The term metaphysics derives from the Greek phrase ta meta ta physika meaning “the works after the Physics”, and it refers to the study of things outside of human sense perception. The name was originally created in c. 70 B.C.E. by the Greek philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes. Misinterpreted in Latin as meaning “the science of what is beyond the physical”, metaphysics actually means the science of the inward or the study of the essential nature of things. It is a type of philosophy that uses broad concepts that helps define reality and our understanding of it, and as a mode of inquiry, metaphysics uses logic based on the meaning of particular terms to explain things which are not easily discovered or experienced in everyday life, including the nature of the human mind (and whether there is such a thing as consciousness or soul), the definition and meaning of existence, and the nature of space, time and causality.
The origin of the study of philosophy itself, beginning with the Pre-Socratics, was metaphysical. For instance, the philosopher Plotinus argued that reason in the world and in the rational human mind reflects a universal and perfect reality that exists beyond our limited human reason. He called this perfect reality “God”. For Aristotle, who named his collection of fourteen books Metaphysics, metaphysics refers to a number of things, including things that do not change, “being as such” and “first causes” (Van Inwagen, 2014). Nowadays, such points of inquiry are often positioned to be in conflict with the modern sciences that attempt to measure concepts like truth and reality from the physical world. Critics of metaphysics such as Francis Herbert Bradley (1952) argue that metaphysics is the “finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct,” and others have claimed that the study is simply full of “meaningless gibberish” and “downright absurd” (Peirce, 1905, p. 423). From this critical point of view, the attempt to prove the existence of a soul, spirit or other non-human realities that cannot become an object of scientific enquiry is seemingly impossible. However, the belief that everything can and should be explained scientifically in terms of natural causes, where only what is seen or sensed is considered real or meaningful to humans, is problematic because scientific observation tends to produce the reality which it hopes to explain. The so-called final “truths” of scientific enquiry and ability to know only that which physically is perceived to exist in a Newtonian mechanistic model of the universe fails to explain the existence of paradigm shifts, where scientific laws and realities are proven to be false in light of new research or technology, and how human interpretation and context-dependence influences scientific discovery and explanation. The idea that scientific knowledge is limited by human perspectives, cognitive biases and epistemic interests is highlighted by Jan Faye (2014), when he states that:
A human agent A understands a state of affair, P, in a certain context, C, in the terms of a theory, T, if, and only if, A’s belief regarding P connects (in the epistemically correct way for A; i.e., in accordance to A’s epistemic norms, N, of understanding) with A’s cognitive system, including A’s background knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions (A’s worldview) (p. 54).
In that sense, what we claim to be facts and truths is heavily affected by a variety of influences outside of our control and outside of human sense perception. According to Ananda Coomaraswamy (1977), in traditional civilizations such as in India, metaphysics provided the vision or theory to explain phenomena that was beyond the phenomenal plane since the aim of metaphysics is not to physically prove anything beyond reasonable doubt, but rather to make ideas and concepts reasonably intelligible and demonstrate their consistency. In modern philosophical terminology, metaphysical studies that have an important impact in research and general knowledge claims are ontology (the philosophical study of being where arguments are made for the existence/non-existence of X), cosmology (the science of the origin of the universe), and epistemology (the theory of knowledge).
While there is no single word in the Chinese language that corresponds precisely to the term ‘metaphysics’, Chinese philosophy has a long tradition of examining cosmological becoming and the ultimate nature of reality, particularly through texts like the Yijing and Daodejing. Although there is a lack of historical evidence to explain who composed these scriptures, there is a general theme in both of the texts that suggests that all things, physical and non-physical, are interconnected and constantly in motion and changing. Everything arises spontaneously from an ultimate source (called the dao 道, “the way”), which cannot be objectified but is accessible to cultivated people (Perkins, 2015). To be alive is to be constantly changing, and nature shows us the consistent patterns of spontaneous movement, transformation, and flourishing that can be observed and followed, particularly through the patterns and interactions between the polar forces of yin 陰 and yang 陽. The two phenomena compromise the complementary opposites that make up existence, such as darkness and light, rest and motion, softness and firmness, dividedness and unbrokenness, female and male, which correspond to the physical realities of day and night, sun and moon, heaven and earth, and water and fire. Yin is always symbolized as the phase of difference, while yang is the phase of identity in the process of change. The implication is that every single relationship is based on difference, which creates the potential for change. Thus, there is always possibility for actual change and if relationships do change then they became an inevitable feature of reality.
An important part of the yin-yang relationship is the ability to accept change and embrace difference in the other. This basic outlook is fundamentally different from the assumptions of European metaphysical inquiry, which historically struggled to deal with the problem of difference. As Blaney and Inayatullah (2016) explain, difference was hard to incorporate in the West, which historically had to deal with violent religious schism and the ‘discovery’ of new continents and people. These events threatened the legitimacy of European cosmology by undermining its creation myths of a (white) anthropomorphic God who put things in the world through purposeful design. In response, theorists constructed an ‘empire of uniformity’, which understands difference as something that needs to be contained, denied, or dealt with through threats and violence. The end result was a knowledge and political system that constructed a reality where people needed to be homogenized, where places needed to be bounded into states, and where borders acted to keep the system intact. Such a Eurocentric design of the world had a profound impact on global politics, ethics and knowledge production. According to Quijano (2000), at the heart of this Eurocentric metaphysical worldview lies a binary way of thinking, which constructs a white, progressive, modern European identity in opposition to a black/indigenous/Asiatic, underdeveloped, traditional and barbarian ‘Other’. The organization of power along these lines, where resources and decision-making are in the hands of the former group, exists on both a transnational and national level in societies, and works to undermine and deny the spiritualized and connected relationship with the universe that the latter groups subscribed to.
Acknowledging the violence that is associated with denying, devaluing and destroying the cultural and social worldviews of the Other groups is part of the work of anti-colonial metaphysics, which seeks to deconstruct the dominant Anglo-European worldview and assumptions, epistemologies, and ontologies that influence how the majority of the world acts and interprets the world. For McDonnell (2014), it is about revitalizing these traditions and giving them application and due recognition in modern contexts. For example, working from an African development framework, McDonnell examines African epistemologies, where there is an emphasis on the whole, and where truth is negotiated between groups of people, rather than being something out there, dismembered, and atomized. Emotional and material knowledge in this context exists within many places, where both the physical and spiritual world coexist and are conceptualized as necessary for balanced and harmonious interactions in the world. In African ontologies, the nature of existence and understanding of reality is determined by both these physical and spiritual relationships which confirms peoples purpose and places in the greater cosmos, where nature, humans, and spirits are integrated and codependently interact with each other without exploitation.
In the Chinese philosophical tradition, knowledge is similarly centered on the harmonization of the self and world, which differs from Western and Buddhist philosophical perspectives where knowledge is for overcoming the world and the self. Cheng (1989) explains that in the Chinese worldview, people are constantly and continuously expected to seek enlightenment about things and themselves. Knowledge here is not just a matter of forming universal principles and abstract concepts, but about gaining direct insight into the nature of the self, of one’s relationships, and of things in the world. Thus, knowledge is a matter of self-fulfillment and informs a person’s network of relationships. A person’s state of being-in-the-world is both limited and controlled by the person’s past, but also freeing and spontaneous as the person has some power to affect the future through self and historical reflection. The existential experience places individuals in a position where they can feel both stability and instability, freedom and bondage, and confidence and uncertainty because she or he is situated in a network of relationships which are both essential for growth, but need appropriate strengthening and development by cultivating virtue through reflection.
Such understandings help open the way to re-establishing anti-colonial metaphysical worldviews that de-mystify and de-Orientalize the Other in order to allow other voices to enter the larger discussions and understandings about how societies should be governed and how nature can be incorporated into global development.
Yin-yang is an ancient Chinese philosophical construct of two polar complements. The yin-yang binary are neither forces nor material entities and are not intended to represent human relations. Rather, they are labels used to explain how phenomena function and change in relation to each other and the universe (Kaptchuck, 2014). As a way of thinking, yin-yang indicates that no entities can exist in isolation from each other: every entity is connected through its relationships with other entities where it transforms and stands in a contrary yet interdependent state.
In Chinese traditions, this is used to explain how time is divided into day and night; place (and function) into heaven and earth; and species into female and male categories. For associate professor Sung Hyun Yun (2012) however, the application of Yin to female and Yang to male was only later added in the second century BCE under the influence of Confucianism, which led to the institutionalisation of hierarchical gender relations in Chinese society. As Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee, author of the book ‘Confucianism and Women’ (2006), states, the yang and yin are explicitly correlated within Confucianism’s hierarchical schema “where tian (heaven)/yang/nan (man) are privileged over di (earth)/yin/nu (woman)” (p. 55). The problem with this is that if men are assigned priority and privilege in society because they are associated with the positive yang in the yin-yang dualism, they are granted access to a kind of power denied to women. This not only gives men unearned entitlements, which refers to things that all people should have such as feeling safe in public spaces, but also grants men the ability to dominate groups that belong to the opposing yin category.
The assignment of power and privilege is seen throughout many classical Chinese texts. For instance, in The Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu) it states:
“All things end and begin by following yang. The rectitude of the Three Kings rose to its utmost in following yang. In this way it can be seen that they esteemed yang and demeaned yin…Men, however mean, are in all cases yang; women, however hobble, are all yin…Categories of evil all are yin, whereas categories of good all are yang; yang is matter of virtue, yin is a matter of punishment” (Italics added, cited in Raphals, 1998, p. 163).
The categorisation listed here is quite similar to the problematic way gender is theorised about in the West, where women are associated with devalued terms in the hierarchy between mind/body, culture/nature and reason/emotion. The association of women to bodily features, nature, and irrationality has been used to marginalise and exclude women from the public sphere, restricting their access to positions of power, decision-making, and economic autonomy.
In China these distinctions were also used to keep women in the domestic sphere, limiting their abilities to contribute to society. Because a family’s prosperity and survival was dependent on men, infant boys were given value over girls. The Book of Odes (Shijing) notes that when a son is born, he is cradled on the bed, properly clothed and it is announced that “he shall be the lord of a hereditary house”. In contrast, a daughter is only cradled on the floor, wears no badges of honour, and it is hoped that she “shall only take care of food and drink, and not cause trouble to her parents” (no. 189). As a valued text, such passages reaffirm male power and agency and maintain unequal power relations by prescribing women to remain obedient and subordinate.
The classic Confucian text Nusishu (Four Books of Women) is considered a standard text that was compiled during the mid-Qing dynasty. The teachings in the book were used to educate how men and women should behave in feudal society. Chapter titles that discuss women, such as ‘Humble Yielding’, ‘Bending in Submission’, ‘Serving the Husband’, and ‘Being faithful to the Dead’ highlight that women in a male-centred ideology are encouraged to keep in line by restraining themselves. By restricting thought and action and maintaining the status quo, a woman gains greater status and becomes humble, devoted, and faithful in the eyes of her community. To keep such a system functioning, women who refuse the role of dutiful daughter or subordinate wife are threatened to be cast out of the family home. As Chan (1970) notes:
During the Sung Dynasty, “Chinese intellectuals preached extreme chastity, confining all women to their homes. Remarriage for a widow was tantamount to public disgrace. Hence, the States ordered tight binding for all women to hamper their movements and prevent possibility of unchaste wandering.” (p. 231)
It should be noted that Confucian philosophy was created by ministers and noblemen. While advocating for harmonious relations, righteousness, and altruism, these virtues were meant to guide ministers to conduct fair governance. When it came to women, Confucianism was responsible for reinforcing gender oppression by punishing disobedient women through social ostracism and keeping women in their place by binding their feet (though foot-binding was a practice introduced after the time of Confucius).
Although practices such as foot-binding have discontinued, Confucian norms such as respect for authority, hierarchy, family dependence, and the historical preference for sons have maintained many traditions in place. Due to the cultural stigma of having female children, for example, the former one-child policy in China led to millions of female infants being aborted, abandoned, or killed (Wall, 2013). In her research on Asian immigrant and refugee families, Yun (2012) shows that social problems remain prevalent. Surveys conducted on Asian immigrant families reveal that many male respondents from countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and China still believe that women have no right to a divorce and should be shamed if they leave their families; that the husband is the ruler of the household and has the right to discipline his wife; and that if experiencing marital problems, women should ‘talk softly’ and/or ‘do nothing’ (D’Avanzo et al., 1994; Yoshioka et al., 2009).
Despite the history of oppression behind Confucianism and the patriarchal norms that continue to exist in Confucian societies, some scholars have suggested that a ‘Confucian feminism’ is possible. For example, professor of philosophy Chenyang Li (1994) argues that the humanistic concept of Confucianism, namely the concept of ren as benevolence, altruism, kindness, and compassion can be separated from its historical context and compared to feminist ethicist Carol Gilligan’s ‘care ethics’. In care ethics, care and justice intersect with the development of a language that is focused on relationships and responsibilities. The ethics of care is about considering different types of relationships and roles in order to care in an appropriate and effective way. For Li, Confucianism is comparable with care ethics as it is based on non-contractual (non-legally binding) relationships and love for others according to their social roles and positions. Like care ethics, Confucianism seeks to create harmony in relationships; to preserve the obligation of care if one’s ability to provide care for others is not strained or exhausted; and to maintain networks of care that start from the family and build outward to form reciprocal contracts in the community.
However, this interpretation can be considered problematic. Associate professor of philosophy Daniel Star (2002) claims that Confucian ethics are role-based ethics that are in the concept of li or the rules of propriety. Although one may argue that new roles for women can be made that are not based on hierarchical male-centred relationships, roles can only ever be understood within a certain context that is inherited from the past. Confucianism cannot simply be stripped from its familial and hierarchical norms as this would mean doing away with the fundamental social relationships of father and son, lord and retainer, and husband and wife. A Confucianism without the values of chastity, filial piety, and loyalty is difficult to imagine since ren without filial piety or an organised family structure would be reduced to simple affection for significant others.
Confucianism is an ethics based on role relationships that are focused on men: a man of ren (junzi or exemplary person) has a greater ability to care for others than a petty man (xiaoren). Just as a father cares for his wife and children, a ruler is expected to care for his subjects. Although women are expected to take on caring roles also, women’s caring has never extended outside of family and marital relations: “firstly to their fathers, secondly their husbands, and thirdly their sons” (Kim, 2017, p. 6). The difference with care ethics is that Gilligan wrote about individual needs and not about normative principles of the past that define correct social roles. Whereas Confucianism is an ethics of men where righteous men take on care roles, feminist ethics of care requires that women are considered as moral subjects that are recognised for their perceived ability to care. Women in this respect do not care because they must care according to their social roles, but because they want to care with their rights and needs taken into account.
What this means is that for Confucianism to be compatible with feminist ethics, the philosophy must extend itself to incorporate notions such as equality, fairness, and individuality. Undoing the hierarchies that keep women deprived from the opportunity of becoming moral agents in their own right, where women can exist and be valued outside the family, is crucial to liberate women from particular forms of oppression. A return to the original conception of yin-yang is one where women and men belong to both sides of the binary to make up a dynamic duality that is based on dialectic and recognition. The question is, how far can such reform go without doing away with key components of Confucian philosophy?
This entry was posted in Articles on Confucianism, Chinese culture, comparative study, confucian beliefs, Confucian in the modern world and tagged Chinese women, classic texts, Confucian feminism, ethics, ethics of care, gender, Harmony, hierarchy, inequality, oppression, women's rights, yin-yang.