Saturday, October 07, 2017


"Words don't matter." I heard Karl Popper make this shocking statement in a class in London in 1964. In all likelihood, he was reacting against the current philosophical fashion in Oxford and Cambridge for "ordinary language." I suppose that Popper's remark was deliberately provocative, a little like the Zen master who instructed that if one meets Buddha on the path, one should kill him. 
At any rate, the observation chimes oddly with Popper's own quest for precision in language, all the more remarkable as English was his second tongue. 
When in the 1970s I and a group of scholarly friends realized that there was an intellectual component, a necessary one, in gay liberation. We sought to look into the history of words. In those days words were implements of our degradation, whether learned (e.g. perversion, degenerate), or demotic (faggot, fairy). The need to deglamorize these tokens of pejoration led to an effort to trace their history, as I attempted in my sketchy early book, Homolexis. 
There was always the solution, somewhat deceiving I think, to introduce neologisms. Today we are faced with an array of such terms, ranging from the cis- prefix to intersectionality. In time these gargoyles will fade, but the renovation of language continues apace - not always to our advantage. Hence the importance of studying the classics, because they preserve tried and true ways of putting matters, ways that should not be forgotten.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Our colleges and viewpoint diversity

Some colleges and universities are in fact dominated by conservative thought. Yet none of the examples commonly cited is a publicly supported university. 
These latter institutions are supported by tax-levy money, at least in large measure, and they do not encourage viewpoint diversity as they should. I taught in one such institution (CUNY) for many years, and survival required fancy footwork, even though I am not a conservative.
In another way too, there is no symmetry. Conservatives are fighting an uphill battle, for they have lost the culture war. The viewpoints they put forward must be defended since they cannot count on immediate acceptance. 
By contrast, those on the liberal-left zone of the spectrum tacitly assume that the way they see things is simply the way they are. Perceiving little reason to depart from their own bubble, these bien-pensants are suffused with confirmation bias. 
In the long run this is not a healthy situation. Yet because tenure creates so many sinecures, it is not likely to change soon.

Monday, September 11, 2017


The concept of identity politics is evoking current controversy. Yet the time-frame of the current discussion is foreshortened.  In my youth the concept of identity was unitary. Barring mental disturbance, such as the so-called multiple personality disorder, one had only one identity, one alone and it was a personal possession. 

Conversely, some Buddhists hold that there is no such thing as a stable identity, for all is flux. 

Now, for a half century or so, we have settled for an intermediate notion of a bundle of identities. It used to be said that there were master identities - in my case, being gay, with other lesser ones in tow. But now it is thought that, we can be host to a basket of autonomous identities. That way the demon of intersectionality lies. 

Yet the arrow of time cannot be reversed.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Biblical studies roundup


Ages ago as I prepared to write my dissertation, which treated a medieval illuminated Bible, I sought to gain some understanding of the findings of modern critical studies of the Bible.  Although not brought up as a Christian, I was somewhat familiar with contemporary apologetic writings and knew that they were not what I was looking for.

Needed help came from a book by Bishop Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament (Oxford, 1962.  A new edition of 1988 contains some updating by Tom Wright.

I will not attempt to summarize the work of these scholars, but to give my own account as to the present state of the question in Bible research, with particular emphasis on the last half century.

  1. An absolute divorce must now prevail between the Old Testament and the New Testament, for in no way is the collection of documents in the former category (now better termed the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible) a prologue to or prophecy of the later collection.  The only link between them lies in quotations or allusions by New Testament writers to what they commonly termed simply Scripture.
  2. Which translation(s) then?  Regrettably, there are no fully adequate translations. Older ones, such as the King James version are hard to follow because of changes in our own language.  Many recent renderings are marred by doctrinal intrusions.  More recently, the so-called “Inclusive” versions are simply wrong, as when “our father [who is in heaven]” is translated as “our parent” or even “our mother.”  Only the original texts - in Hebrew, Aramaic, and koine Greek are authoritative.  Luckily, there are good dictionaries that allow one to look up words and phrases in the original.  Failing that, one can consult an interpreter competent in the original language(s), always being on the lookout for biases of course.
  3. Being guided, somehow, by the original texts is only the first step, though.  One must place each passage in its primordial Sitz im Leben, the social and historical circumstances that presided over its birth.  Because of controversies about dating it is not always easy to determine these factors.
  4. Rabbis and Jewish scholars generally know Hebrew.  Can we not rely on them in our study of the Hebrew Bible?  Actually, in many cases not, because they tend to filter the information through the anachronistic lens of the Talmud.  Oftentimes they seek to ignore findings which have long been established, such as the documentary hypothesis for the Pentateuch.  There are some exceptions, and Israeli archaeologists have uncovered evidence debunking or at least revising long-held views.
  5. Traditional attributions of authorship have been discerned as unsound, including Moses (the Pentateuch), David (the Psalms), and Solomon (Wisdom).  The book of Isaiah is now generally regarded as a fusion of three original documents.  The model for much of this research is a set of findings known as the Documentary Hypothesis.  Discarding the idea that the Pentateuch was literally revealed by God to Moses, the text is regarded as a composite account stemming from several source documents. This finding recognizes four basic source streams, designated as "J" (Yahwist), "E" (Elohist), "P" (Priestly), and "D" (Deuteronomic). While the hypothesis had several antecedents, it reached its mature expression in the late nineteenth century through the work of Karl Heinrich Graf and Julius Wellhausen; thus it is also sometimes termed the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. The hypothesis further ascribes the combination of the sources into their current form by an editor known as "R" (for Redactor), who supplied additional editorial comments and transitional passages. The specific identity of each author remains unknown, (although a number of candidates have been proposed). However, textual elements identify each source with a specific background and with a specific period in Jewish history. Those who favor an early dating - now regarded as unlikely - associate "J" with the southern Kingdom of Judah around the ninth century BCE, and "E" with a northern context slightly later.  Continuing this line of thought, the combined "JE" text is ascribed to the Kingdom of Judah following the destruction of Israel by Assyria in the 720s BCE. "P" would then be associated with the centralizing religious reforms instituted by king Hezekiah of Judah (reigned ca. 716 to 687 BCE), and "D" with the later reforms of Josiah (reigned ca. 641 to 609 BCE). "R" is considered to have completed the work, adding transitional elements to weave the stories together as well as some explanatory comments, sometime after the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile in the fifth century BCE.  Recent scholars doubt the early dates for the original four strands, suggesting further that the text as we have it may stem from as late as the Hellenistic period.  Even though resistance continues among conservatives here and there, the basic structure if considered an established fact, so that the term hypothesis is no longer appropriate, though it persists out of habit.
  6. Over the years some Christian scholars have been involved in an enterprise that they term “Old Testament Theology.”  In part this quest stems from their unacceptable kidnapping of the Hebrew Bible, imposing on it a proleptic goal that never animated the formation of the original documents.  These scholars have struggled with a somewhat chimerical pursuit of their self-assigned task.of defining the unity of the Old Testament.  In my view, all such efforts have failed, as the material is too heterogeneous in character and diverse in its points of origin.  Clearly, the purported prophecies of the coming of Christ are too rare and sporadic to provide this unity.  In consequence many have fallen back on the idea of salvation history, the notion - stemming perhaps from the secular idea of progress - that the story of Israel is one of increasing moral maturity as the underlying concept of monotheism became better understood.  In this perspective the historical books, such as Joshua, Judges, and Chronicles, assume the leading role.  The story is that of God’s march through history. The problem is that some important Biblical books do not fit, preeminently Psalms and the Wisdom Literature. The Hebrew Bible is not so much a book, as a set of books of diverse origin.
  7. As regards sacred history, the recent works of the Minimalist scholars, buttressed by the generally supportive efforts of archaeology, have shown that much of early Israelite history is mythical.  Despite many earnest efforts, no evidence has been found in Egyptian records for the Sojourn in Egypt.  Many now accept that the Exodus never took place.  In the time of Solomon, around 1000 BCE, the town of Jerusalem housed only about one thousand inhabitants.  Moreover, the historicity of such figures as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, as well as Moses, Saul, David, and Solomon is problematic.  In view of the absence of convincing archaeological evidence, it is likely that none of them actually existed.  (There is a slender indication of "the house of David" in the Tel Dan inscription, though it is much later and the interpretation is disputed.)
  8. We turn now to the New Testament, where the first issue that deserves to be addressed is the Synoptic problem.  During the Middle Ages, and for some time afterwards, the Gospel of Mark, the shortest, was thought to be a mere epitome or summary of the other two.  In due course it was realized that in reality the sequence occurred in reverse order.  Mark was the first, and the other two gospels (of Matthew and Luke) were created by annexing the Markan material and supplementing it with another sources, the so-called Q material.  No such text has actually been found, but it is clear that in some fashion the material must have been available to the authors of Matthew and Luke.  The Gospel of John, of course, stands apart.  Whoever its author was, he is unlikely to be identical with the author of Revelation.
  9. Modern scholarship recognizes that none of the four Gospels was actually composed by the writer to whom it is ascribed by custom. The author of Luke, whoever he was, also composed Acts.
  10. It is common, and perhaps natural to assume that the twenty-seven texts now contained in modern versions of the New Testament constitute an organic whole. However, the status of Revelation has long been problematic.  In all likelihood it is a Jewish work, lightly Christianized.
  11. With regard to authenticity, the status of the epistles ascribed to Paul (ostensibly thirteen) is varied.  Most scholars regard seven letters (here noted with consensus dates) as genuine: First Thessalonians (ca. 50 CE), Galatians (ca. 53), First Corinthians (ca.53-54), Philippians (ca.55), Philemon Second Corinthians (ca. 55-56), and Romans (ca. 57.  Two are disputed; Colossians and Second Thessalonians.  Generally regarded as pseudepigraphic are Ephesians, First Timothy, Second Timothy and Titus.  The Epistle to the Hebrews has long been regarded as spurious.
  12. Ongoing discoveries have disclosed a score of documents that might have made their way into the New Testament, but did not.  A number of them are associated, rightly or wrongly, with Gnosticism. The Gospel of Thomas (actually a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, 31 of them with no parallel in the canonical gospels) has probably garnered the most attention, and is sometimes included in a set of Five Gospels. Two others that have attracted particular attention in recent years are the Gospels of Mary and Judas. These noncanical texts, with their varied accounts of events, and implicit leverage for theological variation, have invited some scholars, such as Elaine Pagels, to create a kind of DIY version of Christianity - perhaps more liberal and more attuned to feminist concerns than the one usually acknowledged.

Monday, August 21, 2017


In the Western tradition the presocratic thinker Thales ranks as the first to predict an eclipse. He may have been influenced by the Babylonians, who were much concerned with accurate time keeping. Its is curious that Thales reputedly though that water was the prime element, the source of all things.  This view would not have been helpful.  But as Whitman says, we contain multitudes.

We hear that eclipses exemplify the principle that "science is always true." Sometimes it isn't though: think of the Ptolemaic system, alchemy, and phlogiston. 
The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus accurately predicted a solar eclipse, according to The Histories of Herodotus. If Herodotus's account is accurate, this eclipse is the earliest recorded as being known in advance of its occurrence.…

Friday, July 28, 2017

Art: what is it?

According to a recent poll in the UK, a work by Banksy is at the top of a list of best works of art - along with, further down the line, a couple of record covers. Forget about Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Even Van Gogh did not make the cut. 

I don't doubt that an American poll would achieve similar results. As an art historian I deplore such aesthetic yahooism. But maybe the results signify a healthy revolt against some of the rubbish that is currently acclaimed by the art establishment, together with the arcane prose commonly deployed to foster it.

Over the centuries the definition of art has fluctuated. From the Romans and Greeks we inherited an emphasis on skill (cf. the words a r s  and  t e c h n e). Eventually, though, the need to learn drawing, perspective and chiaroscuro vanished. Deskilling ensued. 

The Renaissance propounded a class distinction separating the fine arts from the lowly applied or decorative arts. Defying this separation is the idea that art is simply the sum total of artifacts - things made by human hands. 

Today a kind of free-form empiricism reigns. Art is anything made by a self-described artist. Then there is the Institutional theory: art is anything that qualifies for display in a gallery or museum (whether it actually is or not).

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Chinese classics

The Chinese Classics Go West

Somewhat improbably, in the early modern period Jesuit missionaries in China perceived anticipations of Christianity in the Chinese classics, arranging for a select few to be translated into Latin.  After assimilating them, Enlightenment intellectuals began to read them in a new key, as models of secular thinking. 

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the German philosopher Leibniz concluded that there was a need for a new, purer arithmetic to replace our common decimal system. He discovered the model for this new math in a venerable book that ranks among the classics of Chinese philosophy: the I Ching, or Book of Changes. He titled his 1679 article on the new arithmetic "Explanation of the binary arithmetic, which uses only the characters 1 and 0, with some remarks on its usefulness, and on the light it throws on the ancient Chinese figures of Fu Xi". Fu Xi was the legendary author of the I Ching (Yi jing). The arithmetic Leibniz described was binary code, which is used in almost every modern computer.

In his Philosophical Dictionary Voltaire hailed Confucius (Kongzi) as the archetypal philosopher, a veritable fount of ethical wisdom. Voltaire regarded Confucius as a model representative of Deism, which he praised as a substitute for revealed religion.

By the early nineteenth century, European enthusiasm for China had faded, but the occultation was not destined to be permanent.  At this point enter a new missionary figure, James Legge (1815 –1897), a Scottish sinologist, protestant clergyman, and scholar, distinguished for his tireless energy in rendering classical Chinese texts into English. Convinced of the need for missionaries to be able to comprehend the ideas and culture of the Chinese, in 1841 he began a project of translating the Chinese classics, a monumental task Legge completed a few years before his death. Offering both the original Chinese texts and his English-language renderings, the coverage is extraordinarily comprehensive, including not only the Confucian works and the historical and poetic texts ostensibly edited by Confucius, but also such thinkers as Mencius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi.  Most of these volumes are still in print.

Of necessity, Legge used the Chinese scholarly texts available to him.  Not long after his death in 1897. a series of archaeological discoveries threw new light on the history of ancient China, its script, and ultimately the classics themselves.  First came the recovery of the “oracle bones.”  In 1899 an antiques dealer acquired a number of inscribed bones from locals, selling several to Wang Yirong, chancellor of the Imperial Academy in Beijing. Wang is believed to be the first person in modern times to recognize the markings on the bones as ancient Chinese writing similar to the inscriptions on Zhou dynasty bronzes, which had long  been prized for their artistic excellence.  In 1908 one scholar, Luo Shenyu discovered the source of the bones at the village of Xiaotun near Anyang, the site of the last Shang dynasty capital.  In 1928-37 excavations followed, revealing some 20,000 of the oracle bones.  Today, more than 200,000 pieces are known. The texts are laconic, but nonetheless offer invaluable information on the belief systems of early China and its history.

Other finds enhance our understanding of philosophical and other discursive texts.  A number of philosophical and medical works written on silk were discovered at the Mawangdui site in 1973, where the tomb was sealed in 168 BCE. They include some of the earliest attested manuscripts of existing texts such as the Yi jing or Book of Changes, two copies of the Daodejng. and a variety of other works  Their approximately 120,000 words cover military strategy, mathematics, cartography and the six classical arts: ritual, music, archery, horsemanship, writing, and arithmetic.

A more recent find is the Guodian Chu Slips unearthed in 1993 in Tomb No. 1 of the Guodian tombs in Hubei Province, dating from the latter half of the Warring States era, perhaps around 300 BCE. The cache contained about 804 bamboo slips. The bamboo slip texts comprise three major categories, which include the earliest manuscripts of the received text of the Daodejing one chapter from the Classic of Rites, content from the Classic of History, and other writings.

The slip-texts include both Daoist and Confucian works, many previously unknown.  Still ongoing, studies of these texts have contributed fresh information regarding the history of philosophical thought in ancient China.

We turn now to the twentieth-century reception in the West.  Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley, who adapted their Chinese translations to a modern idiom, were initially concerned with poetry and belles lettres, only developing an interest in classical works later.  Yet a major landmark occurred in Germany, where Richard Wilhelm brought out his celebrated translation of the Yi jing in 1924, earning the appreciation of Carl Gustav Jung.  Eventually this rendering achieved English-language dress, becoming a kind of bible of the Counterculture.

Finally Waley turned to the Confucian Analects (1938), producing a version that is still serviceable.

Recent decades have seen a veritable explosion of Western scholarship, especially in North America.  While much of this work focuses on established monuments, above all The Analects and the Daodejing ascribed to Laozi, there has also been a new attention to such previously neglected figures as Mozi, Xunzi, and the legalist Lord Chang.  Affinities, not all convincing, have been perceived with contemporary Western philosophy, especially of the Analytic trend. 

Less meritorious are the self-help efforts in which the Eastern insights are mined for guidance in daily life.  There are also vague pseudo-emulations such as the various books entitled The Tao of Physics, The Tao of Pooh, The Tao of Bill Murray, and so forth. where the word tao just seems to be exploited for its attention-gathering quality - click-bait as it were.

The great efflorescence of early Chinese thought began in the latter years of the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BCE), continuing through the Warring States Period (403-221 BCE).  These dates roughly correspond with the years of the Greek philosophical movement,  Ancient China and ancient Greece, both characterized by a multiplicity of competing states, are the two poles of the arc of the Axial Era, as defined by Karl Jaspers.

Most contemporary scholars in the English-speaking world have adopted the official pinyin transliteration, though older sinological works use Wade-Giles.  Here are the differences in a nutshell: Tao vs. Dao; and Chou vs. Zhou.  The latter examples in these pairings are pinyin, preferred in this text.

Key Thinkers


By common consent the pivotal figure is Confucius (Kongzi), who was born in the small state of Lu about 551 BCE, and after some travels died there in 479.  The main source for his life and teachings is The Analects, a book in twenty chapters which is not “by” Confucius in the conventional sense, but a composite, transmitting utterances and dialogues by the sage as recalled by his followers.  It is now generally thought that chapters 3 to 9 are the original core, with the whole text not taking its final form until about two centuries after the master’s death.

The key point may perhaps be this: cultivation of the self is the key to the health of the state.  The link is the concept of de, sometimes rendered as “virtue” but which may be more adequately expressed as “quiet charisma.”  Confucius’ view of human nature was essentially optimistic: human beings are fundamentally good, and teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor especially self-cultivation and self-creation. He paid close attention to the details of everyday life, achieving what Herbert Fingarette has termed “the secular as sacred.”

 Above all, one must honor ren, or benevolence, applied in the first instance within the sphere of the family and then in broader circles.  Confucius also advocated the rectification of names, which may be characterized as the harmonization of terminology with reality.  Modestly, the master claimed not to be an innovator but a transmitter of ancient truths - which however he subtly reshaped to give them his own stamp.  This connection with the past must be constantly affirmed by proper observance of the rites.  The rites also assure conformity with the supernal order or tian (“heaven”).

Some recent studies have stressed the affinity of Confucius’ teachings with virtue ethics, currently a topic of considerable interest among academic philosophers. Virtue ethics is a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in human conduct over against either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences. A virtue ethicist is likely to give you this kind of moral advice: “Act as a virtuous person would act in your situation.”  Unlike deontological and consequentialist theories, the precepts of virtue ethics shun the quest for universal principles applicable in any moral situation. Virtue ethics theories address wider questions such as “How should I live?”; “What is the good life?”; and “What are proper family and social values?”

During the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), Confucian approaches supplanted Daoist rivals as the official ideology, while the emperors eclectically blended both with the severe principles  of Legalism.  The disintegration of the Han polity in the third century CE opened the way for the doctrines of Buddhism and Neo-Daoism, which offered spiritual consolations lacking in Confucianism. 

A Confucian revival began during the Tang Dynasty of 618-907. In the late Tang, Confucianism reemerged in response to Buddhism and Daoism, being reformulated as Neo-Confucianism. This reinvigorated manifestation provided the basis of the imperial examinations and the core philosophy of the official scholar class of the Song dynasty (960-1297). The abolition of the examination system in 1905 marked the end of official Confucianism. The New Culture intellectuals of the early twentieth century blamed Confucianism for China's weaknesses. In the early years of the Maoist People’s Republic this opposition intensified, only to be reversed towards the end of the twentieth century, as the regime established Confucius institutes throughout the world. More broadly, Confucian family values and work ethic have been credited with the remarkable growth of the economies of East Asia.  


Mengzi or Mencius was a fourth-century BCE thinker whose importance in the Confucian tradition is second only to that of Confucius himself.  The relationship between the two has been compared to that of St, Paul to Jesus.  

Eschewing the laconic and sometimes enigmatic mode of his master, Mencius was a patient and gifted transmitter of Confucian ideas.  He nonetheless endowed the ideas with his own philosophical stamp. He is noted for his theory of human nature, according to which all human beings partake of an innate goodness that may either be enhanced through education and self-discipline or squandered through neglect, though never lost altogether.  

Today contemporary philosophical interest in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology has stimulated fresh appraisals of Mencius, though significant philological issues still effect his texts.


What one might term the loyal opposition Confucianism is Daoism (or Taoism),  Ostensibly, its origins go back to the sixth century BCE when the sage Laozi (or Lao Dan) created the foundational text known as the Daodejing, or Classic of the Way and Its Power. (It is sometime designated by the older rendering of the Tao Te Ching.) While some elements may indeed stem from that early era, the text probably received its developed form somewhat later, towards the end of the fourth century BCE.

The ostensible founder, Laozi  (Lao Tzu in the older transliteration) was sometimes regarded as a contemporary and opponent of Confucius, whose career is well documented.  By contrast, the historicity of Laozi is doubtful, and many have concluded that he was not a real person.  (The name Laozi simply means “the old master.”)  Still, this does not mean that the book ascribed to him, the Daodejing is a mere jumble of accumulated apercus.  It has just as much consistency as if it were compiled by a single person, a consistency that helps to account for the fact that the text has long enjoyed enormous prestige not only in China, but in the world at large.
Until recent times scholars depended on a learned edition compiled by Wang Bi in the third century CE, almost half a millennium after the traditional time of the work’s creation.  This situation changed dramatically in 1973, when the excavation of the Mawangdui tomb revealed two basically complete copies of the book that date to about 200 BCE.  While the ordering of the two main parts was the reverse of what we are accustomed to (with the De half preceding the Dao half), the text itself was essentially the same as the one edited by Wang Bi.  In 1993 a new find was made at Guodian, consisting of about 40 percent of the text inscribed on bamboo strips. This version has been dated to the late fourth century BCE.
Consisting of about 5000 characters arranged in 81 chapters, the Daodejing is a very concise book, sometimes enigmatically so. 
In both classical and modern Chinese, the basic meaning of the word dao is “road, way, path, or channel.”  Over the centuries that root sense has lent itself to a variety of extended interpretations.  While the term plays a role in all the early schools of Chinese philosophy, it enjoys a unique centrality in Daoism. As  deployed in the Daodejing and the other foundational classic, the book of Zhuangzi, the dao represents much more. It is both ineffable and pervasive, imperceptible and primordial.  It is an absolute and transcendent principle, the utterly unspeakable ground of all existence.  In its ceaseless operations dao is the spontaneous process inherent in all entities and manifested at all levels - in the human body, in society, in nature, and the cosmos.  To act in accordance with the dao means to achieve health, harmony, and inner peace.
De (“efficacy, power, virtue, integrity”) is the second most important term in the Daodejing, where it occurs 44 times, as compared with 76 occurrences of dao. In fact dao and de are complementary elements in the sense that the first is the field, the second the focus.  De must not be regarded as some powerful, thrusting force.  Rather it acts like water, persistently and patiently seeking its level.
The important concept of Wu-wei has engendered some controversy.  It seems clear, though, that the traditional rendering of the expression as “nonaction” or “no action” is mistaken, for Daoism is not a philosophy of pure quietism.  Wu-wei is probably best understood as “effortless action” or “nonwilful action.”
A central concern is the belief, shared with some other Chinese classical schools, that society and the individuals comprising it had somehow lost their way, departing ever more from the truly authentic state that had prevailed in the past.  Artifice and guile had supplanted primordial innocence. This conviction is the approach that some Western scholars term primitivism.  

At all events, it is only with the greatest effort that one can strive to return to the desired condition of primordial innocence.  Pu, meaning “unworked wood; inherent quality; simple,” provided an early Daoist metaphor for the natural state of humanity.  It relates to the broader concept of Ziran (literally, “self-so”), “natural, spontaneous.”
Any confidence we may have about the doctrines taught in the Daodejing must be provisional because of the way that the narration deploys the technique of apophasis or the via negativa.  “Those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.”  In different form apophasis is found in Christian mystical thought.  A related concept is emptiness, not unlike the kenosis of Christian tradition.
The other foundational text of early Daoism, the Book of Zhuangzi, differs greatly from the Daodejing in both tone and presentation, though many of the same doctrines are affirmed.  The earliest part of the text, presumably going back to the sage Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) himself, is the first seven chapters, known as the Inner Chapters.  The other twenty-six chapters, probably later additions, present a variety of allied viewpoints.  The original core seems to belong to the second half of the fourth century BCE, roughly contemporary with the Daodejing according to current reckoning.
The title of one translation, Wandering on the Way (Victor Mair), captures the casual, sometimes light-hearted tone of Zhuangzi’s account. Most of the thirty-three surviving chapters contain parables and allegories.  In fact these play a central role in the exposition, and are typically witty, emotional, and sometimes fantastic. They do not seem to be retellings of earlier stories, but invented for the purpose.  Some tales are whimsical, such as the curious account of evolution from misty spray through a series of substances and small creatures to horses and human beings.  There is also an episode where a man fears that his left arm will turn into a rooster, his right arm will become a crossbow, and his buttocks assume the form of cartwheels.
Because of the vivid tales it contains, the Book of Zhuangzi is rightly regarded as the first book of Chinese short stories; and this labile creativity is probably the best way to understand its purpose.
The stories and anecdotes proliferating in the Zhuangzi present a striking set of principles and attitudes.  Some of the most salient are living one’s life with genuine spontaneity, merging one’s inner self with the dao, keeping aloof from politics and social obligations, accepting death as part of the process, showing appreciation for small things, and determined opposition to social values and conventional reasoning. The Zhuangzi teaches that the key to true happiness lay in freeing oneself from the world and its standards through the application of the Wu-wei principle.
The book interprets the universe as something that changes spontaneously, without a supreme divine figure to guide it.  It is the obligation of human beings to strive for happiness by living spontaneously, in keeping with the principle of Ziren.  In actuality, though, the human intellect lingers on artificial distinctions, such as good versus bad, big versus small, and usefulness versus uselessness.
The Book of Zhuangzi has frequent recourse to analogies with craftsmen and artisans, such as the skilled woodcarver and the skilled butcher.  These people do not tie themselves into knots pondering about the theory of their activity, but simply do it.
The Zuangzi opposed formal government, regarded as problematic at its foundation, for as soon as government interferes in human affairs it destroys all chance of individual happiness.  For this reason the book has sometimes been regarded as proto-anarchist.
Mozi is conventionally regarded as standing over against both Confucianism and Daoism; yet there are overlaps as well.  Mozi's moral teachings emphasized self-reflection and authenticity rather than obedience to ritual. His world-view is characterized by a vein of hard-headedness, and he observed that we often learn about the world through adversity. Mozi exhorted people to lead a life of asceticism and self-restraint, renouncing both material and spiritual extravagance.
By reflecting on one's own successes and failures, one attains true self-knowledge in a way that mere conformity to ritual cannot secure. Like Confucius, Mozi respected the paragons of early Chinese history, but he criticized the Confucian tendency to idealize conviction the ways of the ancients. After all, what we think of as "ancient" was actually innovative in its time, and thus should not be used to hinder present-day innovation. Mozi maintained that people were capable of changing their circumstances and directing their own lives. They could do this by applying their senses to observing the world, judging objects and events by their causes, their functions, and their historical bases.
Mozi sought to amend the long-entrenched Chinese over-attachment to family and clan structures with the concept of "impartial caring" or "universal love.”  In this regard, he argued directly against Confucians who maintained that it was correct for individuals to care about different people in different degrees. By contrast, Mozi argued that in principle one should care for all people equally, a notion that philosophers in other schools rejected, as they interpreted this notion as implying no special amount of care or duty towards one's parents and family. Mozi believed that “universal love" comes from righteousness while "differential" entails human effort. Furthermore, Mozi’s basic argument concerning universal love asserts that universal love is supremely practical, an argument directed against those who objected that such love could not be put into practice.
Somewhat disconcertingly, Mozi also subscribed to a belief in the power of ghosts and spirits, although he is often thought to have only worshipped them pragmatically. In fact, in his discussion on ghosts and spirits, he remarks that even if they did not exist, communal gatherings for the sake of making sacrificial offering would play a role in strengthening social bonds. 
Modern interpreters regard Mohist ethics as a form of consequentialism - more specifically, state consequentialism.  Mohist ethics seeks to ground the moral worth of an action on how it contributes to the stability of a state,[through social order, material wealth, and population growth. During Mozi's time, war and famines were rife, and population growth ranked as a moral necessity for a harmonious society.  Unlike Jeremy Bentham, Mozi discounted the importance of individual happiness; was important; state interests outweigh the consequences of individual actions.
Mohism was suppressed under the Qin dynasty, dying out completely under the Han, which adopted Confucianism as the official doctrine. Yet many Mohist ideas migrated into the mainstream of Chinese thought, since both Confucians such as Xunzi and Daoists such as Zhuangzi show affinities with Mozi's concerns. 

Xunzi, who lived in the third century BCE, ranks with Confucius and Mencius as one of the three foundational architects of Confucian philosophy.  Distancing himself some of the other thinkers of the time, he articulated a systematic version of Confucianism encompassing ethics, metaphysics, political theory, philosophy of language, and a well-developed philosophy of education. He shows a close familiarity with other thinkers of the epoch.

In this light Xunzi took exception to Mencius’ optimistic view that human nature is basically good.  Instead, he held that in its raw form it is unsatisfactory. Left to itself, human nature lacks an innate moral compass, falling into contention and disorder.  However, we are not obliged to simply accept this inadequacy.  He makes an analogy with the crafts. For example, carefully treated wood can be permanently shaped into forms that are elegant and useful.

In this endeavor ritual is an essential tool with important benefits for the individual and society as a whole.  Xunzi declined to endorse claims for the supernatural efficacy of ritual.   Instead he focused on humanity's part in shaping the roles and practices of an orderly society, assigning a much smaller role to Heaven or Nature as controlling sources of order or morality than most other thinkers of his day. 

Although Xunzi’s thought was later sometimes castigated as standing outside the bounds of Confucian orthodoxy, it remained influential during China’s later centuries. 


While the term legalism has come under fire for its inaccuracy, it remains as useful label for a tendency in late Zhou thought that continued into the Han dynasty and beyond.  To be sure, the legalists were not a self-aware and organized intellectual current; rather the term arose to categorize certain thinkers and texts.  As such it long served as a bibliographical category in imperial libraries. It has been said that the Chinese term fa jia is misleading, inadvertently reducing the rich intellectual content of this current to a single keyword, fa. In fact the semantic field of the term fa is much broader than “law,” embracing methods, standards, impersonal regulations and the like.  While the term “legalism” was coined only during the Han dynasty, its roots—or more accurately the habit of grouping together several thinkers who will be eventually dubbed “legalists”—can be traced to the philosopher Han Fei (d. 233 BCE), who is often considered the most significant representative of this intellectual current. 

In an essay on the “essence of the six schools of thought,” the historian Sima Tan notices that fa jia are “strict and have little kindness,” and “do not distinguish between kin and stranger, nor differentiate between noble and base: everything is determined by the standard (or law, fa).” Sima Tan criticized the Legalists’ approach as “a one-time policy that could not be constantly applied,” but also hailed the fa jia for “honoring rulers and derogating subjects, and clearly distinguishing offices so that no one can overstep his responsibilities.”

Of the ten “Legalist” texts in the Han imperial catalogue, six ceased circulating more than a millennium ago; two have survived relatively intact, and of two others only a few fragments survived vicissitudes of time. The earliest (in terms of its composition) surviving text is the Book of Lord Shang,  ascribed to Shang Yang (aka Gongsun Yang or Lord Shang), a harsh reformer who helped to orchestrate the rise of the state of Qin to the position of a leading power of the Chinese world. 

Lord Shang was a statist of a particularly rigorist sort.  He proposed dividing society into a hierarchy of some twenty different ranks.  Everyone must accept mobilization in the service of the state.  Those who fell behind in the execution of their duties through laziness or contumely would become government slaves.

The second major surviving text, Han Feizi, is attributed to Han Fei, a scion of the ruling family from the state of Han, a tragic figure who was allegedly killed while in the custody of the King of Qin, whom Han Fei wanted to serve. Of all Legalist texts in the Han imperial catalogue, the Han Feizi has fared the best over the vicissitudes of time: all of its 55 chapters attested in the Han catalog are still intact. The issue of whether or not the entire book had been penned by Han Fei is debatable: considerable differences among the chapters in terms of style and mode of argumentation suggest that they come from different authors.  Still it is generally accepted that the whole reflects Han Fei’s views.

With his pragmatic approach to government and politics, Han Fei has been compared to Machiavelli and Hobbes.  In rulers he advocated a policy of concealment and even guile so that they would neither be distracted by the flattery of followers nor hobbled by objections devised by opponents.

Unlike many thinkers of his day, Han Fei discounted appeals to the sages of early times, supposed paragons of morality and skill.  He held that living so long before as they did, it was not possible to know much about them. Moreover, times change and what may have been appropriate at one era is unlikely to be appropriate now.

One should not set one’s hopes in the prospect of an ideal ruler, for most rulers are of necessity of an intermediate type.  Yet if institutions can be secured, the ensuing continuity would make it possible to survive a bad ruler.

Han Fei decried the presence of “socially useless” individuals, including classical scholars (that is, Confucians), wandering orators, private swordsmen, draft dodgers, and merchants.  Appropriate steps must be taken to eliminate such noxious individuals.

In rhetoric and public speaking great care must be taken to adjust one’s message to the audience - again a pragmatic approach.

The broader context of the legalists is that, largely ignoring morality and questions pertaining to how a society ideally should work, they directed attention to the actual functioning of contemporary government.  In their view, hardheaded realism dictated a pragmatic strategy for consolidating the wealth and power of the ruler and the state, with the goal of attaining increased social order, security, and stability. Not surprisingly, their texts appealed to the needs of the emergent bureaucracy of the Han dynasty.


A welcome plethora of recent studies and translations has made it possible to go beyond the Dynamic Duo of Confucius and Laozi so as to assess a whole constellation of thought. Among the new translations are exemplary editions of Mozi, Xunzi, and the Hainanzi (the latter an important Han-era compilation). From this richness lessons for today have been discerned.  Not all of these interpretations are convincing, but the effort to comprehend this amazing body of material is surely worthwhile.

Some useful references.

Antonio S. Cua (Editor), Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy, London: Routledge, 2003.
Wiebke Denecke, The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han  Feizi,  Cambridge: Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2010.
Feng Youlan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, trans. Derk Bodde, 2nd edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952.
Angus C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989.
Christoph Harbsmeier, Logic and Language in Ancient China, (in Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 7, Part I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Philip J. Ivanhoe, and Bryan W. Van Norden (Editors), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd edition, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005.
Mark Edward Lewis, Writing and Authority in Early China, Albany: SUNY Press, 1999.
Michael Loewe (Editor), Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, Berkeley: The Society for Early China, 1993.
Michael J. Puett, To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China, Cambridge: Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2002.
Benjamin Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1985.
Bryan W. Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011.
Arthur Waley, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, London: Allen and Unwin, 1939.
Zhang Dainian, Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy, trans. Edmund Ryden. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

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