Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Li, Qi, and Transcendence in Neo-Confucianism

This is a guest post by David Chai of the University of Toronto. Please address all questions or comments to him. 

In thinking of a topic to share with all of you, I found myself repeatedly returning to the subject of a new course I am teaching this semester: Neo-Confucianism. While gathering materials for the course I came across an article by Donald Blakeley (“The Lure of the Transcendent in Zhu Xi” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 21.3 (2004): 223-240). The paper discusses whether qi and li should be read as transcendent or immanent. After surveying a variety of contemporary theories, Blakeley argues that “a modified definition of transcendence” is needed such that “that there is independence and self-sufficiency in certain respects but not in others.” (232-233) His conclusion is that “li transcends qi in that any material formations depend upon li. Qi is in a dependent relation to li in this respect and li is independent from qi in this respect. Li, in being what it is as li, is independent from the ongoing affairs in the field of qi. But qi transcends li in that any material formations depend upon qi; li is in a dependent relation to qi in this respect and qi is independent from li in this respect.” (233)

For me, his argument is not convincing for several reasons. First is his need to modify the traditional meaning of transcendence. Second is his very use of transcendence to describe Zhu Xi’s li. From a Daoist perspective, li comes across as being very close to natural law. While Dao is transcendent, its fa, or li, is immanent. For li to possess the same transcendental qualities as Dao would be to deny Dao its own existential nature. So, my question is can li be understood as Blakeley so wishes without the need to modify what is meant by transcendent? If so, how would this play-out in terms of qi’s connection to Dao? On a more fundamental level, can we say Zhu Xi is espousing a cosmogonist doctrine involving qi and li or is he merely putting forth one that is pseudo-cosmological? If the former, then I’d have material with which to conduct a soteriological comparison with Zhuangzi; if the latter, then I am unclear as to the advantages his qi-li dyad holds over the wu-you pairing seen in the texts of Lao-Zhuang.

January 16, 2013 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Metaphysics, Neo-Confucianism | 14 comments