Chŏng Tasan and Mencius:

Towards a Contemporary East-West Interface

by: Michael C. Kalton

University of Washington, Tacoma

Conference on The Meeting of East and West in Tasan's Thought, Harvard University, November 2003

Table of Contents

Introduction. 3

The Mencius and Chŏng Tasan. 6

Everyone's Mencius: Dynamics of Self-Organization. 9

On the Road to Disagreement: Tao and Human Nature. 15

From Mencius to Chu Hsi18

Tasan's Western Learning and Mencius. 21

Conclusion: The Contemporary Interface. 29


During the last ten years my scholarly focus has turned to a question that will play out in the future: whether and how the Confucian-Taoist-Buddhist heritage of East Asia could revive and contribute in a creative interaction with a naturalistic and holistic systems world view now emerging under the auspices of western science and environmentalism. Chŏng Tasan's intersection with this question is complex and subtle. Let me explain.

            By the first half of the 19th century, science and religion had by and large reached a mutual accommodation.  The basic idea held that the Book of Nature and the Bible have but a single divine Author, so the  discoveries of science  just deepen our understanding of the wonders of God's creation, complimenting the Bible's revealed message of salvation. Darwinian evolution, however,  broke this truce. Much attention has been given to the conflict between evolution and common religious assumptions such as human uniqueness and superiority, the age of the earth and so on. But Darwin's theory of natural selection drove a deeper wedge between religion and science. By suggesting a source of self-organization such that the complex order of the natural world did not demand an ordering, creative Mind at its source, it undercut the favorite rationalist grounds for belief in God. Indeed, natural selection ideally suited the deeply empirical and naturalistic  orientation  of science and emboldened its endeavor to explain the universe with no appeal to theism.

Since then, fed especially since the second World War by developments in cybernetics, computers and information theory, and by environmental and life sciences, this trajectory has given rise to an increasingly sophisticated  understanding of self-organizing complex holistic systems.[1] 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.

            This science-mediated holistic approach to the natural world relates variously to the highly diverse religious life of contemporary western societies. While it is literally poles apart from contemporary fundamentalist religion and very uncomfortable for evangelicals in general, this mode of thought finds  expression in more "liberal" currents of religious thought such as process theology and the "universe story" movement championed by "eco-theologians" such as Thomas Berry.[2] In proportion as traditional theism feels the influence of holistic systems thought, it transforms away from the easily grasped image of a human-like personal and loving God. This has created a renewed interest in the world's non-theistic religious traditions, evidenced especially in the lively dialogue with Buddhism, and the deep inroads Buddhism has made among western intellectuals. My own study now focuses on the potential creative interface of the Neo-Confucian tradition with this contemporary revisioning of the world.

            The holistic naturalism and tao-mediated self-organization of the Neo-Confucian cosmos seem to offer an obvious and appealing bridge to contemporary systems thought. But these are the very elements of Ch'eng-Chu thought against which Tasan launched his most forceful critique. And the personal theism of Shang Ti with which he replaced such thinking seems similar to the intense personal theism that puts contemporary evangelical Christians in tension with emergent holistic ways of understanding systems and self-organization. So from a systems perspective, when it comes to the contemporary state of the question, it might seem that Tasan made exactly the wrong move: he rejected what is arguably the most sophisticated body of holistic systems understanding elaborated by any pre-modern civilization, in favor of a mode thought that is now being critiqued and transformed by an emergent renewed holism.

Needless to say, if that were my view, I would not be writing this paper.  I see Tasan's accomplishment as presenting an extraordinary probe for exploring critical aspects of the potential interface of contemporary thought with East Asia's intellectual and spiritual heritage, and with the Neo-Confucian tradition in particular.

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.

But a question lurks when one looks at this seriously. The clear edge in maturity and completeness on the Neo-Confucian side, i.e. where it can offer the most creative leads, has to do with ethics and spirituality. But if one seriously assimilates science-based systems understanding into a Neo-Confucian framework, might it not undermine the very elements of the vision that were the systemic mainstay for Confucian ethics and spirituality?

            This is where Chŏng Tasan becomes very interesting. For he indeed undermined those very elements of Ch'eng-Chu thought, yet he emerged with an intact ethics and spirituality. Many would hasten to add, "a theistic ethics and spirituality." But this bears careful scrutiny. Exposed to Mateo Ricci's influence, Tasan came to clearly espouse the personal governance of Shang Ti, with obvious consequences for ethics and spirituality. But even Confucians who made scant reference to Shang Ti during more than a thousand years preceding the eleventh century Neo-Confucian revival were never at a loss for ethics and spirituality. Further, there is no trace in Tasan of the evangelical theistic mentality that finds it hard to believe one can be moral and spiritual in the absence of belief in God. The world he inhabited made no such assumption--quite the contrary. We might well look closely at the resources from which Tasan forms his ethical and spiritual vision  in order to inventory the potential resourcefulness of a contemporary revitalization of the East Asian spiritual and intellectual heritage.

            This could be a vast project. In order to bring it to dimensions that fit my time constraints, I decided to base this investigation upon a complete reading of Tasan's commentary on Mencius, the Maengja yo ŭi, which fills 115 double folio pages in two kwŏn.[3] For many reasons, among all the classic texts of the Confucian tradition, Mencius interfaces most richly with contemporary holistic systems.  Its root metaphors, its social and political analysis, and its account of human nature delve deeply into systemic dynamics. Because of this, when Neo-Confucians elaborated a sophisticated holistic metaphysics/cosmology to frame ethical and spiritual cultivation,  the Mencius, as interpreted in Chu Hsi's Collected Commentary, *served as the  major classical support for linking psyche and cosmos in an "anthropocosmic" systemic unity. And so for Tasan, who undertook to critique that system and suggest an alternative closer to what the ancient sages were "really" saying, nothing is more fundamental than reinterpreting the Mencius.

The Mencius and Chŏng Tasan

The Mencius is the earliest example of extended and coherent intellectual discourse in the Confucian tradition. Its fourteen chapters (seven units each in two parts) recount Mencius' conversations, discussions, and arguments with a shifting array of interlocuters in varying circumstances. Topics shift in a changing but limited and thematically unified array that includes the model and power of sage government, assessment of historical figures and their situations, appropriate institutions, the proper care and feeding of ministers, taking and leaving office, the goodness of human nature, and the necessity of self-cultivation.

Interwoven with these topics is a discourse of humanity and righteousness and of proper human relationships rooted most critically in the family; these are presented not just as good and lofty ideals, but as a form of  true power that can restore unity, order, and coherence to the fractured social and political order of his day (fittingly referred to as the period of "Warring States" in Chinese historiography). 

For the most part, Tasan  is the typical scholarly commentator trying to settle long-standing disputes and move understanding of the text forward.  Just when did Mencius visit king Hsüan of Ch'i (I.8a-b)? How big was king Wen's garden (I.9b)? What sort of officials are actually meant by deceptively familiar terminology (I.10a-b)? The term ordinarily translated as "manuering" really means "sweeping" (I.41a-b). When did taxes on good arise (I.21b)? Where and when were the ancient sages born relative to one another (I.55a-b)? At the same time Tasan passes over many passages of political and social theory that would attract modern notice (e.g. 3.3, comparing the relative organizing power of military force and humanity (in, jen))--not because they are unimportant, but because the tradition had long reached a non-controversial consensus regarding them.

For a conference interested on the effects of western influence on Chŏng Tasan, such passages yield a significant insight. Going over his entire commentary rather than just the celebrated passages in which Tasan engages in a thorough deconstruction of the Neo-Confucian metaphysics, psychology, and self-cultivation practice gives a broader picture of the overall orientation of Tasan's thought.  Chŏng Tasan may be exceptional in the depth and breadth of his learning, but most of that learning, and the use he makes of it, are  absolutely typical of what one would expect from a scholar totally immersed in the Confucian world. Much of his attention and effort is devoted to arguments of philology,  or of historical details--especially those involving the sage kings, their circumstances and deeds, an the nature of their institutions.  One would have to search very hard to find such work today; even those who still proudly carry the Confucian tradition forward no longer take the detailed institutional arrangements  associated with Yao and Shun and other sage figures as literal, exemplary, authoritative models worthy of endless scholarly glosses and argumentation. But Tasan very clearly belongs heart-and-mind to that tradition; he is still immersed in the untarnished authority of the paradigmatic figures and institutions of the Confucian classics.

Broad consensus now exists regarding the deep influence upon Chŏng Tasan of Mateo Ricci's  TheTrue Meaning of the Lord of Heaven. Tasan became deeply critical of the anthropocosmic framework elaborated so powerfully by Neo-Confucian thinkers, and in its place propounded a theistic Confucianism in which human beings,  endowed with the spiritual faculties of intellect and free will, stand apart from and over the order of the rest of the natural world. Philosophically there is a world of difference between founding a cosmos upon the dualistic basis of a voluntaristic personal God, and founding it within a monistic framework of natural emergence as represented in Chou Tun-i's Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate. Tasan not only embraced theism, he did so with a philosophical acuity that followed out the implications consistently for a new philosophical anthropology that likewise bears clear signs of Ricci's influence.

Professor Lee Kwang Ho has observed that Ricci simply dressed Christian teachings up in Confucian clothes--especially in the first half of The True Meaning, the half that deals with broad philosophical issues rather than the distinctive doctrine of the Christian tradition. Tasan, by contrast, under Ricci's influence proceeded to dress   Confucian teaching in theistic clothes.[4] These two very different projects of Ricci and Chŏng Tasan meet on apparently shared ground in the matter of an intelligent personal Creator, and in the moral distinctiveness of humans endowed with intellect and will.  With the writings of Mateo Ricci as catalyst, Tasan moved to a cosmology and anthropology that seems familiar to western eyes, and at the same time notably departed from major tenets the Ch'eng-Chu Neo-Confucian vision that permeated his cultural and intellectual milieu.

In view of the different projects which form the context of the cosmology and anthropology Ricci and Tasan share, the question naturally arises as to whether the resemblance is merely superficial. Or to put it another way, what is the effect of these views as they are incorporated into Tasan's thoroughly Confucian/Neo-Confucian milieu?   Chou Tun-i used the Book of Changes as foundation for his Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, which became the cornerstone of Cheng-Chu cosmology. But the complete anthropocosmic vision, including its ramifications for self-cultivation, above all stem from Neo-Confucian interpretation of the Mencius, and of the closely associated Doctrine of the Mean. Tasan's commentary on Mencius thus provides us with critical material for assessing the effects of Tasan's reinterpretation of key elements of the commonly assumed Neo-Confucian cosmology and anthropology.

Everyone's Mencius: Dynamics of Self-Organization

A modern reader of Mencius is struck by his political/social/ethical theory of organization--or better, of self-organization. He assumes a fundamentally relational world, so his reflections on both breakdown and coherence look to the way values embedded in personal conduct and in public policy play out in the qualitative transformation of a relational network. In contemporary terms, we would say he is a systems thinker with a keen eye for the process dynamics of self-organization. In an age of violent political and social fragmentation, Mencius makes the dynamics of integration  his constant theme, as did virtually all thinkers of the period. Particular positions he advocated in this shared discourse, such as the goodness of human nature, have been the focus of protracted debate and intense elaboration within the tradition. The systemic assumptions that form the matrix from which these positions arise, by contrast, drew little attention, for they were shared assumptions and therefore beyond the horizon of question.

For sentient beings, pleasure and pain are important guides, inborn but not infallible indicators that mark the path and differentiate well-being and its opposite. This rudimentary force of attraction and repulsion provides one important level of Mencius' social dynamics. Do what people love, provide for their making a satisfying living, and they will welcome your rule. Any contemporary American reader cannot help but see Bill Clinton's famed admonition running throughout Mencius advice to rulers: "It's the economy, stupid!" As an assessment of forces of attraction and repulsion, this would be nothing but political common-sense--except that it is so often neglected when power dynamics take on an exploitive edge. Pleasure and pain dynamics often lead to the powerful using their position to maximize their own pleasure at the expense of the less powerful. Thus on the most common sense level of the organizing dynamic of pleasure and pain, Mencius inserts an important theme: to avoid turning this into a dynamic of alienation, the critical thing is for the powerful to share their pleasures with the people (Cf. for example Mencius 2.1; 2.2; 2.4).

Organizational dynamics in terms of pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, are fundamental to gaining and maintaining political support--at least if one believes, as did Mencius, that government is a matter of winning the minds-and-hearts of the people. Whatever their practice, no Confucian would contradict this. But that is only the beginning of the organizing of a healthy society. The raw forces of attraction and repulsion must undergo qualitative refinement for the body politic to function on a fitting human level:

When the five kinds of grain were brought to maturity, the people all obtained a subsistence. But men possess a moral nature; and if they are well fed, warmly clad, and comfortably lodged, without being taught at the same time, they become almost like the beasts. This was a subject of anxious solicitude to the sage [Shun], and he appointed Hsieh to be be the Minister of Instruction, to teach the relations of humanity:--how, between father and son, there should be affection; between sovereign and minister, righteousness; between husband and wife, attention to their separate functions; between old and young, a proper order; and between friends, fidelity. (Mencius, 5.4.8)

            Real human beings are such only in and through relationships, and we know the qualities that are appropriate to the basic sorts of social relationship. Much philosophical controversy centered on the origins of such qualities, whether they were inborn and needed nurturing, or sage insights and inventions which must be disciplined into people. But although the history of this long discourse on human nature enjoys a high profile in Confucian moral thinking, the more fundamental question of the organizing dynamics that would shape social relationships in this manner enjoyed a general and uncontroversial consensus. The qualities that dynamically order coherent relationships are a matter for constant concern and exhortation, but not of controversy.

            Personal life flows from and is nurtured and shaped most intimately within the matrix of family relationships. Public life is shaped most obviously by the government. These are complementary perspectives on a single system, for society is composed of families. The result is a typical systemic feedback loop, in which a well-ordered society flows into well-ordered families, and well-ordered families flow into a well-ordered society. The virtue of appropriate relationships thus proves contagious, constituting  a circular dynamic with two poles, the ruler and the family. Indeed, these constitute a nested system with a single morphology based on  the family paradigm. In Mencius' view, a ruler who truly behaves as a parent to the people is a true king not only in heart but in political reality, for family dynamics will bring the disunited empire to the one family fold:

If [a ruler] can truly practice these five things, then the people in the neighboring kingdoms will look up to him as a parent. From the first birth of mankind till now, never has anyone led children to attack their parent, and succeeded in his design. Thus such a ruler will not have an enemy in all the kingdom, and he who has no enemy in the kingdom is the minister of Heaven. Never has there been a ruler in such a case who did not attain to the royal dignity. (3.5.6)

Within the nested system of social and family relationships, proper relationships self-order around proper relationships, i.e. they are contagious, organizing the social space around them in their own likeness. Confucians understood this in terms of a double dynamic, one emerging from hierarchical social structure, the other, less structured, from the inherent formative dimension of relationships as such. The hierarchical social dynamic is crystallized in the  Mencian observation: "The character of the superior man is like wind, and the character of the inferior is like grass: when wind blows on grass, it will certainly bend." (5.2.4) The context of this remark is a discussion of the responsibility of a prince to set a good example in his mourning practice: "He approaches the place of mourning and weeps. Of all the officers and inferior ministers there is not one who will presume not to join in the lamentation, he setting them this example. What the superior loves, his inferiors will be found to love exceedingly." (5.2.4)

Whether in society or in the patriarchal family,  a major ordering flow moves powerfully from higher to lower. Confucians were well aware that this dynamic is in a sense value free, effective for both ill and good. Thus the famous Mencian attack on the self-centered profit motive:

If your Majesty say, "What is to be done to profit my kingdom? the great officers will say, "What is to be done to profit our families?" and the inferior officers and the common people will say, "What is to be done to profit our persons?" Superiors and inferiors will try to snatch this profit the one from the other, and the kingdom will be endangered. In the kingdom of ten thousand chariots, the murderer of his sovereign shall be [the chief of] a family of a thousand chariots. . . If righteousness be put last, and profit be put first, they will not be satisfied without snatching all.

There never has been a humane man who neglected his parents. There never has been a righteous man who made his sovereign an after consideration. Let your Majesty also say, "Humanity and righteousness, and let these be your only themes." Why must you use that word--"profit." (1.1.4-6)

Not only are humanity and righteousness the key to the dynamic that attracts subjects to a ruler "like water flowing downward" (7.9), as an exemplary force that shapes the people, they constitute a feedback loop that stabilizes his  reign.

            Systemic dynamics never move in only one direction, for every relationship has at least two sides. Humanity and righteousness, the critical qualities that run through social relationships at every level, may as we have seen, propagate powerfully through the system from the top, but they also are grounded most fundamentally in the most personal family relationships, filial piety and respect for elder siblings:

Mencius said: "The real substance (sil, shih) of humanity is serving one's parents; the real substance of righteousness is obeying one's elder brother." (7.27.1)

From this perspective, the entire empire self-organizes around the conduct of the most fundamental personal relationships:

Mencius said: The Tao is near, though people seek it in what is distant. Treat parents as befits parents, treat elders as befits elders, and the world will be at peace. (7.11)

  In the very next passage Mencius proceeds to trace out the entire systemic ordering dynamic in a way that recognizes that public ordering moves from above, but only on the basis of an integrity grounded in family and embodied in one's person:

Mencius said: When those in inferior positions do not obtain [the confidence of] their superiors they cannot succeed in properly ordering the people. There is a way of obtaining the confidence of one's superior. If one is not trusted by his friends he will not obtain the confidence of his superior. There is a way of being trusted by one's friends: if in one's service to parents they are not pleased, one will not be trusted by friends. There is a way of pleasing one's parents. If reflecting on oneself one finds a lack of sincerity, one will not please one's parents. There is a way of making oneself sincere: if one does not understand what is good he will not attain sincerity in himself. Therefore sincerity is the tao of Heaven, and exercising thought to become sincere is the tao of man. There has never been a case of perfecting sincerity but being unable to move [others]; there has never been one lacking sincerity and able to move [others]. (7.12)

The structured repetition of the phraseology here underlines the intent to expound a systemic dynamic that pervades and draws together the whole. As witnessed in his remarks concerning the contagion of the profit motive, Mencius is well aware of the systemic dynamics that break down order as well as those that build it. But true order, as signified by the Chinese character chi, "govern," arises only around ch'eng, "sincerity" or "integrity." The system can manifest many dysfunctional dynamics, but this is the non-arbitrary key dynamic, the genuine movement for the proper, healthy state of the entire system at all levels of consideration. Only integrity can inspire the trust that is the heart of any human relationship, whatever the formal, role-related character of the particular relationship may be. This is what is meant by describing it as "the tao of Heaven." There is a norm, a way in which life and health propagate through the entire varied and layered web of the relational system, and this is it.  

            This kind of understanding rests on an empirical base: its statements about how humans act, relate, influence, and shape one another's lives must be plausible within one's personal experience. At the same time, a contemporary systems thinker would quickly note a feedback loop; once the rudiments of this vision gain acceptance, they inform and categorize experience in such a way that experience will indeed confirm the vision. Simply put, once society is Confucian, experience will also be Confucian.

Mencius grounds this whole dynamic mainly by an appeal to paradigmatic cases that illustrate that indeed this is how things work.           The stories of the sage kings, Yao and Shun, taken as literal history, play this role. The sage rulers of old were not only supremely humane, they had the wisdom to understand and create the policy and institutions that activate and manifest humanity, making it a force that self-organizes an integral society around them. The Mencius is replete with such paradigmatic stories, and Tasan sifts them with a historian's critical eye, engaging in long discussions about relative dating, meanings of official titles, how to understand ancient institutional arrangements etc. He is alert for forgery and for the distorting hand of editors in reviewing this history, but he never doubts that this is history, indeed paradigmatic history.[5]

Confucian moral thought is thus framed within an analysis of the dynamics of self-organization. This gives it a pragmatic edge: humanity, righteousness, filial piety, duty to elder siblings, these, it claims, are what works, these is what heals and constitutes health in the flow of interdependent social life. The term "tao" gradually took on greater and greater importance in this context:  whatever else it may mean, tao includes as common denominator a meaning something like, "the way things work." And "the way things work" is just another way of speaking of the dynamics of systemic self-organization.

Self-organizing complex systems are notorious for boot-strapping, i.e. emergence from chicken-and-egg type interlinked mutual causes.  Within the Mencian/Confucian framework of social self-organization, human beings by their interaction make one another good and also make one another bad.  This is most famously evident in Mencius' account of how it is that, although the good is fundamental to human nature, the phenomenal reality of a society-out-of-joint presents humans who give scant evidence of any inborn goodness:

The way in which a man loses his proper goodness of mind is like the way in which the trees are denuded by axes and bills. Hewn down day after day, can it--[the mind]--retain its beauty? But there is a development of its life day and night, and in the [calm] air of the morning, just between night and day, the mind feels in a degree those desires and aversions which are proper to it humanity, but the feeling is not strong, and it is fettered and destroyed by what takes place during the day. This fettering taking place again and again, the restorative influence of the night is not sufficient to preserve [the proper goodness of the mind]; and when this proves insufficient for that purpose, the nature becomes not much different from that of the irrational animals, and when people [now] see it, they think that it never had those powers [which I assert]. But does this condition represent the the feelings proper to humanity? (11.8.2)

            This social explanation of evil brings out the full dimension of moral development obscured by a more individual-centered focus on the question:  we become moral and immoral in association with others. Within a moral framework characterized by the dynamics of self-organization, relational dynamics constitute an appropriate and satisfying account of the human problem. It is noteworthy that this explanation of evil in terms of social dynamics stood largely un-supplemented for over a thousand years, until the Neo-Confucians finally supplied a more individualized account of moral differences in terms of the turbidity of ki,--an explanation Tasan bitterly opposes.      

This understanding of the self-organizing systemic dynamics of political/social/familial/moral life attracts almost no attention as such in Tasan's commentary, nor in other commentaries on Mencius.  The interpretation of certain terms, historical points, etc. within this framework may occasion extensive dispute and discussion, but the framework itself is assumed and almost unnoticed: the eye used for seeing does not see itself, and it is with these eyes that Confucians approach the world.

On the Road to Disagreement: Tao and Human Nature


            Early Chinese classics often speak in terms of a personal divine being, Shang Ti. It is not clear that this is metaphysical theism, i.e. using God as a causal explanation for the way things are. But at least Shang Ti occupies the role of supreme Overseer of the way things are, changing the Mandate to rule when the way things are deviates too far from the norm of a healthy society. By the time of Mencius, against the backdrop of a much more thoroughly elaborated vision of self-organizing social dynamics, the potential voluntarism of a personal divine will (never very pronounced even in the more theistic early tradition) began to yield to explanation in terms of social dynamics in accounting for the success of claimants to rule. Mencius speaks of the famous case of the throne being passed not to the son of the sage Yao, but to another sage, Shun, as "Heaven giving the throne to Shun." Pressed to explain, Mencius gives an account that put self-organizing social dynamics at the center of  Confucian political thought:

Shun assisted Yao [in the government] for twenty and eight years;--this was more than man could have done, and was from Heaven. After the death of Yao, when the three years' mourning was completed, Shun withdrew from the son of Yao to the south of South river. The princes of the kingdom, however, repairing to court, went not to the son of Yao, but they went to Shun. Singers sang not the son of Yao, but they sang Shun. Therefore I said, "Heaven [gave him the throne]. It was after these things that he went to the Middle Kingdom, and occjpied the seat of the Son of Heaven. If he had, [before these things,] taken up his residence in the palace of Yao, it would have been an act of usurpation, and not the gift of Heaven.

This sentiment is expressed in the words of The Great Declaration, "Heaven sees according as my people see; Heaven hears according as my people hear." (9.5.7-8)

It is easy to see how this approach to divine governance could  evolve towards the more immanent, non-personal patterning guidance found in--but not limited to--classical Taoism. When Mencius uses expressions such as "the Tao of Heaven," the meaning is already ambiguous: perhaps he is still speaking more with an ethical-normative  intent than a metaphysical meaning. But we feel we are pointed down the path of seeing the recurrent phenomena or patterns of dynamic organizing process, as manifestation of an immanent, patterning Source or Origin, a metaphysical Tao accounting for the phenomenal tao, the way things behave.

            Mencius' first clear philosophical step in this direction was his famed controversy with Kao Tzu concerning human nature.  Early Confucians were much impressed with the power of  the correct ritual and economic institutions to bring about social coherence. The stories of empire self-organizing around Yao and Shun represented not just the power of their personal humanity, but of their wise and humane institutions. Some institutions, such as the well-field system, attracted copious commentary and attention, becoming cherished reference points down through the ages. Thus Tasan, writing in the 18th century, still devotes pages of commentary to the well-field system (cf. I.37b-40b), and in general he devotes careful attention to even passing mention of ancient institutions and details of ritual.

            But Mencius, in his discussion of human nature,  takes the first definitive steps towards elaborating the inner, instinctive dimensions from which social dynamics flow. In his mind, concentrating exclusively on the external shaping factors would make them an artificial and unwelcome imposition. In response to Kao Tzu's observation that people can be shaped to humanity and righteousness just like willow can be shaped into cups and bowls, he replies:

You must do violence and injury to the willow, before you can make cups and bowls with it. If you must do violence and injury to the willow in order to make cups and bowls with it, [on your principles] you must in the same way do violence and injury to humanity in order to fashion from it humanity and righteousness! Your words, alas! would certainly lead all men on to reckon humanity and righteousness to be calamities. (11.1.2)

Mencius would never deny the power of ritual and institutions, quite the contrary; but he is insistent that their power is a matter of picking up and  bringing to fruition tendencies that are already within us. This view is enshrined in his account of human nature in terms of the Four Beginnings, instincts of commiseration, shame, reverence, and approval/disapproval of good and evil. When nourished and fully developed (a matter of social as well as personal conditioning/cultivation), these become the prized qualities that are essential to sound relationships and integral society, humanity, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. (11.6.5-7)

            This is very much the understanding of Mencius vehemently argued for by Chŏng Tasan as he asserts that what is meant by "nature" is essentially a matter of inborn tendencies and appetites (kiho) rather than anything like what is described in the li-ki metaphysics of the Ch'eng-Chu school (I.32b). An instrument in this recovery of what I would argue is a more accurate reading of Mencius was the theism and alternative perspective on the makeup of human beings that Tasan took from Mateo Ricci. To understand why such an instrument was required, and what it's presence means in the overall framework of a thinker who fully accepts the Mencian vision that we have been discussing, we must first consider where the Neo-Confucian revival took Mencius.

From Mencius to Chu Hsi

            We have seen how Mencius' analysis of political, social, and familial dynamics assumes a relational whole and seeks out the self-organizing patterns. The self-organizing process itself is captured in the term chayŏn (tzujan), or "self-so." The term "tao" as used in Mencius easily slips from describing the pattern organized by these self-so dynamics to becoming the patterning source accounting for the self-so dynamic of organization. We saw Mencius' discussion of human nature as a first step in this direction.

  Pattern/patterning source, the one tao running through all things, may be considered at any level, from the entire cosmos down to an individual insect. All particular, nested patterns, are but aspects of the entire systemic pattern. This is the familiar "organismic" monism elaborated carefully under Taoist auspices, but inherently congenial to the world of Confucian social thought as well.  Without much of a stretch, the Neo-Confucian revival incorporated this vision and elaborated it into the conceptual i-ki dualism of  principle and material force--with i or principle serving a patterning function analogous to the tao. All this might be seen as fulfilling seminal ideas already clearly evident in Mencius: the Neo-Confucians certainly considered this to be the case.

            But the i-ki metaphysics with which Neo-Confucians filled out their framework in fact went far beyond the trajectory inherent in Mencius.   Mencius was concerned to introduce inborn tendency in order to controvert a manipulative external institutionalism. His comments on personal self-cultivation relating to these inborn tendencies are limited to rudimentary remarks on nurturing these tendencies and not throwing them away. But when he thinks in terms of competing dynamics that sway society and individuals one way or another, his attention turns to something quite different, the cultivation of "an unmoved mind-and-heart" (3.2). The unmoved mind-and-heart emerges as a goal of self-cultivation when one considers the power of negative dynamics that arise as relations and circumstances play on our natural dispositions of self-concern. Mencius responds to such dynamics by fostering an autonomous strength that can withstand the self-so disintegrating pull of individual self-centeredness. Mencius' attack against the profit motive in government, and his cultivation of the autonomy of "an unmoved mind-and-heart" are complimentary facets of this response to negative systemic dynamics.

            The critique of self-centered dynamics is richly picked up in the Neo-Confucian system, but in addition the Buddhist problematique, the quest for enlightenment, exerted a pressure that transformed the entire vision of  self-cultivation. Buddhists offered a spiritual practice of intense meditative inner-cultivation that culminates in the perfection of enlightenment. Is there no Confucian analogue of this sophisticated and powerful cultivation, no goal to be reached except ordinary, commendable, humane relationships? In a Confucian revival movement in the context of eleventh-century China, Confucians had to find a positive answer to these questions. 

            As part of the Neo-Confucian response to this challenge, sagehood was transformed into a goal held out as potentially attainable by intense, almost monastic, practice of self-cultivation. And in the explication of how this is so, the character of i as a tao-like inner source of dynamic (normative) patterning took on new dimensions. Chayŏn, the self-so, even classically had taken on a related sense of "spontaneous," especially in connection with describing the perfect self-so responsiveness attributed to the figure of a sage. This non-deliberative spontaneous responsiveness witnessed the sage's unimpeded contact/unity with the tao. Neo-Confucian theory of sage cultivation assimilated all of this, but went one step further--or better, one step in a new direction. From the tradition of perfect responsiveness arising as the outcome of unimpeded guidance, perfect responsiveness became a manifestation of the perfection of the inner source that informs and guides activity. Human nature, indeed the nature of all things, is understood as i itself, and the doctrine of the pure and perfect "original nature" is born.

            The shift from outcome to manifestation may seem a subtle and small difference, but it profoundly alters everything. The orientation of self-cultivation shifts from perfecting relationships as the ultimate goal to the realization of a perfection already present in the well-spring of one's being. Neo-Confucians did not put off their essential concern with government, society, and family, but the similarity between the original nature and the always-present, fully perfect Buddha Nature is unmistakable. And this opened the way to a new and central place for inner-oriented meditation practice in Neo-Confucian self-cultivation. In the new self-cultivation, the traditional discourse warning of the dis-integrating force of self-centered desire is maintained, but supplemented with an explanatory framework introducing a kijil or "physical nature," and a correlated discussion of moral differences in terms of the relative purity or turbidity of the ki component of one's person. From a Mencian concern to work with the self-so dynamics of life-giving relationships and cultivate autonomous strength against the negative self-centered dynamics of disintegration, Neo-Confucians move to a spiritual quest framed in terms of removing the distortion and blockage that prevent the manifestation of an original perfection.

            Tasan is clear-sighted and highly critical in his understanding of the nature, consequences, and sources of this Neo-Confucian transformation away from Mencian trajectories. He skewers their interpretation of Mencius' Four Beginnings as a total inversion of the locus of perfection(I.23a-b), and attacks the doctrine identifying the nature with i as Buddhist in orientation and totally contrary to the kind of beginnings Mencius had in mind I.35a). Against an original nature identical to all creatures but differentiated into diverse kinds by degrees of ki turbidity, he argues nature is inclinations and dispositions, and is precisely what makes things different, not what is shared. Against turbidity as the source of moral distortion, he notes that its not only physical appetites and dull/turbid minds at work, but that attainments of the clever and brilliant often lead to pride and arrogance (I.35a). The epistemology of sagehood, perfect responsiveness based on a monistic i furnishing a full patterning presence of all things deep in the substance of our mind-and-heart is just a varient of Buddha-nature monism. The critical passages in the Mencius that Chu Hsi uses in his commentary to establish and work out the i-ki metaphysics and its application to understanding the cultivation of our minds-and-hearts call forth long and critical counter commentary from Tasan. 

            But does not Chŏng Tasan brings his own, western-influenced interpretive lens to Mencius? Is it possible that the Ricci-inspired dualistic doctrines of a transcendent creative personal God, a spiritual soul, and a distinctively human rationality and free will constitute a more integral interpretive framework for reading Mencius than the Buddhist monism of India? Does Tasan criticize Chu Hsi for bending Mencius in one direction only to bend him in another direction himself? Or does Tasan operate in the opposite direction, bending what he learned from Ricci through the selective prism of Mencius?

Tasan's Western Learning and Mencius

Tasan passes over many Mencian references to Heaven or the Tao of Heaven without bothering to press the matter of conscious divine personhood. Divine personhood emerges clearly in only one place in his commentary, the discussion of Mencius 13.1-2:

Mencius said: Exhaustively realizing one's mind-and-heart, one knows one's nature. Knowing one's nature, one knows Heaven. Preserving ones mind-and-heart and nourishing one's nature is the way to serve Heaven.

Chu Hsi comments on this cryptic summary of the meaning of human existence as follows: 

The mind-and-heart refers to human's spirit-like intelligence whereby they are endowed with all i and so respond to all affairs. The nature is the i with which the mind-and-heart is endowed, and Heaven is the source from which i emerges. Humans having this mind-and-heart, there is nothing which is not complete and integral substance. But not exhaustively [investigating] i, there is that which still obscures it and one cannot exhaustively realize the full scope of one's mind-and-heart. Therefore  bringing to complete realization the complete and integral substance of the mind-and-heart so there will be nothing that is not completely realized necessarily entails being able to exhaustively investigate i so there will be nothing that is not known. Knowing this i, that whence it emerged [i.e. Heaven] is nothing apart from it.

Chu Hsi thus turns this passage into a monistic version of serving Heaven in which Heaven is really i and i is the perfect substance whereby all things are present in the mind-and-heart. This is at once the metaphysics, the epistemology, and the self-cultivation of sagehood. Tasan cannot bypass such a challenge; his response fills three and a half double folio pages.       

He goes into the background of Chu Hsi's ideas, taking on first Ch'eng I's identification of Heaven and Earth and all creatures with a monistic i. He observes that this is identical with Buddhist ideas and stems from all the early founders of  Neo-Confucian thought having been involved with Zen in their youth. Further, this monistic dissolution of critical differences leads to quietistic empty meditation, but lacks the differentiated content that could lead to real moral practice. (II.38a-b)  Finally, he leads into his theistic alternative, by introducing Chang Tsai's theory of the Great Void and identifying it with the empty circle representing the Supreme Ultimate in Chou Tun-i's Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate:

The top circle in the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate is not anything that appears in the Six Classics. Is it something with spiritual [powers], or is it unknowing?  Or is it going to be some limitless emptiness that cannot be captured in thought? When any of the world's formless creatures [i.e. those with conscious powers] is not up to exercising governance, if the head of the household is dull and stupid and not wise, then all the affairs of the family fall into disorder; if the head of a county is dull and stupid and not wise, then all the affairs of the county fall into disorder. All the more if the vast emptiness of the Great Void or the single i serves as the governance and foundation of all things, is there [hope] of saving any of the affairs of the whole world? (II.38b)

He follows this with a string of quotations from the Book of Songs extolling the bright intelligence of Shang Ti and exhorting reverence for Shang Ti's majesty and fear of Shang Ti's anger. A final blow is aimed at the identification of the tao descriptive of the human path with the cosmological tao of patterned natural processes: the tao of yin and yang has nothing to do with the tao of human beings following their nature:

Indeed! The role of yin and yang in the creative process, and the changing activity of [the Five Agents], metal, wood, water, fire, and earth, these are not what constitute [the path] whereby humans can conduct their lives, so how can it be our tao?  . . How can you take the tao [theDoctrine of the Mean speaks of] as following our nature and identify it with the cycle of yin and yang?!(II.39a)

            Tasan in essence drives a wedge between the tao as the normative way of things in Mencius and the historical development that conflated it with the Book of Changes, making it a metaphysical cosmic tao that finally transformed into the i-ki metaphysics of the Neo-Confucians. His alternative to this entire historical development is a return to a conscious, governing divine being, figured in ancient classics as Shang Ti.

            The way he makes his argument bears close examination because it entails important consequences for the kind of personal God-- and the kind of world-- he ends up with. Because the metaphysical Tao (or i) is understood as an immanent source of order, he cannot use (or think in terms of?) the traditional western argument that order as such demands a Mind creating the order. One part of his argument is that the cosmological tao (yin and yang etc.) is categorically distinct from the human tao. This, of course, depends upon his seeing humans as possessing a spiritual component that involves a kind of autonomy distinct from anything in the cosmologically ordered world. The other part of his argument is that, in this world of human affairs, we see that when our minds do not pay proper attention, disorder results. Human affairs require intelligent oversight and guidance, and the same, he asserts, is ultimately true on a cosmic level as well.  Thus the governance of Shang Ti is essentially a matter of chujae, oversight, the very same term Neo-Confucian's use to describe the distinctive oversight which is the office of the human mind-and-heart. 

This is far different from the Jewish, Muslim, or Christian call for obedience and submission to the will of a living God typically thought of as a divine legislator or lawgiver. Here, at least, the oversight function of a personal God is congruent with a Mencian self-organizing but normative order. Mateo Ricci may have borrowed the name Shang Ti to bridge western theism and the Confucian tradition, but Tasan appears to use the concept in a way true to its ancient meaning--a meaning that transformed so easily into the inner governance of the Tao that hardly any argument about the matter appears in Confucian texts.  

  We saw how Tasan's argument against a cosmic tao being relevant to human conduct is premised upon introducing a generic distinction between humans and other forms of life. Ricci's influence is clear in the way Tasan introduces the common western spirit-matter distinction to explicate a uniquely human moral dimension. But the way he develops and uses the idea has little similarity to its function in western traditions. His framework emerges most clearly in his commentary on Mencius 11.16, a  passage that discusses how some men are great and others small because they follow their "great body" or "small body." The passage explicates "great" and "small" as follows:

The senses of hearing and seeing do not think, and are obscured [by external things.] When one thing comes into contact with another, as a matter of course it leads it away. To the mind belongs the office of thinking. By thinking, it gets it; by neglecting to think, it fails to get it. These are what Heaven has given us. Let a man first stand fast in respect to the greater, and the lesser will not be able to take it from him. It is simply this which makes the great man. (11.15.2)

Chu Hsi's commentary on this repeats Mencius observation that the senses are easily led off after there objects; the exercise of the distinctive office of the mind, thought, reveals the i of the situation and so rectifies the lack of discretion of the senses. Needless to say, the "lesser" refers to senses, the "greater" to the mind-and-heart as the faculty by which we recognize i.

Tasan's response sounds more like Aristotle:

The ear and the eye do not belong to the "small body." In the contact between oneself and [external] things, the path and gate are our eyes and ears. The ear apprehends sounds and delivers them to the mind-and-heart; the eye apprehends colors and delivers them to the mind-and-heart. This is their function, and the ears and eyes just fulfill their function. How could they ever force the mind-and-heart to follow what they deliver! If what they deliver is of profit to the great body, following it is following the great body, and disregarding it is to follow the small body. If what they deliver is of profit to the small body, following it is following the small body and disregarding it is following the great body. That's all there is to it. The ability to sometimes follow and sometimes disregard is a matter of the mind-and-heart's function of being able to think. If one thinks about it, he certainly may not follow the small and disregard the great, nourish the small and harm the great. But if one does not think, he will certainly ensnarl the mind-and-heart and lose  the appropriate following and disregarding. (II.29b-30a).

What then is it that the mind-and-heart (freely) follows or disregards?

I would suggest, the "great body" refers to our formless spiritual intelligence (yŏngmŏng). The "small body" refers to the physical body that has form. Following the great body is what the [Doctrine of the Mean] means by "following one's nature." Following the small nature is following after desires. The tao-mind always wishes to nurture the great, and the human-mind always wishes to nurture the small. Giving pleasure to Heaven and understanding the Mandate uphold and nurture the tao-mind; overcoming oneself and returning to ritual control and subordinate the human mind. This is the discernment of good and evil. (II.29b)

"Tao-mind" and "human mind" are perennial favorites in Confucian discussion of the presence in us of tendencies that lead us aright or lead us astray. In associating the human mind with the physical body and desires, Tasan does not noticeably depart from the conventional interpretation: such inclinations easily take on a self-centered form that snarls proper and responsive relationship. But   Neo-Confucians would identify such self-enclosed inclinations with the turbidity of ki, which obfuscates and distorts the proper tao-mind responsiveness of our pure and perfect original nature.  The implicit promise is that proper cultivation may bring clarity and spontaneous appropriateness, the traditional qualities of sagehood. Tasan, by contrast, sees not distortion, but an inescapable tension between the higher and the lower. 

But as for human nature, it combines both the moral and the physical in a single nature, while animal nature is a purely physical nature and that is all. So when we take up human nature,  humans always have two contradictory inclinations that  arise together. (II.29a)

In keeping with this, our power to decide between these perpetual alternatives becomes a clear and distinctive human quality:

With respect to good and evil, all humans are able to exercise self agency (chajak) because they are able to act autonomously (cha chujang). Animals cannot exercise self-agency regarding good and evil because they cannot but do as they do. (II.19a)

Self-agency (chajak) and autonomy are in marked contrast to  self-so (chayŏn), and it is this quality associated with our "spiritual" nature, more than just the spirit/matter distinction as such, that separates human conduct from guidance by a cosmic tao. 

            In such passages, Tasan  is carving out an alternative to Neo-Confucian i-ki moral metaphysics and correlated teachings such as the original nature. If one looks mainly at such passages, one gets the impression of western, Ricci-mediated, concepts being substituted wholesale for the organismic, self-organizing system widely assumed in perennial East Asian thought.

           I would suggest, however, that Tasan uses these concepts to unravel the distinctive direction in which Cheng-Chu anthropocosmic metaphysics, psychology, and theory of self-cultivation had taken traditional understandings. But instead of being substitutes for traditional understanding, Tasan uses and transforms them to fit the context of traditional assumptions.  In western thought, doctrines of a personal God, spiritual soul, and free will lead directly to a view of God, spirit supreme, as the ultimate Value of values and source of all value. Earthly values are commonly contrasted with eternal, spiritual values. Within such a framework,  the will of God reigns supreme, and obedience is the highest calling.. The story of God testing Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac, demanding the subordination of all human feeling and sense of ordinary rightness to the inscrutable will of God, is paradigmatic.

In the pages of Tasan's lengthy commentary on the Mencius,  there is no hint of Tasan moving in a direction that focuses on the transcendent will of God. Rather,  he supports the self-organizing political, social, and moral dynamics that run through Mencius:

In kingly government nothing is of greater importance than ordering the people's land and livelihood, teaching them plant and animal husbandry and instructing wives and children to have them each nurture [the family]. If one tried to collect together all the old people and humanely nurture them, not only would one not have the strength, but in one's humanity one would be misunderstanding how to go about government. This is a matter of understanding that the basis consists in land allocation and ordering their livelihood, and in the midst of this the instruction in filial piety and respect for elder siblings takes place naturally (self-so, chayŏn). (II.51b)

In keeping with this framework, he analyzes  humanity (in, jen) and Mencius other "four beginnings" as the products of repeated proper activity and fiercely attacks the entire Ch'eng-Chu metaphysical scaffolding. They are not some internally endowed lump of pure goodness we get from Heaven, nor are they our internally-based participation in the life-giving force of Heaven and Earth. (I.22a-b). In place of the whole Neo-Confucian elaboration of tao as a latent moral pattern or metaphysical inner source of emergent behavior, he resolutely moves tao to the level of activity: "

[Chu Hsi's] commentary says: tao is moral principle (ŭi-i, i-li). Calling it moral principle means it is the normative measure of things and affairs. But I would suggest tao is a matter of going from here to there. It is how we humans proceed over the course of our lives. I fear it doesn't mean the same thing as moral principle." (II.50a)

            In place of a purely good original nature that gets manifested in conduct with degrees of obstruction--the Neo-Confucian interpretation of Mencius' doctrine regarding human nature being good--Tasan takes "nature" on the level of biological phenomenology, the set of inborn inclinations and likes. Corresponding to the inclination to certain tastes and sounds on the level of our physical nature, our spiritual dimension exhibits the phenomenon of taking pleasure in the good and shame for evil:

What I call the nature focuses on appetites, as when they say . . . some natures love mountains and waters, other natures love books and painting, it's all a matter of inclinations and likes that are the "nature." Since this is the basic meaning of the word, when Mencius discusses the nature he is certain to speak of it in terms of appetites, as when he speaks of the mouth being inclined to the same tastes, the ears being alike in the sounds they like, and the eyes being alike in the colors that give pleasure (cf. Mencius 12.7.8), all as ways to explain how our natures are alike in what they like as good. (I.32a)

These inclinations may be endowed by Heaven, but that is nothing special insofar as Tasan regards Heaven as endowing everything with its nature. We are far from any western notion of man as living in moral obedience to a divine lawgiver.

            Moral appetite  pertains as such only to beings with a spiritual nature, as does the related free will to follow these higher rather than lower appetites. But Ricci (and western tradition) exploits the differentiation of spirit and matter in terms of a contrast between the eternal and imperishable and the changing and perishing, leading to the doctrine of    the immortality of the spiritual soul. Tasan, however, emphasizes their "wondrous combination" [myohap]. Neo-Confucians used "wondrous combination"  to discuss the inseparability and non-dualism of i and ki. For Tasan, this wondrous combination of the spiritual and physical in one living being explains the cryptic passage in which Mencius

cites as his accomplishment being good at nourishing his "vast flowing vitality" (hoyŏn chi ki, haojan chih ch'i) . Mencius describes it as a kind of moral-physical vitality that is fed by an accumulation of righteousness, not just incidental acts, and it can also starve in the absence of a steady diet of such deeds. (3.2.11-15). For Chu Hsi, who sees a fullness of good already present but blocked, this notion is awkward, but it fits right in with Tasan's analysis of the nature as appetite. In Tasan's reading, this vast flowing vitality is a physical manifestation of the moral life, and it points to the wondrous unity of our spiritual and physical constitution:

The physical and spiritual wondrously combine, fat and lean are interrelated. When the mind-and-heart expands the body waxes strong; when [selfish] desire flourishes the pupil of the eye becomes dull. When there is beauty within it radiates in the face and the firm line of the back; when there is ugliness within then one becomes sweaty and blushes. This is all clear experience of the wondrous combining of the spiritual and physical. If today one does one righteous thing and tomorrow does another, when righteousness has thus accumulated the vitality (ki) is nurtured thereby, and though the expansion of one's bodily strength seems like it could fill heaven and earth, the wondrous combining on which it depends never departs from being within the physical body. This is why it is called vitality (ki). (1.19a)

Neo-Confucian's are fond of depicting final perfection as undistorted and total realization of i and its manifestation in perfect responsiveness to all things. But for Tasan,  this physical-spiritual manifestation of the fulfillment of our most profound moral appetite in the "vast flowing vitality" of mind and body stands as the paradigmatic expression of perfection.

Conclusion: The Contemporary Interface

            If this description is accurate, although Tasan reintroduced the figure of a personal God, and with it, doctrines of a non-physical, spiritual level in human beings, free will, and morality as a distinctive human realm, in the final analysis he does not depart from the naturalism of Mencius' self-organizing social world. One would find it difficult to insert into the world view of either Mencius or of Chŏng Tasan the familiar western dichotomies of supernatural/natural, infinite/finite, eternal/temporal, transcendent/mundane.

            For one interested in exploring a possible bridge between contemporary theories of self-organizing holistic systems and the rich traditions of Confucian political, social, and moral thought, Tasan's accomplishment presents much to consider. I will briefly discuss two themes.

           The first theme has to do with a common problem of metaphysics, be it Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, or Wang Pi, Chou Tun-i, and Chu Hsi. Eternal Forms, the Divine Plan, the Constant Tao, the Supreme Ultimate, and the Original Nature, each in different ways, all point to a kind of permanence, a finished Pattern with constant features however changing its unfolding face may be in the phenomenal world. Contemporary systems theory, by contrast, looks to the constant emergence of unpredictable layered and branching complexity. Evolution, on whatever level one takes it--cosmic, life system, eco-system, cultural system etc.--is assumed to be a radically historical, contingent process. Self-organizing systemic process is always constrained by existing conditions, but never fully determined by them: even relatively simple self-organizing  chemical systems contain multiple possible paths. Seeking alternatives to the inadequacies of conventional mechanistic determinism, systems thinkers are frequently attracted to the open, self-moving dynamism of the East Asian concepts such as  tao and chayŏn (tzujan), the self-so. But if one looks more closely at the metaphysical understanding of these appealing terms, one encounters unchanging and normative pattern, a constant guide within a myriad changing situations and manifestations. Self-organizing in such a metaphysics becomes only the realization or manifestation of what is already there. On close analysis, there is a deep chasm beneath the verbal bridge between contemporary understanding of self organization and the world of thought that developed around the tao and the self-so.

            Herein is the importance of Chŏng Tasan's success in maintaining the self-organizing dynamics of Mencius' world while radically critiquing the metaphysical elaboration of the concepts by Taoist and Neo-Confucian thinkers. Tao returns to being a path that emerges from constant treading, not a pre-existing guidance system (though a path offers guidance after it has emerged!). All ancient civilizations have presumed constancy or permanence rather than open-ended contingency in their frameworks. Mencius is no different in that respect. But his approach to the self-organizing dynamics evident in political/social/moral life was not yet encrusted with a conceptualized metaphysical system that enshrined and explained permanence. Neither does Tasan's substitution of a personal God in place of a more traditional metaphysical tao inherently affect the dynamics Mencius presents. The presence of a divine overseer is not causally necessary for the self-organizing dynamic Mencius presents. In showing us a Mencius who does not need anything like the metaphysics of Chu Hsi, Tasan shows us not a  Mencius who needs God, but one who could do quite well with neither the metaphysical Tao nor God. We might say Mencian  thought stands poised not just between a personal God or the Tao, but includes a third possibility, that of staying with an ever-emergent, open-ended dynamic of self-organization.  Mencius himself anchors his analysis of self-organizing social dynamics in the paradigmatic history of Yao and Shun, but in the modern world the power of that model might actually be enhanced if it was presented as historically conditioned rather than as a timeless verity. 

            The second area in which Tasan renders important service to contemporary East-West bridge-builders has to do with the difficult question of the continuity or discontinuity between humans and other animals. On the surface, in picking up a western style distinction between humans and all other life in terms of our spiritual dimension, Tasan seems to  reproduce a western notion of discontinuity and human superiority. In some form this discontinuity may go back to Genesis, but introducing the Greek notions of spirit and matter into the picture greatly aggravated the problem in the Christian tradition.

            Are we "in this world, but not of this world," as spiritual writers are fond of saying? In the community of contemporary systems thinkers, especially those with a strong environmental orientation, this stands as the error of errors. Not only does it introduce a totally non-systemic supernatural/natural dichotomy (if we emerge from systemic processes, we belong within the system), this kind of thinking sets the stage for a strongly criticized and still prevalent anthropocentrism--an attitude that the entire system of life is here for our comfort and use. Some like to think that East Asian thought (especially Taoism--since western thinkers are ignorant of Neo-Confucianism) is free of such a problem, at least in theory, if not practice. So, if one accepts a holistic systems approach,  it might seem Tasan is introducing exactly the wrong understanding into a tradition that did not have that problem.

            I have argued that Tasan's "wondrous combination" (myohap) of spirit and physical in human beings does no such thing. His humans, insofar as anything I find in this commentary, remain quite completely both in and of the world. His description of "spirit,"  in keeping with Mencius, is more phenomenological than metaphysical. Other creatures just follow the self-so world of appetite, while we make decisions in a world where appetites appear to be in tension (higher and lower). He is absolutely correct to draw attention to this phenomenological difference, which is generally neglected in environmental literature stressing the systemic continuity of the life system. Tasan's analysis--perhaps minus the spirit/matter description--transforms into the question of how human culture both emerges from the world of self-so nature, and somehow crosses a threshold that makes it different: the dynamics that self-organize our human world, for both good and ill, work differently than the self-so on the other side of the threshold, where self-organizing leading to ill is hard to find.

Systems thinkers have little regard for typical western discourse concerning the uniqueness of human spirit; but there is hardly a word in Tasan's treatment of the subject that would not bear serious attention by a contemporary systems thinker. Indeed, one must cross this threshold of difference to enter the world of Confucian self-organizing dynamics: the model of natural self-so organization does not begin to explain why human ways of making a living seem in such deadly conflict with the myriad non-human ways of making a living, while the non-human ways seem to get on well together (except when humans interfere).

            Tasan could not have imagined such a question. But his work presents a good foundation for addressing it. By contemporary standards, in spite of the introduction of God and of a distinctive spiritual component, he leaves humans totally within a naturally self-organizing system. Yet he calls attention to human difference. He could never have imagined the turn of thought that might lead someone to look into that difference in order to understand why humans present such a problematic fit with the rest of the natural world. 

But those who think about such problems also would have much to learn on the positive side by careful consideration of how Mencius and Tasan lay out the dynamics of how things go right. Western self-organization theory has not yet seriously taken on the question of social ethics or advanced a serious understanding of how human society could regain its integral fit with the natural order. Confucians have been working this terrain for a long time.  These two worlds of understanding--systems theorists and the custodians of the Confucian tradition--hardly know anything about one another, but they may yet discover the creative potential and understanding latent in their similarity-and-difference.


[1] A good introduction to self-organization and complexity is Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe (Oxford University Press, 1995). A popular classic in the field is by Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order out of Chaos (Bantam Books, 1984). Perhaps the best place to both begin at any level of comfort and to see the contemporary, very lively state of the art, is the website of The Complexity & Artificial Life Research Concept for Self-Organizing Systems, at

[2] Cf. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story (Harper Collins, 1992)

[3] In Yŏyudang Chŏnsŏ, Vol. 2.

[4] Lee Kwang Ho, "Tongsŏ yunghapŭi ch'ŭngmyŏnesŏ pon Chŏng Yakyongŭi sasang," T'oegye hakpo, Number 130, June, 2003, p. 165.

[5] Cf. Especially Mencius 9 and 10, where many accounts of the sages are grouped. Tasan's commentary runs from II.4a-17a.