Three significant new books have just been published:
- Brook Ziporyn, Ironies of Oneness and Difference: Coherence in Early Chinese Thought; Prolegomena to the Study of Li (SUNY)
- Erica Fox Brindley, Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China (SUNY)
- Tao Jiang and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds., The Reception and Rendition of Freud in China: China’s Freudian Slip (Routledge)
Congratulations to all!
Wow. This is an exciting time for the field.
The publisher’s account of Brook Ziporyn’s book makes me want to rattle on for a while on a theme I’ve rattled before: the idea of coherence. Metaphors make fun puzzles.
Brook Ziporyn traces the distinctive and surprising philosophical journeys found in the works of the formative Confucian and Daoist thinkers back to a prevailing set of assumptions that tends to see questions of identity, value, and knowledge—the subject matter of ontology, ethics, and epistemology in other traditions—as all ultimately relating to questions about coherence in one form or another.
I wonder how we are to understand the term ‘coherence’ here (on the unjustified assumption that the authors are using the English word as itself, not using it merely as a marker for a Chinese term or for a technical notion they introduce).
Offhand it seems to me the term involves two conceptual cores or roots, two simple clear ideas that are then expanded metaphorically.
One fits the etymology. Something coheres when its parts cleave together, as when we glue together two blocks to make a bigger block, or press a handle onto a clay pitcher before firing. The pitcher coheres when its parts adhere to each other.
The other root, for modern English-speakers, is the notion of logical coherence, which is consistency or the lack of contradiction. This is perhaps related to the first root by way of the idea that if two views are consistent with each other, at least they can stay together in the sense of both staying in one head. But the simplicity and clarity of this second root gives it some force, I suppose, as an independent root.
We also speak of the coherence of a plan, of a novel or a building, etc., probably by way of metaphorical expansion of the image of parts holding together v. falling apart. We can also distinguish some kinds of coherence in a novel: stylistic coherence, plot coherence, etc.
The image of parts sticking together may fit early pictures of the imperative of social organization. Ritual keeps the parts of society together: keeps high and low together, keeps Lu and Song together, keeps father and son together.
Parmenides thought non-contradiction required that the world have no differences at all. Maybe the basic idea of BZ’s book is that early Chinese unity is not like Eleatic unity, for which the primal image is the absence of internal differences. Rather, the primal image is the staying together of parts. (It seems like a toss-up, offhand, whether we should say that a Greek atom, a thing that lacks parts, is in the physical sense maximally coherent, or not at all coherent.)
When I ask myself why Western philosophy has been interested in unity, what unity has meant here, what mainly comes to mind is explanatory simplicity – which has led to some pretty complicated ideas of unity, such as the idea of a substance, as one thing.
Conceptions of unity, visions of unity – I think that means, ways of using the number 1 as a metaphor.
I expressed a worry a while back about using ‘coherence’ to translate li理,on the grounds that the image of li 理 is that of a pattern of veins rather than a bunch of distinct parts glued together along planes that thus represent the main loci of potential disunity. But the objection depends, I supposed, on how the function of the veins is conceived. If we think of the veins on the model of the reinforcing rods that were missing from the Sichuan schoolhouses, or the web of fine wire in reinforced glass, or the lines of relationship that hold people and classes together, then we are thinking of them as the (agents of) coherence of the thing they run through.
But maybe using ‘coherence’ to translate li 理 is intended to suggest not the existence and strength of the veins, but rather something like the stylistic or other coherence – uniformity? repetition? – of the pattern of veins. This idea is not, I think, a natural metaphorical extension of the image of the veins as reinforcing wires. Is a pattern of reinforcing wires a more coherent pattern if the wires are parallel? They hold the object together better if they are tangled, or run in all directions.
If we envision coherence among the veins as accurate repetition – as in a tartan plaid or a fractal curve – then the unity they can give an object is only a kind of internal uniformity: the unity of a crystal, a clump of algae, or a patch of moss, rather than the unity of an organized organism. Coherence of pattern within an object could not explain the wholeness of the object; it could not explain why a certain chunk of crystal is one thing rather than half a thing, or two things together. (It could suggest the unity of a single element, one instance of the repeated pattern (if the pattern is not fractal); but such an element would lack the coherence that is internal repetition.)
Or maybe repetition does explain wholeness in a thin sense. The degree of uniform repetition of pattern we find in a large salt crystal is greater than the degree of repetition we find in a pile of table salt; the former approaches being perfect in some sense; and that point seems closely related to the point that the crystal physically coheres while the powder does not.
Let’s return for a moment to the examples of a novel’s coherence of style and coherence of plot (never mind other kinds of coherence in a novel, such as coherence of style with plot). Coherence of style is something sort of like uniformity of style. Coherence of plot, one might think at first, is something sort of like non-contradiction. Or do we want to say “coherence” of plot also involves something like the completeness of an elegant trajectory? I think we do. And that image seems akin to the idea of the wholeness of an organism, or at least not as vividly alien to it.
But I wonder: what does this idea of a complete elegant trajectory, an ordered whole, have to do with either of the two roots I mentioned earlier – non-contradiction or the adhesion of parts? What justifies us in calling it a kind of “coherence”? If the answer is that a nice trajectory is especially coherent with the function of a plot (i.e. especially consistent with the function of a plot), then really the operative idea seems to be the function of a plot rather than coherence.
Maybe the idea of wholeness, the kind of unity that an organism has and a crystal lacks, what distinguishes a thing from a stuff, is simply not among the main concerns of early Chinese thought? Maybe that’s a main point of the book?
If so, then the following may be an interesting point about “coherence.” One might have thought all along that I was wrong to think about that word in terms of simple roots, radical ideas. Rather, one might think, the word is most at home in less clear but more complex paradigms, such as the coherence of a novel or a presentation. One might think further that the coherence of a novel especially involves overall organization, elegant completeness of trajectory, that sort of thing. (The kind of thing Aristotle was on about, in thinking about substances and final causes.) And what I want to propose about this is that IF the point of the book is what I guessed in the previous paragraph, then this sophisticated notion of coherence doesn’t suit the book’s purpose.
(Of course there will be all sorts of puzzles any time one develops abstract ideas, especially when one keeps an eye on root images. It’s clear even from the book’s title that the book takes early Chinese thinkers to have been quite alive to the limits of simple images.)
There is a kind of unity to the pattern of an empire or a tree, that is different from repetition and different from completeness of trajectory. It is that the lines of the empire come together in one person, and the lines of a tree come together in one 本, one stem at ground level. One might also envision one’s family as lines of relationship all emanating from one ancestor (or from oneself in both directions), and a river as lines all tending toward one mouth, and a skeleton as bones all branching out from one spine or head. Is the word “coherence” well or poorly suited to suggest this kind of unity?
Unlike the coherence that is repetition, coherence based on a common 本 is a natural extension of the image of reinforcing wires. But it is like repetition in not doing a great job of accounting for wholeness. If it explains the extent of the unified object, the explanation is by way of the number, extent, and strength of the wires; not by way of the fact that they have a common 本.
This kind of centered unity suggests a fun image of the contrast between Chinese and Greek images of order and meaning: Chinese order is endoskeletal and Greek order is exoskeletal. China thinks of word-meanings as core images extended; Greece thinks of word-meanings as conceptual boundaries around sets of instances. Greece has laws that set boundaries; China has models or 法. China thinks of veins; Greece imagines form as shape. When did we start contrasting form with content, as though a form is a vessel? What shape most saliently promises to explain is wholeness, the limits of one thing, the elegance of a trajectory.
There’s a kind of elegance or coherence to certain shapes – circles, regular polygons – that is not saliently related to any idea of a 本 – though I suppose that depends on how important to one’s conception of a circle is the notion of equidistance from a point. In any case it’s a vanishing point.