Alexus McLeod – Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy Lecture: “The Madman of Chu: The Problem of Mental Illness and Self-Cultivation in Early Chinese Texts”, Dec. 2 @ 5:30pm


Welcomes: ALEXUS MCLEOD (University of Connecticut)
With responses from: ANDREW MEYER (Brooklyn College, CUNY)

Please join us at Columbia University’s Religion Department on FRIDAY, DECEMBER 2nd at 5:30PM for his lecture entitled:

The Madman of Chu: The Problem of Mental Illness and Self-Cultivation in Early Chinese Texts

ABSTRACT: In Confucian and Zhuangist texts of the Pre-Han and Han period, we see characters described as “crazy, mad” (狂 kuang), and find descriptions or discussions of madness or mad persons—most prominently the infamous Jieyu, “Madman of Chu”. I argue that madness is seen by Confucians and Zhuangists as a kind of moral deformity that moves one outside of the boundaries of ritual and society and thus full personhood—a fact that leads the Confucians to shun mad people, and the Zhuangist to praise them.  Madness is seen not as a 病 bing (disorder, illness), but instead as based on a cultivated choice.  

Mental illness as such is problematic for both the Confucians and Zhuangists, and thus both seek to eliminate it or reduce it to morally evaluable characteristics. Both systems see madness resulting from unique kinds of choices and conformities, rendering one morally responsible for madness.  The views of the Confucians and Zhuangists may have been the minority views in early China, however.  We see from the Han Dynasty medical text Huangdi Neijing that kuang and similar mental states were understood as illnesses in a startlingly modern sense at least as far back as the Warring States Period.

Ultimately, the Han “syncretist” text Huainanzi offers us what I think is the most plausible view of madness and self-cultivation in the early Chinese tradition.  It offers an account of madness that makes consistent the medical naturalism of the Huangdi Neijing and a view of moral responsibility for character similar to the views of Confucian and Zhuangist texts.  This offers us yet another example of the skill with which the authors of the Huainanzi worked out problems in the tradition that arose from tensions between the positions of multiple texts.  The problem of madness and self-cultivation, like so many other problems in early Chinese thought, was given a plausible solution by the authors of Huainanzi.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 2, 5:30-7:30 pm

Rm. 101, 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University


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