Bio: Tomasz Sleziak is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Korean Studies and Posthumanism at Ruhr-University Bochum (PhD at SOAS, London)
In fifth-fourth century BC China, Confucius (chin. Kong Qiu 孔丘; 551-479 BC), faced with the incessant political and military instability of the Spring and Autumn period accompanied by the wide disregard towards traditions and ethical norms, also pondered the moral paths an individual’s life should take. Reacting to those whose response to chaos was seclusion in distant mountains and forests, he asserted that a human being should invariably accompany other humans for the greater good of them all – association with “birds and beasts”, overt affection for metaphysics, and abandonment of one’s duties were seen by Confucius as aberrations. And to provide a guideline for those seeking personal improvement and subsequently aiding their communities, he devised a model of a “sage” (chin. Sheng 聖, kor. Seong 성) or “gentleman” (chin. Junzi 君子, kor. Gunja 군자) – a transhumanist vision contingent on reaching towards the past.
The terms “posthumanism” and “transhumanism” indeed imply a future-centric vision of human transformation, or a denial of the widely-perceived “human values” achieved through technological development. As suggested by Foucault (Dean 1994 : 194-195), though, a social and cultural transformation may be achieved independently of political powers, through reference to the pre-existent resources of human beings – that is, the “technologies of the self.” Confucius and the successors of his philosophical line of thought – starting from Mencius (chin. Meng Ke 孟軻; 372-289 BC) - also believed that benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom, in particular, already have instinctive sources within human beings waiting to be consciously cultivated and honed through interpersonal interactions, with the primary goal of keeping seven basic emotions (pleasure, anger, sadness, fear, love, hate, and desire) in check, so they could only be directed controllably and in positive contexts. Incidentally, this balancing of emotions and morals bears striking similarity to certain Christian and possibly universalistic traditions, as shown by Richard Kim in his comparative analysis of Alastair MacIntyre, Mencius and Xun Zi’s (chin. Xun Kuang 荀況; ca. 310-289 BC) thoughts (Kim 2015 : 313-334).
Moreover, these instincts, emotions, and their rationalizations have been considered to stem from two basic organizational aspects of the universe – the principle (chin. Li理, kor. Yi 이; variously interpreted as or identified with ‘the source,’ ‘the origin,’and in general seen as neutral or purely good) and the material force (chin. Qi 氣, kor. Gi 기; the basic psycho-physical disposition of all things, especially living beings, which modifies one’s responsiveness to the principle and could be seen as either positive or negative in influence). Confucius’ vision of human society being regulated through rites and traditions transmitted from the idealized past and exemplified in the figures of semi-legendary sage-kings and civilizational founders was, in the eyes of towering figures such as Zhu Xi (chin. 朱熹; 1130-1200 AD), to be achieved through individuals self-cultivating the aforementioned basic components of their being with the aim of reaching personal equilibrium with the world and the rest of humanity. Systematic education and moral life were believed to be important steps in this transformative process, which, eventually and by extension, would also positively affect firstly the families of such “practitioners,” then the surrounding community, and, in the end, the entire countries through promotion of virtues, as outlined by the short but significant Confucian classic “The Great Learning” (Confucius 1993 : 369-371). These foundational aspects of the “ten thousand things” (metaphor for “everything”) may seem rather abstract, but the Confucian strategy of “looking forward while taking ideals of the past into consideration” also gave rise to a discourse especially relevant to non-human and trans-human studies.
The contributions of Joseon (1392-1910) Korean philosophers to the further development of Neo-Confucian brands– though almost exclusively centered on the Cheng-Zhu school of thought’s (chin. Cheng Zhu Lixue 程朱理學) interpretation of classics – received wide acclaim both in their own time and in the modernity. Their discussions, gaining momentum from the first half of the seventeenth century onwards, did not depart the societal and cultural constraints of the yangban (chin. 兩班, kor. 양반; lit. both sides [civilian and military]) scholar-nobility stratum, and in most situations did not affect livelihoods of commoners and lowborn people. At the same time, indirect references towards living conditions of the non-elite other came to figure sporadically within letters exchanged by Neo-Confucians, most importantly in the context of differences of psychophysical makeup between humans and non-humans, and high and low social strata. Furthermore, while the discourse between these philosophers was mostly orthodox and lacking in radical ideas, a few significant scholars attempting to bridge abstract speculation and empirical observation, such as Seo Gyeongdeok (chin. 徐敬德, kor. 서경덕, pen name Hwadam花潭 화담; 1489-1546), marked their presence even before the latter half of the dynastic period. Furthermore, although the basis of Confucian philosophy may be considered decidedly anthropocentric, it must be remembered that, as Philip Ivanhoe notes,
“[A]ll [Confucians] believed that the world is fundamentally interconnected in a deep and ethically relevant sense. Because each and every thing in the universe shares the same original nature or set of principles, human beings not only can understand and interact with the various people, creatures, and things of the world but also feel a profound and all-inclusive sense of care for the entire universe as in some sense a part of themselves” (Ivanhoe 2015 : 401-429).