On the meaning of “individualism” in China…, a discussion of Erica Fox Brindley’s Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics (Part 3, Chapter 3)
[hi Lorin, I hope you don’t mind that I took the liberty to start the conversation this week. : )]
It is interesting to begin to see the arc of this book. While the first two chapters described forms of individualism that privileged the ruler as the primary mediator of universal authority, chapter 3 presents viewpoints that took the individual as having direct access. There is a narrative progression in chapter 3 itself. The account of Zhuangzi presents a form of individualism that still “depends” on an outside source – directly accessible only if one completely gives up the self, so as to merge with the “transcendent” Dao. Mencius on the other hand, located cosmic authority inside the person with the notion of xing, understanding humans to be intrinsically good. This view of the individual may be the one that comes closest to Western conceptions of the self, namely, the idea that there is something inalienable to and possessed by the human person, and the idea that humans are not entirely continuous with the rest of nature (which the Daoists would argue). Interestingly, it seems that the Mencian view does not however propose a heroic agent who could overcome environmental challenges by sheer will and determination. In recognizing that human nature could either be “fulfilled or obstructed” (pg. 68), that is to say, environmental forces could overcome and overpower the innate tendency to be good, Mencius seems to concede that this naturally endowed moral agency is actually limited vis-à-vis the agency of environment. Brindley mentions that for Mencius, a person is a moral agent “by virtue of living properly and healthfully” (pg. 69), and that all humans have to do is “focus on cultivating and developing what is already inside” (pg. 70). Given this, is there a point at which some people are better able to overcome corrupting external forces than others? Who is responsible for protecting or ensuring the moral development of the human person? The self? Or politicians tasked with the duty of providing an external environment that would be conducive to moral development?
Although the kind of Daoism presented in this chapter resonates much more with my previous understandings, and I was less confused reading this chapter, I’m still having trouble with the idea that this mode of thought is transcendental rather than immanent, that this cosmic agency is not in and of the world. I don’t get how wind can be thought of as “bounded” (pg. 58), and the story about Cook Ding seems to suggest that accessing the Dao does not require transcending the world (although one does indeed have to transcend the self), but to really be with the world, following its multitudinous lines of transformations – in this case, the seams and cavities of an ox.
By the way, I would really love to learn how to nourish my nimbus-like qi, or to work on what little nimbus I have in the first place. ^_^