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Chinese Philosophy Seminar Series

Chinese Philosophy Seminar Series 2022/23

Fridays, 3:00-4:30pm on MS Teams. To register click on the registration link of the seminar you are interested in.


21/10/2022 – RegistrationLink opens in a new window

Robin Wang (Loyola Marymount University)

Why Yinyang 陰陽? A Philosophical Reflection

The concept of yinyang lies at the heart of Chinese thought and culture for thousands years. The relationship between these two opposing, yet mutually dependent, forces is symbolized in the familiar black and white symbol that has become an icon in popular culture across the world. The real and genuine significance of yinyang is, however, more complex and subtle. This talk will start with the questions: does yinyang offer an alternative for reality/thinking? Can we move from struggle with problems to flow with opportunities? It will discuss six types of yinyang relationship to show a complex, multidimensional framework to explore the variety of human mind and a greater dimension of spatial and temporal reality or entanglement.


11/11/2022 – RegistrationLink opens in a new window

Chris Fraser (University of Toronto)

The Xunzian Critique of Legalism and its Contemporary Significance

Xunzi famously claims that “there are persons who produce good order; there are no standards that produce good order.” In this presentation, I situate Xunzi’s claim within the context of late classical Chinese “Legalist” thought and unpack its significance both as the basis for a critique of Legalism and as a profound insight into the functioning of standards, norms, laws, and institutions. Legalist thought sought to achieve impartiality and consistency in governance by creating a system of clear, precise standards of conduct, buttressed by incentives for cooperation and disincentives for failure, that would eliminate risks arising from the fallibility of human judgment and motivation. Xunzi offers compelling arguments that undermine the very idea of such a system and drive home the centrality of ethical expertise, discretion, and character in the operation of any institution, including rule of law. Impartiality and consistency, he suggests, can be attained only through open critical discussion among qualified parties concerning the significance and application of standards. The talk concludes by suggesting that the considerations Xunzi offers against Legalism remain relevant today and help to explain failures of contemporary institutions. I suggest that, in form if not substance, the traditional Confucian emphasis on the role of moral education in sustaining civil institutions remains pertinent today.


9/12/2022 – RegistrationLink opens in a new window

Sarah Flavel (Bath Spa University)

Daoism and Strategic Thinking

When discussing the origins of the notion of wu-wei 無為 in early Chinese texts, scholars have often pointed out that (especially for the Daodejing) the notion begins as an idea designed to inform a certain model of non-interventionist governance. It is at the same time understood that even in the political relevance of the term, it is designed as guidance for the personal development of the ruler, so that these two levels – the political and the personal – are not ever or necessarily separate levels of meaning. In other words, in order to develop themselves toward right rulership, the Daoist sage must undergo a process of self-cultivation. In the later history of Daoist philosophies, often also in contemporary applications of Daoist thinking, the notion of wu-wei and surrounding concepts in the Daoist canon have been applied as a philosophy of personal development in its own right.

Although scholars have noted there are problems with a literalist reading of wu-wei as "non-action" – better understood as "non-purposive" or "effortless action" – there is nonetheless a prevailing view that the Daoist worldview (informed by this central notion) is to a large extent something of a passive, anti-interventionist or quietist philosophy. To be wu-wei, in relation to our individual lives, and perhaps politically, is thought to imply an association with letting things be, taking them as they come, learning not to try to interfere with the way of things (Dao 道), and learning that interference and intervention themselves are detrimental to the prospect of things going well.

In this paper I argue, drawing on other scholarship for support, that wu-wei, in combination with knowledge of Dao and with cultivation of the art of ziran 自然, can equally well be understood through a more active lens as a tool in the art of proactive management: management of events, environments, and in anticipating outcomes so as to be able to respond to them most effectively. This, I suggest, is a strategic interpretation of the applications of the early Daoist cannon that would have been considered more fitting with the surrounding context of the intellectual environment in Early China (and with subsequent uses of the Daodejing in the Ancient Chinese political world). I will suggest that a number of key respondents to Laozi’s philosophy in the Ancient Chinese Tradition – including Sunzi, Han-fei and even Zhuangzi – developed just such pro-active and interventionist readings of Daoist practices as tools in the art of managing unpredictable circumstances, toward an often specific and defined goal – or imagined ideal outcome.

In this sense I wish to put forward a view of Daoist personal cultivation that is far from the stereotype of being quietist or recommending withdrawal and instead shows the value of foundational Daoist concepts as tools in the project of strategic self-cultivation.


20/01/2023 – RegistrationLink opens in a new window

Jingjing Li (Leiden University)

Husserlian Phenomenology, Chinese Buddhism, and The Problem of Essence

Comparative philosophers become interested in Husserlian phenomenology and Chinese Yogācāra Buddhism due to their similar accounts of intentionality. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) defines consciousness through the intentional structure insofar as every consciousness is consciousness of. Likewise, Chinese Yogācārins represented by Xuanzang (c.602-664) develop the theory of consciousness-only and delineate consciousness through the fourfold intentional structure. However, based on their similar analyses of intentionality, Husserl and Chinese Yogācārins seem to explain the ultimate nature of reality quite differently: Husserl speaks of phenomenology as the science of essence whereas Chinese Yogācārins support the Buddhist argument that everything is empty of essence. Their dissimilar viewpoints on essence are further compounded by the multilingual contexts. Across a cultural and linguistic divide, what does “essence” mean in the writings of Husserl and Chinese Yogācārins? And how are they compatible or incompatible with one another? All of these issues constitute what I describe as the problem of essence. To resolve this problem, I find it crucial to examine the ways in which the concept of essence has entered the philosophical lexicon of both European and Chinese philosophy. As I will argue, Husserl and Chinese Yogācārins do not have incompatible standpoints on the ultimate nature of reality but rather highlight the mutual interdependence of the mind and the world. This is because Husserl problematizes the absolutist understanding of essence in his reflection upon Cartesian dualism and Chinese Yogācārins distance themselves from nihilism upon systematizing their critique of essence. Placing these two traditions in their respective intellectual contexts, I hope to explore how the problem of essence provides us with an opportunity to deepen our understanding of what is involved when a philosophical comparison is made in a multicultural world.


10/02/2023 – RegistrationLink opens in a new window

Paul D’Ambrosio (East China Normal University)

Confucian Contingency Model: Person, Agency, and Morality

The Analects and Mencius are among the most influential early Confucian texts. They emphasize the importance of moral self-cultivation. The individual is expected to identify what is good, and freely choose it regardless of their internal predispositions or external conditions. Curiously, in their philosophical frameworks they do not posit anything outside of contingencies. This means, problematically, there is no non-contingency-based notion of “good” or “agency.” There are general ways to address this issue in Confucianism: 1) the texts point to, though do not directly speak about, universal (non-contingent) principles; 2) the texts assume, though do not directly speak about, a pregiven (non-contingent) capacity for agency; 3) the texts are contingency-based, and yet morality and agency are still somehow possible. Arguing in favor of the third position, this paper contributes to the current discourse by explaining how morality and agency can be possible in a completely contingent system. Instead of positing a pregiven principle, self, will, or even capacity for agency, I will argue that Confucian texts assume morality and agency emerge out of contingencies. As such, morality and agency are categorically distinct from contingencies, and are thereby able to reflect on them, without being ultimately sourced from any power outside of contingencies.


10/03/2023 – RegistrationLink opens in a new window

Ai Yuan (Tsinghua University)

Silence in the Analects, Zhuangzi and Yanzi Chunqiu

This talk discusses silence in early Chinese texts such as the Yanzi Chunqiu, Zhuangzi, and Analects. It challenges the speech-silence dichotomy. It understands silence as a communicative performance, a counterpart of speech within narratives. It therefore does not read silence as a product of, and a reaction to language criticism. Rather, it discusses how silence communicates through our actions and thoughts and why it is an indirect way of communication. It examines silence as an overlooked phenomenon and performance for communicating ethical, epistemological, political, and relational ideas. Such silence is temporal, constituted in, and in between words. As an extreme form of indirect communication, the prevalence, diversity and performativity of silence contributes to the relational, contextual, and interpretative features of meaning construction.


14/04/2023 – RegistrationLink opens in a new window

Yumi Suzuki (Bern University)

Sino-Hellenic Environmental Philosophy: How Did Ancient Chinese and Greek Philosophers Think About the Environment Differently?

The natural world is one and the same, even though cultures, societies, political systems may noticeably differ from one country to another. When we see, observe, and explore nature and our surrounding environment, we all enjoy an objective and scientific view commonly shared by and available to all humans. Can such an assumption be true, however, even when we are not using a universal language and vocabulary to talk about nature? Are we really recognising the natural world in a single, monolithic way? On the basis of this inter-cultural question, this talk aims to provide an essentially introductory, but also occasionally much deeper, perspective to compare these two uniquely distinctive traditions of philosophy of nature and the environment. It addresses various illustrations and descriptions of animals, insects, and plants, as well as the cosmic order, and the responsibilities of humans for them in antiquity. The main resources include the Book of Rites, Mengzi, Xunzi, Zhuangzi, Lushi Chunqiu on the Chinese side, and Plato’s Republic, Timaeus, Aristotle’s zoological work, and Theophrastus’ botanical work on the Greek side.


12/05/2023 – RegistrationLink opens in a new window

Jifen Li (Renmin University of China)

A New Account of Human Nature in the Xunzi

The origin of goodness in Xunzi’s theory of human nature (xing 性) has been fiercely debated among scholars. By analyzing three accounts of human nature and pointing out the difficulties they encounter, I propose a new account of human nature in the Xunzi. First, in arguing that human nature is bad, Xunzi is not to argue that human nature itself is bad. Rather, the moving direction of human nature is problematic. Specifically, the badness of human nature arises from the movement of human nature, and the fixity of human nature leads to its goodness. Second, the goodness for Xunzi primarily belongs not to the matter or content of human nature, but to the human efforts on it in which he is to emphasise the importance of li 理 (principle), rather than heart-mind (xin 心). Xunzi proposes new understandings of li in his time, which well shows the influence of Daoism in the formation of his thoughts.


For any question, please email Max Lacertosa