Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Qi (氣), Moral Psychology, Humours, and Phlogiston

I’ve been thinking about some qi-related things, but only around the periphery, so maybe you all (as usual) can help me get more into it:

  1. To what extent does “accepting” or defending Mencius’ moral psychology require acceptance of qi-cosmology or qi-physiology?
  2. Same question as 1, but with respect to Neo-Confucian moral psychology in Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi).
  3. Is reverting to qi-based cosmology, physiology, medicine, psychology, etc. as problematic as it would be to revert to “humours” medical theory or phlogiston physical theory? Or is any of that problematic–my instinct is to say yes to all three but that might just be knee-jerk scientism.

My interest in this is, of course, about contemporary relevance of either Warring States or Song-Ming Dynasty Confucianism.

February 9th, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Mencius | 19 comments

19 Responses to Qi (氣), Moral Psychology, Humours, and Phlogiston

  1. Dan Robins says:

    I’d say that accepting Mencian moral psychology does require accepting (physiological) qi-talk. But I don’t think the cases of the humours and phlogiston are truly analogous.

    As I understand it, those were both kinds of stuff that were originally posited in scientific theories, which is to say that they did not have a role in ordinary thought and talk about bodies or combustion. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but if I’m not, then once the theories that posited humours and phlogiston turned out to be false, there wasn’t any basis for going on to talk about them.

    By contrast, I think qi, or the concept of qi, did have an important place in ordinary thought and talk about psychology and physiology, independent of its eventual role in various theories. And my own view is that such thought and talk is not undermined if the concepts it uses end up having no role in correct scientific theories.

    This is, for example, how I respond to the argument that maybe we really don’t have beliefs and desires, because maybe the psychologists of the future will conclude that human cognition is fundamentally non-propositional; I think that even if this does happen, it will still be reasonable to go on talking about what we believe and what we desire.

    What I’m suggesting is that the concept of qi had a role in a sort of folk psychology or folk physiology, and that gives it a basis that is not threatened by scientific discovery. (I confess I also sometimes find it a useful concept in my own folkish talk, when, for example, I find myself all out of qi.) So perhaps on this point I am more optimistic about the possible contemporary relevance of Mencian moral psychology than you are.

    (Hmm, when I say that I’m in a good or bad humour, is that the concept of humour that was once at work in medical theory? Because if so, then the concept of a humour does seem to have outlived its use in scientific theories.)

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Hmmm. I think qi is better compared to prana in Yoga psychology and physiology and perhaps even guna theory in Indic religous philosophy in general. Qi is a metaphysical notion as well (at once moral and physical, spiritual and material, hence the macrocosmic/microcosmic correspondences). Humoral theory may survive in our understanding of psychological temperament.

    Why the notion of reversion here? Is not qi part of contemporary Chinese medical doctrine (while the humours are no longer a substantive part of Western medicine since the advent of biomedicine)? Do we speak of “reverting” to Ayurvedic medicine? If the scientifc or biological concepts of biomedicine (in which the body is treated much like a machine) necessarily trump all non-Western medicine, well….

    My interest in qi is owing largely to its role in Chinese medical doctrine, in which case I think the neurosurgeon, philosopher, and professor of medical ethics, Grant Gillet, may be on to something when he writes in his book, Bioethics in the Clinic: Hippocratic Reflections (2004), that there is no need to undermine the “purpose-driven cognitive maps of a domain of praxis” like that grounded in biomedical knowledge in “permit[ting] alternative conceptualizations where the phenomena covered are complex and may be produced by the interaction of multiple factors.”

  3. Boram Lee says:

    [1] In response to the first question, I’m inclined to say “not much”: for the most part Mencius doesn’t talk about qi in a philosophically significant way, except in 2A2. Or does he?

    There are passages in the Neiye chapter of the Guanzi, and the inner chapters of the Zhuangzi (e.g., Ch.4, the dialogue btw. Kongzi and Yan Hui on the fasting of the heart), that seem related to 2A2. The shared picture in these passages seems to be that the heart is the window to that which quickens the myriad things of the world: the qi or vital energy. The mystical merger with the world at large seems to be achieved either meditation or deep introspection, with the heart serving as the gateway between the microcosmic self and macrocosmic qi.

    Does this remind anyone of the Upanishads? The Upanishads talk about the same sort of mystical union with Brahman: the Atman can be found in the heart, “smaller than the smallest atom, greater than the vast spaces”, which connects you to Brahman. Likewise, the Neiye (“Inward Training”) chapter of Guanzi talks about the “magical qi in the heart”, “So small there’s no smaller inside it / So great there’s no greater outside it.” Apparently there used to be some speculation that “atman” originally meant ‘breath”, like qi, but I’m not sure whether this is right or not.

    To me, as a matter of philosophical taste, this is all mystical mumbo-jumbo. The view that one can directly intuit deep truths about the world via introspection seems more implausible to me than rationalism, the view that one can get reliable information about the world through reason independently of experience. So I hope it is not an essential part of Mencius’s moral psychology.

    [2] In response to the second question, I just don’t know much about Neo-Confucianism to give a helpful answer.
    So here are my amateurish impressions (and this goes also for what I said in [1]).

    Qi-talk among Neo-Confucians post Cheng Yi (who also brought in talk of li or principle) seems analogous to Aristotle’s talk of matter (as contasted with forms). Insofar as we view Aristotle’s hylomorphism as a viable philosophical option in metaphysics today, I don’t see why we couldn’t do the same with Neo-Confucian metaphysics of qi and li.

    As for the relevance of this metaphysics to moral psychology, from what I hear it is the Korean Neo-Confucians (Yi T’oegye and Yi Yulgok) who made important forays into this area, in their Four-Seven debate (four beginnings and the seven emotions). Eventually I should get into that stuff, but as a Korean I’m ashamed to say I don’t know more. (My excuse is that to properly understand the debate I have to be well-versed in Song Neo-Confucianism first.)

  4. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    “Mystical mumbo-jumbo”–Does this mean you think mysticism is mumbo-jumbo (as in ‘mystification’)? And do you think mysticism means to “intuit deep truths about the world via introspection?” I don’t think I would characterize the development of states of consciousness one finds in mysticism as simply a process of “introspection.” Is the experience of nirguna Brahman in Advaita Vedanta so much “mystical mumbo-jumbo?” Are philosophy and mysticism incompatible?

  5. Boram Lee says:


    My answer to your first two questions, I think (and unfortunately) would be “yes”. The progression through the four states of consciousness in the Upanishads, as it seems to me, outlines a special sort of introspection, where attention is withdrawn from all external objects, and also from all internal objects of thought and feeling, until only the pure subject that cannot become an object (sort of like Kant’s transcendental ego) remains. Now that’s what the experience of Atman is like. What I cannot fathom is how this experience also is one and the same as union with Brahman (i.e., the world, or the rather the underlying unity of the world). But more than that, how is it KNOWN that this experience is identical to being one with Brahman?

    I do not see how the experience itself, achieved by withdrawing attention from the outside world and from internal thoughts and sensations, can bring that knowledge. If that knowledge can be attained at all, it must be via negativa, by refuting other positions, etc. Now that I can recognize as philosophy, as practiced by Nagarjuna (Madhyamaka) or Shriharsha (Advaita Vedanta).

    So my answer to the third question, whether philosophy and mysticism are incompatible, is (thankfully) “no”. But to be clear, I doubt that any positive truths can be arrived at via mysticism unless those positive truths are about oneself. (So I don’t see any problems with using the introspective method to discover one’s Atman, but using the method to discover the truth of the mahavakya: “Atman is Brahman” seems to me questionable, indeed impossible.)

  6. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I wasn’t speaking to the Upanisads as such, but rather mystical praxis as found in Advaita Vedanta. I’ll ultimately defer to Shankara on “what the experience of atman is like,” for if Atman *is* Brahman, then the experience of (nirguna) Brahman realization is what we are referring to here. As to Brahman:

    Brahman: the impersonal absolute; Ultimate Reality; ‘One without a second;’ Brahman is the principle of neutral monism within Advaita Vedānta, and no qualities or attributes can be predicated of Brahman, as it is beyond conceptualization. The jñāna yogi pursues a mystical awareness of that which cannot be an ‘object’ of knowledge, as Brahman transcends subject-object distinction. Brahman is ātman. Realization of Brahman is the supreme good that brings about freedom from fear and evil. The apprehension of Brahman is evocatively summarized in the formulaic expression, saccidānanda, being (sat), consciousness (cit), and bliss (ānanda). If Brahman defies all description and characterization, is beyond all predication, how can one say, for example, that ‘Brahman is truth?’ According to Eliot Deutsch, ‘To say “Brahman is truth,” negates the quality of untruth—and this negation, it is believed, serves pragmatically to orient the mind towards Brahman. All characterizations of Brahman, in short, are intended in their experiential dimension to aid those who are searching for Brahman but have not yet realized it.’ Advaita Vedānta distinguishes two modes of Brahman: nirguna and saguna. Nirguna Brahman is what we have been discussing up to this point, that transcendent indeterminate state of mystical awareness about which nothing can be affirmed (hence the via negativa or apophatic tradition of mysticism is germane). To experientially ‘know’ Brahman is to experience moksa, to be liberated from the beginningless cycles of samsāra, to nullify any further generation of karma. Until such time as we realize (nirguna) Brahman, we are perfectly fit to focus our spiritual energy and sights on saguna Brahman, that is, God with qualities, attributes, or properties. Saguna Brahman is Brahman understood by the yogi or devotee from her necessarily limited, partial, or relative perspective, in which all knowledge and understanding is qualified by ignorance. From this vantage point (saguna) Brahman is Lord, Īśvara, the proper object of our devotion and admitting of degrees of spiritual experience and understanding. Until one has the intuitive spiritual experience of non-duality, an awareness in which all distinctions, plurality, and difference are transcended and obliterated, until that is, nirvikalpa samadhi, one must acknowledge the consequences that follow entanglement in māyā (illusion) and being shadowed by avidyā (ignorance). The illusion, in other words, is for most purposes, real for us. It is an illusion created by the power (śakti) of Īśvara, the Great Magician who created the world. Māyā, in turn, has its own power, for it both conceals reality (āvarana-śakti) and misrepresents or distorts reality (viksepa-śakti). The phenomenal world as we know it (Plato’s ‘Many,’ ‘the ten thousand things’ in classical Chinese worldviews) is neither true reality (sat), nor is it fair to call it non-reality (asat) (e.g. the hare’s horn, or the square circle), rather, it has the status of ‘provisional reality’ (mithya). Another way to say this is that the world is ‘relatively true’ (vyāvahārika) for us, rather than absolutely true, or the ‘ultimate reality’ (pāramārthika). While Īśvara knows himself as Brahman, we know Īśvara as a personal God, for ours is the vantage point of a provisional and relative reality, not (yet) that of ultimate reality. Rāmānuja’s Viśistādvaita Vedānta incorporates Vaisnava devotionalism (bhakti) and cannot accept the aforementioned distinction between nirguna and saguna Brahman. Rāmānuja expounds a doctrine that appears to be in keeping with the notion of ‘difference-cum-non-difference’ (or identity-in-difference) (bhedābheda-vāda) as found in the Brahma Sūtra. There it is explained that the individual self or life-monad is non-different (abheda) from its cause, being a part of Brahman. However, that life-monad did not create the world, nor is Brahman subject to suffering, so these two remain in some sense distinct (bheda). Brahman does inhere (‘ensouls’) in each individual self, yet he is a totality that is more than or transcends the sum of its parts. Brahman is the ground of being or of the universe, yet the individual self (selves) is (are) a ‘mode’ (prakāra) of Brahman, as both the universe and life-monads are like God’s (subtle) body, part of God yet not identical, as it were, to (the soul of?) God. Rāmānuja’s absolute is much closer to Advaita’s saguna Brahman. Brahman in himself is non-dual, yet he is qualified by or characterized by, in part (bodily part!), the cosmos and individual life-monads. Moreover, Rāmānuja’s epistemology precludes the possibility of an awareness of a nirguna Brahman (were there even such a thing), for he does not believe we can have a non-conceptual awareness (nirvikalpa jñāna) of reality, for knowledge is always determinate (savikalpaka) in nature, and thus we can come to know and devote ourselves to the Lord as endowed with personal qualities. In sum, the relationship between Brahman and the individual selves is the same as that between the individual ātman and the body it inhabits, Brahman ensouls the cosmos and individual selves, as their inner controller (antaryāmin) and they are modes of Brahman, that is, Brahman in a certain state of being, but they are not identical to Brahman, no more than, say, my head and arms are identical to me (and yet they are in some sense me or a part of me)! Creation is in effect the transformation of Brahman’s body from the subtle (sūksma) to the gross (sthūla) level of manifestation. The changeless (soul of ?) God underlies the changes undergone by God’s body (life-monads and the cosmos itself), thus God is both changing and changeless without contradiction (again, difference-cum-non-difference).

    Nagarjuna and Shirharsha were not armchair or academic philosophers but members of spiritual traditions that put a premium on meditation practice(s) (and prayer, etc.). Their philosophizing could thus be said to be in conjunction with such meditation and the cultivation of states of consciousness not unlike those discussed by Patanjali (of Yoga Sutra fame of course, not the grammarian; however, in Tibetan Buddhism there is an implicit critique of resting content with asamprajnata-samadhi or non-conceptual awareness of reality). This is one reason we find the notion of “analytical meditations” in Mahayana Buddhism (the Eightfold Paths has *three* parts). Philosophy and mysticism are here two sides of the same coin. The via negativa, in other words, is not simply or only about philosophical dialectics or the refutation of positions. Apophatic mysticism is about an “emptying of consciousness.” See discussions of “emptiness” in, for instance, Elizabeth Napper’s Dependent-Arising and Emptiness (1989) or Jeffrey Hopkins’ Meditation on Emptiness (1996 ed.). In large measure, my understanding of mysticism is similar to that of Robert K.C. Forman.

    If mysticism *is” mumbo-jumbo, as you say, and yet philsosophy and mysticism are nonetheless compatible, it seems we arrive at the conclusion that philosophy and mumbo-jumbo are compatible!

    As to the positive truths of mysticism, I suspect the Buddhists would claim otherwise: cf., for example, the “three marks of existence.”

    Well, so as to avoid completely unraveling or hijacking this thread, I’ll stop now.

  7. Boram Lee says:


    I’ve read through your response. Are we having a discussion here or is this a lecture? Lost in that forest of information is an answer to my challenge, as to how getting in touch with one’s Atman via meditation and introspection can yield knowledge of the truth of “Atman is Brahman”.

    Anyway, back to grading and writing my paper. Sorry for derailing the thread and my slightly bitter tone. (Pulling an all-nighter here… thank heavens for blogging and coffee.)

  8. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    I’m sorry you took the explication or attempt at explanation to be a lecture. On the other hand, the perception of it as a lecture may be revealing in a Freudian sort of way! Or perhaps it’s my age, impatience and impertinence that get the better of me, so I lapse now and again into that “lecture” mode, especially if I’m uncertain as to what my interlocutor may know. 😉 So others privy to our discussion who know nothing of this stuff might benefit, even if for you it was a waste of time and space with regard to answering your question. In other words, and for that reason, pehaps you can indulge and forgive me for their sake.

    Look, not having had Brahman realization, the experience of nirguna Brahman, I can hardly say precisely how this form of spiritual experience occurs, how the forms of spiritual praxis and philosophical inquiry in this tradition can yield the para-cognitive apprehension of Ultimate Reality. I can only share what I know of how it is accounted for in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta.

    Atman can be fruitfully seen as *principle of individuation*, and its polyvalent meaning (or, if you prefer, semantic ambiguity) in the Upanishads allows one to use it to designate the change in awareness from the conditioned experience of personal identity (which, technically speaking, is jiva), to a term that designates what, utimately, grounds that identity, namely, Brahman. Thus the self (jiva) with desires, with mental activities, with impure consciousness, the self as ego, misapprehends the true nature of reality, yet that misapprehension is nonetheless itself grounded in what is ultimately and truly Atman (used instead of Brahman by way of focusing on the individual character of our experience), and thus that which is intended by the Atman=Brahman equation. Use of the term in this way is captured in the standard Advaita Vedantin argument that “No one can doubt the fact of his own existence. Were one to do so, who could the doubter be?” Eliot Deutsch explains: “A subtle and unsupported transition is made between the Atman and the jiva (the individual conscious being) so that the argument does not so much prove the Atman as it does the jiva–the jiva, which has the kind of self-consciousness described in, and presupposed by the argument, and not the Atman, which is pure consciousness.” The jiva as qualified consciousness is capable of awakening to that which is its true ground, Atman, and this transformation of consciousness is captured by the “thou art that” (tat tvam asi) formula in the Upanishads. Conventional experience is thus said to be a combination of reality and appearance, because from the other side, as it were, this combination is reflective of ignorance and illusion (maya), which can be overcome with Brahman realization, that possibility being the reality that ultimately underlies the appearance. So the “atman” or jiva is for all intent and purposes real until such time as one has the Brahman experience, for then reality is revealed as not *ultimately* real, one now having had the experiential realization characterized as “being, consciousness, bliss,” but which is beyond all conceptual formulation or intellectual cognition. Deutsch reminds us of the tradition’s principal metaphors or theories (pratibimba-vada and avacceda-vada) in this regard, the first stemming from maya and the second from avidya: the jiva as a reflection of Atman on the mirror of avidya, “and as such it is not-different from Atman in essence” [one thinks of the mirror metaphor in the Daodejing], and the individual as “not so much a reflection of consciousness as…a limitation of it; a limitation that is constituted by the upadhi of ignorance.” In the latter case, we “superimpose” jiva on Atman, analogous to how the physicist might say we superimpose our perceptual categories on the table: as a material and solid thing, when it is “in reality” (assuming scientific realism here) more space than solidity and that space made up of dancing atoms, etc. (or however else the physicist these days is characterizing what we understand as material objects with this or that conventional property but when examined with the observational means provided by science, are described in a rather different way). I’d go on, but that brings with it the risk of lecturing, so this will have to suffice as my feeble attempt to make sense of what it means to say that spiritual praxis and philosophizing can prepare the mind for the awareness revealed in what is designated by the phrase Atman is Brahman, which in ons sense is tritely true but inasmuch as it refers to what is possible as regards personal transformation, insofar as it points to our capacity to experience Ultimate Reality (an experience that transcends subject/object epistemology, that is said to be timeless and spaceless, that is characterized as a pure, undifferentiated or unconditioned self-luminous consciousness), might be said to convey a profound truth.

  9. Boram Lee says:


    I regret my earlier outburst 🙂 And this is an interesting discussion, so I cannot help but respond.

    [1] I think there was some miscommunication between us, hence my (now I think mistaken) impression that you were lecturing without responding to my question. You take “Atman is Brahman” to be a trivial claim, and so by exlaining Brahman you were explaining Atman as well. I don’t take it to be a trivial claim; instead, it seems to be presented as an interesting and exciting discovery, and its proclamation in the Upanishads seems to be accompanied by a sense of exhilaration. Let me explain what I mean.

    “Hesperus is Phosphorus” is not trivial. To use Frege’s terminology, the statement is true because ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ have the same referent (Bedeutung), but non-trivial because the terms are associated with different senses (Sinne), different ways of picking out the referent. Thus prior to the discovery that both ‘Hesperus’ and “Phosphorus’ refer to the planet Venus, it was epistemically possible that Hesperus (the evening star) was different from Phosphorus (the morning star), and the discovery might have been surprising. Likewise for the claim, “Atman is Brahman” or “Thou art That”. Although the referent of ‘Atman’ and ‘Brahman’ is the same ultimate reality, it has the rough meaning (in terms of Sinne) “the self is the world”.

    So I’m interested in knowing how truth of “Atman is Brahman”, understood as a non-trivial identity statement, is discovered. And my challenge is that it cannot be discovered through methods of meditation or introspection.

    But if you insist on its being trivially true, let me rephrase my challenge: how does the yogi know that what s/he experiences in meditation or introspection is Brahman?

    [2] Add to this the challenge that the nature of self cannot be determined through introspection alone. Descartes knew this. Introspection told him that the self is at least a thinking thing, but it cannot tell him that the self is essentially the mind and not body. Introspective awareness cannot reveal whether the mind is the physical brain or not. So Descartes adds some arguments purporting to show that the mind is distinct from the body.

    In the same way, I doubt that introspection or meditation can reveal the true nature of Atman (to revise my earlier claim in Comment #5). Some may believe that it does, out of religious conviction, but I wouldn’t count that as doing philosophy.

    [3] So, I do not appreciate the identity statements (the great sayings or the mahavakyas) of the Upanishads as philosophical statements. But when I label this as “mumbo-jumbo” I don’t mean to disparage it. Wittgenstein, for instance, thought there was “important” nonsense.

    In general I cannot understand how mystics can believe what they do, but I see that it is important to them, and I see how it moves them. Seeing how it affects them it touches me too (it’s human nature to be moved by sincere expression), but only vicariously. So I appreciate mysticism not from a philosophical point of view, but (for lack of a better word) aesthetically. And I don’t mean to exclude philosophical defenses of mystical claims.

  10. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    I don’t take it to be a “trivial claim” but only, in *one specific sense*, as explained above, “tritely true.” I thought I made all the qualifications necessary whereby one might see how, in one sense, it is indeed “trivially true” yet in other senses and for other purposes, this is not at all the case. And I do understand the Fregean difference between sense and reference.

    While there is a sense in which such experiences are said to “self authenticating,” religious traditions, be they Sufism or Advaita Vedanta have formal and informal criteria to help authenticate such “claims,” so a person walking down the street muttering to himself, “I am God,” is not necessarily (indeed, for various religious reasons, we would be presumptively skeptical that he is) expressing a mystical experience of identity with the Godhead. He may be displaying symptoms of mental illness. Mystical experience irradiates one’s being as it were, providing in a certain sense, an “irruption” of spiritual value into one’s existence, provoking a change in attitude and behavior that profoundly affects those around one, with subtle and not-so-subtle effects that are manifest in the moral and spiritual fabric of one’s life and those around one. In the end, the proof is in the pudding, that is, it is embodied spiritual and ethical praxis that vindicates such experiences, not philosophical argument, however much the latter may illuminate this or that feature of our spiritual experiences. By trusting one learns to trust, and so on. I suspect the rarity of such claims within a tradition is testament to the difficulties of “faking it,” to the relative ease one’s spiritual mentors and fellow-seekers can discriminate between delusion, illusion, and illumination.

    I don’t find Descartes to be a reliable guide when it comes to questions of personal identity and self-discovery.

    I never claimed meditation is “doing philosophy” but, as in Buddhism, it can work hand-in-hand with meditation, as in my references above on Tibetan Buddhist discussions of “emptiness.”

    The famous (or infamous) identity statements of the Upanishads have philosophical ramifications and implications within the larger context of Indic worldviews, so I would not characterize them, in the first instance, as “philosophical statements.”

    You are using “mumbo jumbo” in a highly stipulative sense if you don’t mean it disparagingly. It’s like neuroscientists who refer to spirituality and (non-naturalist) metaphysics as so much “spookiness” but then proceed to say, “well, I didn’t intend that to be pejorative”!

    I endeavor to appreciate mysticism from ethical, psychological, philosophical and (above all) spiritual points of view, and only secondarily or derivatively from an “aesthetic” one, recalling with Plato that it is frequently through beauty that one is first attracted to the Good.

    With John Cottingham, I’ll close with Gabriel Marcel’s distinction (and Cottingham’s comment thereon) between the *mysterious” and the *problematic*:

    “A problem is something met with which bars my passage. It is before me in its entirety. A mystery, on the other hand, is something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is therefore not to be before me in its entirety…. A genuine problem is subject to an appropriate technique by the exercise of which it is defined, whereas a mystery, by definition, transcends every conceivable technique. It is, no doubt, always possible (logically and psychologically) to degrade a mystery so as to turn it into a problem. But this is a fundamentally vicious proceeding, whose springs might perhaps be discovered in a kind of corruption of the intelligence.”

    Writes Cottingham: “The controlling intellect will always try to domesticate things, thereby eroding their strangeness; and we look to mystics, and indeed to the creative artists, poets, and musicians, to reawaken that strangeness for us.”

    As enjoyable as it was, this will have to be the end of my part of the discussion. And with deep apologies to Manyul for going so off track from the thread’s original post.

  11. Steve Angle says:

    If I might nudge this conversation back to one of Manyul’s original questions, I’ve been thinking a bit about qi and neo-Confucianism lately. My class on neo-Confucianism has just finished talking about Zhang Zai, who is most responsible for putting qi into the forefront of Song dynasty Confucian conversations. We also read a couple of essays, by Michael Kalton and Tu Weiming, on the contemporary relevance of neo-Confucianism to thinking about ecological issues. Both Kalton and Tu recognize that figuring out how to think about qi is really important to such a project. Kalton’s particularly interesting as he talks about how qi-based theories might fare in an encounter with contemporary science.

    Does taking neo-Confucian philosophy seriously require accepting some particular views about qi? Here are three considerations:

    (1) One must be willing to accept or at least work from a folk-ontology that centers on qi (and, not for Zhang Zai but for most subsequent folks in the tradition, li). For instance, thinking about the ontological status of memories, desires, emotions, and chairs, trees, human beings, as fundamentally continuous. Most changes to ourselves will be physical-cum-psychological; it must be natural to think about our functionings as cognitive-cum-affective; etc.

    (2) There’s a lot of range within the tradition. Zhang Zai thought that the “above form” and “below form” were continuous and both composed of qi. Many subsequent thinkers criticized this position, though in what sense there could be li without qi was of course much debated. Anyone today who wants to “take seriously” the tradition can do so by building on whatever strand of this discussion he/she finds most plausible. (For me, for instance, I find the Ming thinker Luo Qinshun often to have the most plausible things to say about li and qi.)

    (3) Kalton argues that to think of the relative “turbidity” of qi as in an important way *explanatory* is deeply problematic, and endeavors to point toward a reconceptualization that does away with this idea. Without here engaging with the details of his argument, it seems to me that this is precisely an example of taking the tradition seriously.

    OK, that’s all I’ll say for now. Except that I’m new to blogging, and want to thank Manyul for drawing me out!

  12. Manyul Im says:

    This is an interesting string. I don’t know enough about atman (except that I am that) to say much, so I’ll restrict myself mostly to what I can talk about.

    On Dan’s point about the folk-psychological status of qi, there are two reactions I have. On the one hand, what’s the evidence of that for early China? The evidence seems to self-select for a high literary/philosophical culture, doesn’t it? Maybe by now qi is folk-psychological, but I’m not so sure of that either. Qi discourse isn’t rampant in normal speech the way that belief and desire discourse is. It seems mostly to appear in contexts where its theoretical status is important: martial arts, non-martial arts, medicine, and philosophy. On the other hand, I wonder if that would really resolve my “discomfort” with the idea of adopting qi-discourse in contemporary moral theorizing. It’s one thing for qi-discourse to be folk-psychological, it’s another thing for the folk-psychology that is narrowly (relative to universal, or close to universal, folk-psychology of beliefs and desires) of a different culture to be taken seriously, or even understood, within another tradition. I’m not saying that it is impossible; I do think the theoretical tendency would be–or maybe should be–to try to eliminate the differences in qi-discourse by converting it into something more familiar. That kind of assimilation would probably be less than perfect. An analogy: the conception of the “atom” in contemporary physical theory is really conceptually at odds with most (all?) prior conceptions.

    For Boram on Mencius: I think 2A2, as anomalous as it seems, has to be taken seriously in giving an overall systematization–to the extent that is possible–of Mencius’ views of uprightness (yi) and of moral influence. You are right, I think, if you still doubt the necessity of doing so in order to make Mencius relevant today. I’m mostly wondering how much of Mencius’ views depend on the underlying qi-physio-psychology. Also, I’m not sure that mysticism is so near at hand if we attribute qi-theories to a philosophy. My worries are less about mysticism than about some sorts of Kuhnian incommensurability issues.

    For Patrick on Chinese medicine: I do think, increasingly, Western medical establishment is willing to engage non-Western clinical practices–largely from pragmatic considerations about therapeutic effect on patients. At a theoretical level, however, I often see pharmacological and neural explanations of the success of non-Western medicines and techniques that do not reproduce the discourse of qi, but instead rely on standard chemical and physiological language. Maybe that says more about the sociology of the current medical establishment, but I’m inclined to think it has more generally to do with how a “received theory” absorbs and explains the apparent successes under other paradigms–not to get too Kuhnian.

    Welcome, Steve. With reference only to your first consideration, as with Dan’s post, I’m not sure how much to assume the idea that qi is part of a folk-ontology, rather than something that has a primary role in specialized theories, including neo-Confucian moral psychology. Do people really talk in terms of qi in non-specialized contexts (see my comments directed to Dan)? I’m skeptical, not just taking a rhetorical stance.

  13. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    “I often see pharmacological and neural explanations of the success of non-Western medicines and techniques that do not reproduce the discourse of qi, but instead rely on standard chemical and physiological language.”

    Interesting: while that may be true for some materia medica and massage, I have not seen that to be case with regard to therapeutic modalities like acupuncture, moxibustion or qigong.

    The paper I sent you discusses the willingness of the Western medical estblishment to “engage” so-called alternative and complementary medicines. By engagement here we are referring to the need for these therapeutic modalities to pass through the sieve of evidence-based medicine (EBM). Some therapies may thereby be judged effective, but there remains a lack of scientific and biomedical terms to explain the precise causal mechanisms that account for their efficacy. Much of contemporary Chinese medical practice, which is called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), as you hint in the remark about sociology, is in fact a blend of Chinese and Western medical practices (again, discussed in my paper). Hence I like to distinguish TCM from Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM) proper. To the extent the biomedical establishment has recognized the therapeutic efficacy of this or that therapy (up until now, some uses found for acupuncture), it has also ignored the corresponding medical doctrine as irrelevant because non-scientific. This effectively denudes much of what is unique about the CCM approach to health and healing, its holistic and integral character, for example, and its willingness to see health and healing in the context of the individual qua individual, etc., etc.

  14. Manyul Im says:

    Patrick, just a quick clarification. I didn’t mean that I often see such explanations, but that when there actually is an explanation offered by someone in the Western medical establishment, it is often–or almost always, really–in standard medical establishment language rather than in qi-discourse (or chakra-discourse). So, yes, I agree that the medical doctrines that use those discourses are largely ignored.

  15. Dan Robins says:

    Manyul, I guess it’s never seemed to me that in order to make sense of the few references to qi in the Mencius we need to draw on any particular theoretical background. I could easily be wrong about this, of course, but that’s the basis for my earlier comments.

    On a more substantive point, I tend to accept Chad Hansen’s thesis that early Chinese philosophers (as well presumably as lots of other people) did not work with belief/desire folk psychology because (in effect) they did not think of human thought as propositional. So I wouldn’t agree that belief/desire folk psychology is universal.

    Steve, what’s new for me is blogging under my real name.

  16. Boram Lee says:

    Patrick, thanks for the great discussion. I may be wrong in thinking this, but it looks to me like we agree more than we disagree.

    Manyul, it’s Mencius’s statements about flood-like qi that seem to me to have mystical content. Though these statements are Confucianized (e.g., Zhuangzi might scoff at the idea of qi that unites rightness with the Way), they seem comparable to passages in the Neiye and Zhuangzi on “fasting of the heart”, in the connection drawn between the heart and macrocosmic qi.

  17. It looks like I’m coming to this a bit late. Interesting discussion so far. I must confess, though, that I’m having a hard time seeing what, specifically, is at stake. Consider the following two statements:

    (1.) The days last longest in the summer.
    (2.) The days last longest in the summer, because the humidity makes Apollo’s team of horses sluggish.

    (1) is certainly defensible. Substitute something equally defensible but more philosophically interesting for “…longest in the summer,” and we have all the reason we need to defend it, with or without the mistaken cosmology in (2). Similarly, the Mengzian “extension” model of moral reasoning is more plausible than many alternatives, with or without an underlying commitment to the existence of flood-like qi. That seems like reason enough to defend the extension model. Am I missing something?

  18. By the way, I find that the neo-Confucians’ commitment to the metaphysics of li and qi varies according to topic. On cosmological issues Zhu Xi is downright preoccupied with getting the metaphysics just right. But in on issues like the knowledge-action relationship, or the phenomenology of “getting it for oneself,” the moral and psychological convictions lead the metaphysical ones, and not the other way around. His interlocutors have the same attitude. In the Yulei they worry quite a bit about squaring his statements on shu (sympathetic concern) with his views on zhong (conscientiousness) and ren (humanity/benevolence), but rarely push him on apparent inconsistencies in the mechanics of purifying qi.

  19. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Justin,

    No, you’re not missing anything. There are no doubt many things in Mencius that are neither conceptually nor inferentially tied to the qi passage in 2A2. On the other hand, I wonder if the apparent ties there, between qi, zhi (志), and the accumulated effects of yi (義) are important for understanding how Mencius thought moral influence (德) could actually be attained. In other words, maybe on Mencius’s view, the “success” of virtuous living is dependent on the existence and proper channeling of qi, of producing hao ran zhi qi. If so–and that might be a big “if”–then we have to think about how relevant Mencius’s virtue-program could be to contemporary ethical thinking. Those are the sorts of things I’ve been mulling on my mental backburner.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *