Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

East Asian philosophy


East Asian philosophy

Sinitic civilization, which includes the Chinese-influenced cultures of Japan and Korea, established an early lead over the rest of the world in the development of its material culture – textiles, iron casting, paper, maritime arts, pottery, soil sciences, agricultural and water technologies, and so on. For centuries after the first sustained incursions of Europe into East Asia, there were more books printed in the classical Chinese language – the ‘Latin’ of East Asia – than in all of the rest of the world’s languages combined. As recently as the beginning of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, it was China rather than Europe which, by most standards, was the arbiter of science and civilization on this planet.

If ‘philosophy’– the pursuit of wisdom – is an aspiration of high cultures generally, why then was it not until the late nineteenth century, in response to a growing relationship with Western learning, that an East Asian term for ‘philosophy’ was coined, first by the Japanese (tetsugaku), and then introduced into Chinese (zhexue) and Korean (ch’ôlhak)? If it would be absurd to suggest that East Asian cultures have no history, no sociology, no economics, then how do we explain the fact that Asian philosophy is a subject neither researched nor taught in most Anglo-European seats of higher learning?

1 Uncommon assumptions, common misconceptions

The prominent French sinologist Jacques Gernet (1985) argues that when the two civilizations of China and Europe, having developed almost entirely independently of each other, first made contact in about 1600, the seeming resistance of the Chinese to embracing Christianity and, more importantly, the philosophic edifice that undergirded it was not simply an uneasy difference in the encounter between disparate intellectual traditions. It was a far more profound difference in mental categories and modes of thought, and particularly, a fundamental difference in the conception of human agency. Much of what Christianity and Western philosophy had to say to the East Asians was, quite literally, nonsense – given their own philosophic commitments, they could not think it. In turn, the Jesuits interpreted this difference in ways of thinking quite specifically as ineptness in reasoning, logic and dialectic.

The West has fared little better in its opportunity to appreciate and to appropriate Sinitic culture. In fact, it has fared so badly that the very word ‘Chinese’ in the English language, found in illustrative expressions from ‘Chinese revenge’ and ‘Chinese puzzle’ to ‘Chinese firedrill’, came to denote ‘confusion’, ‘incomprehensibility’ or ‘impenetrability’, a sense of order inaccessible to the Western mind. The degree of difference between a dominant Western metaphysical sense of order and the historicist ‘aesthetic’ order prevalent in the radial Sinitic world view has plagued the encounter between these antique cultures from the start. When seventeenth-century European savants such as Leibniz and Wolff were looking to corroborate their universal indices in other high cultures – the one true God, impersonal rationality, a universal language – China was idealized as a remarkable and ‘curious land’ requiring the utmost scrutiny. In the course of time, however, reported on by philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, Mill and Emerson, Western esteem for this ‘curious land’ plummeted from such ‘Cathay’ idealizations to the depths of disaffection for the inertia of what, in the context of the Europe-driven industrial revolution, was recast as a moribund, backward-looking and fundamentally stagnant culture.

In classical Chinese there is an expression: ‘We cannot see the true face of Mount Lu because we are standing on top of it.’ Although virtually all cultural traditions and historical epochs are complex and diverse, there are certain fundamental and often unannounced assumptions on which they stand that give them their specific genetic identity and continuities. These assumptions, extraordinarily important as they are for understanding the cultural narrative, are often concealed from the consciousness of the participants in the culture who are inscribed by them, and become obvious only from a perspective external to the particular tradition or epoch. Often a tradition suspends within itself competing and even conflicting elements which, although at odds with one another, still reflect a pattern of importances integral to and constitutive of its cultural identity. These underlying strands are not necessarily or even typically logically coherent or systematic, yet they do have a coherence as the defining fabric of a specific and unique culture.

Looking at and trying to understand elements of the East Asian cultural narrative from the distance of Western traditions, then, embedded as we are within our own pattern of cultural assumptions, has both advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is obvious and inescapable. To the extent that we are unconscious of the difference between our own fundamental assumptions and those that have shaped the emergence of East Asian philosophies, we are sure to impose upon this geographical area our own presuppositions about the nature of the world, making what is exotic familiar and what is distant near. On the other hand, a clear advantage of an external perspective is that we are able to see with greater clarity at least some aspects of ‘the true face of Mount Lu’: we are able to discern, however imperfectly, the common ground on which the Confucian and the Buddhist stand in debating their differences, ground which is in important measure concealed from they themselves by their unconscious assumptions.

2 One-world natural cosmology

In the dominant world view of classical East Asia, we do not begin from the dualistic ‘two-world’ reality/appearance distinction familiar in classical Greek metaphysics, giving rise as it does to ontological questions such as: ‘What is the Being behind the beings?’ Rather, we begin from the assumption that there is only the one continuous concrete world that is the source and locus of all of our experience, giving rise to cosmological and ultimately ethical questions such as: ‘How do these myriad beings best hang together?’ Order within the classical East Asian world view is ‘immanental’ and ‘emergent’, an indwelling regularity in things themselves. It is the always unique yet continuous graining in wood, the distinctive striations in a piece of jade, the regular cadence of the surf, the peculiar veining in each and every leaf. The power of creativity resides in the world itself. The order and regularity this world evidences is neither derived from nor imposed upon it by some independent, activating power, but inheres in the world itself. Change and continuity are equally ‘real’; time itself is the persistence of this self-transformation.

The ‘one’ world, then, is the efficient cause of itself. Situation takes priority over agency; process and change take priority over form and stasis. The context itself is resolutely dynamic, autogenerative, self-organizing and, in a real sense, alive. This one world is constituted as a sea of qi, psychophysical energy that disposes itself in various concentrations, configurations and perturbations (see Qi). There is an intelligible pattern (see Li) that can be discerned and mapped from each different perspective within the world (see De) that is its dao, a ‘pathway’ which can, in varying degrees, be traced out to make one’s place and one’s context coherent (see Dao). Dao is, at any given time, both what the world is and how it is, always as entertained from some particular perspective or another. In this tradition, there is no final distinction between some independent source of order, and what it orders. There is no determinative beginning or presumptive teleological end. The world and its order at any particular time is self-causing, ‘so-of-itself’ (ziran) (see Chinese philosophy; Daoist philosophy; Daodejing; Zhuangzi). Truth, beauty and goodness as standards of order are not ‘givens’: they are historically emergent, something done, a cultural product. Given the priority of situation over agency, there is a continuity between nature and nurture, a mutuality between context and the human being. In such a world, it is not unexpected that the Yijing (Book of Changes) is the first among the ancient classics (see Yijing).

3 Ars contextualis: the art of contextualizing

The ‘two-world’ metaphysical order inherited out of classical Greece has given the Western tradition a theoretical basis for objectivity – the possibility of standing outside and taking a wholly external view of things – a ‘view from nowhere’. Objectivity is not only the basis for such universalistic claims as objective truth, impersonal reason and necessity, but further permits the decontextualization of things as ‘objects’ in our world. It is the basis on which we can separate objective description from subjective prescription.

By contrast, in the ‘one world’ of classical East Asia, instead of starting abstractly from some underlying, unifying and originating principle, one begins from one’s own specific place within the world. Without objectivity, ‘objects’ dissolve into the flux and flow, and existence becomes a continuous, uninterrupted process. Each person is invariably experiencing the world as one perspective within the context of many. Since there is only the one world, we cannot get outside of it. From the always unique place one occupies within the cosmos of classical East Asia, one construes and interprets the order of the world around one as contrasting ‘thises’ and ‘thats’– ‘this person’ and ‘that person’ – more or less proximate to oneself. Since each and every person or thing or event is perceived from some position or other, and hence is continuous with the position that entertains it, each thing is related to and a condition of every other.

In the human world, all relationships are continuous from ruler and subject to friend and friend, relating everyone as an extended ‘family’. Similarly, all ‘things’, like all members of a family, are correlated and thus interdependent. Every thing is holographic in entailing all other things as conditions for its continued existence, and is what it is at the pleasure of everything else. Whatever can be predicated of one thing or one person is a function of a network of relationships, all of which combine to give it its role and to constitute its place and its definition.

There is no strict notion of identity that issues forth as some essential defining feature – a divinely endowed soul, rational capacity or natural locus of rights – that makes all human beings equal. In the absence of such equality, the various relationships which define one thing in relation to another are qualitatively hierarchical and contrastive: bigger or smaller, more noble or more base, harder or softer, stronger or weaker, more senior or more junior. Change in the quality of relationships between things always occurs on a continuum as movement between such polar oppositions.

The general and most basic language for articulating such correlations among things is metaphorical: in some particular aspect at some specific point in time, one person or thing is ‘overshadowed’ by another; that is, made yin to another’s yang. Literally, yin means ‘shady’ and yang means ‘sunny’, defining in the most general terms those contrasting and hierarchical relationships which constitute indwelling order and regularity (see Yin–yang).

It is important to recognize the interdependence and correlative character of the yin–yang kind of polar opposites, and to distinguish this contrastive tension from the dualistic opposition implicit in the vocabulary of the classical Greek world, where one primary member of a set such as Being transcends and stands independent of, and thus is more ‘real’ than the world of Becoming. The implications of this difference between dualism and correlativity contrast are fundamental and pervasive.

To continue the ‘person’ example, generally in East Asian philosophy, a particular person is not a discrete individual defined in terms of some inherent nature, but is a centre of constitutive roles and relationships. These roles and relationships are dynamic, constantly being enacted, reinforced and ideally deepened through the multiple levels of natural, cultural and social discourse. By virtue of these specific roles and relationships, a person comes to occupy a place and posture in the context of family, community and world. The human being is not shaped by some given design which underlies natural and moral order in the cosmos, and which stands as the ultimate objective of human growth and experience. Rather, the ‘purpose’ of the human experience, if it can be so described, is more immediate; it is to coordinate the various ingredients which constitute one’s particular world here and now, and to negotiate the most productive harmony out of them. Simply put, it is to get the most out of what you have here and now.

4 Radial harmony

A major theme in Confucianism, foundational throughout East Asia, is captured in the phrase from Analects 13.23, ‘the exemplary person pursues harmony (ho), not sameness’ (see Confucian philosophy, Chinese; Confucian philosophy, Japanese; Confucian philosophy, Korean; Neo-Confucian philosophy). This conception of ‘harmony’ is explained in the classical commentaries by appeal to the culinary arts. In the classical period, a common food staple throughout northern Asia was keng, a kind of a millet gruel in which various locally available and seasonal ingredients were brought into relationship with one another. The goal was for each ingredient – the cabbage, the radish, the bit of pork – to retain its own colour, texture and flavor, but at the same time to be enhanced by its relationship with the other ingredients. The key to this sense of harmony is that it begins from the unique conditions of a specific geographical location and the full contribution of those particular ingredients readily at hand – this piece of cabbage, this fresh, young radish, this tender bit of pork and so on – and relies upon artistry rather than recipe for its success.

The Confucian distinction between an inclusive harmony and an exclusive sameness has an obvious social and political application, underscoring the fertility of the kind of harmony that maximizes difference. This ‘harmony’ is not a given in some preassigned cosmic design, but is the quality of the combination at any one moment created by effectively correlating and contextualizing the available ingredients, whether they be foodstuffs, farmers or infantry. It is not a quest of discovery, grasping an unchanging reality behind the shadows of appearance, but a profoundly creative journey where the quality of the journey is itself the end. It is the attempt to make the most of any situation.

In summary, at the core of the classical East Asian world view is the cultivation of radial harmony, a specifically ‘centre-seeking’ or ‘centripetal’ harmony which is productive of consensus and orthodoxy. This harmony begins from what is most concrete and immediate – that is, from the perspective of any particular human being – and draws through patterns of deference from the outside in toward its centre. Hence there is the almost pervasive emphasis on personal cultivation and refinement as the starting point for familial, social, political and cosmic order (see Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy). A preoccupation in classical East Asian philosophy, then, is the cultivation of this centripetal harmony as it begins with oneself, and radiates outward.

The East Asian world view is thus dominated by this ‘bottom-up’ and emergent sense of order which begins from the coordination of concrete detail. It can be described fairly as an ‘aestheticism’, exhibiting concern for the artful way in which particular things can be correlated efficaciously to thereby constitute the ethos or character of concrete historical events and cultural achievements. Order, like a work of art, begins with always unique details, from ‘this bit’ and ‘that’, and emerges out of the way in which these details are juxtaposed and harmonized. As such, the order is embedded and concrete – the colouration that differentiates the various layers of earth, the symphony of the morning garden, the wind piping through the orifices of the earth, the rituals and roles that constitute a communal grammar to give community meaning. Such an achieved harmony is always particular and specific, and is resistant to notions of formula and replication.

5 Philosophical syncreticism

As one might expect in a cultural narrative which privileges interdependence and the pursuit of radial harmony, orthodoxy is neither exclusive nor systematic. Rather, traditions are porous and syncretic. In the Han dynasty, for example, Confucianism is first fortified by elements appropriated from the competing schools of pre-Qin China such as Daoism and Legalism (see Legalist philosophy, Chinese). Later it absorbs into itself an increasingly Sinicized Buddhist tradition, evolving over time into a neo-Confucianism (see Neo-Confucian philosophy). At the same time, the shuyuan acadamies established by the great neo-Confucian syncretist Zhu Xi are modelled on Buddhist monastic schools. In more recent years the Western heresy, Marxism, and other elements of Western learning such as the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, are being appropriated by China and digested to produce what today is being called the ‘New Confucianism’ (see Marxism, Western; Marxism, Chinese).

The indigenous shamanistic tradition of Korean popular religion absorbed first Buddhism and then Confucianism from China, reshaping these traditions fundamentally to suit the uniqueness of the Korean social and political conditions (see Buddhist philosophy, Korean; Confucian philosophy, Korean). Native Japanese Shintoism emerges as a distinction made necessary by the introduction of first Buddhism and then Confucianism, where each tradition assumes a complementary function within the culture (see Shintō; Confucian philosophy, Japanese; Buddhist philosophy, Japanese). More recently, in the work of Kyoto School thinkers such as Nishida, Tanabe and Nishitani, German idealism is mined and alloyed with the Japanese Buddhist tradition to produce new directions.

Although Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism – the dominant traditions of East Asia – have certainly been rivals at one level, it has been characteristic of the living philosophical traditions defining of East Asian culture to pursue mutual accommodation through an ongoing process of encounter and appropriation; hence the familiar expression sanjiao weiyi, ‘the three teachings (Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism) are as one’. A continuation of this process is presently underway with the ongoing East Asian appropriation of Western philosophy.

How to cite this article:
AMES, ROGER T. (1998). East Asian philosophy. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved January 16, 2022, from

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