Extending the Neo-Confucian Tradition:

Questions and Reconceptualization for the Twenty-first Century


Michael C. Kalton

University of Washington, Tacoma

Published as a chapter of Confucianism and Ecology, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Berthrong, eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Center for the Study of  World Religions, 1998.  Reprinted in Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 1998




Introduction. 1

1.  Li and Ch'i2



2. Ethics. 4

3.  The Emergence of Life and Consciousness and the Place of Humans. 5

4.  The Human Problem.. 6

5.  Self-Cultivation. 7

Conclusion. 8


Before the twentieth century, Confucians used the classics, Chu Hsi, T'oegye, Yulgok, and the whole tradition as a resource from which to think as they addressed the problems and needs of their lives and times.  Since the arrival of modernity, however, these have become less a resource for new thinking by engaged intellectuals and more an object and end of study in themselves; they are now the special preserve of specialists in East Asian intellectual history, philosophy, or comparative religiony. The heritage of the Confucian tradition also continues to contribute greatly and constructively to forming the distinctive and vital cultures of modern East Asian societies. This is a vestigial vitality, however, a living off of past wealth.  It is conservative in the best sense, preserving the excellence of the past and using it to inform and enrich the present. But preservationism does not challenge, stimulate, and attract the best talents of the times, nor is it an adequate response to new questions and problems of a sort that could not have been imagined even fifty years ago. 

More than ever before as we approach the twenty-first century the world requires meaningful and useful resources from which to think, to envision the meaning of our conduct and find guidance for action, policies, and decisions. I am convinced that of all the traditions I deal with as a teacher of comparative religion and philosophy, Confucians have fashioned over the centuries a resource uniquely apt to the present world situation. It deserves to be known, utilized for reflection and self-cultivation, and extended--not to fill the world with "Confucians" and glorify a tradition, but because it is a precious resource that can help us at a point where we sorely need help.

This paper grows out of my experience teaching in a completely interdisciplinary undergraduate program for the last six years.  The program offers me the liberty of following my interests and forming courses around important issues, with little regard for the boundaries of conventional academic disciplines.  From my background specialization in Comparative Religion I am especially interested in world views, the most fundamental assumptions people make in order to make sense of the world and of their own existence.  As an American, it has always been natural for me to use contemporary America as a comparative reference point in my reflection and teaching, and in the last few years my courses have come increasingly to deal with the changes and challenges confronting the fundamental assumptions of the modern western world view. 

Developing such courses has put new kinds of books on my shelf: alongside books on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, there is a section on quantum physics and cosmology for my course on God and the New Physics.  Next to those are books on the environment, biology, and ecology for my Environmental Ethics course.  And finally there is a mixture of social, economic and political thought that go into a course entitled The End of the Modern World. 

These may sound like an odd assortment of courses to be taught by a scholar whose academic research and publication for over twenty years has been focussed on the Neo-Confucian tradition.  I have found, however, that time and again it is the Confucian shape of my mind that gives me an especially useful perspective as I deal with these new materials. Patterns of thought familiar to anyone who studies the Neo-Confucian tradition have an unexpected currency in the contemporary world: they disclose hidden implications in common assumptions, point to paths around basic conceptual difficulties, and open up promising new approaches. 

I have in this respect used my Neo-Confucian background continually.  At the same time I have also been acutely aware that I could not directly use the concepts in which Neo-Confucians crystallized these deep patterns of thought. Central concepts, such as li  and ch'i, human nature, the original nature, the Tao, or the Five Relationships, in their conventional Confucian form, have remained the kind of thing I can really teach only in courses dealing with Confucianism or the East Asian tradition.  Somehow knowing these things gives me a unique resource for thinking and teaching about contemporary issues, but the concepts themselves do not easily enter into contemporary discourse; their shape is still premodern.

If the Confucian resource is again taken up by newly self-aware East Asian thinkers or discovered and utilized by probing minds in the West, it will surely be transformed, graced with a renewed conceptual vocabulary related to streams of thought and understanding unknown to the past.  That is what happened in China's Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), when Confucius' best insights were put together with yin-yang and Five Agents cosmological thought to make a grand unified vision suitable to the scope of the newly unified world of imperial China.  And again in the Sung dynasty (960-1279) minds accustomed to centuries of Buddhism discovered new ascetical theory for the cultivation of the mind-and-heart and replaced Buddhist enlightenment with the attainment of sagehood as the goal of their spiritual quest. This "Neo-Confucian" development was supported by the elaboration of a metaphysics of  li and ch'i, a new intellectual framework for a tradition which had not previously felt the need for systematic metaphysical thinking. In each case, the renewed tradition became  the place for the best minds and spirits of the age to do their thinking and pursue their cultivation.

This does not mean I would suggest accepting and valuing everything modern in a "we can be modern too" mode.  It is precisely this western modern vision, the outworn heritage of the Enlightenment, that needs challenging, sifting, and reformulating.  But in order to be a useful resource in this task, Neo-Confucian thinking must come into realistic contact with contemporary understanding and adjust itself so that serious dialogue can take place. Especially for a tradition that frames its most serious understandings about human life and society in a cosmological and naturalistic system, contemporary cosmological, biological, evolutionary, and ecological thinking have a serious claim.  Clearly we have more information about the actual processes of the natural world than the ancients: refusal to rethink Neo-Confucian concepts seriously in the light of the best contemporary information would amount to consigning them to the museum of intellectual history.

In a way, I know what the post-modern world looks like to a Neo-Confucian because I use Neo-Confucian patterns of thought almost unconsciously in framing my own understanding.  But I do not yet know what post-modern Neo-Confucian concepts would look like.  This paper then, is an experimental essay, an attempt first to see what becomes of the traditional conceptual schema if it is put in complete interaction with contemporary understanding, and secondly to see what kind of benefit to contemporary understanding that might come from thinking from the Neo-Confucian tradition. It is offered as a tentative and explorative first step, recognizing and hoping that others may develop this material in alternative and far better ways.

1.  Li and Ch'i


Neo-Confucians spoke of the cosmos (all that exists) in terms of the Supreme Ultimate, the Tao, and li and ch'i; modern thinkers speak of space-time, singularities, the genetic code, and evolution.  The interface between these systems has great potential.  There is symmetry insofar as both conceptual systems presume an all encompassing process of ongoing but patterned change and transformation.  But the contemporary concepts belong to the putatively  value-free world of descriptive science; as such, they suggest an open arena for manipulative intervention and control, but offer little normative guidance for life.  The Neo-Confucian concepts, on the other hand, were originally conceived precisely as a foundation and guide for human conduct and self-cultivation, although in order to achieve that they also had to offer a satisfactory account of the general framework of all existence.  If the Neo-Confucian concepts could withstand the transformation and retain their Confucian character, a more modern, scientifically informed philosophy of li and ch'i might still show us how the processes of the natural world delineate a place and a way of life for human beings. 


  Ch'i according to Neo-Confucian tradition is the stuff of the universe.  It is therefore impossible to think of it in a serious contemporary way and ignore Einstein's E = mc², the equation of energy and mass.  Bringing together ch'i and modern notions of energy could benefit the modern notion in various ways. One of the most immediate might be an easing of the burden of the tendency towards a materialistic reduction of life which has characterized much modern thought. A major problem in the western tradition is that ideas of energy have a materialistic, mechanistic background, matter itself being conceived of as fundamentally non-conscious and non-living. Thus when scientists begin to investigate life processes and consciousness in terms of the patterned transformation of energy, many people instinctively feel this is a degrading materialistic reduction and find it threatening.  In contrast, the Confucian tradition conceives  ch'i as vitalistic, naturally fit to be not only the stuff but the life-force of both body and mind. Thus energy thought of against the backdrop of ch'i makes it seem simply a matter of course that life emerges naturally from an energetic universe, and it is to be expected that our thinking and feeling can be studied in terms of neural networks and electromagnetic phenomena. In short, ch'i provides a path around many of the problems that have accompanied the increasingly dysfunctional conceptual dichotomy of spirit/matter which the West inherited from the Greeks.

But one cannot simply grant this largesse of Confucian wisdom to contemporary thinkers without a price: ch'i must be able to bear their realistic scrutiny in order to offer anything to contemporary thinkers. High on the list of once  plausible but outmoded notions associated with ch'i  is its characterization in terms of varying degrees of turbidity and purity or coarseness and fineness. Dropping this aspect of the concept of course opens up a critical area for systematic rethinking in the Neo-Confucian framework, for the purity and turbidity of ch'i played a major role in accounting for different kinds or levels of creatures and, most importantly, it also accounted for human moral and intellectual shortcomings. Ch'i's relative purity or turbidity thus explained the distortions of the mind-and-heart and played a vital role in the theory of self-cultivation; if these features must be given up, it might seem the concept is stripped of all true philosophic and spiritual significance, which would be too high a price to pay.

When it comes to explaining the distortions evident in human conduct, modern western secular thought shares an intriguing similarity with pre-Neo-Confucian limitations: neither could get much beyond relatively adventitious social or psychological explanations for this fundamental human problem. Neo-Confucians made a significant contribution to the understanding of human imperfection and self-cultivation by describing the source of the problem in the very processes of ch'i. A modern disciple of Chu Hsi might well still scrutinize the universe's processes of transforming energy for a more profound insight into what goes "wrong" with us. The traditional explanation in terms of degrees of of purity and turbidity might find a contemporary analogue in the notion of degrees of complexity, a new systems theory concept that knits together physics, biology, social, economic, and political systems in ways Neo-Confucians would find novel but somehow familiar. Energy becomes complex in atoms and molecules, and more so in organic, living systems; these organic units in turn associate and develop in complex ecosystems, and finally human societies emerge as the most complex of all. A contemporary Neo-Confucian Chu Hsi might well look to this evolutionary process of increasing complexity in hopes of discovering some factor that might account for the distorting or disconnecting of appropriate, natural (tzujan) responsiveness and coherence that is built into these layers of complexity as they evolve.  We will return to this question in Section 4 below.


  Whether one is looking at physics, biology, economics or political science, every kind of energy process is also patterned.  Here we find a place for the half of the Neo-Confucian dualistic-monism system enshrined in concepts such as the Supreme Ultimate, Tao, or li.  These are varient terms for expressing the structural, normative, patterning aspect of the universe. Things must not only exist, they must be and act some way. On a holistic level there is but one Pattern that includes all particular sub-patterns, and that is the Supreme Ultimate. This pattern running through and governing all things was traditionally referred to as the Tao, and within the patterned whole one could likewise consider each individual thing as having its own tao, somewhat like the organic differentiation within a single body. Li  became the favored Neo-Confucian term; it could be used virtually interchangeably with tao, but lent itself more to the discourse regarding moral principles1 so central to Confucian concerns.

One of the major shifts in late twentieth century thought is the shift from mechanistic reductionism, a tendency to explain wholes in terms of parts, to a new holistic orientation. This shift has been brought about by the emergence of systems theory to center stage: computers and cybernetics, information and data systems, ecology and economics are but a few of the areas where thinking in terms of structure, pattern, or systems has taken control.  The terminology of these disciplines is beginning to develop a shared core, and the underlying patterns of thought involved are familiar to anyone trained in Neo-Confucian philosophy.  For example, chaos theory and complexity theory have discovered and investigated unsuspected ways in which systems organize themselves, so now the concept of "self-organization," very similar to the East Asian concept of "self-so" (tzujan) processes unfolding in accord with a deep inner pattern, replaces mechanistic notions to explain the origin of the cosmos and of life itself.  Likewise in biology and the life-sciences traditional thinking of causation from part-to-whole is now complimented by attempts to understand causation from whole-to-part, from organism to cell, from ecosystem to participant, from globe to subsystem.

  This serious holistic turn of thought is a recent departure that begs for a more profound, consistent philosophical interpretation, while the Neo-Confucian tradition provides an unmatched depth of experience in this kind of reflection.   Contemporary thought points towards an understanding of the cosmos, the world, physical systems, biosystems, ecosystems, and social systems as patterned energy of many levels and modes: not just pattern and not just energy; not just multiple and not just one.  The dualistic monism2 of Chu Hsi's system is steeped in understanding the dynamics, tensions, and problem areas for this kind of thinking. In fact arguments in this area and difficulties in explaining causality from pattern/system downward seem amusingly similar to the interminable arguments of traditional Neo-Confucians about ch'i and li.

In the Neo-Confucian  tradition, concepts such as Tao or li were central because they carried normative content for life in society; this was the core of Confucian concern.  On the other hand the world of modern inquiry has found this an almost impossible task: the West may have become more holistic, but it is not skilled in drawing moral meaning from value-free systems, nor in understanding how the values got there if the systems are not value-free.  It is clear that the Neo-Confucian  li, if it could retain its normative content, might offer what is urgently needed here. 

Traditional Neo-Confucians established moral content in the cosmic pattern by the outright identification of li as a Heaven-bestowed3 norm which is pure and perfect goodness. But in a contemporary context this lacks plausibility, for it represents precisely what modern thinkers are unwilling to assume about the patterns of nature. Traditional thought gave li such content automatically and easily; in a serious contemporary Neo-Confucianism li would have to come by normative content in a new and much more arduous way.  Anxious to get on with the real and primary task of humanizing humans, Neo-Confucians simply rooted ideal human qualities in the cosmos and the world of nature.  The new challenge is to view humans as thoroughly belonging to the cosmos and world of nature, and then carefully work out what this means for their humanity.  This is the challenge posed initially by Darwinian evolution, and now even more urgently, by the need for a deeply grounded ecological ethics.  Indeed, working out this question might be the most fundamental philosophical task for post-traditional Neo-Confucian thinkers.

To be suited for this task, a renewed concept of li or tao would need to be much more deeply informed by an understanding of evolutionary processes. This is not that difficult, for there is significant convergence between tao or li and the Darwinian notion of natural selection, the keystone of evolutionary process. As the fundamental criterion of selection in evolutionary processes, natural selection is a powerful normative patterning dimension controlling and shaping ecosystems and evident in the dynamics of every activity in the inter-related whole. The popular equation of natural selection with "survival of the fittest" interpreted it as an amoral interplay of pure power relationships, almost the antithesis of the kind of content Neo-Confucians might hope for.  Now a deepened understanding of systems, however, has extensively modified the earlier ideas. In contemporary understanding, survival of the fittest is not so much a matter of the strongest and meanest surviving in brutal competition, but more a matter of truly fitting in successfully with everything else in the system. Strategies of fitting in are numerous, and "fit" is a more fundamental criterion than power or strength.  Symbiosis, even among predator and prey, is essential, and life-taking must ultimately be life-giving or it cancels itself out. The most successful parasites, it turns out, benefit their hosts rather than destroy them.

Evolution, then, involves a myriad ways of fitting in, with creative adaptive strategies emerging with each new element of change and complexity in the system.  All life exists in a web of responsive relationship with all other life, and with the physical system that supports the living system.  Such patterned interdependence is not limited to only the systemic evolution of life forms; it also frames their daily existence in ecosystems, and extends upward to include the man-made ecosystem called "culture" or "society" as well.  The existing pattern of beings at every level, which includes the patterned interdependent relationships among the various levels, has a normative force: it is only in terms of this pattern that life is supported. The nature of this norm, of course, is pragmatic; evolution is above all a mighty process elaborating a more and more complex and interwoven system of what works to give and maintain life. This would be the meaning of li as evolutionary pattern.

The Neo-Confucian saying, "li is one but manifested diversely" arose when Ch'eng I was trying to explain Chang Tsai's Western linscription, the document which put Confucian ethics on a new metaphysical footing.  The same expression carries equal insight as we now try to put ethics on a cosmic/life evolutionary footing.  Such a li is in fact far more appropriate to the evolutionary context than is the traditional western notion of each kind of creature being endowed with a separate, distinctive "nature" of its own.  The interdependent systemic process of evolving life insures both differentiation and that each thing develops its own distinctive specialization precisely in terms of everything else: one ever changing and developing pattern encompasses all, and each has its own particular pattern in terms of the whole.  Human ethics must ultimately be framed in a more encompassing ecological ethics that considers the whole network of these patterned relationships.

2. Ethics

Western moral philosophers would be quick to note the pragmatic foundation of the normative li I have described, and would have probing questions about how one could derive a moral "ought" out of a practical "what works or what doesn't work."  Western philosophy has generally treated morality as a completely distinctive human realm based upon attributes considered uniquely human such as rationality and free will.  Kant brought this tradition to an especially sharp focus by describing the moral "ought" as a "categorical imperative" unlike any merely conditional "ought" relating to practical considerations. This but crystallized a common assumption that moral good/evil belong to a realm apart from any other kind of good or evil.  Confucians, working in the context of a non-theistic world view, drew no such strict distinctions, somehow making the transition from natural fact to moral obligation, from is to ought, effortlessly, hardly pausing to notice or explain what to the trained western philosophic mind is a huge question.  Human morality was indeed their central concern, but they did not hesitate to see partial manifestations of the same moral characteristics in the birds and beasts or, on another level, in the cycle of the four seasons.

Much of the difference in these approaches to ethical or moral questions goes back to the most basic framework.  Western thinkers have commonly framed the question as a matter of our use of freedom in choosing between good and evil, while Confucians have thought in terms of responding appropriately to a given situation.  For those who think in terms of the exercise of freedom and choice, the most obvious conditions limiting proper conduct generally have to do with other humans and their exercise of their own freedom. This closes the circle of a morality which is not only practiced exclusively by humans but also views moral obligations as relating only to other humans.  Confucians devoted their attention likewise almost entirely to the realm of human relationships and appropriate response or treatment of other humans, but in principle the question of appropriate responsiveness could apply to any situation. While both traditions have been in this respect anthropocentric,  nothing about the Confucian framework systemically limits its applicability to only humans.  This is the underlying reason it was so easy above to adapt li to the evolutionary process of the natural universe: the concept is not inherently anthropocentric, and such dimensions have been part of it all along.

In the contemporary world, and increasingly as one looks a few decades into the future, these frameworks and their differences become critically important. At the threshold of the twenty-first century human kind, East, West, North, South, faces an era of unprecedented challenge.  The organization, habits, and lifeways of industrial society are wiping out species, eroding soil, exhausting and polluting water, making air unbreathable, and the very light of the sun now becomes something we must avoid.  No informed observor thinks what we are doing is sustainable, but masses choose to be uninformed rather than face problems and a future they do not understand.  These are ethical questions of appropriate conduct that weigh as heavily or even more heavily than issues of how humans are treating other humans. The perspective, and the conduct of our lives, is badly distorted when we see them as "only pragmatic," and hence not on a par with the inter-human "moral" concerns.  In fact this very anthropocentrism is at the heart of the problem. 

In this circumstance the relatively simple Confucian question of appropriate response is ethically far more powerful than exclusively human notions such as moral imperatives and obligations based on rights and duties or some kind of social contract.  Li is a guide or norm to modes of conduct and ways of life that fit, that maximize life throughout the system.  The investigation of this kind of li could offer flexible insight into the conduct of human relationships in various kinds of cultures or societies; at the same time it opens with equal weight the question of appropriate human relationship with the whole life system of the planet--and allows some new answers. It is of critical importance here that li not only includes but goes beyond the human sphere, demanding a fit that ultimately is appropriate to the whole earth. Such a view is often dismissed as hopelessly idealistic. But a careful investigation of li, I would argue, reveals that it is cold, hard, pragmatic realism; it is the only ethos that fits the dimensions and proportions human life has assumed at the end of the twentieth century.

3.  The Emergence of Life and Consciousness and the Place of Humans

The systemic ethics I have been describing supposes in the very concept of li that human beings are part of the entire patterned world of nature.  But for the working out of ethics a more precise consideration of just how and where we fit in this overall pattern is a matter of great importance.  In the world of pre-modern anthropocentric thought, it was sufficient for Neo-Confucians to simply presume the superiority of human beings and substantiate it by a metaphysical theory that endowed us with the finest ch'i, and hence with the most full participation in li.  This wonderfully explains how humans seem to be flexibly and responsively engaged with virtually anything in existence (the whole pattern), compared to the more limited and specialized responsiveness of other creatures.  But the meaning and implications of the emergence of these abilities in the broad evolving pattern of life must be carefully examined; the simple assumption that we are the crowning glory of evolution might carry a very misleading message about our real situation.

The question of the emergence of life is full of wonderful ambiguities.  A review of theories on life/non-living makes one thing clear: no one can clearly draw a precise line between the two, though there is a wide acceptance of the intuitive feeling that there really is some difference.  How one treats this question seems to depend to a large extent upon the conceptual resources one brings to it: it has no "scientific" answer. 

In this context it is especially interesting that, if without knowing later philosophical developments, one were to seek a classical western counterpart for the East Asian concept of ch'i, in Greek it would be pneuma, in Latin, spiritus.  Both pneuma and spiritus originally had to do with wind, hence air, breath, the breath of life, the force of vitality and power of feelings.  Ch'i, from a base meaning having to do with steam or vapor, developed almost exactly the same set of associations.  But the western terms eventuated in "spirit" as opposed to and contrasted with "matter," while ch'i,  as the concretizing and energizing component, became paired with li, a role thinkers East and West have intuitively equated with the "matter" side of western thought.  In effect, much of what went into "spirit" in the West went into the physical in East Asia.

So it is that in traditional western thought physical stuff (matter) needed animation, an animus or "soul" to become alive, and accordingly the evolutionary question of the emergence of life from a presumably non-living material substrate has been a difficult one, the case of the "spiritual" soul of humans being the most difficult of all.  By contrast, life is only to be expected in the case of ch'i, and the question rather becomes whether there is such a thing as non-living. One could easily think of the difference as more a matter of complexity than of kind, and somewhat arbitrarily specify a degree of organized behavior as the cut off line for practical purposes.

The emergence and evolution of life is an energetic (ch'i) thrust  towards systemic complexity (li).  The complex pattern of organism and ecosystem is emergent rather than pre-existing.  The process starts with self-organizing systems at a relatively simple level and transforms as adaptive strategies within the system lead to continually increasing levels of complexity.  In a sense li continually gives birth to itself, emergent pattern leading to yet further pattern.

As we mentioned above, the boundaries of the distinctive pattern called "life" are virtually impossible to fix clearly: in somewhat circular fashion, we recognize life when we see things somehow "making a living." That is, things begin in an active way to maintain an existence in terms of something else: amino acids have no need for protozoa, but protozoa require amino acids.  Life is thus distinguished by a qualitatively new level of relatedness.

This new form of relatedness is in some way a "presence" of one thing in another.  Primitive life emerged in a soup of nutrients, amino acids, which were simply absorbed through semi-porous membranes.  But as soon as this system emerged, the single-cell creatures by their very structure "expected" certain nutrients, which in that respect were present even when physically absent.  I would suggest that this present-while-absent quality inherent in the advent of "needs," even though it is only a matter of structure or pattern at this point, might be regarded as the seed of what we recognize at a far more complex level as consciousness.

To put it another way, the most elementary form of consciousness seems to emerge as creatures begin to live in terms of one another.  The strategies for making a living which fit an organism into the emergent and ever-transforming community of life ("survival of the fittest"), become more complex as we move from plants to herbivores to carnivores.  Structural consciousness, the selective taking in of nutrients, takes on new and more active dimensions as more elaborate strategies for sustenance and reproduction come into play.  The emergence of controlled mobility, accompanied by the development of the various forms of sensation that make mobility meaningful, is a decisive step in the direction of more familiar forms of consciousness.

In this framework, consciousness in its more and more progressive forms might be best regarded as a particular strategy in an overall process which is most fundamentally a matter of adaptation, literally "fitting in."  As the range of consciousness increases, so do flexibility and the complexity of the fitting in.  Mobility and sensation emerge as strategies that can detach the creature from strict dependence on immediate environment, but bring instead a new kind of dependence spread out over a much larger environment.  A blade of grass grows in a few inches of soil, while a hawk soars over miles interacting with a wide range of creatures.  The hawk interdepends more broadly and flexibly, but to describe this freedom as independence would be an illusion.   

The meaning of consciousness as a particular evolutionary strategy is perhaps best considered in context with alternative strategies.  If one thinks of intelligence as a matter of problem-solving, for example, one might broadly distinguish at least two basic forms: there is genetic intelligence and experiential intelligence.  Some sentient, mobile life forms specialize in genetic, rather than experiential strategies for handling problems.  Many insects, for example, are minimally individualized and flexible, live a short time, but reproduce massively.  Instead of specializing in advancing along the consciousness and experiential learning line, their species have become in this way highly complex and diversified systems possessing a high ability to adaptively mutate around changed circumstances.  This form of intelligence has at least held even and may be emerging victorious in the chemical warfare of pesticides and antibiotics waged against it by humans, who represent the crowning achievement of the alternative, experientially based line of evolved intelligence.

Lifeforms that put the greatest weight on experience and on immediate (vs insect-like genetic) flexibility typically live longer and produce proportionally fewer young.  In this line of development a growth in the ability to accumulate and utilize experience is an important advantage: experience thus becomes learning. Herein we find the deep significance of increased brain size, which increases memory to store a broader and broader range of experience and enhances our flexible adaptability to make use of it. We humans have represented the foremost thrust of this development, getting such big heads for memory storage and experience processing that we have to be born early (about six to eight months prematurely from any ordinary mammalian development standard) so that our growing heads would not become a death warrant for our mothers.  Thus our brains continue growing at fetal rates well after we are born, and they finally reach about quadruple the size they were at birth.  Also, corresponding to our premature birth, we have a longer period after birth of intense dependency on our parents than any other creature, a factor that puts an especially heavy weight on sociability.  When former Confucians noted social relationships, with a special emphasis on the qualities of the parent-child relationship, as primary human characteristics they were right on the evolutionary mark!

We humans have not only developed the biological capacity to accumulate personal experience, we also discovered language, a means by which experience is shared and accumulated in community over many generations rather than being quantized in single life units.  Writing was another major step, allowing for a qualitatively new level of complexity and continuity in the transmission of accumulated information from generation to generation.  And now the globe is electronically linked and computer memory banks put this whole process of information and learning accumulation into yet another mode. This is so much more powerful and rapid than anything that has gone before that we do not yet begin to understand its potentials and implications.

This process has taken place within human society, and at each stage human relationships have been transformed in important ways.  There is much to be reflected upon and understood just in the human social dimension, but such reflection should also be extended to take in the larger picture.  This whole process of maximizing experience began as one of a number of adaptive strategies in the complex evolution of life, and it is shared in to various degrees by many other creatures.  We have thrust ahead on a vector entirely natural in its direction, yet somehow this process has also become self-enclosed and distinct from nature in a uniquely human way.  Experience became deliberate learning, and language (including writing and computers) empowered the learning thrust in a way that transformed our adaptation to the world into a matter of adapting the world to our needs and desires: "nature" and "culture" have become different categories.  Again, other creatures do this as well; we only represent an extreme development of this life strategy. 

At the same time the naturalness of this process should not blind us to risk: evolutionary strategies are tries, probes, adaptive reachings that may not succeed or may even undercut themselves by their own success.  In an anthropocentric world the relative permanence of our species could be simply assumed; in an evolutionary universe continued existence is an achievement that no creature can take for granted.  When earlier Confucians observed that man, by possessing the fullness of li, is thus in a more universally responsive relationship with all things than any other creature, they were considering a very real consequence of this evolutionary pattern.  But the anthropocentric habit of preferring human forms over all others foreshortened for them considerations that are now urgent.  There is now, as never before, an awareness that the very capacities in which we most glory also are capacities that put us in peril.  This also calls for interpretation and understanding.

4.  The Human Problem

The question of how the kind of evolutionary process we have described could ever get into the kind of critical situation evident at present is initially perplexing. We have characterized the li of the cosmic evolutionary process as a self-organizing, emergent, ramifying and interwoven systemic pattern.  Since everything in this burgeoning pattern happens in terms of everything else, apart from major interventions from outside the immediate system (collisions with asteriods and the like) it would seem that things should go well.  As in the case of the Tao or perfect li of old, one imagines pure and perfect harmony and then must struggle to account for the sense of something amiss that most often, and especially now, is a feature of human experience.  In particular, it seems that the rest of the natural world more or less of itself (tzujan) maintains a certain balance; how is it then, that a similar balance is not evidenced in the human part of nature's pattern?

Some traditions have solved this question by removing man from the natural system and giving him unique powers (free will), along with unique problems to match (moral good and evil, sinfulness etc.).  However in times such as we now confront, when human relations with the entire earth system are problematic and an object of grave concern, it is a particular strength of the Confucian tradition that they have avoided any such structural split.  But assuming a basic continuity between man and nature makes it difficult to describe what goes wrong.  It is awkward to describe man as evil if human nature is but part of an all-embracing and somehow normative pattern; on the other hand saying man is good leaves nothing but adventitious circumstantial explanations such as Mencius' appeal to social forces.  The Neo-Confucians achieved a systematic explanation by introducing the turbidity of ch'i, a more powerful solution than that of Mencius, but still limited.  In particular, the relative turbidity of their ch'i differentiated and fit the various species into their places in the patterned mosaic of life, but only in the case of humans does this differentiating function transform into a matter of a distortion of appropriate responsiveness. This seeming uniqueness of the human "moral problem" is the more a question in proportion as humans have otherwise been framed in terms of a single, all-embracing natural system.

I have not found that traditional Neo-Confucians devoted much attention to this question. At most one finds passing reference to the fact that only humans have the capacity for self-cultivation. The implication is that the responsive scope of non-human creatures is so "blocked up" by the turbidity of their psychophysical ch'i that they have little latitude for further perfecting  their fundamental endowment. Humans, endowed with a greater purity or fineness of ch'i participate responsively in the fullness of the li which patterns all things. Endowed with the capacity to respond to all things, there is a wide range in which we may fall short in the exercise of our lofty constitution. Self cultivation, in this perspective, is both a sign of a relatively high psychophysical endowment and also an urgent necessity.

In this account of the human situation there are implications regarding the human place in existence that reflect traditional anthropocentric assumptions. But there is assumed in this vision a fundamental continuity in the community of being which supports the naturalness of the human phenomenon. Further, assessing consciousness in terms of different scopes of responsiveness deals with observable differences and is much more secure than attemptin to differentiate it in terms of the possession of unique spiritual powers. Turbid ch'i may no longer be much help in explaining the uncertain fittingness of our responses, but the general framework puts the question in a way that can easily be pursued through avenues opened by contemporary understandings of evolutionary processes. 

Evolution is a process of developing and complex adaptive strategies, each with its own rhythm but controlled by the necessity of meshing with the rhythms of the physical world and interdependent with other lifeforms.  Life on this planet began perhaps some 3.5 billion years ago, but for about 3 billion years it was mostly one long dynasty of single-celled blue-green algae.  Evolution by random genetic mutation is a very slow process indeed.  The much more rapid strategy of gene pooling and mixing through sexual reproduction after the emergence of eucaryotic cells really took off only about 550 million years ago; that process has been incredibly rapid and productive, filling that half-billion years with an estimated 4 billion species, of which perhaps 5 million remain.  Short lived bacteria that pack generations into our days can use this genetic strategy to mutate around our drugs in a matter of months or years, and insects do the same with our pesticides.  The same mechanism cannot serve us in chemical warfare because we live too long and reproduce too modestly; thus it took over 3 million years to accomplish the relatively modest alterations that separate the earliest homonids from modern homo sapiens sapiens, the form of modern humans which emerged about 100,000 years ago.

Our long lives and low reproduction are not a problem, however, because they are complemented by another adaptive strategy: we can adapt to chemical warfare or any other perilous situation by learning from experience, the fastest and most flexible of all evolved adaptive strategies.  So dependent are we on this strategy that we are often inclined to think all our problems are really somehow a matter of our difficulty in sufficiently absorbing and learning from experience.  We feel we learn too slowly, but human learning as an adaptive strategy is far more rapid than other natural processes of mutation: unlike genetic mutation which demands a new generation, this strategy operates in the momentary framework of lived individual experience, and it brings its power to bear upon goals that may be similarly framed in the context of immediate needs or wants. But in the broader pattern of nature, when the immediacy of flexible response to experience is developed with the power it has achieved in the human case (memory, learning, language, writing, computers etc.), there is a new pressure on the whole system to move or harmonize with the newly dominant rhythm.  That, however, is not possible.

There is then, a  serious question of systemic fit. Earth systems have a natural rate of production and absorbtion: being in harmony with that clock is the difference between clean or polluted rivers and groundwater, breathable or toxic air, life-giving or acid rain.  Life forms have likewise a varied genetic, reproductive, biological rhythm which must somehow mesh with the clock of the earth systems or forfeit survival. Experience-based adaptation is a far more rapid time framework, geared to enable sentient creatures to respond successfully to the vagaries of the passing moment, be it an opportunity for a meal or to avoid becoming a meal.  We have specialized and elaborated this most rapid framework and achieved unprecedented mastery over our immediate circumstances, in the process detaching them from groundings in the slower processes of nature.  We have become the fastest living creature on earth, producing more than the earth can absorb or sustain, changing entire ecosystems and environments faster than life forms can adjust, and straining our own capacity to deal with our ever more dense, eventful, experience-packed lives in which the dominant feeling is that we never have enough time.

One can see that the question or problem of successfully harmonizing the temporal rhythms of energetic change and flow at various systemic levels is structural; it is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically evil, but that does not prevent it from being problematic and giving rise to many of the phenomena at various levels that we identify as good and evil. By the development of increased memory and language, experience has been transformed into a process of cumulative learning and opened a new space for artifice: the world of humanly-wrought culture comes to overlay the world of nature. Human activity is no longer directly shaped by the natural system, although it must ultimately harmonize with it.  And if there is to be such harmony, it must be achieved deliberately through human knowledge, discipline, and self-cultivation (i.e. artifice)--or through the natural disaster which finally systematically corrects for adaptive misfits. 

5.  Self-Cultivation

Self-cultivation, the process of study and reflection coupled interdependently with practice in active life and meditative quiet, is certainly at the heart of the Neo-Confucian endeavor.  It is also where renewed thinking from the Confucian tradition has much to offer in the coming decades.  The major temptation of the modern era has been to believe that technical expertise is the essential and adequate foundation for proper activity, and this will remain as a temptation of the emerging post-modern world as well.  But the above reflections on the nature of the human problem offer little hope that furthering the technological mastery that has rendered the globe increasingly subject to the fast clock and immediate framework of human responsive experience and desire can be expected to slow the clock or chasten the desires. Instead, in a typically Neo-Confucian way, we are returned to the central role of self-cultivation.

The scope and emphasis of concern in this readjusted, environmentally oriented framework have shifted somewhat from the traditional Confucian focus on human society. But the nature of the central problem to be addressed in cultivation changes little from the perennial Confucian insight: it is still the effects of inappropriate desires that are the basic source of distortion in the way we respond within our network of interrelated existence.  Traditional analysis of what makes certain forms of desire "inappropriate" or a "distorted" form of response generally looked to the way self-centeredness destroys the life-giving network of interdependent relationships within which individuals are constituted. Now looking beyond the limits of human society to the question of the adaptive fit between human society and the rest of the natural world, the meshing of temporal rhythms emerges as a primary criterion of life-givingness or appropriateness. But as in the case of self-centeredness in social relations, on the level of psychological description the central problem comes down to a matter of the proper discipline and function of desire.

There is nothing wrong with desire.  It is in fact the basic substrate of an experience-centered strategy for adaptation and survival: experience has meaning largely as a guide for desire and so for action, which is mediated by desire.  But this means that the evolution of the experience-centered survival strategy into the world of human learning and adaptation by manipulation has brought about a world in which human desire plays an unprecedented role.  In the contemporary world of technologically empowered desire, the enlarged task of self-cultivation is to harmonize the naturally immediate or relatively short temporal frame of reference which is the original sphere of desires with the very different rhythms of other sectors of the natural system.  The traditional task of subordinating desire for immediate and personal self-gratification to larger considerations and self-identities in terms of family and society is not supplanted, only enlarged.  We must now do not only that, but also finally transcend the anthropocentric limits of traditional self-identities. The need to adjust our desires to the rhythms of other life forms and earth processes is different in scope, but not in kind, from the kind of thing Confucians have taken as a central task for thousands of years.

The means devised by Neo-Confucians for self-cultivation remain among the most sophisticated, powerful, and appropriate for this task. The purpose of the traditional "investigation of li" was ultimately the task of understanding one's complex relational reality and the conduct fitting such a reality: What does it mean to be a son, a father, a husband or wife, a brother or a minister to the king?  What is the pattern of the seasons? How is it manifest in me?  What does that mean for my conduct today, tomorrow?  These questions remain valid, and a deep, reflective personal grasp of these matters is a means for profound transformation and growth.

But beyond such traditional concerns, a post-modern investigation of li would direct itself  to not only the pattern of human social relatedness, but also its embeddedness in the larger network of life and earth relationships as well.  The simple facts that bear on our relational reality and the temporal rates of natural processes call for equally deep reflection and also have the power to profoundly transform our lives.  How many humans are there on the globe?  How many years to double this at a 2% growth rate?  How much uncultivated but arable land is left on earth?  How much cultivated land is lost annually?  What is the rate of deforestation, of water usage, of river siltation?  How many chemicals do we produce, in what quantities, and where do they go?  If we continue exterminating 100 species each day (Harvard biologist Edwin Wilson's estimate), how many years before we will drive into extinction 25% of the earth's life? How do bacteria, plants, insects, and animals (including humans) interdepend in the web of life?  This is a small and arbitrary sample of matters for investigation and reflection relating to li as we now know it to be that have normative import and call for serious consideration.  If the answers to such questions do not overshadow and outweigh our other more immediate concerns and change our desires, it is only because we do not bother to reflect on them profoundly: we do not investigate this li. For creatures who have elaborated an experience/information-based adaptation strategy into such an instrument of power, perhaps nothing is more fundamental than the deep, reflective investigation of li. Just as former Confucians observed regarding matters such as filial piety, we need to know in our hearts and bones what we already know superficially with our intellects and read as numbers on a page.  

Neo-Confucians knew this required some retreat from total immersion in the affairs of a busy life. Basing themselves on Mencius' reflections concerning the healing properties of a quiet night they introduced quiet-sitting, a meditative practice aimed at cultivating a deep inner stillness and calm that could extend to active life as well. Quietness is not part of the typical rhythm of most modern human lives, but without inner quietness it is difficult to achieve the depth of reflection required to make learning a process of self-transformation.  Human biology and psychology also have rates and limits for absorbing new information and experience.  Even the human mind-and-heart, the most rapidly flexible adaptive system devised in life's three billion year evolution, threatens to be inundated by the artificial extensions we have devised to pack time more and more densely with more information, activity, and accomplishment. Quiet sitting and similar forms of discipline open a space that can restore a responsiveness that is often numbed by the pace and demands of modern life. 

The evolutionary line that has led from experience to learning and deliberate technique culminates in the entirely artificial speed of modern techonological cultures.  The traditional Neo-Confucian demand for a balanced process of learning and practice, reflection and direct cultivation, activity and quiet, is if anything more necessary under these conditions.  As always, the two sides of this single self-cultivation process mutually inform and enhance one another.  The investigation of li reveals the necessity of tuning the rhythm of our desires to fit appropriately in a life-supporting way with the patterned processes of society, biosphere, and the earth.  Quiet is the direction of the needed adjustment as well as the condition that enables the required reflective investigation of these matters.  Without attention to this sort of self-cultivation it will be difficult to see clearly or walk responsively the paths that must be trod in the twenty-first century.


This paper assumes that a truly living philosophical/religious tradition is, at least for an intellectual, a place from which to think.  The possible objects of thought are many.  My own feeling is that real questions confronting the world, society, and one's own person are the most obvious and important matters for reflection; secondarily there is the inward gaze with which a tradition keeps its own conceptual house in order.  Buddhists, Christians, or Confucians must certainly spend some effort reflecting on doctrines and modes of understanding that are particularly Buddhist, Christian, or Confucian.  But the real point is to understand life and the world, and to conduct oneself accordingly. 

Thus my first priority in this paper has been to exemplify what happens when one uses the Neo-Confucian tradition not as an object of study but as a place from which to think.  I have done this almost unconsciously for years and it has shaped my thoughts in ways of which I was hardly aware.  But until writing this paper I have not tried to do such thinking in a highly conscious and deliberately Neo-Confucian mode.  The attempt has meant trying to push beyond the general holistic systemic fit, to see if the conceptual system itself would come to life when placed in serious interaction with contemporary knowledge about cosmic, earth, and life processes. 

Somewhat to my surprise, li and ch'i and related understandings of consciousness and the mind-and-heart  seem to enter the contemporary world without much difficulty.  My personal test of how they survived the transition is whether they fit the new milieu in a way that generates new and important insight: did using them in a serious way lead to new ideas, or to seeing new connections, or to finding a new clarity of explanation in areas of familiar reflection?  I found this to indeed be the case in a number of areas.  Those that stand out most in my mind are the derivation of a meaning of morality and a foundation for normative content within a totally natural milieu, new ways of pursuing the mind/body problem, and a useful and practical description of the human problem in terms of our place and specialization within the whole evolutionary system. 

I am under no illusion that my way of adapting li and ch'i to the contemporary world is the best or most appropriate.  No one would be more pleased than myself if a hot debate arose with a number of adaptations being proposed, critiqued, and refined over a period of years.  But perhaps the more important part of my project here has been to exemplify the special fittingness of the Neo-Confucian tradition as a place from which to think in the contemporary world.  Most of the ideas in this paper are not particularly "Neo-Confucian":  They come from systems theory, quantum physics and cosmology, neo-Darwinism and ecology.  But in a Neo-Confucian context these ideas take on a new kind of coherence, thematic structure and pointedness.  The normative dimension, the place of human consciousness, and the need for and application to self-cultivation are elements that come into place only at the interface of these materials and Neo-Confucian thought.  Although the vision of the world, man's place in it, and the essential problem(s) as presented here does not pretend to be a new Neo-Confucianism, I would hope that anyone deeply familiar with the tradition might be able to recognize it as a typically Neo-Confucian way of thinking that is appropriate to the questions and needs of the twenty-first century.

1Moral principles in this view are simply a level of manifestation of the Pattern, not a unique and distinctive realm apart from what the western tradition refers to as Nature. The same li that is the pattern whereby life arises abundantly in spring, for example, is manifested in human nature as the life-giving character of humane feeling and commiseration with the lot of our fellow beings.


Although it makes use of two fundamental concepts, li and ch'i, in proportion as there is emphasis on their complementary roles and absolute interdependence and inseparability, the system is in a deeper sense monistic. Depending on the emphasis of individual thinkers, either the more dualistic or more monistic potentials of this situation could be emphasized.


"Heaven" in such Neo-Confucian usage simply points to the ultimate normative agency in existence. By the 4rth century B.C.E. the understanding of this agency had already evolved from the idea of a personal supreme being to the non-personal inherent norm or Tao.