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CREATIVE HERMENEUTICS APPLIED TO THE GREAT LEARNING
Charles Wei-hsun Fu (1994?)

One of the most significant and clear-cut examples of the hermeneutical task in the Confucian tradition are the two entirely different approaches to the text, the Great Learning (Da Xue), adopted by the two outstanding Neo-Confucian thinkers, Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) and Wang Yang-ming. On the surface, their respective conclusions regarding the textual authenticity of the Great Learningresult in different hermeneutical readings of the text, involving the Neo-Confucian controversy over which of the two philosophical theories¡ªnature is principle or mind is principle¡ªis correct.

Seemingly entering the discussion at the first stage, Wang Yang-ming was highly critical of Zhu Xi's textual reconstruction of the Great Learning:

The ancient text of the Great Learning was the old edition transmitted in the Confucian tradition. Zhu Xi suspected that there must be some textual errors and tried to correct them, but I think that the existing edition involves no mistakes and therefore I have followed the old edition. The tradition has been transmitted for more than one thousand year. On what basis was Zhu Xi able to judge that this section must be placed in this section and that one placed in this section? How could he know what section is missing and what section is to be amended?

Following Zhong-yi's (Chung-i) view, Zhu Xi thought the order of the text was wrong and therefore attempted to reorganize it, dividing it into chapters and sections. He considered the first seven sections to constitute the original text while the remaining ten represented commentaries. At the same time he changed the phrase "jin-min (chin-min)" (to love the people) into "xin-min (hsin-min)" (to renew the people). In contrast, Wang Yang-ming stated in "Inquiry into the Great Learning" that the ancient edition of the Great Learning is authentic. Based on this assumption and his own interpretation of the text's intended meaning he claims that the phrase ¡®zhi-zhi (chih-chih)' does not mean extension of knowledge, but rather the attainment of liang-zhi (liang-chih), the mind's innate knowledge of the good. All of the first five of the eight steps listed in the Great Learning, says Wang Yang- ming, in fact refer to the same thing.

Initial appearances suggest that Wang Yang-ming's hermeneutical approach in terms of the mind is principle is based on his faith in the reliability of the ancient edition. From the standpoint of creative hermeneutics, however, this is a rather superficial understanding. Wang Yang-ming also says that whatever is unclear must be tested within the mind in order to be clarified. The intended meanings of the Four Books and Five Classics, he argues, all refer to this mind substance. He also said that the six classics simply document the invariable way of one's mind. Therefore, to the creative hermeneutician Wang Yang-ming the real hermeneutical task is how to dig out the deeper philosophical meaning of Confucian thought. Thus, Wang Yang-ming was already at the fourth stage, harboring his own existential "prejudice," to borrow Gadamer's term, about how to interpret the true meaning of the Great Learning. Although he never completely challenged the textual authority of the Confucian classics, neither textual authenticity nor original meaning are not his true concerns.

In fact, as a creative hermeneutician and thinker Wang Yang-ming actually starts at the fifth stage with the question of how to creatively develop Confucian thought. He has no interest in the other four stages, but assumes his own interpretation to justify what the text should say, then simply transposes that assumption to the first two stages that deal with intended meaning. Zhu Xi, in following Zhong-yi's nature is principle doctrine, is seeking to correct the errors in the ancient texts. Hence he also seems to progress through the stages, but, like Wang Yang-ming, he begins his progress with an unquestioned assumption, in this case that nature is principle. Both misunderstand the nature of their own tasks.

Another example concerns one of the most important sentences in the Analects (Lun Yu) of Confucius. This case does not involve any problems of authenticity, which is unquestioned, but rather of meaning and intention. The sentence is as follows: "What is called ren is to restrain oneself and return to li." In Professor Ho Ping-ti's recent essay, "The True Interpretation of `to restrain oneself and return to li': An Initial Critique of Contemporary Neo- Confucianist Tu Wei-ming's Method of Academic Studies" he states that the true interpretation ("the intended meaning") should be that to restrain oneself is to control one's desire, by observing the li system of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty meticulously. Self-restraint is a prerequisite for the return to li. But, the order of li cannot be restored if the political leaders are unable to restrain themselves, hence "to restrain oneself and return to li" primarily is concerns the behavior of political leaders, that is, demands that they follow the system of li of the Zhou and maintain a level of moral self-awareness in practicing humane government.

Based on this "the true interpretation" (zhen-quan/chen-ch'¨¹an), Ho criticizes Tu's hermeneutical identification of self-restraint and personal cultivation. Tu overemphasizes the positive aspect of personal cultivation to such an extent that he completely ignores the original negative meaning of self-restraint as self-control. Continuing his criticism Ho says:

from the beginning he [Tu] wants to transform the meaning of li as strong restraint of the moral and spiritual power issuing from the mind of ren. Therefore in theory he felt there was a tension between ren and li. As soon as he had completely dismissed the primal aspect of li in terms of restraint and overextended the meaning of personal cultivation to imply self-realization, jen and li were equated and li then becomes the externalization of the Confucian theory of ren. As far as the historical development of the Confucian theory of jen and li is concerned, what he has attempted is definitely a mistake.

In response to Ho's harsh criticism, Tu replies that he is not opposed to Ho's interpretation, but that he wants to point out that Confucius' notion of self-restraint should not simply mean that one ought to make every effort to eliminate one's own physical desires. On the contrary, it means (or implies) that one ought to gratify one's own desire in the context of ethics and morality. In fact, the notion of self-restraint and personal cultivation are closely related and merge in moral practice.

The misunderstanding that concerns me in this case is the simplification of self-restraint as a matter of asceticism in the religious context, based on the above hermeneutical debate between Ho and Tu centering on the sentence "to restrain oneself and return to li." Ho's insistence on the existence of the hermeneutically objective original meaning, namely the intended meaning at the second stage of the sentence, presented his own "true interpretation" and the sole objective and incontrovertible intended meaning of the sentence, demonstrates that Ho does not understand the higher stages of creative hermeneutics beyond intended meanings.

On the other hand, Tu does not acknowledge the existence of the sole intended meaning of the sentence. He is attempting to move upward from the second to the third stage in order to search for various possible philosophical meanings or implications of the sentence. Furthermore, emphasizing the positive self-cultivational meaning or implication of the notion of self- restraint, and even identifying the meaning of these two, seems to suggest that Tu's hermeneutical approach from its inception involves Gadamer's sense of "prejudice." To point out that "to restrain oneself and return to li" should mean self-realization by way of personal cultivation is hermeneutically far superior to what Ho has insisted upon, namely the "intended meaning" in terms of self-control. Evaluating these two hermeneutical interpretations from the standpoint of creative hermeneutics, it can be said that Ho simply and stubbornly tries to hold on to the intended meaning stage without understanding Tu's hermeneutical intention to move from the second stage to the third and fourth stages.

A third example involves the autobiographical note of Confucius in the Analects: "my mind was set on learning at the age of thirteen; I established myself at thirty; I was free from perplexity at forty; I realized the Mandate of Heaven at fifty; my ears became smooth (receptive) at sixty; at seventy I followed what my mind/heart (xin/hsin) desired without overstepping the boundary of right." At the second stage intended meaning opens the door to the third stage, since no single interpretation can adequately encompass the possibilities. Hence, we can pass by level two.

The most important level here is four, which justifies the hierarchy of stages. The hermeneutical importance of understanding which age is the most crucial in the passage reveals the deep structure beneath surface of the note as a whole. In the early Confucianism of Xun Zi (Hs¨¹n Tzu), the emphasis may well rest on the age of forty, highlighting the intellectual nature of an end to perplexity. For Zhu Xi, who approximates the gradual approach of Chan, stress may fall on the last age of seventy, based on the spontaneity of moral practice. Wang Yang-ming, who parallels the sudden approach in Chan and identifies means and end, effort (gong fu/kung fu) and original functioning of mind, may well argue that the first sentence is the point of realization. In accordance with Creative Hermeneutics, at the fourth stage Confucius should stress the age of fifty, as this constitutes the most crucial turning point in the life process, a moral-religious experience.

To justify any "should-meaning" in the autobiographical note we have no choice but to move onward to the highest, fifth stage, where the creative hermeneutician as creative thinker must extend Confucian thought to new dimensions. This would include Zhu Xi's concept of nature is principle, Wang Yang-ming's mind is principle, and my own trans-secular religious experience of Heaven and its Mandate in primal Confucianism (if not in Neo-Confucian philosophy) as the ultimate basis for Confucian ethics and morality in the secular world.

From the standpoint of Creative Hermeneutics, interpretations vie with one another, and in doing so give rise to creative thinking. The categories of could and should require the highest level for their justification. A clear-cut division between the various levels must be made, with a dynamic, hierarchical movement characterized by dialectical open-endedness.

Creative Hermeneutics qualifies as creative only because the hermeneutician, as a creative thinker, living under new historical conditions, must continue to raise new issues and new questions concerning the theories of the past. In the case of Confucian hermeneutics, it is of the utmost importance to critically inherit Confucian thought and culture, by inquiring into the deeper meanings and potential meanings of its texts. We must encounter the texts with a creative spirit, introducing new viewpoints and new understandings beyond stages two through four.

For example many sayings of Confucius in the Analects emerge as problematic when set against the background of the modern day:

"It can be said to be filial piety if one does not alter the way of the father for three years."

"One does not know life; how can one know death?"

"The people can be made to follow, not to know."

"One appears when the Way is manifested in the world, and secludes himself when the Way is not manifested."

"The father screens the son's transgressions and the son screens the father's transgressions. The virtue of uprightness exists here."

"Female servants and small persons are hard to handle. If you are familiar with them, they forget their positions. But if you keep them at a distance, they are harbor resentment."

Obviously these sentiments cannot be transposed into contemporary culture in their present form without modification. If Confucius were with us here and now, how would he explain these observations in such a way as to make them applicable to modern conditions? To answer this question we must go beyond the first four stages to make the meanings relevant in light of feminism, thanatological studies, and all other intervening developments. The other option is to simply ignore these remarks, and consign them to the realm of irrevocably irrelevant.

To conclude, I have attempted to demonstrate the applicability of Creative Hermeneutics and suggest to contemporary scholars that it is a sine qua non for the future development of academic Confucianism (academic studies of Confucianism). The methodological construction of Confucian hermeneutics remains an urgent task for present and future generations of scholars.