self characterized by xin means that it is unlikely that we should find Hamlets or St Pauls prominent among the Chinese.

If, however, the conflict associated with self-realization is not between heart and mind, what are the dynamics of moral development? If the problematic of unrealized selfhood does not entail the self divided against itself, what is the source and nature of the disturbance that the moral discipline is meant to overcome? If it is not located primarily within the soul, it can only be a disturbance in the relationships which constitute the self in its interactions with external things. ‘The stillness of the sage is not a matter of his saying: “It is good to be still!” and thus he is still. He is still because none of the myriad things are able to agitate his heart and mind’ (Zhuangzi 13).

It is precisely not through an internal struggle of reason against the passions, but through mirroring the things of the world as they are in their relatedness to us, that we reach a state in which ‘none of the myriad things is able to agitate’ our hearts-and-minds. In other words, we defer to the integrity of those things which contextualize us, thus establishing a frictionless relationship with them.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Xin (heart-and-mind), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G021-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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