Mou Zongsan

Jason Clower has edited an indispensable volume of Mou Zongsan’s writings (Late Works of Mou Zongsan: Selected Essays in Chinese Philosophy, forthcoming). In the first words of his introduction, he says: “If twentieth-century China produced a philosopher of the first rank, it was Mou Zongsan.” This judgment strikes me as near-irresistible. A taste (from two of the first three essays):

From Objective Understanding and the Remaking of Chinese Culture

…to adapt to the times you have to understand the times. For that you need right knowledge of the present age (xiandai 現代) … Compared to political and social activities, the influence of scholarly culture is an influence on a virtual level (xuceng 虛層), but “the virtual governs the solid” (xu yi kong shi 虛以控實) and its influence is wide and far-reaching, which is why I call it a “decisive influence.” We should not take it lightly and think that it is not an urgent matter. 

***

… to have objective understanding. The first step is to understand ourselves; the second step is to understand the West. Then we can look for the way out for Chinese culture, and we hope that our young friends will take on this responsibility. In its simple essentials, this responsibility is to revive the ancient meaning of Greek philosophy. Its original meaning was what Kant defined as a “doctrine of practical wisdom” (shijian de zhihuixue 實踐的智慧學). And what is wisdom? Only “yearning after the highest good” is wisdom. As most people know, philosophy is the “love of wisdom,” and the “love” in question is the kind of love that is “heartfelt yearning for that highest good in human life and constantly wanting to put it into practice.” That is why Kant called “philosophy” in its ancient Greek sense a “doctrine of practical wisdom.” The term is very apt. But this ancient meaning of philosophy has already been lost in the West. Nowadays all that is left is linguistic analysis under the conditions of advanced civilization, with logic having been reduced to applied computing. This does not actually count as philosophy, only the degeneration of philosophy into a technology. To enter into the depths of philosophy, it has to be that “love of wisdom,” the “yearning after the highest good.” But though the West has forgotten it, this sense of philosophy has been preserved in the Chinese tradition, as what the Chinese ancients called “teachings” (jiao 教). Buddhism exemplifies the meaning of “teachings” most clearly, but Confucianism has it too, as the “teaching” referred to in the Doctrine of the Mean when it says, “The understanding that arises from authenticity is called our nature, and the authenticity that arises from understanding is called teaching,” and when it says, “What heaven decrees is called our nature; following our nature is called the Way; cultivating the Way is called teaching.”  The meaning of “teaching” here is not institutional education as currently practiced, which takes knowledge as its standard. Rather, it is “philosophy,” the “yearning after the highest good” of a doctrine of practical wisdom.

***

Nowadays in the West, Anglo-American analytic philosophy is in command, and the most famous on the European continent are Heidegger’s existential philosophy and Husserl’s phenomenology, the “dainty philosophies” (xianqiao zhexue 纖巧哲學) of the twentieth century, uninformed by the great Way of the gentleman superior man. Only that which connects upwardly (shangtong 上通) with noumenon or being-in-itself (benti 本體) counts as informed by the great Way of the gentleman superior man, whereas those two men do not have an idea of noumenon. So as far as I am concerned, Husserl’s phenomenology, though written so tortuously and with such show, is at bottom impoverished to the point of having no content at all. For it has lost the wisdom of method and given up philosophy’s stock-in-trade, so that all that is left for it is to say empty words. All those questions of theirs can just be consigned to science; what need is there for philosophy to be its cheerleader? So nowadays, we cannot rely on the West for real philosophy; we have to come back to ourselves and understand Chinese philosophy. My life’s work has been very simple, it has been preliminary objective understanding, but it has already surpassed previous ages. Thus I once wrote a letter to a student of mine on the mainland saying that my life has been very ordinary, and the only exceptional thing is that very few people nowadays can surpass me in objective understanding. I have no prejudices. I have even read some of Marx’s Capital, and have done so with an open mind. I am not even a complete stranger to economics; it is simply not my specialty. So my disgust for Marx is not a bias but a true inability to appreciate him even after I had understood him.

[On the one occasion where I found Clower’s translation decision intolerable, I have graphically amended it (twice)]

***

… I believe that for the work of absorbing Western culture, the best medium is Kant. … I am not a Kant expert but I do believe that I have a relatively good understanding of Kant. To understand Kant one must first understand his original meaning. There are more people who teach about his first Critique and people know a bit more about this one. There are fewer who teach about his second Critique and people know a bit less about it. As for the third, no one teaches about it and no one understands it. I have been translating it and at the same time working hard to understand it and understand Kant’s original meaning, in order to be able then to digest it. In my view, Kant really is talking about problems and wants to solve some problems, but to see his limits in solving those problems, the only way is with traditional Chinese philosophical wisdom. Chinese wisdom can take Kant even farther. If Kant experts only read Kant and Westerners only read Western philosophy, they will not necessarily understand Kant’s original meaning. Among British and American translators of Kant, each of the Critiques has three people who have translated it but no one person has translated all three. They are expert in just one aspect of Kant and so do not necessarily understand Kant. I am not an expert, for my foundation is Chinese philosophy, and therefore I can discern Kant’s original meaning and take him a step further.

[Mou translated all three of Kant’s Critiques into Chinese.]

***

Why do I say that Kant is the best medium for reminting Chinese philosophy? I often say that “one mind with two gates” is a shared philosophical model. From ancient times the West has recognized the two gates, as Kant did, but nowadays Western philosophy is only left with one gate, and this amounts to a shrinkage in philosophy. In the West, the noumenal aspect of the one mind with two gates has not been developed well. It did receive a little of the attention due it from Kant, but it was negative, and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus  continued Kant’s negative approach, so that all was left were a few ripples. … Wittgenstein’s point was that anything belonging to the world of value, of the good and the beautiful, is mysterious and unsayable, and that whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent. This sort of attitude is as negative as it is possible to be, and in keeping with this, on the European Continent, Heidegger and Husserl did not touch noumenon at all. The two gates are the original meaning of philosophy, but now all that is left is the one gate of phenomena. Chinese philosophy happens to be just the opposite. It is best at noumenon but not good at phenomena. That is also the real reason that China wants modernization.

***

If you can deeply understand the significance of “one mind with two gates,” then you will understand that the more advanced civilization is, the greater the need for a “doctrine of practical wisdom” and for what in China has been called “teaching” to firm up the course of our life and right the problems that come with advanced civilization. Therefore Westerners should also look to China for instruction and not just expect Chinese people to come seek instruction from them. But Westerners are able not to respect Chinese because Chinese do not read their own books and hence have no instruction to offer.

 

From Meeting at Goose Lake – The Great Synthesis in the Development of Chinese Culture and the Merging of Chinese and Western Tradition

We commonly say that Song-Ming Confucianism was skewed in the direction of inner sagehood. By the end of the Ming, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Wang Fuzhi, Huang Zongxi, and Gu Yanwu appeared,  they already knew that Chinese history was about to turn in a new direction, that they could not continue in the direction that Song-Ming Confucians had been going for six hundred years, because it placed too much weight on inner sagehood.  Thus people like Huang, Wang, and Gu began advocating openness to external things, expanding from inner sagehood to outer kingship as well, and thus it was that they began to emphasize the pragmatic study of statecraft (jingshi zhiyong zhi xue 經世致用之學). But the reason that this development from inner sagehood to outer kingship was interrupted and did not bear fruit was the Manchu Qing dynasty. The arrival of the Manchus meant that China was ruled by an alien race …

The three hundred years of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries comprised the Manchus’ Qing empire, and the Qing empire brought not even a scintilla of benefit to Chinese culture. That is China’s recent history. How could China’s original history and culture produce the Communist Party? It was the shallow intellectualism of the May Fourth movement. Why was the movement so shallow? Because of the baleful influence of mid-Qing textual studies. As its influence spread gradually, Chinese intellectuals lost the ability to think and to carry on with the development of thought. And because of those three hundred years of Qing rule and the intellectuals’ loss of the capacity to think, the historical opportunity was lost and the movement toward and demand for a development from inner sagehood to outer kingship was repressed. If there had been no three hundred years of Manchu rule, the natural course of the Chinese nation’s development would have been little different than the West’s. It was exactly during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries of the Qing that the West progressed quickly toward modernization. … Of itself, the cultural life-force of the Chinese nation was poised to open outward. It was only that it was repressed by the Manchus.

***

Nobody believes in Marx anymore.

***

… the rise of New Confucianism is a necessity of the trends of history and we must take up that responsibility. The Chinese nation is to take up the responsibility of that necessity.

***

I am the sort of person who just quietly ploughs away. I have never been a government official, never belonged to the KMT, and naturally I have certainly never belonged to the Communist Party.

***

… This stuff takes time! It does not matter how smart you are unless you have time.

***

It is not the life of traditional Chinese culture which is lacking; it is the Communists and their Marxism-Leninism which are evil and irrational. So in this great synthesis, it is the mainline of our very own culture which will be the basis and which will merge with the Western tradition of the Greeks. Western science and philosophy comes from the Greeks. Modern liberal democracy has many components, with contributions from Greek tradition, from Roman tradition, and from the modern Industrial Revolution and the English Magna Carta. Western liberal democracy is also a modern product, coming in the last three hundred years, rather than something that existed from the beginning. And in the Western tradition, apart from Greece and Rome, there is also the Hebrew tradition, which is religious (Christian). These are the contours of Western culture.

What we want is a great synthesis based on the mainline of the life of our own culture, a great merger with the science and philosophy developed out of the Greek tradition and with the liberal politics developed by the West out of various causal conditions, but we do not want a great synthesis with Christianity. The relationship with Christianity is not a matter of synthesis but of “classifying the teachings.” We do not oppose Christianity. Western people’s faith and prayer is fine; that is their way, though it is not ours. But we can critically examine teachings, as Buddhists of the past did. We can distinguish what is the same and different in them, what is high or low, and what is perfect or imperfect.

***

What is a “true mind-only theory?” There is nothing wrong with using the phrase “mind-only theory,” but within Western philosophy there is no mind-only theory, only idealism. This has to be clarified. Neither Plato’s idealism nor Kant’s idealism nor Berkeley’s idealism can be regarded as a mind-only theory. Idealism is not mind, so Western philosophy only has idealism, not a mind-only theory. What the Communists call “mind-only” or “idealism” is for them just an indiscriminate term of opprobrium. They use “idealist” and “materialist” as value labels, but they are clueless about Western idealism. Idealism is about ideas, but an idea itself is not mind. Plato’s idealism is a theory of Forms. Kant’s is a transcendental idealism (chaoyue de linianlun 超越的理念論). What are these ideas? For Kant, they are concepts of reason, which are different from concepts of the understanding. Concepts of the understanding are categories, which are the conditions for accomplishing knowledge, whereas concepts of reason cannot represent knowledge. Therefore, Kant’s thought can only be called a transcendental idealism. For Berkeley, an idea is a perceived phenomenon, not a mind but an object of mind, a particular, real object. Berkeley’s saying, that “to be is to be perceived” [esse est percipi] [means that his so-called subjective idealism] is a subjective percept theory (zhuguan de juexianglun 主觀的覺象論). It is completely wrong to translate it as a “subjective idealism” (zhuguan de guannian lun 主觀的觀念論) or “subjective mind-only theory” (zhuguan de weixin lun 主觀的唯心論). In the West, ideas are always regarded as objects, and though objects are related to the mind, in particular to the cognitive mind, nonetheless they are not themselves the mind. Therefore only China has true mind-only philosophy.

***

Where philosophical systems are concerned, we would do best to use Kant’s philosophy as our bridge. Kant is the best go-between for absorbing Western culture to remint Chinese philosophy and support Chinese doctrines. Kant’s framework opens up two realms, the realm of phenomena and the realm of noumena (benti 本體) or, if we superimpose Buddhist terminology on it, it is “one mind opening through two doors.” In the West, the noumenal dimension has not been developed well. In Kant’s system, noumena has only a negative meaning.  […] Applied to Kant’s philosophy, “one mind with two gates” refers to phenomena and noumena. But it must be understood in Chinese terms, through the mainline cultural spirit of the three Eastern teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Trying to understand the “one mind with two gates” by means of Kant’s system does not work; it must be through the Chinese tradition. This is why I say that if you want to get a handle on what China has been doing for thousands of years, you must delve deeply into the mainline of its cultural life. Thoroughly immersing yourself is the only way to understand its strengths; otherwise “cultural life” is just an empty phrase.

First we thoroughly understand China’s mind-only system, and then based on the wisdom of that system, we digest Kant. For Kant’s cannot be called a true mind-only theory, only a transcendental idealism, which implies that it is negative. What is positive in Kant is his empirical realism, which is limited to the phenomenal world, the empirical world. Concerning this, please see my book Phenomenon and Thing-in-Itself. The thing for us to do, then, is to take Kant’s transcendental idealism and his empirical realism and, building on Chinese wisdom, turn it into a two-tiered ontology, of “attached ontology” and “non-attached ontology.”  “Attached ontology” is that of the cognitive mind (shixin 識心). A “non-attached ontology” is that of the wisdom mind (zhixin 智心), and it is this which is a true mind-only theory. Mind-only theory emerges from “non-attached ontology,” and it is something that cannot come out of Western philosophy. The mind-only theory that emerges from non-attached ontology can also be called thorough-going realism (shizai lun 實在論).

[If you can see why this line of thinking makes Mou Zongsan — despite his very different topical concerns — a Chinese Mises (at the level of abstract metaphysics), you’ve earned a patronizing Outside in pat on the head.]

ADDED: This discussion of intellectual intuition (intellektuelle Anschauung), despite going completely off the rails at the end, supplies some valuable historical context.

ADDED: More Mou.

ADDED: Jason Clower’s book on Mou and Buddhism, discussed Buddhistically. Clower’s introduction to Mou at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Mou at UF.

September 17, 2013admin 16 Comments »
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16 Responses to this entry

  • Alrenous Says:

    Well, you won’t see me disapproving of Mou any time soon.

    That said I think western Idealism can be repaired with only a few tweaks. At least, I effortlessly got to Mou’s position about what idealism should be, but without reading any Chinese philosophy.

    Idealism and materialism reduce to each other, mainly because they have to account for the same sequence of causes and effects. It’s just a question of whether you prefer thinking that ideas must be constrained when inter-subjective or prefer thinking that objects must support private subjectivity.

    If ideas are the primary stuff, to share an idea it has to be the same idea in both of us, by definition. The idea of Hong Kong, for example. It doesn’t go away if I stop believing in it, but aren’t you still believing it? Moreover, it is constrained by other beliefs, such as the wave patterns nearby islanders have seen. By iteratively bulding up this causal web, all shared subjective entities end up tightly chained – it ends up looking like physics.

    On the flip side, a primarily material cosmology must account for consciousness and private worlds, the bits of reality that are defined by the fact they go away if I stop believing in them. Then there’s the issue that as subjects, we have no access to phenomena, and live in a world consisting entirely of noumena…

    Of course these take logic for granted, so there might be a weakness in that vicinity, though an attack on that weakness would have to be expressed without logic to be successful.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    I’ll read your posts carefully. Mou’s main point, though, is that ‘mind-only’ in the Chinese tradition is primarily practical (perhaps ‘praxeological’), and therefore quite distinct from the mainstream Western tendency to conceive the same topic through idealism, i.e. a theoretical object (‘idea’). Nevertheless, I agree that he is — strategically — quick to de-emphasize or bypass tendencies in Western thought that might resonate with his project (for instance, the lineage through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche which is also driven to identify the noumenal realm with the practical will).

    [Reply]

    Alrenous Reply:

    Would you agree that the Chinese take mind-primacy and noumena as immediately and seriously as the Greeks took the classical elements?

    If so, by contrast, Western philosophers tend to approach idealism entirely in far mode. As reflected in my diction: I don’t have any impulse to call what the Chinese do ‘idealist.’

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Insofar as I’m getting this (the Hanson terminology isn’t yet smoothly significant to me), it sounds convincing, and actually better than convincing (insightful).

    Alrenous Reply:

    I mean occidentals don’t think about idealism when they’re touching something with their hands, or any of the things such a touch can stand as a symbol for. It’s only for talking about things far removed from the actual world.

    John Hannon Reply:

    Another tendency in Western thought that might resonate with Mou’s project is American Pragmatism as expounded by William James – at least insofar as practical thought is emphasized – whereas “non-attached ontology” brings to mind the later Heidegger’s notion of “Gelassenheit” (releasement) or “letting Being be” – meditative thinking in contrast to utilitarian, calculative thinking. (Mou’s distinction between the “wisdom mind” and the “cognitive mind” might also resonate here).

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Yes (to both points). Pragmatism is the Anglo route to this place, and with William James it even shares some of the same rationalized mysticism. Mou is much closer to Heidegger than he wants to admit (I’m confident there will be a thousand doctoral theses on this eventually.)

    Posted on September 17th, 2013 at 2:05 pm Reply | Quote
  • Thos Ward Says:

    This is great, thank you for introducing Mou to me. BTW, I’ll collect my pat on the head, patronizing though it may be.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Consider yourself patted

    [Reply]

    Thales Reply:

    Likewise! Although, a first-pass search indicates Zongsan translations approximate unicorn rarity, this goes on my watch list.

    (FWIW, I was thinking Aurelius, but most Far Eastern thought does…)

    [Reply]

    Posted on September 17th, 2013 at 3:00 pm Reply | Quote
  • Thos Ward Says:

    Also, I think there is the possibility that this practical mind-only-ness is implied also in the results of cognitive scientist Bob Rehder’s essentialist approach to causal categories. It suggests, to me at least, that what is meaningfully perceived is a causal structure (in my mind essential cause may be no more than a vanishing point in perspective drawing – an ontological implication but not something material or ideal). To me this is consonant with praxeology in a lot of ways, but more, it seems to me like a non-attached cognition in that it seems a content independent theory of an object oriented praxeology. I could be talking out of my rear and misunderstanding “non-attached” but I’m taking it to mean non-empirical cognizance of real essential structure.

    [Reply]

    Thos Ward Reply:

    I should clarify – while the senses are obviously deployed toward discerning essential cause – they cannot completely account for it, which is why Rehder may be frequently called a rationalist.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    (I need to find out something about Rehder in order to comment.)

    [Reply]

    Thos Ward Reply:

    He was just an example from the rationalist camp of cognitive scientists. He’s a straight-up Bayesian who posits that prior knowledge informs classifications. What’s interesting from my view is that he demonstrates that the essential structure of knowledge is causal inference, not the content of perceptual phenomena. For example, you know what a cat is not by component analysis, nor by family resemblance (a la Wittgenstein or prototype theory a la Lakoff or Rosch), but instead by having a (variably robust) essentialist causal theory. (This would be why racial categories are so durable as theories even when people are indifferent or hostile to their truth value.) So like Mises, man has apodictic certainty of causality, for example man knows of the causal link in “man acts”. (Hoppe frequently discusses the problem of causality and empiricism.) For Rehder, though he doesn’t state it in these terms, causality is the a priori assumption that structures all knowledge. (In a sense, aren’t all Bayesians such? There can be no Bayesian structure without the a priori assumption. I suppose a counter argument would be that there is no poverty of stimulus that causality abides, however that one updates priors is a concession to causality at all times. I just don’t see how you could falsify causality.)

    Posted on September 17th, 2013 at 4:07 pm Reply | Quote
  • Going Pro Says:

    Sounds like Ken Wilber to me unfortunately. Ideological mind independence wrapped in a vague standard morality (“the way” morality). For however well he reads Kant in these passages, he doesn’t show any real commitment to a reading of Husserl (not necessarily that he hasn’t read Husserl carefully, but that he doesn’t try to understand him). I do agree with him though when he writes “Husserl’s phenomenology, though written so tortuously and with such show, is at bottom impoverished to the point of having no content at all.” This to me sounds like a method towards achieving noumenon….but I think he and I differ on what noumenon is. It certainly doesn’t lead to critical social-hegemonic generalizations for me.

    [Reply]

    Posted on September 18th, 2013 at 5:57 pm Reply | Quote
  • admin Says:

    @ Thos Ward
    Mou’s main point on this, which I think is right despite the room for niggling, is that Westerner’s naturally approach causality through theoretical rather than practical reasoning (perhaps even Mises, in a way). Do Bayesian methods translate readily across from empirical regularities to practical commitments? I suspect there are some interesting complications.

    [Reply]

    Posted on September 19th, 2013 at 2:31 am Reply | Quote

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