16th Annual Midwest Conference on Chinese Thought
Wright State University (Virtual)
April 30-May 1, 2021
Attendance link (open to the public): 


Friday, April 30 (all times are Eastern Standard Time)


  • 12:30-1. Julianne N. Chung (Assistant Professor, York University): “Creativity without Originality: A Zhuangist Approach”


  • 1-1:30. Stephen C. Walker (Instructor, University of Chicago): “Aristotle and Zhuangzi 2 on Contradiction”


  • 1:30-2. Kevin J. Turner (PhD candidate, Peking University): “On the Relationship between Qi and Humans in the Zhuangzi


  • 2-2:30. John R. Williams (Lecturer, Chinese University of Hong Kong): “Comparing Wang Xianqian and Qian Mu on Zhuangzi”


2:30-3:30        Break


  • 3:30-4. Colin J. Lewis (Instructor, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs) and Jennifer Kling (Assistant Professor, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs): “Proud Vermin: Modern Militias and the State”


  • 4-4:30. Avital Rom (Ho Peng Yoke Fellow, Needham Research Institute, University of Cambridge): “The Inner Ear: Deafness in Early Chinese Thought”


  • 4:30-5. Christopher Yang (PhD candidate, Brown University): “Cosmic Excursion and Exercises of the Imagination in the Zhuangzi


5:00-6:30        Break


6:30-8:00        Keynote Address


  • Robin R. Wang (Professor, Loyola Marymount University): “Dao of Rou柔 (Suppleness): Proprioceptive Knowledge and Its Epistemological Value in Early Daoism”


Saturday, May 1


  • 9:30-10. Xiangnong (Herbert) Hu (PhD candidate, Chinese University of Hong Kong): “Why Is Mengzi’s Moral Philosophy Incompatible with Kant’s Moral Autonomy: A Critique of Mou Zongsan and Li Minghui”


  • 10-10:30. Timothy Gutmann (Instructor, University of Chicago): “Mediated Engagements: Political Commitment in Scholarship in Light of Mengzi”


  • 10:30-11. Naiyi Hsu (PhD candidate, Indiana University): “The Ritualized Body and Role Performance in Early Confucian Thought”


  • 11-11:30. Bin Song (Assistant Professor, Washington College): “How Does a Ru (Confucianist) Do Comparative Theology Today”


11:30-12:30    Break


  • 12:30-1. Ryan Nichols (Associate Professor, California State University-Fullerton) and Nicholaos Jones (Professor, University of Alabama-Huntsville), “Chinese Buddhism & Cognitive Style”


  • 1-1:30. Li Kang (Assistant Professor, Washington and Lee University): “How to Be Free from Oneself: Lessons from Chan Buddhism”


1:30-2:30        Break


  • 2:30-3. Joanna Loeb (PhD candidate, University of Warsaw): “Are the Min 民 the Common People? Another Look at the Daodejing


  • 3-3:30. Hao Hong (Assistant Professor, University of Maine): “Simplicity as the Maximum Indeterminacy”


  • 3:30-4. Roy Porat (Visiting Scholar, Brown University): “Move toward the Darkness: The Evolution of Vision Metaphors in Early Daoism”


  • 4-4:30. Anthony Casadonte (PhD student, University of Kentucky): “Seeing the Subtlety and Seeing the Contours of Things: Wang Bi’s Phenomenology of Generation and Reification”


Paper Abstracts (in order of presentation)


Julianne N. Chung (Assistant Professor, York University): “Creativity without Originality: A Zhuangist Approach”

Across a number of cultures, it is common to think that creativity centrally involves originality.  For example, this way of thinking about creativity is common in ancient to current European thought, regardless of whether creativity is, say, taken to be of divine origin (emanating from one God or sets of Gods) or worldly origin (emanating from single worldly entities or sets of single worldly entities, human or otherwise).  (Cf. Niu and Sternberg 2006) In other words, regardless of whether it is held that the origins of creativity are divine or worldly, it is common to think that creativity centrally involves the generation of something substantively new. Indeed, it is so common that this view is considered by some to be a truism, or at least the product of an emerging consensus.  (Cf. Gaut 2010, 1039)

This way of thinking about creativity, however, is not universal. Elsewhere, creativity has been understood as centrally involving spontaneity rather than originality: that is, as centrally involving contextually unanticipated developments, whether new, or not.  On this alternative way of thinking about creativity, a creative entity is conceived more along the lines of a facilitator than an innovator, participating in a creative process that has been unfolding that could yield all manner of results, rather than invariably generating anything novel.

In particular, this alterative way of thinking about creativity is common in classical Chinese thought, regardless of whether creativity is taken to be of cosmic origin (emanating from Tian天 (“Heaven”) or Dao 道 (“[the] Way”) as a whole) or worldly origin (emanating from single worldly entitles or sets of single worldly entities, human or otherwise). The degree to which Tian or Dao are considered to be natural phenomena can be helpfully considered when deliberating about how best to characterize the former view regarding the origins of creativity. For, to the extent that Tian or Dao are considered to be largely if not wholly natural phenomena, one might appropriately consider the origins of creativity to be natural, rather than supernatural. Moreover, whatever the way in which one chooses to characterize the former view regarding the origins of creativity, it can nonetheless be contrasted with the latter view, according to which the origins of creativity are worldly in that creativity resides in single worldly entities or sets of single worldly entities (falling short of the whole of Heaven or the Way). (Cf. Niu and Sternberg 2006)

It is interesting to note, however, that in contemporary Chinese thought creativity is conceived—just as it is in ancient to current European thought, though not necessarily classical Chinese thought—as centrally involving originality. Concerning this shift, traditional European thought regarding creativity has possibly played some role.  Regardless of whether this is so, the following question can nonetheless be posed: Might traditional Chinese thought regarding creativity not just influence, but also enrich, contemporary thought about the same? In this paper, I elucidate why the answer to this questions is: yes. I explain in greater detail a classical Chinese conception of creativity that has its origins in Zhuangist philosophy and which centrally involves spontaneity engendered by embracing you游 (“wandering”) rather than originality (even if actions or products that issue from such spontaneity very often are, or strike us as, original). I then illustrate how this conception of creativity can be used to enrich contemporary thought regarding the nature and role of creativity by arguing that it might allow us to: i) more easily remove what is frequently an obstacle to creativity (viz., that of striving for originality, or even creativity itself, whatever it is taken to involve), and; ii) better understand creative agents as being more intimately connected with, and as products of, their environments (and thus better promote both extraordinary and ordinary creativity).


Stephen C. Walker (Instructor, University of Chicago): “Aristotle and Zhuangzi 2 on Contradiction”

Zhuangzi 2 features several assertions to the effect that opposites are the same, that each and every thing answers to each and every description, and that it is unanswerable whether determinate things exist. The text appears to envision transitions from unity to multiplicity and back again less as physical processes than as cognitive ones: beings capable of drawing distinctions chaotically transition from one set to the next, and hence they find themselves in countless different versions of our world. This presentation will use the concepts and arguments of Aristotle’s Metaphysics Gamma to interpret Zhuangzi 2’s agenda, arguing that the text seeks a mediating course between the position Aristotle sees himself as occupying and the family of positions he associates with thinkers like Heraclitus, Protagoras, and Anaxagoras.

Aristotle defends several formulations of what we now call “the Principle of Non- Contradiction”, not as the conclusion of an argument but as a necessity for advancing any argument at all. To reject the Principle is incoherent or even cognitively impossible, depending on how we weigh his various rejoinders; for purposes of comparison with Zhuangzi 2, the most important point he makes concerns the link between denying the Principle and asserting that all things are indeterminate. A world of total indeterminacy is not a world at all; it contains no objects and therefore is not subject to description—even by sophisticated theories of unity, relativism, or interpenetration. As far as Aristotle is concerned, any comfort we have with collapsing basic distinctions or with admitting opposites into the essential constitution of a thing slides rapidly into there being literally nothing to talk about.

Zhuangzi 2 maintains less that the world is indeterminate than that it is indeterminate whether the world is determinate. The text does not commit to radical flux, monism, or any other revisionary picture of things, insisting only that such pictures are workable and subject to the same limitations as more intuitive pictures. Since most of Aristotle’s criticisms envision an opponent who simply rejects some version of the Principle, I will argue that it’s unclear what teeth they have against someone who (to all appearances) endorses and rejects the Principle capriciously. Such a person would be, by Aristotle’s lights, at minimum uninterested in learning what is true about the world; by examining the details of the Zhuangzi passages most nonchalant about the Principle, I’ll conclude that their “sage” is above all a negotiator among other people’s points of view. For the Zhuangist, engaging other people’s views with understanding and acceptance rather than hostility involves a lapse of interest in establishing which picture is correct—and thus in whether things can or cannot be their own opposites.


Kevin J. Turner (PhD candidate, Peking University): “On the Relationship between Qi and Humans in the Zhuangzi

Qi氣has been both understood separately as substance and as field. This essay will argue that qi in the Zhuangzi莊子should be understood as both substance and field together and that embodied action plays an integral role in shaping the qi in which human beings act as center to. First, this essay surveys past attempts at understanding qi in both the West and China and illustrates the difficulties posed by understanding the substantiality of qi within the language of substance ontologies. Second, this essay argues for a reading of qi as bidimensional field-substance where its vertical axis is that of substance and its horizontal axis that of field. By appeal to ancient Chinese cosmologies, this essay will argue that the dimension of substance does not imply a dualism but a holism where qi differs in terms of degrees of refinement along a continuum. Drawing on the research of modern scholars such as Tang Liquan, Li Cunshan, and Robin Wang, this essay argues that the dimension of field is composed of mutually interrelated yinyang forces that compose an “empty” field.” Finally, this essay argues that human beings establish themselves as centers of the qi field-substance through the refinement and emptying of their heart-minds and bodies. Furthermore, by drawing on rich resonances between the Zhuangzi and phenomenology, especially Maurice Merleau-Ponty, this essay argues that human beings bring the fields of qi that they are situated in into certain coherences through their embodied activity.


John R. Williams (Lecturer, Chinese University of Hong Kong): “Comparing Wang Xianqian and Qian Mu on Zhuangzi”

In my talk, I present translations of two key Zhuangxue 莊學 paratexts, the preface of Qian Mu 錢穆 (AD 1895-1990)’s Zhuangzi zuanjian 莊子纂 箋 and Wang Xianqian 王先謙 (AD 1842-1918)’s preface to Guo Qingfan郭慶藩 (AD 1844-1896)’s Zhuangzi jishi 莊子集釋. None of the current English-language Zhuangzi 莊子 translations include translations of any of the traditional prefaces. I aim to show that this is a serious shortcoming insofar as traditional prefaces are among the most useful paratexts for giving an overview of differing approaches to the Zhuangzi, especially as it was framed for a given readership. (These ways of framing the text can in turn be compared with those of other periods, including those found in the contemporary English-language scholarship.) To substantiate my claim, I compare the pictures of the Zhuangzi that emerge from these influential yet hitherto untranslated paratexts of Qian Mu and Wang Xianqian.


Colin J. Lewis (Instructor, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs) and Jennifer Kling (Assistant Professor, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs): “Proud Vermin: Modern Militias and the State”

In the third century BCE, the legalist scholar Han Feizi devised what was functionally a political hit list that targeted certain sorts of people and roles thought to jeopardize and undermine the integrity of the state. Along with scholars, charlatans, and deceptive courtiers, Han Feizi singles out for elimination "private swords" (i.e., mercenaries) due to their "gathering groups of disciples and establishing codes of integrity with the aim of making names for themselves while transgressing state prohibitions." As these mercenary groups rise, they pull citizens out of both the workforce and the entrenched political institutions and culture, facilitating mass disruption of stately order. What is worse, Han Feizi contends that such practices can occur right under a government's nose, as these private swords are sometimes patronized by prevailing political authorities. Although Han Feizi's lambasting of allowing and supporting mercenary groups is set against the backdrop of an ancient, statist political philosophy, his warnings still apply to states today vis-a-vis private paramilitary groups. A recent example of how such groups can prove disastrously disruptive to sociopolitical stability appears in the form of U.S.-based paramilitary organization the Proud Boys, which has styled itself as a "volunteer security force" and received (at least) unofficial endorsement from certain prevailing political authorities including President Donald Trump.

Typically, contemporary arguments about private paramilitary organizations focus on the threat of physical violence that they pose to the state: if private paramilitary organizations, or alliances of such organizations, garner enough physical power, then they can literally take over the state via a violent coup (Scahill 2007). Borrowing from and extending Han Feizi’s position, we contend that such organizations also represent a distinct sociopolitical, existential threat to the state. Specifically, their tendency for ideological expansion and subsequent gathering of political influence undermine state institutions, and public trust in such institutions, even without the use of overt physical force. Notably, this argument succeeds regardless of the moral status of such paramilitary groups: be they right or wrong, morally good or morally bad, such private swords, when they match the essential components of the description Han Feizi provides, are practically and politically antithetical to the integrity of the ship of state. Perhaps the ship of state, in some cases, ought to be sunk--but this is a further claim, and one on which we do not focus here. Rather, our point is that the sociopolitical enterprise of having a sufficiently unified, stable state is incompatible with the existence of, and public political support for, private paramilitary organizations, regardless of their actual or potential military power.


Avital Rom (Ho Peng Yoke Fellow, Needham Research Institute, University of Cambridge): “The Inner Ear: Deafness in Early Chinese Thought”

The deaf (long 聾), the Huainanzi 淮南子(completed 139 BCE) suggests, are incapable of communicating with their surroundings. As a result, they are incapable of fully comprehending the world around them. This is only one of many allusions to deafness, which lie unexplored in early Chinese writings. On the physiological level, early Chinese texts portray deafness as an incurable bodily impairment (described as ji 疾 or bing 病 - ‘malady’ or ‘disease’), which directly relates to the malfunctioning of the ears. Beyond physical depictions, these texts abound with politically charged allusions: for example, deafness is frequently used as a metaphor for stubborn rulers who fail to abide by – or listen to – the advice of a wise minister.[1] Utilizing texts from the Warring States (戰國, 453-221 BCE) and Han (漢 206 BCE-220 CE) periods, this paper presents a study of deafness in early Chinese writings. It sets out to explore early Chinese perceptions of deafness beyond the physiological-medical, in the political, social, and philosophical contexts.

Recent years have seen a surge in the number of scholarly studies dedicated to the subject of disability and physical impairments in early China. Existing studies pay particular attention to impairments involving physical conditions of bodily mutilations and deformities, be they congenital or the result of sickness, war, or legal punishment. Approaches to such deformities are often discussed in the context of the importance attached to maintaining the body intact – a trait common to multiple streams of thought in pre-imperial and early imperial Chinese history. Conversely, and perhaps relatedly, impairments that do not manifest themselves in visible physical deformity have received little critical attention. This paper seeks to fill this gap in scholarship, examining deafness as a form of ‘invisible’ impairment, and investigating the reasons underlying its perception as a disabling trait. One possible explanation, I argue, is the strong link drawn in early Chinese thought between the sense of hearing and the human mind. In this view, hearing and knowing were virtually synonymous terms. The graph wen 聞 - to hear something or to hear of something - also meant to become aware of what is heard. Incapable of hearing, the deaf were thought to have no means by which to acquire knowledge. Deafness, in this sense, was perceived as a cognitive malady, inflicting ignorance on whomever possessed it. To give but one example, the Shi ming, a first century etymological text, suggests that being deaf “is like living in a cage of ignorance, [unable to use] listening to examine things” (Shi ji, 26.134). Taking its cue from the discipline of disability studies, this paper shall examine deafness not as an individual impairment, but rather as a social construct. At the heart of our discussion lie these core questions: what new light do literary references to deafness shed on early Chinese culture and philosophical thought? And what do they teach us about perceptions of ability and disability in early Chinese society?


Christopher Yang (PhD candidate, Brown University): “Cosmic Excursion and Exercises of the Imagination in the Zhuangzi

This paper examines the theme of cosmic excursion—e.g., the flight of the spirit man (shenren) in “Xiaoyao you”—as an entrée into a discussion of the practical dimensions of the Zhuangzi. In particular, it focusses on passages that depict or discuss “roaming the mind” (youxin).

The Zhuangzi was not a meditation manual. However, it clearly commended a way of life to its elite audience that involved some self-cultivational techniques of the mind. It touts methods of “nourishing the mind” (xinyang) in contrast to those of “nourishing the form” (yangxing), practices such as the “guiding and pulling” (daoyin) exercises that aimed mainly at bodily health. (This is a disambiguation that both the “Neiye” and Huainanzi also make.) Indeed, the researches of Donald Harper, Harold Roth, and Romain Graziani, among others, have significantly filled out our picture of the environment of self-cultivational practices within which the Zhuangzi was composed. Read against this historical backdrop, the theme of cosmic excursion—presumably the sort of thing Guo Xiang had in mind when he lamented the text’s “far-fetched expressions” in his postface—reveals itself to be more than an arresting literary conceit. I argue that its key images and formulae served as aids to exercises of the imagination, undertaken to cultivate traits such as indifference.


Robin R. Wang (Professor, Loyola Marymount University): Dao of Rou  (Suppleness): Proprioceptive Knowledge and Its Epistemological Value in Early Daoism

Through Chinese intellectual history, early Daoism, a Dao-based and inspired teaching and practice, has been considered the philosophy of rou 柔 (suppleness, pliant, yielding, softness), which the Daodejing couples with water, the infant, and the feminine. A popular Chinese binary expression of culture, gen 根 (root/foundation) and hun 魂 (soul/spirit), takes Dao as the root of Daoist teaching and rou as a spirit of Lao-Zhuang. However, rou has often been understood only as de (德) moral virtue or shu (术) strategy, something more practical than conceptual. This talk will respond to this theoretical gap and argue for rou as a form of proprioceptive awareness or bodily knowledge that shapes a cognitive style and an epistemological stance to guide our rational effort, illumination, and well-being. More importantly, this rou style of knowing embodies the epistemic value, such as intellectual humility, openness, receptivity and resilience, for a cognitive success.


Xiangnong (Herbert) Hu (PhD candidate, Chinese University of Hong Kong): “Why Is Mengzi’s Moral Philosophy Incompatible with Kant’s Moral Autonomy: A Critique of Mou Zongsan and Li Minghui”

Mou Zongsan 牟宗三 (1909–1995) and Li Minghui 李明輝 are two of the most influential contemporary philosophers who interpret the moral philosophies of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and Mengzi (Mencius) 孟子 (ca. 372–289 BC) comparatively, with the presupposition that their moral philosophies are similar to and compatible with each other. This essay aims to establish a thesis in contrast to Mou and Li by arguing that Mengzi’s moral philosophy is disparate from and incompatible with Kant’s moral autonomy. First, it argues that unlike Kant, who starts his moral reasoning by analyzing commonsense moral concepts, Mengzi does not adopt a similar analytic approach to morality but rather relies on experience and analogical reasoning to highlight the uniqueness of human nature. Second, the essay demonstrates that in contrast to Kant’s emphasis on the moral law, Mengzi’s conceptions of ren 仁 (humaneness), yi 義 (optimal appropriateness), li 禮 (observance of the rites), and zhi 智 (wisdom) are developable virtues that designate the character trait of the agent rather than fixed moral principles that provide guides for action in different situations. Third, the essay argues that Mengzi’s “xin 心” (heart-mind) is not a transcendent and morally perfect subject that corresponds to Kant’s “free will” or “will as a thing in itself”; rather, it is an empirically-affected entity that is morally weak at the beginning, requiring constant moral cultivation. For this reason, Kant’s transcendental distinction between “thing in itself” and “appearance” cannot be drawn in the context of the Mengzi by appealing to xin. Given these fundamental theoretical differences between Kant and Mengzi, it is implausible to classify Mengzi’s moral philosophy as a version of moral autonomy.


Timothy Gutmann (Instructor, University of Chicago): “Mediated Engagements: Political Commitment in Scholarship in Light of Mengzi”

While no institution seems able to avoid politics in the present moment, the role of the modern academic scholar does not easily fit to a particular mode of political engagement. Scholars who do not engage risk a kind of bourgeois intellectualism that is not committed to the relevance of its own work for the sake of a pretense of objectivity. On the other extreme, scholars who are narrow partisans sacrifice the critical role of their vocation. In this, I want to consider how and why scholars can avoid either of these narrow paths and embrace more complex and committed work.

For this, I first seek some distance from the present moment to examine a foundational text of the scholarly and political tradition of Confucianism: the Mengzi 孟子 (372 BCE-279 BCE). The eponymous author of this text models how thoughtful people can avoid reductive views, and live intellectually and politically engaged with others in multiple capacities. Mengzi decries intellectual systems that reduce human goods to pat formulas which ignore, or cannot account for, many of the distinctions, roles, and commitments that constitute a full intellectual moral and social life. Mengzi commends an ethic of mediation (zhong 中), which avoids extremes of deficiency and assures that people live with attention to different virtues and roles.

However, crucially, Mengzi says that people should not hold too rigidly to one particular idea of zhong. People need to be flexible in their negotiations of the different ideals and demands of ethical and political life lest they cling too dearly to their one position, and “waste a hundred” (feibai 廢百) others. Even if people have the correctly- mediated zhong of conjunction in one moment, intellectual arrogance or chauvinism can blind them to other valid possibilities. Against this, Mengzi argues for an ethic of capable discernment (quan 權) by which people can take a balanced stance but are not restricted to it.

I turn to feminist scholarship to explore how to apply Mengzi’s model of zhong and quan to the questions of political commitment and analytical labor. Modern feminist thought has long been acknowledged to balance scholarly-critical and politically- prescriptive dimensions that are not easily separated. In this, I argue that Mengzi’s quan can elaborate the ways that scholars such as the political theorists Wendy Brown and Saba Mahmood have interconnected their political and academic work without either reducing to the other. Mahmood is perhaps best remembered as a forceful and thoroughgoing critic of all traditions of feminist scholarship. However, she did not see her work as foreclosing all possibilities of feminist political action. She rather commended an ethic of “productive tension” and “practical wisdom” to negotiate whether and how to balance critical and constructive commitments in scholarship and public politics. I explore how Mengzi’s zhong and quan might apply to Mahmood and her interlocutors in responding to what they felt were the different imperatives of responsible scholarship.


Naiyi Hsu (PhD candidate, Indiana University): “The Ritualized Body and Role Performance in Early Confucian Thought”

In early China, the connection between ritual and body is readily seen in how the Chinese characters, li 禮 (ritual) and ti 體 (body), are frequently used to gloss each other. Obviously, these two characters are etymologically connected for they share the same graph, 豐 feng, in their composition. Their graphical resemblance, however, does not by itself explains how they are conceptually related. Previous scholars have adopted primarily two approaches to this issue. The first approach articulates the analogical relation between ritual and body, while the second one discusses how ritual trains the body. Since the first approach focuses on the shared characteristics between ritual and the body, it does not help explain the moral significance that early Confucians see in a ritualized body. On the other hand, because the second approach focuses almost exclusively on what ritual does to the body, it tends to treat body as a passive object that needs to be disciplined, molded, or transformed by ritual.

In response to these two approaches, this paper offers an interpretation that casts the moral significance of the ritualized body in a more positive and active light. I will begin by introducing Catherine Bell’s theory of “ritualization,” which raises three important points regarding the ritualized body. First, the strategy of ritualization, which turns an ordinary activity into a ritualized one, is rooted in the body. Second, the ritualized body is a body that has internalized various schemes of oppositions. Third, these embodied schemes allow the ritualized persons to generate new strategies that allow them to handle situations potently outside the ritual context where the ritualized body is originally produced. Using these three points as lenses, I will then examine the discourses and stories from several texts, including the Yili 儀禮, Liji 禮記, and Lienü Zhuan 列女傳 and discuss how the early Confucian view on the ritualized body is similar to Bell’s theory of ritualization. Accordingly, I will further argue that the ritualized body is considered morally significant because it allows people to perform their social- political roles in an adaptive, creative, and almost spontaneous manner. Instead of being a passive object that needs to be disciplined, therefore, the ritually trained body in fact actively enhances people’s social capacity, making them a more competent moral agent.


Bin Song (Assistant Professor, Washington College): “How Does a Ru (Confucianist) Do Comparative Theology Today”

Theorists of comparative theology (CT) are concerned with resources of CT alternative to the dominant Christian models. As a CT theorist and a scholar working on comparisons of Ruism (Confucianism) and Christianity, I cannot help asking the following question: how does a Ru do CT today?

The question can be furthermore elaborated as follows: if scholars identify themselves with Ruism, a comprehensive way of life, what is the significance and method for them to learn from comprehensive traditions other than Ruism? To answer it, Ru scholars need to present a Ruist project similar to the Christian theology of religions in order to provide a general framework for a Ruist CT. Within this framework, a cluster of minor issues need to be clarified such as what “theology” means for Ruism, how comparative a Ru theology can be, and of what significance theological comparison is to Ruism.

The general approach I tackle these questions is to locate Ruism within general terms and concepts which scholars are currently utilizing to map the new and growing discipline of CT, and then, highlight the specificity of Ruism in the map. As indicated by the current scholarship, these terms and concepts are still contested by CT theorists, and not all of them are fit for a Ruist CT. In fact, for the sake of accommodating non-Christian traditions within the increasingly global discipline of CT, CT theorists have an opportunity to explore alternative resources within the western tradition so as to enlarge the map. My preliminary analysis and conclusion concerning the asked major question can be summarized as follows:

Theorists of comparative theology (CT)’s reluctance to fully recognize the CT of Keith Ward’s and Robert C. Neville’s types as theology derive from their conception of theology limited by the Thomist model of “faith seeking understanding.” Per this model, a comparative theologian needs to be loyal to the creedal expression of divine revelation within a “home tradition” at first, and then, pursue a comparative study of religions in order to bring outside insights to enrich her home tradition. Nevertheless, this understanding of theology was not possible until the establishment of Christianity in medieval Europe. By investigating Aristotle’s theology as integral to philosophy as a way of life in ancient Greek thought, we can rediscover the disciplinary nature of CT as a liberal art, by which the ineffable nature of ultimate reality is expressed in conditioned human discourses vulnerable to constant critique and revision. This resource of CT alternative to the dominant Christian models furnishes general terms and concepts to pursue CT from a non-Christian perspective such as Ruism (Confucianism). As exemplified by the Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Longxi (1498-1583 C.E)’s thought, the Ruist view on inter-traditional learning can be portrayed as a “seeded, open inclusivism,” and this Ruist theology of religions can therefore provide an enriched vision to advance the contemporary study of CT as a genuinely global enterprise.


Ryan Nichols (Associate Professor, California State University-Fullerton) and Nicholaos Jones (Professor, University of Alabama-Huntsville), “Chinese Buddhism & Cognitive Style”

Cross-cultural experimental and empirical studies in cognitive sciences have produced abundant evidence to conclude that Westerners tend to think analytically and East Asians tend to think holistically (Unfortunately, far fewer studies have been conducted on other cultural populations than on these two.) But the cultural sources of this differentiation is unclear. This presentation suggests that a major cultural source of these echoes detected in psychology research today are found in historical Chinese Buddhism.

As a term of art, analytic cognition is characterized as the “tendency to extract the underlying properties of an object or phenomenon from its context” (Ji, Lee and Guo 2010, 156). During analytic cognition, information, including social information, is often decontextualized in order to attend to properties and structures rather than relationships and context. Holistic cognition is premised upon the notion that “nothing exists in isolation; things are interconnected with each other, directly or indirectly” (Ji, Lee and Guo 2010, 156). Objects, events and people are conceived in relation to their contexts. Experiments showing that East Asians think holistically more than do Westerners, and Westerners think more analytically than do East Asians, fall into five categories: classification, field dependence, expectation of change, non-linearity, and causation. In the presentation, these terms are explained in detail and each one is illustrated through discussion of one choiceworthy experiment. E.g., in a ‘three-concept-classification’ task, Chiu 1972 asked participants to draw together two of three concepts (like monkey, dog and banana). Chiu found that ethnically Chinese Taiwanese children used relationships to link monkey and banana, whereas ethnically European American children used taxonomic categories to link monkey and dog.

Understanding the contents of Chinese Buddhism sheds light on the cultural ancestry of holistic thinking style. Careful consideration of the corpus of Fazang (法藏, 643-712), for example, reveals a number of philosophical moves that exemplify holistic cognition across the five categories noted above. In what he calls his “Elementary Teaching,” Fazang makes a point about mereology by saying that wholes are not separate from but essentially related to the wholes of which they are part. This makes explicit use of holistic, rather than decompositional analytic, classification. Fazang’s “ideal of the round” is said to embody an ultimate truth insofar as it is all-inclusive and free from extremes, suggesting a holistic approach to field dependence. Fazang’s response to the problem of harmonizing apparently inconsistent Buddhist scriptures uses non-linear reasoning for its resolution. Fazang’s reasoning about implications of his “ideal of the round” appears to use holistic causal reasoning since he contends that all dharmas depend on each other so present dharmas depend upon future dharmas. A number of examples from Fazang indicate that expectations of change are built into his metaphysics.

The presentation concludes with remarks about the relationship between emic Chinese schools of thought Daoism and Confucianism, and speculative remarks about the possible implications of Chinese Buddhism’s holistic cognitive style on subsequent Chinese cultural evolution.


Li Kang (Assistant Professor, Washington and Lee University): “How to Be Free from Oneself: Lessons from Chan Buddhism”

The problem of free will has been extensively investigated in Western philosophy and, more recently, neuroscience. Not only do these investigations lean to the discouraging conclusion that we do not have free will, but the discussions are often too detached from our everyday experience and practice. These unfortunate results stem from how freedom is standardly understood in Western philosophy. Roughly, for one to exercise free will, that person’s choices and actions must ultimately come from something internal—reasons, desires, or constructed self—to the person. In my paper, I explore how freedom is understood differently in Chan Buddhism and, more generally, the Chinese and Buddhist traditions that have shaped Chan Buddhism. I bring the alternative conception of freedom into conversation with Western philosophy and spell out three contributions.

First, a broader notion of freedom—freedom from—is more apt than the Western notion of free will, which presumes an internal-external distinction and seeks freedom from what’s internal to a person. Although what’s internal to a person might appear to be useful for discerning whether the person has freedom, there are often no sharp lines distinguishing between what’s truly internal and external to a person. Furthermore, not only are we confined by forces external to us, but we also enslave ourselves through internal factors such as false beliefs and toxic emotions. Hence, a general notion of freedom from—which encompasses Western and Eastern notions of freedom— is more useful and raises the important question of freedom from what. The Western discussions focus on freedom from the external forces that we have little control over, while the Eastern discussions often focus on freedom from the “internal” factors such as false beliefs and toxic emotions, which are the things we can gain control over our practice.

Second, although there is an increasing interest in gaining fresh perspectives on freedom in Indian Buddhism, there are not too many published works on freedom in Chinese philosophy. In particular, Chinese Chan Buddhists developed a distinctive account of freedom by integrating ideas from Indian Buddhism and Chinese Daoism. In a nutshell, Chan freedom entails freedom from all conceptual discriminations, including the false internal-external distinction as well as all toxic attachments that are built on the conceptual discriminations. An articulation of the conception of freedom in Chan Buddhism fills a gap in the contemporary literature.

Third, Chan Buddhists prescribed distinctive ways—Chan meditative practice, shock techniques, and nonsensical use of language—of attaining freedom. These practices, their underlying metaphysics, and the non-separateness between the two challenge the paradigm that metaphysics is purely theoretical. As I will show, Chan Buddhism illustrates the possibility that metaphysics can—and should in certain cases—be expressed by experiential embodiments rather than theories.


Joanna Loeb (PhD candidate, University of Warsaw): “Are the Min the Common People? Another Look at the Daodejing

My purpose is to reread selected fragments of the Daodejing 道德經 in light of Robert Gassmann’s intriguing and carefully argued interpretation of the meaning of the terms ren 人 and min 民 in the early corpus.[2] The term ren 人 is standardly taken to designate individual men/people or the generic aspect of man/person: man qua man (the implicit gender bias is typically noted). The term min 民, on the other hand, is standardly considered to refer to the people, as in the common people/the masses. This familiar and rarely questioned supposition is mistaken, according to Gassmann. In his assessment, the discussed terms are much more precise and designate two distinct and largely parallel social groups:  

  • ren 人 are those belonging to the ruling clan (non-relative usage) or the clan of the person of reference (relative usage)—a ren 人 is a this-clanner;
  • min 民 are those belonging to a non-ruling clan (non-relative usage) or a clan other than the clan of the person of reference (relative usage)—a min 民 is an other-clanner.

Both groups are hierarchical and their structure is parallel except for the topmost tier—there is only one ruler and he is by all accounts a ren 人. The min 民, then, are the ruled but not in the sense of a non-elite underclass. They co-constitute the elite, are close to or present at court, and pose an imminent threat to the ruling clan’s position.

This interpretation has significant repercussions for properly understanding preimperial thought. One major effect noted by Gassmann is that if a ren 人 is a this-clanner rather than a (hu)man qua (hu)man, then the notion of ren 仁is unlikely to be implicated in a panhuman ethic of humane interaction.[3] To act in a ren 仁 manner is not to treat another person as a human being—a concept that might be altogether absent in this sociocultural milieu—but to treat an other-clanner as a this-clanner, thus forging a bond demanding loyalty. Although the ethos of ren 仁 can still be interpreted as part of a “moral” agenda of broadening the circle of familial care, it is also possible to regard it as a tool for coalition building and appeasement.

All this sheds interesting light on texts such as DDJ 3 or DDJ 65. Instead of recommending not educating the common people, these passages are better seen as offering techniques for managing the min 民, as in the other clans. The dea is to suppress their ambitions by not promising or flaunting luxury and prestige and to defang them by keeping them sated, complacent, and in the dark. This strategy is in stark contrast to the ethos of ren 仁 and there is little surprise that the materials found in the DDJ are largely critical of ren 仁. From the perspective of these materials, rule by ren 仁 is a recipe for escalating commitment—as the “adopted” min 民 get the drift, they are bound to expect an increasingly costly treatment as proof of the bond. The predicted result is a depletion of state resources and strife, rendering the ethos of ren 仁 quite simply unsustainable. 


Hao Hong (Assistant Professor, University of Maine): “Simplicity as the Maximum Indeterminacy”

The Dao is characterized as follows in the Laozi: the Dao is something rather than nothing (Laozi 14, 25), is infinite and indeterminate (Laozi 4, 5, 6), is simple (Laozi 28, 32, 37), is the absence of things (Laozi 5, 6, 11), is the source of the myriad things (Laozi 1, 4, 34, 40, 42), and has great properties, such as the great image and the great sound (Laozi 25, 34, 41, 45). There are some potential tensions between some of these descriptions. For example, how can the Dao be something both simple and infinite? How can the Dao be both simple and having seemly different great properties? How can the Dao be both something and the absence of things? How can the Dao be the absence of things but still be the source of the myriad things?

The paper aims to develop and defend an account of the metaphysical nature of the Dao which helps us explain some puzzles away. A key concept on which the account relies is the distinction between determinables and determinates. This distinction captures the specificity of properties of things—a determinate is a property that is more specific than a determinable. For example, being scarlet is a determinate of the determinable being red. Further, whether a property is a determinate or a determinable is relative but not absolute. For example, while being red is a determinable relative to being scarlet, being red is a determinate relative to being colored (red is a specific color). Roughly, if being F is a specific way of being G (e.g. being scarlet is a specific way of being red), F is a determinate of G.

A widely-accepted idea in contemporary western metaphysics is that the reality of the world is determinate. In other words, at the fundamental level, the world only has the most determinate properties. I call this the “determinacy thesis”. It implies that (1) nothing can have a determinable without having a determinate and (2) the absence of determinates is the absence of being (nothingness). I believe that the puzzles about the Dao come from the determinacy thesis, and the metaphysical nature of the Dao offers a reason to reject the determinacy thesis.

In a nutshell, the account developed in the paper claims that the Dao has the least specific determinable without having any determinates, and I call this the “indeterminacy account”. In other words, the Dao exists simpliciter but does not exist in any specific ways (or, being without being a certain way). The indeterminacy account has important implications. First, it implies that the Dao is indeterminate. Jessica Wilson has argued that a case for metaphysical indeterminacy is a state of affairs that includes a determinable without any of its corresponding determinate. Since the Dao has the least specific determinable, the Dao has no determinates relative to anything else—it is the most indeterminate entity. Second, it implies that the Dao is simple. The Dao does not have any determinate properties just like a piece of uncarved wood. Third, the Dao is the absence of things because the Dao does not share any determinate properties with the myriad things. But this does not mean that the Dao is nothingness if we reject the determinacy thesis. Fourth, by having the least specific determinable, the Dao contains the possibilities of all determinate properties of different degrees of specificity. In this sense, the Dao can be regarded as the source of the myriad things that have determinate properties. Finally, the Dao has an indeterminate image without any specific image and an indeterminate sound without any specific sound. The great properties had by the Dao are just the least specific determinables without any specific determinates.


Roy Porat (Visiting Scholar, Brown University): “Move toward the Darkness: The Evolution of Vision Metaphors in Early Daoism”

An interesting feature of the language of many Daoist texts is their atypical idealization of Darkness and Obscurity, which contrasts with the positive connotations of Light and Clarity in virtually all great philosophical traditions. This unusual choice of metaphors – which is demonstrated, for example, by terms such as xuan 玄, ming 冥, hun 混 or the imperceptibility of the Way – is surprising not only because it defies a linguistic pattern that is considered universal according to the latest metaphor theories, but also because it goes against the common association of Vision and Knowledge in the Chinese context as well.

In my talk I will discuss the ways by which this counterintuitive sympathy towards the “dark side” could have reflected several of the philosophical principles that characterized early Daoism, and address an interesting finding which suggests that this unique terminology might have played an even more important role in the earlier stages of the Daoist tradition: comparing the use of the Light/Darkness symbolism in the different versions of the Laozi reveals that while the received Laozi uses both metaphorical schemes to roughly the same extent, the presumably earlier Guodian version lacks almost all of the “bright” references that appear in later recensions, thus constituting a much “darker” version of the text. As I suggest, this terminological shift – from dark to brightness – might have reflected a more general process of philosophical deradicalization Daoism had undergone in the earliest stages of its formation, traces of which can be found in other texts as well. As time allows, I will discuss some of the implications of this suggestion on our understanding of the Laozi itself, as well as on the second chapter of the Zhuangzi, the Qiwulun.


Anthony Casadonte (PhD student, University of Kentucky): “Seeing the Subtlety and Seeing the Contours of Things: Wang Bi’s Phenomenology of Generation and Reification”

Opposing the view that things have their being and form in themselves, the Daodejing states that things arise in their being and form ultimately from nothingness. An interesting account of this can be found particularly in Wang Bi’s commentary on the beginning of the text where many key notions are first established ranging from 道, 名, 無, 有 to 天地, 萬 物, 妙, 徼, and 玄. The DDJ itself connects many of these, for instance that nothingness is the origin 始 of heaven and earth and being is the mother of the myriad things, but we can read Wang Bi as himself providing a focal point for making sense of all these in his idea that things have their origin in nothingness and end in their completed being. Following David Chai’s work on the generativity of nothingness in the DDJ from a phenomenological perspective, I suggest these different notions can all be seen as playing a role in the process of the generation of things in which they form their determinate being from their original nothingness. My presentation will construct this account of how things arise as, what I consider to be, a distinctly Daoist phenomenology.

By “phenomenology”, I aim only to attend to how things arise or appear without any assumption or commitment to their arising for a transcendental subject or consciousness. In this presentation, the focus will be on how things arise from nothingness, but it is also crucial to understand at the same time how we can relate to this process of generation in the terms the DDJ provides. Specifically, things are understood both in terms of their subtlety with respect to their origin in nothingness but also in terms of their contours with respect to their on-going completion in being. We may at first only see things in their completed being as if they are self-subsistent, but if we develop a certain relation to them, we begin to see the open-endedness of their being completed which directs us to this process of definition or formation; if we continue to trace this process back to its origin, we begin to see the subtlety underlying the thing. Whereas before we may have a clear cut division between ourselves and the myriad things, our tracing this process of generation disabuses us of the reification and subjectification involved in this division and allows us to see the ontological features of the subtlety and the contours of the things in their arising.

My presentation will consist mainly of two parts based on the structure of the text. These two together will be two sides of the phenomenological account of how things arise: 1) one side involves seeing things arise in their subtlety from their origin in nothingness which accounts for their generation, 2) the other side from the opposite direction involves seeing things from their contours as the on-going completion in being which accounts for their reification. Taking these two sides together as the appearing of their dark mysteriousness, I will demonstrate this mystery of how things arise as a key focal point in Daoist thought.


[1] Both ‘to abide’ and ‘to listen’ are depicted by the graph ting 聽. See, for example Zhanguo ce, 22.780-81 (‘Wei yi’ 魏一): ‘I fear your lordship might be ‘deaf’ with regards to [the issues of] government’ 臣恐君之聾於官也。

[2] Robert H. Gassmann, “Understanding Ancient Chinese Society: Approaches to Ren 人and Min 民,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 120, No. 3 (Jul.–Sep., 2000), pp. 348–359. Gassmann’s analysis is based on texts ranging from roughly 700 to roughly 200 BCE.

[3] Often rendered as humaneness, ren 仁 is related to the behavioural pattern expected of a ren 人. The locus classicus of this connection is Mencius 7B16: “To act in a ren 仁 manner is to be a ren 人 [to someone]” 仁也者人也.