Archive for the ‘Chinese Cosmology’ Category

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)

kuanita’s thoughts

[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. ^_^

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On the meaning of “individualism” in China, a discussion of Erica Fox Brindley’s <em>Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics </em>(Part 2, Chapter 2)

Lorin’s thoughts

I found this chapter quite difficult by comparison with the first. No doubt I’ve missed much, but I can say first of all that it provides an interesting contrast to chapter 1. Where the Mohist works seem to insist on a more objective order of things–people are more or less naturally ordered and endowed with certain capacities by virtue of their position in that order, those considered in this chapter recognize human agency by demanding its forfeiture, by demanding that “individuals give up fundamental agencies associated with the conventional self and replace them with the agency or authority of a single , higher, divine entity shared by all human beings” (p. 35). The passage in which the process by which the individual attains value through a threefold process of divestment, reinvestment, and attainment of higher value (p. 41), is perhaps the clearest expression of this point. A fleeting thought during my reading was of the process of creating a U.S. marine (or at least my stereotypical view of the process). In the movies, this process begins with the attempt at a total breakdown of the old self and continues, perhaps, by building up a new person who, once “perfected,” achieves higher value as he/she is granted a mission. A major distinguishing characteristic of the Laozi is its disavowal of faculties of conscious thought or wisdom. Virtue comes less through a striving to align one’s thought with the outside authority than it is about becoming one with the Dao. I particularly enjoyed the very brief discussion of how religious and intellectual authorities (on the practice necessary to become a virtuous leader) neatly positioned themselves by at once questioning and affirming the authority of the sovereign. One is reminded of present-day courtiers, mainly economists, whispering in the ears of presidents and prime ministers. The conception of the ruler’s position with respect to the people also provides a contrast to the hierarchical order of the Mohists. Here there is the ruler and there is the people. The virtuous ruler is directly connected to the people; his virtue is theirs, indeed, seems to determine theirs. The people are dependent on the ruler for self-attainment. They have no means of direct access to an enlightened state, depending entirely on the ruler and his connection to Dao to show them the way through his example. Despite the differences with the Mohists, this is also a fundamentally passive agency.

I’m led to wonder, finally, about the role of intellectual courtiers in various societies, including those of the present. In these texts, it is the sages. In my comment above, the economists. One might also point to advocates of the role of a vanguard in bringing about socialist revolutions. Others might have better knowledge of these matters. I’m open to suggestions.

kuanita’s thoughts

I had a hard time with this chapter too. For me it was mostly because the argument about agency in Daoism challenges my preconceptions.

First of all though, I want to say that I love your marine example. That does make a whole lot of sense! This idea that you can achieve something greater, only after you have subjected yourself to utterly self-negating discipline, is a pretty fascinating paradox. Your example makes me think of martial arts too. There is something very self-negating about the boring and tedious things you have to do in the beginning…

I also love that you used the word “becoming” in your re-phrasing of the author’s account, which brings me to the reason why I had trouble with this chapter, especially with following her interpretations. I was thinking before I read your post that words like “becoming,” “belonging,” and “participation” seem much more appropriate to the logic of Daoist thinking. But the author describes the Dao as a “larger” principle, a “higher” form of “universal” authority “over” humans. I’m surprised that she never uses the word “immanent” to characterize Daoist thinking. I am no specialist in Daoism, but based on things I have read, and conversations my dad and I have had about the similarities between taiji quan and yoga (I practice the latter, he the former), I have come to understand the Dao (Brindley notes Daoism was possibly influenced by the yogic traditions of ancient India), as an immanent force or principle that is “of” this world and not “beyond” nor “above” this world. Yes, it is ultimate and all encompassing, but it also resides in the smallest of things, imperceptibly everywhere. I also have always thought that everyone potentially has direct access to it, regardless of how cultivated his or her sovereign is. By working upon the self, one can exercise a kind of sovereign control over one’s own life, and order will spontaneously coalesce around the cultivated individual. (I credit Farquhar and Zhang’s article “Biopolitical Beijing” in Cultural Anthropology for this idea). In the other words, the ruler in these texts might be metaphorical – and could possibly include individuals who work to exercise virtuous rule over the self, as well as any number of other ruler-ruled dyads, e.g. that of a teacher in relation to students, etc. But since my own understanding is likely very confused and unscholastic, I’ll try making my point in a different way.

Brindley writes, “Indeed, one might argue that even though texts such as the Laozi and the ‘Zi Yi’ take the ruler as their primary audience, this does not mean that the authors really understood the scope of self-cultivation to be restricted in such a manner” (pg. 50). I am not satisfied with the counter-argument that follows, but I would argue that she contradicts herself in insisting that there is a “clear hierarchical dependency of the people’s cultivation on that of their sovereign” given what she tells us about the political context (a discussion that I also really enjoyed). Doesn’t this background suggest that religious experts and intellectuals would write in a way that would reassure their main audience, while possibly having other things in mind? I mean, these early texts – it seems to me – are incredibly polysemous and metaphorical, and surely these experts and intellectuals had other interests and understandings that went beyond political theory.

Be that as it may, it is interesting to see such an account of Daoist thinking.

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On the meaning of “individualism” in China, a discussion of Erica Fox Brindley’s <em>Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics</em> (Part 1, Introduction and Chapter 1)

This post is the fruit of a small cooperative reading project that a colleague and I began recently. We are reading an interesting book that discusses the historical salience of the concept of the individual in Chinese thought. Our plan is to proceed chapter by chapter and exchange thoughts as we go. Hopefully others will be inspired to chime in from time to time, or to read the book. My early impression is that it is a sophisticated scholarly engagement with the relevant materials and concepts and, therefore, a worthwhile read. In this post, I’ve included the comments of my colleague (her real ID may be forthcoming) and my own. As she was the first to step up to the plate by sending me her comments, mine make reference to hers, but not the other way around. Perhaps when we come to Chapter 2, we’ll reverse the order. I hope you find the discussion useful.



kuanita’s thoughts My colleague’s thoughts

It’s clear that she distinguishes herself from preceding scholarship on the Chinese self and personhood by boldly choosing to use the word “individual.” She acknowledges that such a term would smuggle foreign meanings into the Chinese context, but argues for its use anyway so as to facilitate cultural translation, particularly regarding “fundamental issues of human concern” (xviii). It’s hard to really evaluate what she’s doing with the Mohist material not being an expert in this field, and one wonders just how radical (or groundbreaking) of an interpretation she is making. But it is pretty remarkable that all the themes we commonly associate with individualism can be found in Mozi – i.e. choice, moral autonomy, self-determination, freedom, and will. And I think her account presents a wonderful little irony: as much as the authors of the Mozi advocate allegiance to an ultimate authority, as much as all worldly phenomena and all appearances can be read in light of the will of Heaven, it is up to morally autonomous choice-making human persons at all levels of society to bring about social and cosmic order. And while this early Mohist ideology serves the justify those who already occupy positions of power, the common people “possess” the capacity make judgments about right and wrong, and can offer or withhold compliance. It presents a rather different picture of how an individual can simultaneously be both the object and subject of power.


My thoughts

Beginning on p. xviii, there is an extended discussion about the distinction between “self” and “individual.” I recall in Kipnis (2001) reference to a distinction made by Hoffman between identity and self-formation. My understanding is that the former is a more agentic (is this the word we use?) process and the latter more socialized. On this same page, it seems she is hinting at a critique that I made of Kipnis when he looks for Western-style expressions of school counterculture in error. The western mode is the norm. It’s absence in China is, perhaps, inevitable.

On page xx, she arrives at two criteria to frame her conception of individualism: “(1) a belief that individuals possess any number of positive prerogatives or powers in the world by virtue of their existence as individuals, and (2) a belief that individuals can achieve their ideals through the use of their own autonomous, or self-inspired, authority of some kind.” Interestingly, this strikes me as similar to the criteria used by Archer (2003) to ground her argument for human reflexivity, i.e., that they engage in “internal conversation” that is irreducible to other explanations/phenomena and that it is causally efficacious.

On page xxi, I appreciate the historicist approach, i.e., the way in which she situates that emergence and submergence/sublation of ideas within socio-political contexts. However, I would like to see a similar historicism in the comparisons to the “Western” individual. For example, how is the emergence of the disembodied individual related to the emergence of liberalism or capitalism?

On page xxii, the comment on how in the Warring States period, social and physical mobility through meritocratic advancement was associated with greater individual agency. It reminds one of the link between social status, meritocracy, and perceptions of agency in the present. In another vein, the emergence of intellectuals’ interest in agency reminds one of the tendency of intellectuals in general to universalize their own sense of personal agency (p. xxiii).

I like the way she distinguishes her discussion here from those in action theory by retrieving the more “passive” sense of “agent” as one who acts under the authority of another: “conforming” and “individual agents” (p. xxv). The distinction turns on the location of motivation to act, the former external, the latter internal.

In Chapter 1, I’m quite interested in the discussion of the Mohist concept of “upward conformity” (上同), which “advocates universal and uniform allegiance to a single higher power–mediated through a political hierarchy” (p. 2). I’m interested for a couple of reasons. First, because this notion might be read as part of a genealogy of conformity in political hierarchies in China. Second, because, cast as a critique of this concept, it bears resemblance to notions of methodological individualism in, for example, Geertz (1973) and Archer (1986). Archer poses a dual critique of extant social theory by pointing out the fallacy of individualism (upward conflation) and structuralism (downward conflation). Geertz advocates for interpretivist analysis of culture based in “thick description” in opposition to both subjectivist and objectivist views of culture. Such “third way” thinking is, of course, a strong theme in nominally postpositivist social theory. I’ll have to return to this thought when I get a better sense of where Brindley is going.

I’m curious about the possible congruence of Kipnis’ (2011) “literary masculinity” and the Mohist concern with the “acheived man,” which encapsulates both the religious ideal of self-cultivation and preservation of notions of political hierarchy.

Overall, I’m with you in admitting that I know nothing of Mohism and am, thus, incapable of commenting on Brindley’s thesis. That is why, I suppose, my comments and interests tend toward illumination of my own present concerns. That approach isn’t really fair to the author, but it’s what I’ve got for now!

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