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.

14 thoughts on “Li, Qi, and Transcendence in Neo-Confucianism

  1. Hi David! Thanks very much for this.

    “… the traditional meaning of transcendence.”

    I wonder if you could spell out for us what you take to be the traditional meaning of ‘transcendence’ (in discussion of old Chinese ideas) – and further, I would like to know more about what you take to be at stake in the question whether there is transcendence in the Chinese tradition.

    I find I have a sort of a view about what is thought about that, maybe based on a lecture I heard from Roger Ames a few years ago, or just absorbed from the conversational atmosphere here. I don’t recall having read anything in particular about it. Is there a locus classicus ? I’ll set out my sort-of-a-view, and maybe you or someone else will correct it.

    My picture is that the core idea of “transcendence” in this context is that of a personal god who is independent of the mundane world and controls it, and/or a world separate from but in some ways similar to the mundane word (for example, it may have streets paved with gold). The points that the god is personal, and that the other world isn’t just blank bliss, serve to give these non-mundane items some inner dynamic, some robust independence, so that they are vividly not just abstractions from the mundane world: aspects of, parts of, or options within the mundane world.

    Part of this picture is that ‘transcendence’ is an abbreviation for something like ‘transcendence of the mundane world’. We don’t find “transcendence” in a tradition simply by finding in it two things, one of which transcends the other. (Does my cup transcend my coffee?) Or am I way off the mark here?

    My sense is that this idea of “transcendence” has been thought to link up with some sort of radical freedom from assigned roles, and to link up more indirectly with a general willingness to engage in abstract thought or abstract distinguishing (e.g. the mind-body distinction, which is in some ways a copy of the god/mundane-world distinction), and hence logic. That is, in a general way the idea of a personal god or a second world might link up indirectly with a general intellectual practice of looking for and working up rules of the form “Toward understanding X, ignore Y” (a central sort of practice in the Confucian tradition, I suppose).

    Recently I was thinking about how to explain the Western idea of freedom of religion to a mainland Chinese audience (for a VOA project), and I thought a key point might be the assumption, common to most religious people in the West, that whatever happens to us and our neighbors in this world pales in comparison to what will happen to us and them in the afterlife: that this assumption makes religious conflict particularly dangerous. In short, it makes imaginary consequences trump real ones.

  2. Hi David (and Bill),

    I’ve been trying to find time to comment on this all day, and even now this is going to be briefer than I’d hoped. Oh well — hopefully the beginning of a conversation, at least!

    One thing that you say in your second paragraph, suggesting that there needs to be a significant difference between dao and li, seems to me to be something that Zhu Xi will resist. There is li and there is qi, and there is a complex and contested story about how they relate to one another, or mutually constitute one another, but there is no third thing behind the scenes. (Indeed, according to his most considered statements, li is not a “thing” at all.) As the Ming Dynasty follower of Zhu, Luo Qinshun, famously says, it’s as if there is some creator setting things in motion…except there’s no creator! There’s just the things in motion, structured by norms/patterns/Coherence. Dao is this process, the qi following its nature.

    If we understand “transcend” — admittedly, a vexed word that seems to mean lots of different things to different people — to mean influencing without being influenced by, which might be what Blakeley has in mind?, then I can see saying that li “transcends” qi, but I have a hard time with qi “transcends” li. Can you say more about how he tries to make out that half of the argument?

    • Thanks Bill and Steve for the great prompts.

      Bill, regarding transcendence, Blakeley in his article (p. 232) offers five definitions: (1) to surpass or go beyond; (2) to be abstract or ideal; (3) to be beyond a certain capacity; (4) to be independent from a particular order (boundary, class) of things; (5) to follow Hall and Ames, to have “strict transcendence” meaning A is transcendent with respect to B if the existence, meaning, or import of B cannot be fully accounted for without recourse to A, and the reverse is not true. According to my theory of meontology, all of the above are untenable in that there is nothing to be transcended; things, including human beings, can only return through inward reversion to “that which is above forms” (i.e, Dao). And yet, even saying Dao is “above forms” is questionable insofar as Dao is the formlessness that gives rise to forms. We might say it is transcendent, but in relation to what? Certainly not to the myriad things for they are merely expressions of Dao that are nurtured by it throughout their lives and are enfolded by it at such time as their existence ceases. It thus seems to me that if we are to avoid the transcendent/ immanent dualism of Western philosophy, the only alternative is to completely re-envision the structure of cosmogony along the lines of what Laozi and Zhuangzi proposed, that being the idea that things are born of nothingness.

      In terms of freedom, the question that arises for me is why must we frame it as a problem of becoming free from something, be it a thing, a person, or ourselves? We like to think that a transcendently divine being will grant us freedom but both Daoism and Buddhism have shown us otherwise. Freedom, like Zhu Xi’s notion of li, leaves me feeling it is but an alternative psychological state of awareness, a Great Awakening as Zhuangzi puts it. I think Confucius was right to avoid discussing the afterlife but I also think Xunzi’s criticism of Zhuangzi for being “obsessed by nature and ignorant of the human” (21.22) was wide of mark. Obsessing over the human whilst neglecting what is natural is just as detrimental!

      Steve, to speak to Blakeley’s theory that “qi is independent from li,” he says that Zhu Xi “affirms the primacy of actuality (qi)…where states of affairs are made up of composites of li and qi where li qualifies the qi stuff of things” (p. 225). To this end, Blakeley lists the following modalities of li: (1) it is one in the sense that it is the ultimate principle that includes and unifies all else; (2) it is the dynamic ordering of the cosmos; (3) every individual thing (referent) has its li and manifests it within the context of its own changing profile; (4) the one li is also fully present in each of the specific things included in the one li (p. 234). From this he cites four functions of li: (A) a descriptive reference; (B) a reference to possible or potential identity and understanding; (C) a prescriptive (normative) reference to what a thing ought to be; (D) a reference to an ideal standard or model (p. 236). However, having said as much, Blakeley never does address how qi can be independent of li. To take two representative quotes from Zhu Xi, we can see the ambiguity involved: “As for li, it is the Dao above forms and the root from which things are born. As for qi, it is the tool below forms from which things are furnished” (朱子说:“理也者,形而上之道也,生物之本也。气也者,形而下之器也,生物之具也); “What are called li and qi are certainly two different things. However, when considered from the perspective of things then these two become merged such that there is no distinguishing them. Each has its own place. But this does no harm to the fact that they are each a thing in their own right” (朱子说:所谓理与气,此決是 二物。但在物上看,则二物浑沦,不可分开,各在一处。然不害二物之各为一物也). What do the rest of you think? Can qi and li be separated without relegating them to the realm of shi/lei (事类) as we saw with the School of Logicians?

  3. Hi David – thanks for the extensive reply!

    We may be speaking such different languages, you and I, and I so ignorant of your work and the whole field, that nothing can be done. But I’ll give it a try:


    In your post you say that one of your main objections to Blakely’s view is that he needs to “modify the traditional meaning of transcendence.” I would still like to hear what you take the traditional meaning to be.


    regarding transcendence, Blakeley in his article (p. 232) offers five definitions: … [but] According to my theory of meontology, all of the above are untenable in that there is nothing to be transcended; things, including human beings, can only return through inward reversion to “that which is above forms” (i.e, Dao).

    I’m not sure whether you are here trying to show that the five definitions are wrong definitions of the word, or instead that no actual relations fit any of those five descriptions.

    Your argument seems to be as follows:

    1. Things can only return through inward reversion to “that which is above forms.” (premise)
    Perhaps: 2. There isn’t anything. (from 1)
    3. There isn’t anything to be transcended. (from 2, or directly from 1)

    4a. The five definitions are incorrect definitions of the word. (from 3)
    or instead:
    4b. Nothing transcends anything in any of the five senses spelled out in the five definitions. (from 3)


    I don’t understand the above argument. I’ll spell out my lack of understanding in four points, A-D.

    A. I don’t understand 1 at all. (For example, I don’t understand what you mean by ‘inward’ or ‘return’ or ‘reversion’ or ‘forms’.) Do you just mean that nothing lasts forever, and not just because of outside forces? Also I don’t understand the ‘only’. What is it ruling out?

    B. I don’t see in what way 1 might seem to give any support to 2. Further – and this really is a further point – on its face 1 seems to contradict 2. (Consider the argument: “There aren’t any things, therefore there aren’t any things that return through inward reversion…”)

    C. I don’t see how 1 might seem to support 3 otherwise than by way of 2.

    D. Neither 2 nor 3 seems to me to imply 4a. A definition of ‘unicorn’ can be correct even if there are no unicorns.

    (Since I don’t understand the argument, I don’t understand how the question whether the Dao is really “above forms” might make any difference to the above argument.)


    You then discuss whether the Dao might be said to be transcendent. I can’t tell whether you mean to be (a) talking about the Dao yourself, or (b) explicating the views of some Daoist(s) about what he/she/they call “the Dao.”

    “We might say [the Dao] is transcendent, but in relation to what? Certainly not to the myriad things for they are merely expressions of Dao that are nurtured by it throughout their lives and are enfolded by it at such time as their existence ceases.”

    To me that looks on its face like an argument trying to show that the Dao does transcend the myriad things. How would it push in the opposite direction? In this argument, are you using ‘transcend’ in one of Blakely’s five senses?

    ”It thus seems to me that if we are to avoid the transcendent/ immanent dualism of Western philosophy, …”

    I would like to express the opinion that no such dualism pervades Western philosophy. But perhaps I don’t understand you.

    “the only alternative is to completely re-envision the structure of cosmogony along the lines of what Laozi and Zhuangzi proposed, that being the idea that things are born of nothingness.”

    Why would that be the only way?
    And how would it be a way at all – how might it help avoid the dualism? I’m not getting the picture.

  4. Above, you mention “my theory of meontology,” suggesting that by ‘meontology’ you mean a certain theory or view of yours. Or maybe by “my theory of meontology” you just mean your theory on the topic of meontology?

    Either way, I’d like to ask about the theory you refer to: What does it say?

  5. Bill, let me try and explain why I think the definitions of transcendence provided by Blakeley, which I do take as being typical of Western philosophy, are not applicable to Daoism (but are they so for Confucianism?) and why I hold Daoist philosophy to be meontological.

    As you know, the word meontology (in Greek, me on) dates back to the time of Parmenides and Gorgias. I use it to refer to Daoism because it subscribes to a cosmogony rooted in nothingness (wu 無). My argument is that wu concurrently exists in three realms of reality: cosmologically, it is the milieu wherein Dao’s creative potentiality is realized; ontologically, it is the root of Being yet combines with it in undifferentiated oneness, or primal chaos; ontically, it is the presence-less state of existence of mundane being. By equating meontology with “creative negativity,” I am not only trying to develop of a positivistic phenomenology of nothingness but one that is much more inviting than what Levinas, for example, envisions—a transcendental otherness lacking any sense of “I-ness.” In other words, Daoist meontology is about how Dao as Ultimate Reality embodies the ontological and ontic states wu and you concurrently, enfolding them into the cosmological nothingness that forever imbues it.

    Bearing this mind, let’s turn to the five types of transcendence Blakeley lists:

    1. Surpass, go beyond. Insufficient in that freedom (Truth?) is attainable only when one returns to the root/source of existence (i.e., nothingness). If Dao subsists in cosmological and ontological nothingness simultaneously, what is there to transcend? Returning to the root is not an outward process, which would lead to self-annihilation; rather, it is an inward letting-be that is carried-out psychologically and epistemologically.

    2. Abstract, ideal. If Dao is Ultimate Reality how can it be abstracted?

    3. Is beyond a certain capacity. If this were true of Dao it would render it mystical which I do not believe to be true. We see in the Zhuangzi many examples of persons who have harmonized with Dao (Butcher Ding, the catcher of cicadas, the bell maker, belt-buckle maker, etc.), thus it is within reach of sages and ordinary persons alike.

    4. Independent order. No, because Dao is no one order while being all orders. Dao does not exist independent of nonbeing, being, or the myriad things. It may be their mother, as Laozi says, but it continues to nurture them to the end of their lives.

    5. Strict transcendence. Here again we see the advantage of ascribing Daoism meontological qualities. Each thing arises from nothingness yet carries this trait of Dao within them in the form of ontic presence-less-ness. The seven holes of the human body, the hollowness of a flute, the empty space that makes a room or a vase possible, none of these are material dependent; rather, they exist due to the malleability of nothingness.

    So, having said all of this, where does this leave us in terms of li transcending qi and vice versa? Well, if we follow texts such as the Heshang Gong commentary to the Daodejing and Ge Hong’s Baopuzi, then qi most certainly precedes li (I’m not sure if it transcends li however) in which case li would refer to the patterning/ordering of qi in the form of the all living things. Meontologically, qi would replace Being in the cosmological hierarchy, pushing it down to the level of ontology. The One, therefore, would become the realm of pure qi that comingles with primal nothingness. From this mixing Being is born, and once there is Being, li follows. In this way, the myriad things appear with their li already present, a type of inborn-nature if you will.

  6. “As you know, the word meontology (in Greek, me on) dates back to the time of Parmenides and Gorgias.”

    ‘Meontology’ doesn’t have that legitimating pedigree. Does it have another?

    Parmenides doesn’t use a term ‘meontologia’. I think the vast majority of scholars regard Parmenides’ use of the phrase μὴ ἐόν (is not) — and related phrases such as τὸ μὴ ἐόν (what is not) — as involving the conceptual mistake of confusing two different ideas with each other: “does not exist” and “does not have (some feature).” At least as late as 1969, neither ‘meontology’ nor any word derived from ‘me on’ (or anything like that) seems to find its way into any anglophone discussion of anything (such as e.g. Gorgias), if the OED team was thorough. That’s the latest OED I have. In the SEP the word appears in two articles on Japanese philosophy.

    The word ‘meontology’ seems on its face to allude to ‘ontology’ (the study of what there is) and thus to suggest that meontology is the study of what there isn’t. I guess that’s not what you mean.

    What I know about the word ‘meontology’ I find in Wikipedia, which says the word refers to a topic or study: the study of “non-being.”

    You seem to use ‘meontology’ differently: to refer to a theory or view. Does that mean your term ‘meontology’ is not the term used by others, but is in fact a new term you have introduced, spelled the same?

    You use the term ‘non-being’. Can you say please what you mean by it?


    I’ll try to paraphrase and respond to your five arguments. Please correct me if I’ve misunderstood.

    (I take them not to be trying to show, that Blakely’s definitions of ‘transcend’ are wrong for use in discussing Daoism, but rather trying to show that the Dao does not transcend other things in any of Blakely’s five senses.)

    1. The Dao doesn’t “surpass or go beyond” other things in any way: for it is less than all other things. It isn’t much; it isn’t anything.

    Response: is that really your view?

    2. The Dao is ultimate reality [but nothing real is abstract]; therefore the Dao cannot be abstract.

    Response: I wonder whether the tacit premise is true. Gravity and dictatorship seem to me both real and abstract. What do you mean by “ultimate” reality? “Ultimate” (last) in what sort of direction or series?

    3. The Dao is within everyone’s ability. Here’s why: (a) Whatever is beyond some people’s ability is mystical; and (b) whatever e.g. butchers and cicada-catchers can do isn’t mystical; and (c) at least according to the Zhuangzi, (c) the Dao is within the ability of butchers and cicada-catchers. From (abc) it follows that the Dao is within everyone’s ability.

    Response: I think premises (a) and (b) are false. And I wonder whether we have any reason to think Zhuangzi thought the Dao is within every butcher’s ability.

    4. The Dao is not an independent order, because it is not independent of anything.

    Response: Not in any way?

    5. (a) Holes are a kind of image of the Dao. (b) Holes are independent of material things, which suggests that (c) the Dao is independent of things. Therefore (d) the Dao is not independent of things; it cannot be accounted for independently of things.

    Response: The inference from (c) to (d) seems to be a mistake.

  7. Thanks for the ongoing discussion, Bill. May I ask what your area of research is?

    You are correct that meontology should be understood in its formal sense as to me on or “the study of non-being.” Perhaps I should have said as such but I didn’t want to turn this thread into a discussion of Greek metaphysics. I do indeed use meontology in the sense of the study of non-being (I define non-being as the presence-less state of ontic being), however, I do not employ to me on in its original negative connotation but as one, in the context of Daoist cosmogony, that exceeds Being in ontological contribution (if you are interested in the semantics of the Greek verb ‘to be,’ I recommend Charles H. Khan’s The Verb ‘Be’ in Ancient Greek, reissued by Hackett in 2003). Wu is not only the root of reality; it is the constancy that precedes it (changwu常無). This is why I refer to it as onto-generative or creative negativity. I guess you can say I am arguing that Daoist nothingness is in fact a type of ontology; it certainly differs from Chinese Buddhist definitions (at least from Zhi Dun onwards).

    You asked what is Ultimate Reality? I take it to be the self-realization of the oneness of things by way of Dao’s potentiality, the root of which lies in nothingness.

    Going back to the five types of transcendence, let’s re-examine them. [1] “Dao is less than…” Not exactly. It is not a question of less or more, higher or lower, inner or outer. These are artificial norms that hold no weight in Daoist cosmogony (for me at least). When I say returning to Dao is an inward experience (not a process), what I mean is that one must inwardly let-go of social, ethical, aesthetic, epistemological, etc., norms so as to release (return to) the nothingness within oneself. It sounds bizarre but I believe the stories of Butcher Ding et al. are conveying exactly this. [2] Ultimate Reality I mentioned above. Dao is not the final frontier but a non-frontier. It is Ultimate in that it is all-encompassing without self-retention. What lies beyond Dao is primal nothingness but this nothingness is also within Dao, hence they are not one and the same but the earliest example of cosmic comingling. [3] Zhuangzi does not say every Butcher is a sage or that every Butcher has the potential to be a sage; instead, the story of Ding is trying to awaken in the reader a sense of the possibility of seeing the world as a collectivity of self-transformation and self-so-ness (ziran) that is inseparable from the oneness of things. To see the ox in such a manner, as both non-being and being, and then apply that to the world at large will lead to one’s freedom. [4] Dao is not independent of anything, itself included. [5] Upon reflection, Hall and Ames’ definition is more problematic than I indicated. If we hold the view that Daoism is meontological (I doubt there are many who do, other than myself), given that A (Dao) is not exclusively transcendent (nor is it exclusively immanent) in relation to B (the myriad things), yet B is dependent upon A for its existence, would such a situation prove Hall and Ames’ premise true or false? I would say it is true from A to B but false when we switch the direction to B to A. What do you think?

    Is this helping at all or am I muddying the matter further?

  8. Does anyone know how I can preserve the formatting when pasting my comments? I seem to have lost the ability to italicize.

  9. Hi David,

    You ask what I study — these days I’m studying mainly general American history, but I haven’t got very far. For the rest, you can find a blurb on the Contributors page (link at the top).

    and see the list below the comment-entry box on the WW&W site.

    I hope to reply further on later day.


  10. Thanks Bill! Those codes take me back to the days of DOS…

    In your introductory blurb it says you are “trying to expand a paper on what it is to represent something.” Are you discussing this from the perspective of epistemology, phenomenology, or something else? Cheers.

    • Thanks for asking. It will take me a while to get to your stuff. My “representing” project is on a back burner now; here to answer your question I’ll post the most recent version of the beginning of the paper.


      How to Think About Representing I: Simpler Cases

      The current English verb ‘represent’ covers a very diverse class of important relations. Species include acting-for, speaking-for, alleging, describing, depicting, symbolizing, indicating (as smoke represents fire), promising (as a proposed factory might represent new jobs), and more. Or we might classify representing relations by their mechanisms: there is representing by similarity, by correlation, by convention or agreement, and perhaps more. If we look to the matter of the representers, we might mention pictorial and linguistic representing; if we look to the arenas, we might mention mental and political representing.

      I shall propose an abstract account of representing in general, amounting to a program for conceiving the myriad specific kinds, and generating a set of principles for thinking fruitfully about these relations.

      The project spans two papers, of which this is the first. The division of topics reflects a distinction between two kinds of representing, cutting across the distinction between primary and secondary representing. Some representing is representation and some is not. For example, ‘Cicero’ represents Cicero, a heart shape represents love, smoke represents fire, and Martha represents everything I ran away from all those years ago; but these representers are not representations and these relations are not representation. But the main representing done by a photo, a resumé, a lawyer or a senator is representation. (Only representation can be misrepresenting.) The first paper presents the general account and discusses relatively simple kinds of representing without concern for whether they are also cases of representation. The second paper discusses complexities that arise in the species of representing that is representation, proposes a differentia by which representation can be defined in terms of representing, and sketches some applications of the account of representing in cognitive science and ethics.

      But I must qualify the generality of my claims, by distinguishing between what I shall tendentiously call primary and secondary representing. Smith says, “In this painting I symbolize Christ by a fish.” And Smith does symbolize Christ, if only in a decidedly secondary sense. We should distinguish similarly between primary and secondary senses of ‘represent’. Roughly, representing X in the secondary sense is intentionally or functionally issuing something to represent it in the primary sense (or more specifically, to be a representation of it). My general account of representing aims only to cover all primary representing; though as I shall explain, the effect is to cover also most cases of secondary representing.

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