Monday, February 23, 2009


Discussion Fifteen in a series on Chinese Philosophy from a Marxist point of view.

Thomas Riggins

After having a light breakfast, Karl and Fred have returned to Karl’s library to discuss Neo-Taoism.

“Well Fred, are you ready to get into Neo-Taoism? We are still dealing with thinkers in the Wei-Chin period (220-420 AD) are we not?”

“We are. We have moved on a long way from the kind of thinking represented by Tung Chung-shu. A move that has led us closer and closer to naturalistic ways of thinking.”

“Then I guess Hsun Tzu should be popular again.”

“That may be, but we are going to discuss philosophers who, while paying lip service to Confucius, wrote commentaries on the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu as a way of expressing themselves. We call them ‘Neo-Taoists.’”

“Yes, but that’s not what they called themselves as I remember. I think Fung says they were known as Hsuan Hsueh or ‘Dark’ (Hsuan) or ‘Mysterious Learning.’” [History of Chinese Philosopy vol. 2]

“That’s right Karl. Besides, the Neo-Taoists there was another group of thinkers at this time called the ‘Light’ or ‘Pure Conversation School.’ They seem to have been of minor importance-- at least from the strictly philosophical point of view.”

“And who were they?”

“Just groups of men who liked to get together and discuss contemporary issues, ethics, philosophy, etc. They hung out in bamboo groves drinking and arguing and rejecting social conventions and propriety.”

“Sounds like a wild bunch!”

“They seem to have been harmless. The most famous group was called the ‘Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove.’ We are not going to deal with them as such.”

“OK. On to the ‘Dark Learning’ of the Neo-Taoists. Who is first?”

“First is a gentleman called Wang Pi.”

“Yes, I remember studying about him. He died when he was only 23 or 24 years old-- living from 225 to 249 in Wei. That is unusually young to have left behind really important philosophical works.”

“At any rate, Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] has given us three excerpts from his writings. You ready?”


“This is from his Simple Exemplifications of the Principle of the Book of Changes [ Chou-i lueh-li]. He is trying to explain hexagrams in the I Ching. He develops the idea of ‘the one’ and the key to this passage is his statement, ‘Things never err; they always follow their principle.’ This is actually a scientific way of looking at things-- i.e., the laws of science don’t change [I mean the underlying ‘laws’ of the world which the ‘laws of science’ attempt to describe] so ‘things never err.’ The entire quote is: ‘Now, the many cannot be regulated by the many. They are regulated by the smallest in number (the one). Activity cannot be controlled by activity. They are controlled by that which is firmly rooted in the one. The reason why the many can exist is that their ruling principle returns always to the one and all activities can function because they have all come from the same source. Things never err; they always follow their principle. There is the chief to unite them, and there is the leader to group them together. Therefore, though complex, they are not chaotic, and though many, they are not confused. Hence the intermingling of the six lines in a hexagram can be understood by taking up one [of them, for one is always the ruling factor of the six] and the interaction of weakness (yin) and strength (yang) can be determined by having the basic controlling principle well established.... Therefore if we investigate things by approaching them as a united system, although they are many, we know we can handle them by adhering to the one, and if we view them from the point of view of the fundamental, although their concepts are broad, we know we can cover all of them under a single name.’”

“You know Fred, Fung Yu-lan remarks on this [HCP:2, p.180] that the key to this passage is to understand that for Wang all multiplicity stems from oneness-- just as everything in our universe goes back to or stems from the one singularity, if it really was a singularity, we call the ‘Big Bang’. This is an analogy, of course, Wang Pi didn’t know anything about the ‘Big Bang.’ He is really explaining why there is always a leading line in the hexagrams comprising the I Ching. Here is what Fung says: ‘In this passage Wang Pi’s aim is to explain the general concept underlying the statements made by the First Appendix on the separate hexagrams.’ He also says, with respect to Wang’s mentioning a ruling hexagram, that ‘he means that among the six lines comprising any given hexagram, there is always one that acts as ruler over the others. That is why he begins his treatise with the general thesis that all multiplicity must be ruled by oneness, and all activity controlled by quiescence. This is the first of his metaphysical principles.’”

“OK. We next turn to Wang’s Commentary On The Book of Changes itself. Here again we see the ‘one’: ‘Only because there is ultimate principle in the world is it possible to employ strength and uprightness completely and to drive far away those who ingratiate by flattery.... If we understand the activities of things, we shall know all the principles which make them what they are’ [On hexagram one ‘Heaven’].

“Very empirical Fred, if you ask me. Study the activities of things to determine their principles. This is consistent with a materialist world view.”

“And this next passage shows how his views apply to society and politics: ‘If one is agreeable but does not follow indiscriminately and is joyful without deviating from the Mean, one will be able to associate with superiors without flattery and with subordinates without disrespect. As he understands the causes of fortune and misfortune, he will nor speak carelessly, and as he understands the necessary principles, he will not change good conduct.’ [On hexagram sixteen ‘Happiness’] "

“A science of society is possible based on his views.”

“And no simple minded one either Karl. Listen to this: ‘[A superior man sees] similarity in general principles but diversity in function and facts.’ [On hexagram thirty eight ‘To part’] "

“To see the one in the many and vice versa is almost the definition of philosophy. Remember the Prime Directive? "

“How could I forget it?” [Use science and logic NOT emotion and religious dogma-- see Dialogue #1: Confucius].

“And the Second Directive?”

“Don’t discuss things with people who reject the Prime Directive.”

“Well, I think we get another directive about philosophy here-- based on Wang Pi. Here is Schopenhauer’s version: ‘Knowledge of the identical in different phenomena, and of difference in similar phenomena is, as Plato so often remarks, a sine qua non of philosophy.’ [The World as Will and Idea: 2nd bk, 1st aspect, sec. 22] What Plato says is, ‘’those who are able to grasp what is always the same in all respects are philosophers, while those who are not able to do so and who wander among the many things that vary in every sort of way are not philosophers...’ [Republic 484b].

“You certainly get a lot out of one sentence from Wang! Chan’s comment is: ‘Note the contrast between principle and facts. Later, in Chinese Buddhism, the realm of principles and the realm of facts constitute the two realms of existence. They are, however, not to be sharply contrasted, for they involve each other and are ultimately identical. This one-is-all and all-is-one philosophy is a common heritage of all Chinese philosophical systems-- Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist.’”

“The more we discuss Chinese philosophy, the more parallels I see to certain Western trends Fred.”

“Here is his commentary on hexagram twenty four ‘To return’: ‘Whenever speech ceases, there is silence, but silence is not opposed to speech. Thus although Heaven and Earth are vast, possessing the myriad things in abundance, where thunder moves and winds circulate, and while there is an infinite variety of changes and transformations, yet its original [substance] is absolutely quiet and perfect non-being. Therefore only with the cessation of activities within Earth can the mind of Heaven and Earth be revealed.’”

“Let me read to you what Fung says about this passage. ‘When Wang speaks of the ‘myriad things’ of Heaven and Earth and the ‘myriad transformations’ resulting from their operations, what he means is all being and all transformations, that is all phenomenal activity. But the cause of all transformations or activity must itself be unchanging and quiescent.... It cannot itself be being, for if it were, it would simply be one among all the many other kinds, and as such it could not be the origin of ‘all’ being. ‘ [HCP:2, p.181] Thus Wang maintains that non-being (wu) is the basis of being. I don’t think we just equate non-being with ‘nothingness’ either. And so we don’t anthropomorphize let us remember that the ‘mind of Heaven and Earth’ is just the set of natural principles or operant laws of physics, etc. It would be like saying if you understand general relativity you understand the mind of Heaven.”

“We will trudge along to find out because Wang Pi’s views are going to be developed by succeeding generations. Here is Chan’s remark on this passage: ‘Wang Pi is characteristically Taoistic in saying that only in a state of tranquility can the mind of Heaven and Earth be seen.... [Neo-Confucianists] maintained that the Mind of Heaven and Earth is to be seen in a state of activity instead of tranquility ‘”

“Fred, that passage from Wang on wu is also commented upon by Fung. He says, ‘Wu or “non-being” is, in Wang’s philosophy, equivalent to the “super-ultimate” or “Supreme Ultimate” (T’ai Chi) of the Book of Changes, or to the Tao of the Lao-tzu. Its functioning, however, can only be made manifest on the form of being (yu).’” [HCP:2, p.183]

“Time for our last selection--Commentary on the Lao Tzu.”

“Bring it on.”

“Chan lets us know that Wang Pi was really interested in metaphysics. He considers ultimate reality to be ‘original non-being’ or pen-wu. Its not ‘nothing’ but rather the original substance, pen-t’i, that is the basis of all existing things. He develops this idea in the Lao Tzu commentary. Chan says, ‘Where Lao Tzu had destiny (ming, fate), Wang Pi would substitute principle, thus anticipating the Neo-Confucianists, who preferred to speak of the Principle of Nature (T’ien-Ming).’”

“Are you ready to read Wang’s text?”

“Yes I am. Wang says, ‘All being originated from non-being... After forms and names appear, Tao (the Way) develops them... becomes their Mother. This means that Tao produces and completes things with the formless and nameless. Thus they are produced and completed but do not know why. Indeed it is the mystery of mysteries.’ [ch 1].”

“What else?”

“He continues, ‘Man does not oppose Earth and therefore can comfort all things, for his standard is the Earth. Earth does not oppose Heaven and therefore can sustain all things, for its standard is Heaven. Heaven does not oppose Tao and therefore can cover all things, for its standard is Tao. Tao does not oppose Nature and therefore it attains its character of being.’ [ch. 25]. He tells us ‘By Nature is meant something that cannot be labeled and something ultimate’ [Ibid.].”

“This seems to give a materialist basis to his metaphysics. What would knowledge of ‘Nature’ lead to?”

“He says, ‘The sage understands Nature perfectly and knows clearly the conditions of all things. Therefore he goes along with them but takes no unnatural action. He is in harmony with them but does not impose anything on them. He removes their delusions and eliminates their doubts. Hence the people’s minds are not confused and things are contented with their own nature.’ [ch. 29] And also, ‘How is virtue to be attained? It is to be attained through Tao. How is virtue to be completely fulfilled. It is through non-being as its function. As non-being is its function, all things will be embraced. Therefore in regard to things, if they are understood as non-being all things will be in order, whereas if they are understood as being, it is impossible to avoid the fact that they are products (phenomena). Although Heaven and Earth are extensive, non-being is the mind, and although sages and kings are great, vacuity (hsu) is their foundation. Therefore it is said that by returning and seeing [absolute quiet and perfect non-being], the mind of Heaven and Earth will be revealed.’ [ch. 38].”

“This reminds me of Buddhist notions.”

“Some Buddhist notions in China may actually come from Wang Pi! Remember, all the things that exist (‘the myriad things’) have their own unique being-- their own substance and function. Chan comments, ‘This is the first time in the history of Chinese thought that substance (t’i) and function(yung) are mentioned together.... The concepts of substance and function definitely originated with Wang Pi. They were to become key concepts in Chinese Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism.’”

“I see that Chinese Buddhism and Taoism are mixed up together, but who is influencing whom?”

“It was probably a two way street Karl. Here is how Wang Pi relates existing things to his ultimate substance. ‘The ten thousand things have ten thousand different forms but in the final analysis they are one. How did they become one? Because of non-being.... Therefore in the production of the myriad things, I know its master.’ [ch. 47].”

“So much for Wang Pi. How about Ho Yen? He was also an important contributor to this school.”

“Yes. He also died in 249 A.D., the same year as Wang Pi. Like Wang, although a Taoist, he considered Confucius to be the ‘Sage.’ That is to say, in things social and political-- in practice-- he followed Confucius, but he nevertheless turned to Lao Tzu in things metaphysical, an area that Confucius was not particularly interested in. We can see Wang’s influence in the following quote from Ho’s Treatise on Tao: ‘Being, in coming into being, is produced by non-being. Affairs, as affairs, are brought into completion by non-being. When one talks about it and it has no predicates, when one names it and it has no name, when one looks at it and it has no form, and when one listens to it and it has no sound-- that is Tao in its completeness. Hence it is able to make sounds and echoes brilliant, to cause material force (ch’i) and material objects to stand out, to embrace all physical forms and spiritual activity, and to display light and shadow.’”

“Does Chan say anything about this?”

“He has the following comment: ‘It is characteristic of both the Light Conversation movement and the Metaphysical School to reject all words and forms as descriptions of the ultimate reality. These may be used, then forgotten, as the fish trap is forgotten once the fish is caught. The whole spirit is to get at the ultimate totality, which is not to be limited even by a name.’”

“That fish analogy is similar to one used by Wittgenstein, another ‘mystic.’ Just as our Taoist friends keep saying that ‘Tao’ is unnamable and we can’t really grasp it, Wittgenstein ends his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by saying, ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them-- as steps-- to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)’”

“Very apt Karl.”

“And mystics are not the only ones to think this way.”

“What do you mean?”

“Listen to Sextus Empiricus, the Greek Skeptic, explaining how its possible to ‘know’ that you cant ‘know’--i.e., that you can use logic against logic! He says, ‘just as it is not impossible for someone, after climbing up a ladder to a higher place, to knock down the ladder with his foot after he gets up there, so too it is not unreasonable for the skeptic, after arriving at the establishment of his point by using the argument which demonstrates that there is no demonstration as a kind of step-stool, thereupon to destroy this argument itself.’”

“So Taoists are not the only ones with these problems of trying to explain what seems at first glance unexplainable. Now listen to this from Ho’s Treatise On The Nameless: ‘Now Tao never possesses anything. But since the beginning of the universe it has possessed all things and yet it is still called Tao because it can exercise its ability not to possess them. Therefore although it dwells in the realm of the namable, it shows no sign of the nameless.’”

“Hmmmm. I’m not ready to throw away the ladder.”

“Maybe this will help. Ho continues: ‘Essentially speaking, Tao has no name. This is why Lao Tzu said that he was “forced to give it a name.” Confucius praised (sage emperor) Yao, saying, “The people could find no name for him,” but continued to say, “How majestic” was “his accomplishment!” It is clear that to give a name perforce is merely to give an appellation on the basis of only what people know. If one already has a name, how can it be said that people could find no name for him? It is only because he has no name that all possible names in the world can be used to call him. But are these really his names? If from this analogy one still does not understand, it would be like looking at the loftiness and eminence of Mount T”ai and yet saying that the original material force [which makes the productions of things possible] is not overwhelming or extensive.’”

“Now I see, Fred. The names and descriptions we give to reality in order to try and understand it are ‘only what people know.’ Reality, the Tao, is much more extensive than what can be conceptualized by the human understanding. This is what Wittgenstein meant. He says it even better, right after the passage I just quoted, when he writes ‘He must transcend the propositions [Wittgenstein’s philosophical claims] and then he will see the world aright.’ Somehow or other, I think Ho Yen and Wittgenstein are are on the same wavelength.”

“Be that as it may Karl, we must now turn to another really important Neo-Taoist. His name was Kuo Hsiang [Guo Xiang] and he expressed his views in his Commentary on the Chuang Tzu. To prepare you for what is to come, let me read what Chan says is the great difference between Kuo and Wang; ‘Just as Wang Pi went beyond Lao Tzu, so Kuo Hsiang went beyond Chuang Tzu. The major concept is no longer Tao, as in Chuang Tzu, but Nature (Tzu-jan). Things exist and transform themselves spontaneously and there is no other reality or agent to cause them. Heaven is not something behind this process of Nature but is merely its general name. Things exist and transform according to principle, but each and every thing has its own principle. Everything is therefore self-sufficient and there is no need of an over-all original reality to combine or govern them, as in the case of Wang Pi. In other words, while Wang Pi emphasizes non-being, Kuo emphasizes being. To Wang Pi, principle transcends things, but to Kuo it is immanent in them.’ And Chan also notes, ‘In their philosophy of life, Kuo Hsiang differed greatly from Wang Pi in one respect. Kuo was a fatalist while Wang was not. Since according to Kuo everything has its own nature and ultimate principle, everything is determined and correct. Therefore he taught contentment in whatever situation one may find himself. Neither free will nor choice has meaning in his system.’”

“Kuo sounds like a radical pluralist. But I think modern science points towards an original unity with everything in Nature evolving from the Big Bang. At any rate, lets go over Kuo Hsiang’s Commentary.”

“First, lets note that this is not just Kuo’s Commentary. One of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove was a man named Hsiang Hsiu(c. 221-c. 300 AD) who wrote commentaries on the Chuang Tzu . Kuo’s commentary is either an edited version of Hsiang’s or an expanded version. However, it is traditionally called Kuo’s commentary!”


“There are thirty nine numbered paragraphs in Chan from this commentary , and I will begin with number three. ‘To be natural means not to take any unnatural action. This is the general idea of [what Chuang Tzu means by] roaming leisurely or freedom. Everything has its own nature and each nature has its own ultimate.’”

“This clarifies a lot Fred, especially the Taoist confusion about doing ‘nothing’-- it means ‘nothing unnatural.’ Even more interesting is the definition of man via Aristotle-- i.e., ‘rational animal’ and ‘political animal.’ One could argue that since that is the nature of humans, the Confucian approach is perfectly natural and there is no ultimate conflict with Taoism!”

“Lets look at number four: ‘Being natural means to exist spontaneously without having to take any action. Therefore the fabulous p’eng bird can soar high and the quail can fly low, the cedrela can live for a long time and the mushroom for a short time.’”

“This confirms my view. Every thing has its own nature and way of acting.”

“Listen to number five: ‘It is he who does no governing that can govern the empire. Therefore Yao governed by not governing. It was not because of his governing that his empire was governed. Now (the recluse) Hsu Yu [who refused the empire] only realized that since the empire was well governed, he should not replace Yao. He thought it was Yao who did the actual governing. Consequently he said to Yao “You govern the empire.”’” Kuo thinks Yao is a good example of governing by not governing.”

“This looks bad for my theory.”

“Just wait a minute. Hsu Yu was a recluse, his example seems to have been sitting ‘in silence in the middle of some mountain forest’ and had the approval of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Kuo seems not to have approved of their ideas in this respect and thought one should remain ‘in the realm of action.’”

“My theory is back.”

“Pay attention now to the end of number five: ‘[R]esponsible officials insist on remaining in the realm of action without regret.... For egotistical people set themselves up against things, whereas he who is in accord with things is not opposed to them.... Therefore he profoundly and deeply responds to things without any deliberate mind of his own and follows whatever comes into contact with him. He is like an untied boat drifting, claiming neither the east not the west to be its own. He who is always with the people no matter what he does is the ruler of the world wherever he may be.’”

“Oh no, Fred, that’s no good either. A drifting untied boat is a poor representation of the Ship of State. A good ruler should guide the state by certain plans and principles and not just drift along. Also, ‘being with the people’ must be interpreted as being ‘for the people’ if it is to make any sense. The ‘people’ can be wrong headed sometimes and a good ruler has to know how to counter that. I know that Chan and Fung, among others, say the Neo-Taoists rated Confucius higher that Lao or Chuang when it came to practical actions, but obviously they did not really understand Confucianism if they thought analogies such as the ‘drifting boat’ were compatible with it.”

“Well in number six he says, ‘When everything attains its reality, why should it take any action? Everything will be contented and at ease. Therefore, although Yao and Hsu Yu and Heaven and Earth are different, their freedom is the same.’”

“Yes, I understand this determinist outlook. Nevertheless, the freedom of Yao and of Heaven and Earth differs in one essential respect which is that Yao is conscious of his freedom and also self-conscious.”

“In number eight Kuo says, ‘The mind of the sage penetrates to the utmost the perfect union of yin and yang and understands most clearly the wonderful principles of the myriad things. Therefore he can identify himself with changes and harmonize with transformations, and finds everything all right wherever he may go. He embraces all things and thus nothing is not in its natural state. The world asks him [to rule] because of disorder. He has no deliberate mind of his own.’”

“I take this to mean that the sage doesn’t use his leadership position for personal emolument, but because he knows ‘the wonderful principles of the myriad things’ he rules according to the true requirements of every situation and always in the interests of the ruled. He is a philosopher king.”

“In number eleven he reinforces this objective outlook: ‘Everything is what it is by nature, not through taking any action. Therefore [Chuang Tzu] speaks in terms of Nature.... Nature does not set its mind for or against anything. Who is the master to make things obey? Therefore all things exist by themselves and come from nature. This is the Way of Heaven.’”

“The subjective interests of the sage must not try to force themselves on to reality.”

“What you just said Karl about the sage and leadership is borne out by the following: ‘If people with the capacity of attendants are not contented with the responsibilities of attendants, it will be a mistake. Therefore we know that whether one is a ruler or a minister, a superior or an inferior, and whether it is the hand or the foot, the inside or the outside, it is naturally so according to the Principle of Nature.’ And also by number 14: ‘”This” and “that” oppose each other but the sage is in accord with both of them. Therefore he who has no deliberate mind of his own is silently harmonized with things and is never opposed to the world.’”

“It's all very Stoic Fred.”

“I’ll say. How about this from number 15: ‘When their physical forms are compared, Mount T’ai is larger than an autumn hair. But if everything is in accord with its nature and function, and is silently in harmony with its ultimate capacity, then a large physical form is not excessive and a small one is not inadequate.... As there is nothing small or large, and nothing enjoys longevity or suffers brevity of life [since all natures are equal], therefore the chrysalis does not admire the cedrela but is happy and contented with itself, and the quail does not value the Celestial Lake and its desire for glory is thus satisfied.’”

“Some might say this type of world view leads to quietism, but I’m not so sure. I will say its more passive than a Confucian would be comfortable with.”

“Here is number 18, an example of the Sage vs. hoi polloi: ‘The ordinary people will consider it lack of simplicity to harmonize all the changes throughout ten thousand years. With a tired body and a frightened mind, they toil to avoid this and to take that. The sage alone has no prejudice. He therefore proceeds with utter simplicity and becomes one with transformation and always roams in the realm of unity. Therefore, although the irregularities and confusions over millions of years result in a great variety and infinite multiplicity, as “Tao operates and given results follow,” the results of the past and the present are one.’”

“And we should note that hoi polloi still exist, even as in Kuo’s day, although in some societies universal educational opportunities have brought about qualitative differences in hoi polloi. The Confucian ‘Utopian’ ideal, as the Marxist, is that some day all humans will be sages.”

“And now for some metaphysics. Listen to this from number 19: ‘If we insist on the conditions under which things develop and search for the cause thereof, such search and insistence will never end, until we come to something that is unconditioned, and then the principles of self-transformation will become clear.... ‘”

“A monistic view, Fred. Modern science, at least speculative forms of it, has this view too. The search for the so-called unified field theory-- the one big equation that unifies quantum mechanics and general relativity would, hopefully, bring it about that the ‘principles of self-transformation will become clear.’”

“This same paragraph, Karl, also rules out the existence of a religious, in the Western sense, explanation for the universe. Kuo says, “There are people who say that shade is conditioned by the shadow, the shadow by the body, and the body by the Creator. But let us ask whether there is a Creator or not. If not, how can he create things? If there is, he is incapable of materializing all the forms. Therefore before we can talk about creation, we must understand the fact that all forms materialize by themselves. If we go through the entire realm of existence, we shall see that there is nothing, not even the shade, that does not transform itself behind the phenomenal world. Hence everything creates itself without the direction of any Creator. Since things create themselves, they are unconditioned. This is the norm of the universe.’” And Chan remarks, ‘The denial of a Creator is complete. Whereas Chuang Tzu raised the question whether there is a Creator or not, Kuo Hsiang unreservedly denied its existence. Given the theory that all things come into existence by themselves and that their transformation is also their own doing, this is the inevitable outcome. Thus Taoist naturalism is pushed to its ultimate conclusion.’”

“Yes, but we must not forget that, ‘Tao operates and given results follow.’ Fung is useful at this point as he says, concerning this passage [HCP:2, p. 210], ‘The statement: “Everything produces itself and does not depend on anything else,” means merely that we cannot designate any particular thing as the cause of any other particular thing. It does not at all mean that there are no relationships between one thing and another.’ In fact he maintains that this view is compatible with Marxism! He says [Ibid., p. 112], ‘This point of view is very similar to the materialistic concept of history. The Russian Revolution, for example, was, according to this concept, the inevitable result of the total objective environment of its time; it was not caused by Lenin or any other particular individual. The statement quoted earlier, that things, “though mutually opposed, at the same time are mutually indispensable,” may also be interpreted as an illustration of Hegelian dialectic....’ So we must not think that there is no underlying unity to reality. That there is no Creator is, I take it, put forth to ward off the type of superstitious religious explanations for things that Mo Tzu tried to use to bolster his system.”

“In number 20 Kuo says, ‘When a person loves fame and is fond of supremacy and is not satisfied even when he has broken his back in the attempt, it is due to the fact that human knowledge knows no limit. Therefore what is called knowledge is born of losing sight of what is proper and will be eliminated when one is in silent harmony with his ultimate capacity. Being silently in harmony with one’s ultimate capacity means allowing one’s lot to reach its highest degree, and [in the case of lifting weights] not adding so much as an ounce. Therefore though a person carries ten thousand pounds, if it is equal to his capacity he will suddenly forget the weight upon his body.’”

“This isn’t just Taoist either. I think almost any philosopher would hold a similar outlook. It amounts to ‘nothing in excess’ and would be applauded by Plato as support for his views in the Republic on education and finding the employment best suited for each citizen.”

“In number 21 he maintains, ‘ Where does gain or loss, life or death, come in? Therefore, if one lets what he has received from Nature take its own course, there will be no place for joy or sorrow.’”

“This is a little more than human! The sage qua sage may understand this, but it is difficult to believe that qua human it would be possible to be completely exempt from all feelings of joy and sorrow. After all, Chuang Tzu, when his wife died, felt sorrow and his drum beating only meant that he did not give in to despair. And Confucius , the sage par excellence, mourned for Yen Hui.”

“I think the following, number 24, could be used to justify the extension of public education. Any Confucian would be able to subscribe to it. ‘When a thousand people gather together without a person as their leader, they will either be disorderly or disorganized. Therefore when there are many virtuous people, there should not be many rulers, but when there is no virtuous person, there should be a ruler.’”

“I agree Fred. Education leads to virtue, therefore the more educated people are the less a “leader” is needed-- i.e., a Hobbesian absolutist type leader.”

“In number 25 he says, ‘Things happen by necessity, and principle, of course, prevails at all times. Therefore if we leave things alone, they will accomplish their purpose.’”

“A scientific outlook if our goal is to understand the world. We get in trouble when we try to change it. The problem is it just cries out to be changed! At least humans think so. How can we leave things alone since it appears to be our principle to change things?”

“Perhaps we have to think of the problems that cry out for change doing so as a result of a previous disruption of principle. Reforms, even revolutions, are only attempts to reestablish principle-- at least in the social world.”

“A worthy thought, Fred.”

“Do you find any problem with the following? It is number 28. ‘The principles of things are from the very start correct. None can escape from them. Therefore a person is never born by mistake, and what he is born with is never an error. Although heaven and earth are vast and the myriad things are many, the fact that I happen to be here is not something that spiritual beings of heaven and earth, sages and worthies of the land, and people of extreme strength or perfect knowledge can violate.... Therefore if we realize that our nature and destiny are what they should be, we will have no anxiety and will be at ease with ourselves in the face of life or death, prominence or obscurity, or an infinite amount of changes and variations, and will be in accord with principle.’”

Well, lets think of a person born with a birth ‘defect’-- no arms, or only a brain stem, or something like that. Would Kuo really want to say ‘what he is born with is never an error,’ that principles ‘are from the very start correct?’”

“I guess not Karl. Maybe Kuo didn’t think this through?”

“And maybe he did!”

What do you mean?”

“I mean, using modern examples, think of the laws of genetics and heredity. These are principles of the transmission of inherited characteristics and also of the effects of outside influences on the genetic composition of DNA-- say exposure to radiation or certain chemicals. It is not by a ‘mistake’ that deformed or ‘defective’ animals are born. They are ‘defective’ only in relation to our expectations and social constructions of ‘perfection.’ In reality, the li, the principles, are always correct. A certain combination of genes, or exposure to chemicals, etc., will result in, for example, only a brain stem. That is just as much a regular feature of development as the frequency of having blue eyes. This is why, with respect to the li, Kuo says, ‘None can escape from them.’ It is not an error that a birth defect occurs! If we don’t want them we had better understand the li involved and clean up the environment and/or the gene pool.”

“It seems like this requires too much action on the part of a Taoist. What happened to the drifting boat?”

“Well, what if while you are drifting along you see rapids and a water fall coming into view? Li will take you right over Niagara. I think even Kuo would start to row his boat. That too ‘will be in accord with principle.’”

“And Chan’s comment is: ‘Determinism and fatalism are here explained in terms of principle and correctness. Fate is not something merely beyond human control or understanding; it is necessary truth. Nowhere else in Chinese thought is it asserted so strongly.’”

“Fate and determinism are always difficult concepts to reconcile with our ideas of choice and freedom. Life and death may be ‘determined,’ but you still don’t let your children play in traffic.”

“This is from number 29. ‘To cry as people cry is a manifestation of the mundane world. To identify life and death, forget joy and sorrow, and be able to sing in the presence of the corpse is the perfection of the transcendental world.... Therefore principle has its ultimate, and the transcendental and the mundane world are in silent harmony with each other. There has never been a person who has roamed over the transcendental world to the utmost and yet was not silently in harmony with the mundane world, nor has there been anyone who was silently in harmony with the mundane world and yet did not roam over the transcendental world. Therefore the sage always roams in the transcendental world in order to enlarge the mundane world.’”

“This only makes sense, Fred, if we think of the ‘transcendental world’ not in some mystic sense as ‘another world’ but rather as the world of li. Take Einstein as an example. The mundane world is the world we all share in common-- work, social relations, politics, etc. But the ‘transcendental world’ is the world revealed by physics and mathematics-- what is ‘really’ going on behind the scenes: E=mc2 and all that. So there is nothing supernatural about it.”

“Chan has a comment on this passage.”

“Let’s hear it”

“OK: ‘As pointed out before, neither Wang Pi nor Kuo Hsiang considered Lao Tzu a sage. Instead, their sage was Confucius. This is amazing, but the reason is really not far to seek. For to Kuo Hsiang, especially, the ideal person is a sage who is “sagely within and kingly without” and who travels in both the transcendental and mundane worlds. According to the Neo-Taoists, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu traveled only in the transcendental world and were thereby one-sided, whereas Confucius was truly sagely within and kingly without.’”

“Interesting, but I don’t think it entirely true, at least with regard to Chuang Tzu. I think he too traveled in the mundane world, he just didn’t focus on it-- it wasn’t his ultimate concern. As for Confucius, well he didn’t pay that much attention to the transcendental world ( the metaphysical aspects of li). He had little interest in metaphysical speculation (science) as his concerns were primarily practical. So I think for the Neo-Taoists, whatever their considerable virtues may have been, accurate historical understanding of their predecessors may not have been one of them.”

“Here is some political philosophy from number 34. ‘If the ruler does the work of his ministers, he will no longer be the ruler, and if the ministers control the ruler’s employment, they will no longer be ministers. Therefore when each attends to his own responsibility, both ruler and the ruled will be contented and the principle of taking no action is attained. We must not fail to discern the term “taking no action.” In ruling an empire, there is the activity of ruling. It is called “taking no action” because the activity is spontaneous and follows the nature of things. And those who serve the empire also do so spontaneously. In the case of ministers managing affairs, even Shun and Yu, as ministers, would still be regarded as taking action. Therefore when the superior and inferior are contrasted, the ruler is tranquil and the minister is active.... But in each case they allowed their nature to work and their destiny to unfold itself in its wonderful way. Thus neither the superior not the inferior, neither antiquity nor the later period takes any action. Who then will?’”

“We must always remember to keep in mind that ‘taking no action’ means ‘no unnatural action.’”

“And number 35. ‘The past is not in the present and every present event is soon changed. Therefore only when one abandons the pursuit of knowledge and lets Nature take its own course, and changes with the times, can one be perfect.’”

“Well, Fred, we just have to disagree here. The li are always operative and the effects of the past are in the present. Who could deny that the past of China-- its feudalism, its victimization by the West in the last couple of centuries, its invasion by Japan in World War II, is responsible for and still influences the Communist Revolution and the present day actions of the Chinese government? Kuo is just off base on this. The past is transmitted in a myriad of ways not just in writings, and the answer to the question ‘can the past exist in the present’ is yes. As for abandoning the pursuit of knowledge, Kuo’s own model for the Sage, Confucius, is remembered for saying, ‘Is it not a pleasure to learn and to repeat or practice from time to time what has been learned/’ It is the first sentence of the Analects!”

“Finally, number 39. ‘Not only is it impossible for non-being to be changed into being. It is also impossible for being to become non-being. Therefore, although being as a substance undergoes infinite changes and transformations, it cannot in any instance become non-being....’”

“This must refer to ordinary ‘non-being’-- i.e, ‘from nothing, nothing comes’-- but not to ‘original non-being’ as the major Thesis of Neo-Taoism is that everything comes from original non-being-- i.e., pen-wu ‘pure being’.”

“Time for lunch Karl. Should we do another thinker this afternoon?”

“By all means. Buddhism was coming to China just after the development of Neo-Taoism, and I think we should discuss one of the most important early Chinese Buddhists-- namely, Chi-tsang.”

“OK. Now lets get some grub.”

Friday, February 20, 2009


Thomas Riggins

This month we actually celebrate two famous birthdays that were on February 12-- the 200th of both Darwin and Lincoln-- and this year is the 150th of ORIGIN OF SPECIES (it's two years younger than THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

The January/February issue of PHILOSOPHY NOW (issue 71) has an interesting article by Massimo Pigliucci (“The Evolution of Evolutionary Theory”) which points out that evolutionary theory itself has evolved-- it is now in the middle of its fourth stage, according to the author.

Briefly the stages are: 1. Pre-Darwin (from the ancient Greeks thru Lamarckism); 2. Darwin and the independent co-inventor- Alfred Russell Wallace based on “common descent and natural selection”; 3. ”The Modern Synthesis”-- Darwin didn’t know about genes, so he couldn’t really explain the mechanism by which natural selection took place: Mendel’s discovery of genetics was used to create the modern theory of Darwinian evolution---J.B.S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Julian Huxley, George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, and others; 4. contemporary research is exploring new extensions of Darwinian thought in many directions but the Standard Synthesis is still the basic model.

Pigliucci thinks “Darwin’s chief contribution to humanity” is that he demolished any notion of intelligent design with respect to the origins of species-- natural selection is random in the sense that it is not planned.

Pigliucci denies that it is random, saying naturally selected traits “are in the direction of an improved ability of the organisms to function in their environment.” I’m not sure that “direction” is the right word to use. This is probably just a quibble over wording.

What is important is that Darwin allows us, To abandon a supernaturalist view of life on earth in favor of explanations based on natural causes...” Evolution is as firmly fixed as the basis of scientific knowledge in the biological sciences as is mathematics in the physical sciences. Darwin ranks with Marx, Newton and Einstein ( as well as many others) who have shaped the modern scientific world outlook.

However, after reading about Darwin, it is is necessary to point out the following problem, at least for Americans. Checking the internet, I discovered that about 60% of Americans reject Darwinian evolution. That is an enormous number of scientifically illiterate and uneducated people to have in our population at this time of world crisis.

We will need scientific solutions to the economic and environmental problems facing us. In our society these will only be arrived at through democratic consent. With such a large number of clueless people voting we will have many elected officials at all levels who are, quite frankly, nincompoops. They will be used by antisocial and anti-working class forces to hinder needed reforms and changes.

Already we have seen these forces at work cutting funds for education from Obama's stimulus package, funding groups who deny global warming, and trying to tone down science teaching in the public schools.

Our society is in evolution right now, with the possibility of a qualitative progressive leap forward. We will have to keep vigilant and fight for every program that furthers human education and the study of science and fight against all those who, in the name or religion (or anything else such as "fiscal responsibility") try to hamper this goal.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Weather Makers (6)


Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

Part 6

Lets look at just some of the problems we create by burning coal, according to the scientific evidence in Flannery's book.

There are wee bits of dust and particulate matter that drifts in the atmosphere. They are called aerosols. Coal burning plants in the U.S. now pump so many aerosols into the atmosphere that they kill about 60,000 people per year in this country alone (increased mortality thru lung diseases). Lung cancer rates are higher around areas with coal burning plants.

Aerosols also influence "global dimming." This is a phenomenon whereby
less sunlight can reach the earth. Soot aerosols, along with jet trails, reflect sunlight back into space cooling the earth. But we are putting so much CO2 into the air that the heat being trapped is greater than the heat being reflected into space. Therefore the earth is warming up. The only thing that can prevent an ecological disaster is to start removing CO2 from the air (which we have not figured out how to do in any meaningful way).

If we stopped putting CO2 into the air today the CO2 already there will continue to heat the earth for decades. So, we are facing a big problem.

Here are some interesting statements from Flannery. It seems that if all new greenhouse gasses were immediately stopped from entering the air, the ones already in the air would continue to heat up the planet until 2050 or so. Then the atmosphere would stabilize at a new higher annual temperature. But we are no way near halting our polluting ways! In fact, we should note that "half the energy" we have burned since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been burned in just the last 20 years. So our polluting is becoming more intense.

Here is what we have to do to stabilize the climate around 2100-- we would need to reduce CO2 by 70% of the 1990 level by 2050. Then we would have CO2 at 450 parts per million. Flannery thinks it more realistic to aim at 550 parts per million with climate stabilization "centuries from now." The earth would end up around 5.4 degrees F [or 3 C] hotter by 2100 than it is now.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change says we must prevent "dangerous" climate change. So what constitutes dangerous climate change? It seems the consensus is about 2 degrees C-- anything over that may lead to disaster. So 2C is the most we can stand for, and if we get to work NOW we may still get 3C by 2100, the outlook is not so hot (no pun intended).

"Earth's average temperature," Flannery writes, "is around 59 degrees F, and whether we allow it to rise by a single degree or 5 degrees F will decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of species, and most probably billions of people."

Besides oceans, rain forests and coral reefs, the world's mountains are also experiencing rapid change. You can forget the snows of Kilimanjaro and the glaciers of New Guinea. The CO2 already in the atmosphere has doomed them and they will be gone in just a few decades.

As the earth warms the mountain habitat changes and animals who were lower down on the mountain move to the top while the topmost species go extinct. We are now in the process of losing mountain gorillas, panda bears and many plant species.

Flannery says some species benefit from global warming. The Anopheles mosquito is spreading and the malaria parasites it spreads will soon be infecting "tens of thousands of people without any resistance to the disease."

Obama's stimulus bill, whatever else it does, may be a boon for malaria parasites. It contains one billion dollars for the coal industry to help develop "clean coal" [there is no such animal] which fosters the illusion that we can survive without closing down the coal industry itself.

We can't save everything, but scientists think if we start taking strong action now we will ONLY lose one third of all existing species on earth. If we don't take action, then by 2100 we will have doomed 60% of existing species to extinction. Is burning coal and other fossil fuels really worth it?

Don't think calculations have not been made. Economists working for the UN in conjunction with the World Meteorological Association have done calculations that concluded it was too expensive to really halt climate change. The rich nations will be able to deal with it. The billions of poor in the Third World will be the ones to suffer but, the economists calculated that the life of a poor person was "worth only a fifteenth of that of a rich person." It is just not cost effective, according to them, to try and save the poor. At this point I wish Flannery would refer to Marxism, but alas he seems not to be a Marxist.

More grim news to come!

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Thomas Riggins

based on THE WEEK 2-20-09

Geithner’s bank rescue went over like a lead balloon. It was short on specifics and long on generalities and had no new positions to offer. The Week quotes Chicago Investment manager Peter Cook who observed the government said it was “going to do something bold and new, and it [Geithner’s speech] was neither bold nor new.” The Wall Street Journal pointed out the new plan looked like an echo of what Bush and Paulson wanted to do-- buy the toxic assets of the banks.

Why not just nationalize the banks and admit that capitalism can no longer function, if it ever did, for the public good?

Governments around the world will be forced to take socialist measures to get out of this depression-- any other actions will just patch the system up until the next crash.

Robert Kuttner (USA TODAY) says the truth is “Several of America’s biggest banks are insolvent.” How much cash will it take to correct that-- can it be corrected short of nationalization? Geithner’s proposals will only keep them running along while their assets go down the rat hole of bad debts.

What Kuttner suggests, according to The Week is “that ‘It would be far cleaner and more efficient’ for the government to ‘take over the large banks, clean out their balance sheets,’ and then sell them back to the private sector.”

Sell them back? Didn’t the private sector cause this mess in the first place? The whole argument for capitalism is that it is more efficient and runs the economy better than state ownership and socialism can.

But we have never had socialism in an advanced first world industrial state so we don’t know what it can or cannot do. But we have had capitalism and it has produced this current mess-- and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg.

No, I don’t think we should sell the banks back to the same private sector which ruined them in the first place. If it takes the government to keep things going then the government should just keep them permanently.

The banks should be seen as public institutions run by the government to provide loans at reasonable rates and to help people, not as means to generate profits for a few capitalists at the expense of all the rest of us.

Geithner has too many ties to the old moribund Wall Street gangs, he should be replaced by someone who will boldly go where no capitalist has gone before.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Thomas Riggins

Two articles in SCIENCE DAILY online, five years apart, [“New Research Provides The First Solid Evidence That The Study of Music Promotes Intellectual Development” April 20, 2004 & “Adolescents Involved With Music Do Better In School” Feb. 11, 2009] should tell all people interested in the education of children what position to take when arguments are made to cut music programs in the school systems.

It is music and art that are often the first cut for budgetary reasons. The excuse is that they are not as fundamental as math and science. These articles show however that music at least is just as basic as it can be because without it many students will not reach their full intellectual potential and will thus do poorly in math, science, English, and other cognitive subjects.

The science is this. In the first study children who took keyboard lessons or singing lessons who were given IQ tests pre and post the lessons (just one year of lessons!) showed a jump in their IQ scores compared to children who did not get the lessons.

The second study showed that children taking music lessons and who were taken to concerts by their parents were positively effected in their reading and math scores. It also showed, and here is where school programs come in, that “socioeconomic status and ethnicity affect music participation.”

The study showed that “certain groups are disadvantaged in access to music education.” Young Hispanic and Black children are “less likely to take music lessons” than are Whites and Asians.” Family income is a factor.

Whites and Asians are more likely to get private music lessons than Hispanics and Blacks due to income disparity. What this means is that when a school distinct cuts its music program it is deliberately deciding to sacrifice the intellectual development of Black and Hispanic poor children and to make them less intellectually competitive with Whites and Asians. Music classes in schools are absolutely essential to bring about racial equally and to further democratic participation in our society.

Parents should be alert to the fact that any attempt to cut music education, or not to provide it in the first place, is a conscious racist attack on Black and Hispanic people not just a simple budget cut.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009



Thomas Riggins

Need I even pose the question under our economic system? The tainted milk scandal in China answered the question with regard to the “socialist” market economy, as did the peanut butter scandal here in the U.S.A. But these scandals were sub rosa, as it were. Capitalist purists can claim these scandals were the result of greedy people going behind the backs of society to engage in their evil deeds. So here is a better example of how children rate under capitalism. Shamelessly out in public the capitalists openly petition the U.S. Congress to let them poison children with toxic substances in order to make bigger profits.

I am referring to the information in a Wall Street Journal article of 2-10-2009: “Retailers Urge Rollback of Children’s Safety Law.” The law in question limits the amount of phthalates [toxic chemicals] and lead content in children’s toys. Phthalates cause developmental disorders in small children and infants. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act mandates new standards for these substances in children toys-- not only for new toys, but ones still in inventory.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association knows it can’t sell future toys that don’t meet the new standards, but the toxic play things for the kiddies that they already have on hand they want to sell off. Big companies such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Sears, J. C. Penny and Best Buy are all members of the RILA. They must have many bins of toxic toys they want to sell.

With reference to these banned toxins, Stephanie Leste, a vice president at RILA, is quoted as saying, “There’s a lot of it out there; it’s on the store shelves, in the warehouses and distribution centers.”

Well, it's up to Congress to decide. Save big bucks for the retailers [“hundreds of millions of dollars”] and expose millions of the nation's children to lead poisoning and developmental disorders, or leave the retailers stuck with their toxic products. At least this time they asked.

Monday, February 09, 2009


Thomas Riggins

I ran across an interesting quote from Frederick Douglass the other day in The Week (2-13-09) regarding Abraham Lincoln. Douglass said. “From a genuine abolition point of view, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent. But measuring him by the sentiment of his country--- a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult--- he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Here it looks like Lincoln represents a unity of opposites in his own person. Lets place Lincoln in his time. With regard to slavery we can postulate three possible positions. The defense of slavery is one position. The absolute negation of slavery-- “the genuine abolition point of view” is the counter position to the first. And a third position which combines elements of the two previous positions. This third position would incorporate the view that slavery should be gradually eliminated but not abruptly ended all at once and everywhere.

From the point of view of the progressive development of mankind the first position was, in Lincoln’s day, reactionary and untenable. Its historical manifestation was the Confederacy. The “genuine abolition point of view” was the philosophically and morally correct position. Its historical manifestation was the radical abolition movement-- which was a small minority movement relative to total non slave population in the U.S.

Was the third position represented by the Emancipation Proclamation-- freeing some slaves but not all the slaves? Is this what seemed dull and tardy from the point of view of Absolute Truth (to use an Hegelian expression) but was zealous and radical from the point of view of existing reality?

When Douglass uses the expression “the sentiment of his country” what can he mean except that the consciousness of the American (white) people at the time was thoroughly imbrued with racism. To this consciousness Lincoln’s actions seemed radical and zealous.

This consciousness “was bound” to be consulted. Does this mean it was not possible for Lincoln to have been more “radical” than he in fact was-- i.e., that the Emancipation Proclamation was in fact the Truth of the other two propositions? Was the proclamation the best you could get in the “real world?”

A further question is if the Emancipation Proclamation would have been possible at all without the radical abolition movement? Was the historical role of the “genuine abolition movement” not to actually come to power but to make it possible for the American consciousness to accept the actions of Lincoln?

If that is so, are there any lessons for today about the role of Marxism and its relation to the consciousness of the American people to be learned from Frederick Douglass’s remarks about Abraham Lincoln?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Super Bowl

We are bombing and killing children and yelling and shouting about the Super Bowl. What a wonderful ciivilzation we represent.

Good Economic News

Thomas Riggins

With the economy tanking, unemployment growing, businesses going under, and whole segments of the economy in crisis, automotive, banking, retail sales, etc., I am happy to report that one area is still prospering. Under Democrats or Republicans, in good times or bad, in peace time or war time, this area will never lack in profit making. It is of course the Military-Industrial Complex. The headline in the 1-30-09 Wall Street Journal says it all: “Military Contractors Expect to Avoid Defense-Spending Cuts”, by August Cole.

Cole writes, “Even as companies across the U.S. are laying off thousands of workers, defense (sic) companies expect to maintain much of the momentum they built up during the Bush administration’s sharp increase in weapons spending.” There is never a slack in demand for war and killing, no matter who runs the good old USA.

The warlords are gambling that Obama won’t cut any weapons programs (lets hope they are wrong) since “they are propping up” employment and manufacturing. Manufacturing plants that make useful items that people really need are closing, but plants making weapons are still doing well. The WSJ reports that RAYTHEON and L-3 COMMUNICATIONS HOLDINGS have no plans to lay off workers (73 and 64 thousand people respectively). LOCKHEED MARTIN had “the best year” ever in 2008.

But the good times may not last. The economic collapse will sooner or later begin to impinge on the defense budget. But this may only concern new programs. There are plenty of meaty programs in the pipeline to feed the beast for years to come. General Dynamics CEO Nicholas Chabraja says, “I can’t imagine, based on the rumblings I’ve heard or the situation in the economy, that they’re going to be looking to cut in-production programs.” BOEING alone has $73 billion dollars in back logged contracts to feast upon. LOCKHEED is looking forward to its share of the $300 billion coming down the line for the new F-35 fighter.

So it’s nice to know we have a prospering sector of the U.S. economy. Now if only the government would close it down and spend all that money on people friendly useful programs we could really be happy.