Monday, December 30, 2013

Ziporyn on the Liji I

Scott Bradley


The Liji ("Book of Rites") is a vast Confucian compendium containing two documents, "The Doctrine of the Mean" (Zhongyong) and "The Great Learning" (Daxue) from the late Warring States Period to Early Han. These, Ziporyn tells us (Ironies of Oneness and Difference), are clearly attempts to incorporate and thereby co-opt the Daoist introduction and prioritization of Yin, the embedding of all value and knowledge in the fundamentally unknowable.

A brief restatement of Ziporyn's basic thesis is in order. This book overall is an examination of how early Chinese philosophy tried to make sense of the world so as to know how best to live in it. He calls this "coherence". Coherence is a model in many respects different from similar attempts to explain the world found in Western philosophy. I do not completely understand how this is so, but as an example we can see that Western philosophy tends toward trying to explain the world (asking the 'what?' of things — objectivity) whereas Chinese philosophy tends toward an understanding how things cohere and harmonize (asking the 'how?' of things so as to know how best to live — subjectivity).

This coherence, as exemplified in Confucianism, is what Ziporyn calls "non-ironic". Though we cannot know Heaven, we can still know how best to live by harmonizing with what it has wrought, namely human hierarchical relationships and tradition. There is a straight-forward, articulable Dao (Path of study and consequent behavior). The proto-Daoists (principally "Laozi" and Zhuangzi) overturned such a view when they pointed out that all our values and knowledge, however practical, have no ultimate foundation, since they are embedded in xuan — darkness, obscurity, mystery. Yet still we require to find a way to best live, and thus they suggested an "ironic coherence", one that harmonizes with the reality of our adrift-ness. Thus, Zhuangzi, for example, provides a model of coherence based on our living in a world essentially incoherent (unintelligible). He suggests a sensible way to live in the context of an essentially non-sensical world.

Not surprisingly, Confucianism was not about to take this lying down, and thus either denied the need to prioritize the unknowable (Xunzi) or incorporated the ironic into an otherwise non-ironic model (the Liji and Yin-Yang metaphysics), thereby co-opting it.

This attempted return to the non-ironic is, I think, consistent with the basic human inclination to "take the mind as teacher"; we hate doubt and love certainty. In this sense, Daoism cuts against the grain of our evolved humanity; so much so that Daoism itself constantly slips back into the non-ironic.

That Ziporyn uses the ironic as a fulcrum to understanding the sweep of early Chinese philosophy is itself telling. (Calling Confucianism "non-ironic" itself prioritizes the "ironic".) There really is no escape from our embedding in Mystery.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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