Metaphysics, as a discipline beyond physics, concerns itself with something more abstract than the concrete stuff of the world. It includes two major sections: cosmology and ontology. Cosmology, as the logos (science) of cosmos, investigates how the cosmos originates and evolves. Ontology, as the logos (science) of 'being', probes the most generic features of entities in so far as they 'are.' In western philosophy, these two parts of metaphysics can be discussed together, such as in Plato's Timaeus. Or, they may be elaborated separately. For instance, Aristotle's De Caelo prioritizes cosmology, while his Metaphysics prioritizes ontology.
Today, a rumor has been circulating among scholars that Ruism pays too much attention to ethics and statecraft to show much, or even any, interest in metaphysics. These scholars include New Age orientalists: they are dismayed by classical western thought for a variety of reasons, and are trying to find a total alternative in ancient Chinese thought. Similar ideas are entertained by some begrudging Daoists: they strive to usurp every sentence mentioning 'Dao' in ancient Chinese texts and to assert, therefore, that Ruism has nothing distinctive to contribute to ancient Chinese metaphysics. There are also some East Asian scholars, who are so obsessed with the agenda of post-modernism that they tend to be opposed to investigating the deepest, grandest and most imperishable concerns of ancient Chinese thought. Regardless, all these scholars commit a common error: they see in Ruism what they want to see even before they turned their eyes to it. Using the words of Xunzi (313-238 BCE), a great Ru philosopher in classical Ruism, these scholars' minds are all 'narrowed by one particular angle and thus become ignorant of the complete truth' (蔽於一曲而暗於大理）.
Ruism, as a comprehensive way of life which has had so deep an influence upon virtually every facet of ancient East and South Asian civilization, cannot have failed to have a deep interest in metaphysics. Its well-known strong emphasis upon ethics was actually always grounded in its systematic thinking about the origin of cosmos and the regulative principles of cosmic realities. For me, this is the major reason why I once portrayed Ruism as a religious humanism, rather than simply humanism per se.
Interestingly enough, for a Ru learner, Ru metaphysics is even easier to find than its western partner since cosmology and ontology were almost always discussed together in the same texts. In the remaining part of this essay, I will try to illustrate, in the most succinct way, where, how and what is Ru metaphysics.
Firstly, where did Ruist metaphysics come from?
Two seminal texts, together with their commentaries, define Ru metaphysics. One is the Appended Texts (繫辭), also called the Great Commentary (大傳), part of the Classic of Change (易經). This text was perhaps compiled between Mencius (372-289 BCE) and Xunzi; even so, the Ru tradition ascribed its authorship to Confucius himself. Although this ascription is continually debated, I tend to believe, relying on all evidence that we can gather today, that even if it was not actually written by Confucius, it is certain that this text was heavily influenced by Confucius's thought. Among commentaries on the Great Commentary, the most influential for the Ru metaphysical tradition were composed by Ru scholars between the Han and Tang Dynasties: Zheng Xuan (鄭玄, 127-200 CE), Wang Bi (王弼, 226-249 CE), Han Kang-bo (韓康伯, 332-380 CE), and Kong Ying-da (孔穎達, 574-648 CE), for instance. For English readers, Richard J. Lynn's translation of the Classic of Changes is a good start for learning both the seminal text and its commentaries.
The other fundamental text is the Diagram of Ultimate Polarity (太極圖) and its Illustration of the Diagram of Ultimate Polarity (太極圖說), which was composed by Zhou Dun-yi (周敦颐, 1017-1073 CE). Based upon Confucius's insights in the Great Commentary, Zhou Dun-yi presented the densest and most vivid illustration of Ru metaphysics for Song and Ming Neo-Ruism. After Zhou Dun-yi, it was Zhu Xi's commentaries and essays on Zhou Dun-Yi's seminal text that systematized and deepened the Neo-Ruist metaphysics. Although there were exemplary thinkers later, such as Cao Duan (曹端, 1376-1434 CE) and Luo Qin-shun (羅欽順, 1465-1547 CE), who revised Zhu Xi's metaphysics quite a bit, the basic metaphysical structure of Neo-Ruism remained definitive in Zhou Dun-yi's and Zhu Xi's thought. For English readers, the best starting-point for appreciating this tradition is Joseph A. Adler's translation and study of the concerned texts.
Secondly, how metaphysical is Ruism?
The short answer is, very. To prove this, I only need to point out that Ru spirituality in some of its historical periods was even thought to be too metaphysical by later Ru scholars so that they needed to launch a movement to counteract it. One example is Han Yu (768-824 CE)'s 'Movement of Ancient Prose.' In the face of the Tang Dynasty's decline, triggered by the An-Shi Rebellion (安史之亂, 755-763 CE) , Han Yu thought that the major reason leading to this crisis had been that the Ru literati in his time had learned too much metaphysics from pre-Tang dynasties' metaphysicians and that these literati's genre of writing was accordingly too decorative and flowery. Instead, in order to stop the dynastic decline, Han Yu urged a plainer genre of literary writing and required Ru literati to focus more on ethics and statecraft, rather than metaphysics. On similar grounds, the challenge brought by Lu Jiu-yuan (1139-1193 CE) and Wang Yang-ming's School of Mind-Heart in opposition to Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi's School of Principle within Neo-Ruism is another great example. What happened was that, since he was one of the most metaphysical minds in the Ru tradition, Zhu Xi's teaching encouraged a tendency among Ru literati which emphasized the meticulous study of Ru literature along with metaphysical speculations concerning the outside world. Instead, Lu Xiang-shan and Wang Yang-ming urged the literati to concentrate more upon one's own inner personality so that one's Ru knowledge could be of more practical use in the actual human world. Unsurprisingly, since these reform movements within Ruism were not very friendly to metaphysical thinking, their contribution to Ru spirituality was mainly about ethics, spiritual formation and statecraft. In other words, if nowadays people want to learn the basics of Ru metaphysics, they still need to look for it in the Ru schools that these movements were opposing: Wang Bi's and Han Kang-bo's commentaries of the Great Commentary, and Zhou Dun-yi's and Zhu Xi's thoughts on Ultimate Polarity.
Finally, what exactly is Ru metaphysics?
It is impossible to present a full profile of Ru metaphysics in one Huff-Post essay. However, in order to glimpse at the depth of Ru metaphysics, it would be helpful to address one of its key issues: the relationship between the ultimate reality, Tian (天, Heaven), and derived realities, the myriad things under Tian (天下萬物, tian-xia-wan-wu). Apparently, this issue is similar to the one of the relationship between God and the world in the Greek-Christian tradition.
In the Greek-Christian tradition, according to how God or God's existence is conceived, theological discourses are divided into theism, polytheism, henotheism, and atheism, etc. According to how the relationship between God and the created world is conceived, theological discourse could be further categorized as pantheism (God is equal to everything in the world), panentheism (God permeates while simultaneously transcending everything in the world), deism, or acosmism (the world is not real but an illusion), etc. Keeping all these terms in mind, and relying upon my knowledge of the Ru metaphysics implied by the aforementioned seminal texts and commentaries, I will try my best to characterize Ruism as a Mono-Pan-En-Non-Theism. Yes, you read it right! I indeed wrote, 'monopanennontheism', which term's complexity may sound awkward enough to require the following explanations.
Firstly, why 'mono-'? As I have explained several times before, ultimate reality in Ruism is Tian, an all-encompassing, constantly creative cosmic power which permeates everything. However, within this all-inclusive cap phenomenon, Ru metaphysics investigates further various ontological principles that can explain both the origin and the order of cosmic changes. For example, these principles include 'the five phases' (water, wood, metal, fire, earth), the interaction of which explains how things emerge and become. These five phases are thought of as functioning in the temporal framework of 'the four seasons' (spring, summer, autumn and winter), whose generative power is periodic but not cyclic. In other words, the creative force symbolized by the periodic movement of 'the four seasons' realizes the entire cosmos as an endless process advancing into novelty. Further, all the creative powers of 'the five phases' and 'the four seasons' are a manifestation of the one of 'Yin and Yang vital-energies' (氣, qi) , which are the most generic and determinate pair of categories that the traditional Chinese mindset ever invented for explaining the world. Yet, the story doesn't stop there. Even beyond 'Yin and Yang vital-energies', Ru metaphysics believes that there is one singular, ontologically unconditional creative act, Ultimate Polarity (太極), which creates the entire world, including the Yin and Yang vital-energies, the four seasons, and the five phases, etc. In so far as Ru metaphysics avers that there is one singular principle that accounts for both the origin and the order of the entire created world, it is a 'mono-' tradition.
Secondly, why 'pan-' ? This is because of the Ru metaphysical view that the changing-and-becoming process experienced by each determinate thing within Tian is a manifestation of Tian's creative power. Not only does Tian create, but everything within Tian also strives for being, becoming and growing. Because Tian's creativity is ultimately grounded in the one of Ultimate Polarity, this 'pan-' mode of Ru metaphysics is nicely captured by the Neo-Ruist motto that 'Each thing has its own Ultimate Polarity' (物物一太極) .
Thirdly, why 'en-'? All the creative powers that are embodied and brought about in the becomings of all concrete things cannot exhaust Ultimate Polarity's creativity. In other words, Tian is not equal to the myriad things under Tian, and as a result, Tian's creativity always has the potential to break through and challenge any status quo of cosmic realities which may have already been safely grasped by an established set of human knowledge. In the words of the Great Commentary, this inexhaustible and unfathomable creative power of Tian is termed as the one of 'birth birth' (生生, sheng-sheng), or 'continual creation'.
Fourthly, why 'non-theism'? First, Ruism is not atheism. Atheism, as it is particularly meant by Marxism in today's China, is anti-religious and thus, denies any kind of 'divine reality.' However, for Ruism, Tian is ultimate. Its creative power 'grounds' all derived realities, and hence, its sublime creativity is taken to be an ideal that Ru learners (士, shi) try to emulate and realize in the human world. In this sense, Tian is holy and sacred. Ruism's commitment to Tian's creativity has a distinctively religious character.
On the other hand, Ruism is not theism, either. As described above, the deepest dimension of Tian's creativity, Ultimate Polarity, is an unconditional ontological creative act without an actor or creator standing behind the scene. Because of Ultimate Polarity's non-theistic and unconditional features, the process by means of which Tian creates the myriad of things under itself is incongruent with what the mainstream Greek-Christian idea of divine creation tries to convey. In particular, it is not that Tian puts intelligible forms into an amorphous matter so that concrete things are created. Instead, in the Ruist case, ultimate reality and derived realities maintain a tricky relationship of 'two-fold asymmetry'. On the one hand, Ultimate Polarity is ontologically prior to all concrete cosmic realities, and therefore, Ruism believes that, as the singular ontological principle, Ultimate Polarity creates the entire world. On the other hand, since Ultimate Polarity is ontologically prior to anything in the world, including human intelligence and knowledge, anything we can know about how Ultimate Polarity creates must be drawn out 100% from our investigation about the de facto statuses of derived realities. In other words, derived realities are epistemologically prior to ultimate reality, and therefore, there is just no way for Ruism to assert that there might be any purpose, plan, or anthropomorphic telos which is inserted into the created world by Ultimate Polarity prior to its creative act actually taking place. As a consequence, Ruism's standard conception of the cosmos is that this is a natural process of spontaneous emergence, which has no theistic telos to guide it.
In a word, Tian's creativity is sublime. It is constant and all-encompassing. Nevertheless, ultimately, Tian's creativity is not human. In Ruism's view, only humans have visions and responsibilities to manifest Tian's creativity in the human world and in a particularly human, that is, humane (仁, ren), way. At the conclusion of this essay, we can see that the religious commitment of Ruism towards the 'non-theism' of Tian's creativity lays down a firm ground for its equally unflinching emphasis upon humanistic thinking and practices.
Bin Song is active in the Facebook group: "Friends from Afar: a Confucianism Group."