Ng on Li 理

NG Kai-chiu has published a new article in the Soochow Journal of Philosophical Studies 東吳哲學學報 (in Chinese) titled “Rethinking Zhu Xi’s Li: ‘Principle of Existence’ or ‘Pattern’?” that considers the interpretation of li 理 as “Pattern” offered my Justin Tiwald and me in Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Interpretation. The abstract follows, and the whole paper (and others from the same issue) can be accessed here.


In interpreting Zhu Xi’s (1130-1200) primary ontological concept, li, I used to adopt “principle of existence” (PoE) proposed by Mou Zongsan (1909-1995) and, in a sense, also by Yung Sik Kim. PoE denotes the ontological ground of all beings, without which nothing can exist. However, Stephen C. Angle and Justin Tiwald’s recent book, Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction, has made me reconsider my view. Previously, a popular interpretation of li as pattern(s) (p is lowercase and can be plural) deterred me with its reductionism that there are only qi’s or things’ patterns – empirical lis – and thus misses Zhu Xi’s view that li is ultimately “above form” or metaphysical. Angle and Tiwald make a breakthrough by interpreting li as Pattern (P is uppercase and can only be singular) to indicate that above various empirical things’ patterns there is one highest and common Pattern, namely, “life-giving generativity”, to guide all things in the universe. By regarding different patterns as various particular manifestations of the one Pattern, Zhu Xi’s two-tier worldview is thus preserved. This paper therefore rethinks Zhu Xi’s li by comparing this refined li-as-Pattern with li-as-PoE I used to advocate. It concludes that li-as-Pattern is a superior interpretation as it captures better three of Zhu Xi’s ontological views: “li can be partial or complete”, “li is not an entity”, and “li is above form”.

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