When I committed myself to the study of East Asian traditions more than three decades ago, I had hopes that, in addition to helping me understand the societies of East Asia more deeply, this alternative world view would interface creatively with western assumptions about humans and the world that seemed to have reached a dead end. Since then, fed especially by developments in cybernetics, computers and information theory, and by environmental and life sciences, science has developed an increasingly sophisticated understanding of self-organizing complex holistic systems. For the West, this is a new and exciting way of thinking, an alternative to the mechanistic linear causality that has dominated western thought for the last 300 years. It's proponents include a broad range of disciplines and areas of inquiry, from the most theoretical reaches of cosmology and physics to the life sciences, and most especially the environmental advocates who intensely urge our self-absorbed society to find a way of life sustainable within the living system to which we belong.
The emergence of ecological and whole systems thinking enriches the potential interface with the Neo-Confucian tradition in ways I never could have expected. Contemporary holistic systems theory and traditional Ch'eng-Chu thought share an assumed naturalism and a causal theory that frames existence as essentially relational and self-organizing. But the development of these two bodies of thought has been quite asymmetrical. On the one hand, Ch'eng-Chu thought has not met the physics, chemistry, and life-science at the heart of contemporary holistic systems understanding. On the other, contemporary holistic systems understanding is in its infancy when it comes to ethical dimensions and spiritual cultivation--the very elements that were the central concerns animating Neo-Confucian thinkers. This asymmetry presents the potential for strong creative interaction.
For the last ten years my attention has turned almost entirely to an exploration of this interface. The papers made available here were presented at a variety of national and international conferences. They fall into roughly three groups:
Updating the tradition: Two of these papers explore how a serious encounter with contemporary systems theory would modify the Neo-Confucian anthropocosmic vision, and whether Neo-Confucian social and moral self-cultivation could survive the transformation.
A third reverses the question, asking what would become of science in an intellectual East Asian milieu that was again seriously engaged with its intellectual and spiritual heritage:
Critical Insights: These three papers take the environmental crisis as the central question of our time, and ask what the Neo-Confucian tradition in general, and its Korean development in particular, might have to offer us as we confront this question. These papers involve some overlap, but contintinually experiment with framing and reformulating traditional concepts and questions in a way that brings out their relevance for contemporary concerns.
In a Contemporary Voice: These three papers explore how a thinker versed both in the Neo-Confucian tradition and in contemporary systems theory might address major contemporary questions. There is no overt reference to Neo-Confucian sources: they function more as inspiration for the way I frame and address questions than as a source of borrowed concepts--a more profound but less evident form of influence. The first traces the evolutionary emergence of human consciousness, seeking to understand how and why it seems to present such a problematic fit with the rest of the natural world from which it emerged and to which it belongs. The second looks for a spirituality that can sustain our hope and joy in our temporary participation in a radically contingent universe--assuming an admission of our own contingency is germane to grasping the real dimensions of the environmental crisis. The third addresses the question of cultural evolution, asking whether it offers any support for those who see some kind of new evolutionary stage (an "ecozoic era") of human civilization as necessary if we are to become a sustainable species.