The concept of nature (tzu jan) in Kuo Hsiang and its antecedents
AbstractKuo Hsiang (d. A.D. 312) stands at the threshold of a
major change in Chinese intellectual history. He is one
of the last great figures in the mainstream of Chinese
thought before the introduction of Buddhist ideas. He
also stands at the end of a half-century of lively
intellectual ferment, and might be seen as the capstone of
this mini-epoch. He is usually regarded as one who tried
to synthesize the polarities of naturalism and conformism
in the late third century. He achieved this synthesis in
part by using the term tzu jan, conceiving it as the most
fundamental reality knowable to man. Thus he borrowed a term
rich in meaning for the naturalists and built an ontology
which must have pleased the conformists in its approval of
The naturalists of the third century popularized the expression tzu jan through a revival of the study of the Lao tzu and the Chuang tzu. Yet in this pre-Han literature tzu jan is not a major concept, and it is certainly not merely on the basis of renewed interest in these texts that this expression became paramount in the third century. Rather the naturalists are heirs to developments in the Han dynasty, primarily the thought of the skeptical rationalist Wang Ch'ung
and that of the Huai nan tzu, a collection of Taoist writings
from the late second century B.C.
This is how the thesis is organized. In Chapter I the
problem is defined. There is a brief analysis of the term
tzu jan, showing some of its potential uses. It is then
compared with a Western concept of nature in which nature is
seen as virtually equivalent to law. All the occurrences of
tzu jan in pre-Han philosophical literature are analyzed and
two fundamental uses are discovered. First, since tzu jan
literally means "so-by-self", it may be used to indicate
independence. When applied to things cosmically universal, such as the Tao, tzu jan is a mark of a religious absolute. Secondly, when applied to creatures, tzu jan indicates the natural state of things, that is, creatures as they exist without interference from other creatures.
Chapter II deals with the literature of the Han dynasty. In the Huai nan tzu, there is a joining together of these two themes of pre-Han literature. The natural state of creatures is given the attributes of independence and reliability. Tzu jan became the indicator or guarantee of the more general Taoist understanding that the natural state of creatures is the means of gaining knowledge of the Tao. Wang Ch'ung added the idea that tzu jan also implied self-production. Wang made tzu jan an attribute of ch'i, the fundamental substance of the universe. Chapter III deals with the transition from the Han dynasty to the Wei-Chin period. The Taoist texts of the Hsiang-erh commentary on the Lao tzu and the T'ai-p'ing ching take the step of making tzu jan an attribute of the Tao itself, on a par with terms like void or origin. In the Wei-Chin period, Wang Pi used tzu jan to indicate the most fundamental characteristic or highest point of the realm of being. It is that in the realm of being which refers beyond itself to the realm of non-being, or the Tao. Juan Chi virtually substitutes the concept of tzu jan for Tao, making it the limitless, natural basis for all reality. Hsiang Hsiu also tried to make tzu jan an ultimate principle, but failed to reconcile the notion of self-production implied by tzu jan with the concept of Tao as origin.
Chapter IV deals with the thought of Kuo Hsiang. Kuo rejected the realm of non-being as the origin of reality. Being was seen as an entirely self-sufficient, self-existing realm. Although virtually rejecting the concept of Tao, Kuo Hsiang retained the Taoist sense of natural action as more fundamental than contrived action, viewing tzu jan as a virtual equivalent of cosmic law, the principle under which all reality operates.
Chapter V concludes the thesis, summarizing Kuo's dependence on the Han dynasty and proposing three theoretical patterns to understand Kuo. He is analyzed as both a skeptic and a mystic, and a general comparison is made between his type of thinking and the European theme of the a priori.
Arts, Faculty of
Asian Studies, Department of