Bio: Tomasz Sleziak is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Korean Studies and Posthumanism at Ruhr-University Bochum (PhD at SOAS, London)
Consequently, and with consideration to quasi-metaphysical framework of the Cheng-Zhu school (which includes such concepts as the cycles of five elements, yin and yang, and the principle and the material force), natural phenomena, inanimate objects, plants, animals, slaves, and kings alike have their integral places and values within the worldview embraced by Neo-Confucians. What were the main ways of attaining the primary qualities associated with the “transhuman sages”? Were they available to everyone or exclusively humans? Apparently, the traits allowing for this transformation are not distributed equally among “all creation” (lit. “ten thousand things,” chin. 萬物 Wanwu, kor. 만물 Manmul). Although Xun Zi of the third century BC was the first to extensively analyze the fundamental differences between inanimate objects, plants, animals, and humans in terms of the characteristics of their material force, and Zhu Xi elaborated on this topic within his quasi-metaphysical framework, it was in late Joseon Korea that the participants of the Horak debate (chin. 湖洛論爭, kor. 호락논쟁) strongly expanded upon these themes by linking them to pragmatic problems of their surrounding social reality. The main actors of this discourse – Yi Gan (chin. 李柬, kor. 이간, pen name Oeam巍巖 외암; 1677-1727) and Han Wonjin (chin. 韓元震, kor. 한원진, pen name Namdang 南塘 남당; 1682-1751) – generally agree on the qualitative difference between commoners and “sages” on the basis of “mind-heart” and “psycho-physical nature”, which makes it difficult for the former social strata to perfect their principle (Suk 2019 : 241).
In modern terms, this conclusion may perhaps be reevaluated through basic acknowledgement that, for example, the farmers and slaves could not focus on higher intellectual and moral pursuits and instead prioritized satiation of their basic desires due to the harsh and uncertain nature of their existence. At any rate, Han Wonjin considers humans, by default, to be more capable of reaching higher virtues and intelligence than non-human creatures, since basic, innate qualities of humanity appear to embody the balance of the natural world most perfectly (ibid. : 241-242). While both him and Yi Gan supply philosophically valid arguments derived from their interpretations of the Cheng-Zhu canon to illustrate their points on aroused and unaroused nature and other topics, it was Han’s contribution that may be considered the most important in the scope of discussion of post/trans/non-humanism. Namely, in an attempt to resolve the issues of origination of the material force, its relation to the principle and the qualitative differences between the material force of humans and other creatures as well as sages (and by extension Junzi) and commoners, he postulated a tripartite division of nature allocation. In essence, he postulated that on one level, all creatures share the same qi-related qualities, on another level there is a species-based differentiation, and finally the “within-species” level entails individual differences between members of a particular species (Ivanhoe 2016 : 95-96). At this point, there is no reason to bring up further, more abstract aspects of the Horak debate – what suffices to say is that both in relevance to the topic of Junzi and modern trans- and post-humanist academic trends, Han Wonjin’s division of nature has been a significant development within Korean Neo-Confucianism, and by itself it deserves a closer look. The main, basic assumption of that scholar was that, to some extent, all living things, firstly, derive their principle from the common, original and universal “source,” yet – secondly – their actual differentiation (body structure, day-to-day behavior, instincts) occurs on the basis of the material force, the qualities of which vary much more deeply than the “source” principle. Animals and plants, due to their psycho-physical conditions have been stated by Neo-Confucians to represent only a fraction of the higher emotional and moral spectrum characteristic to humans (loyalty in dogs, work ethic in ants, social organization in wolves, etc.) at most; on the other hand, Jeong Yak-Yong (chin. 丁若鏞, kor. 다산, pen name Dasan 茶山 다산; 1762-1836), an eighteenth-nineteenth century Korean philosopher, among his socio-political and naturalistic theories included a statement completely denying animals of any conscious effort on their purely instinctive behavior that seemingly resembles human practices (Back 2018 : 97-116). Moreover, as may be concluded from Vincent Shen’s intriguing paper, the capabilities of writing poetry (combination of writing skills with abstract thinking), preparing historical records (a sense of historical continuity), and composing music along with complex ritualized rules of conduct (awareness of the activities that bring peace and order to society at large) collectively define what it means to be a human in Confucian tradition; perhaps any being that lacked these skills or showed no concern towards them would not be fully classified as “human-like” by philosophers of this heritage (Shen 2018 : 33-54).
Consequently, it is difficult to conceive the idea that at the present state of non-human sciences and psychological research animals would be considered as capable of following the cultural norms set forth by Confucians, and therefore, by extension, able to reach the high civilizational standing -- the embodiment of the best human qualities -- associated with sages and the Junzi concept. Naturally, though, with the advancement of posthumanism, this particular outlook towards “cultural” behavior and self-cultivation of animals may be subjected to methodological changes.
As far as non-human “others” are concerned, the only part of discourse in Confucian tradition that is not focused on animals and plants treats the subject of gods, spirits, and ancestors – that is, the unseen “intelligences,” forces of nature or the tentative future, post-death forms of humans. To begin with, the canonical Confucius himself displayed a visible disdain towards discussing the activities of these apparently imperceptible beings in detail, while at the same time affirming the importance of rituals venerating them as the key component of social order; however, whether Confucius and his associates actually believed in supernatural creatures is still an unresolved academic question (Chen Yong 2011 : 70). While Chinese tradition in general supplied multiple theories of human spirit (including the division into the “earthly” po and “divine” shen souls) as well as various folk tales of supernatural beings, the main developmental lines of Confucian philosophy primarily focused on death rituals and ancestor worship as major aspects of a cultural, high-class, and most importantly ren (chin. 仁, kor. Yin 인; lit. humane) conduct of the living people. The non-anthropomorphic Heaven, whose actions and “will” relative to human society are typically considered to be in response to the conduct of a state’s rulers and inhabitants; the only metaphysical and elaborate theories on afterlife developed by Confucianism involve the aforementioned qi as the essence of everything that lives and its continued influence upon the physical world and human civilization even after the dissolution of the physical body, either in literal or abstract, moralistic form (Wilson 2014 : 185-212). Thus, once again, attention towards the widely-perceived “past” is seen as the key to enabling continuous cultural growth of human individuals and societies, with the self-cultivation process ideally leading to moral perfection and control over one’s emotions – though whether this cultural growth precisely equals modern definitions of trans-humanism and post-humanism remains to be seen.
Within this short essay, it is impossible to fully present both the general history of non-, post-, and trans-humanist trends within the history of both Chinese and Korean Confucianism. Nevertheless, it is highly possible that the most advised practices within this scholarly tradition – control of instincts and emotions via proper cultural conduct and reverence of the past – would, if perfected, in the eyes of a Confucian scholar, lead to an evolution of mankind, especially in the domain of interpersonal relations. With the gradual progress of medical and electronic technologies this goal should be eventually achievable – perhaps even in the near future – and although it is more evolutionary than revolutionary in nature, it cannot be regarded as wholly conservative, simplistic or low-achieving. The trans-humanist notion of self-cultivation as presented by Confucian tradition – regardless of its metaphysical framework introduced by the Cheng-Zhu school – is also relatively achievable, or at the very least, strongly tied to basic psychological background and day-to-day life of most humans in terms of its basic guidelines. In the end, this “past-centered” approach to human evolution might warrant more attention by modern post- and trans-humanists and should also be joyfully researched further in modern contexts – East Asian and global alike.
If you want to discuss, exchange opinions or just chat – here I am, always jolly happy to receive your messages – tomasz.slezia[at]gmail.com.
Wilson Thomas, “Spirits and the Soul in Confucian Ritual Discourse”, in Journal of Chinese Religions, Volume 42, Issue 2, November 2014, pp. 185-212
Chen Yong, Confucianism as Religion Controversies and Consequences, Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2011
Back Youngsun, “Are Animals Moral?: Zhu Xi and Jeong Yakyong’s Views on Nonhuman Animals”, in Asian Philosophy Vol. 28, Number 2, May 2018, pp. 97-116
Shen Vincent, “Confucian Spirituality: Desire, Self-Cultivation and Religiosity”, in Journal of Korean Religions, Volume 9, Number 2, October 2018, pp. 33-54
Ivanhoe Philip J., Three Streams Confucian Reflections on Learning and the Moral Heart-Mind in China, Korea, and Japan, Oxford University Press, 2016
Ivanhoe Philip J., “The Historical Significance and Contemporary Relevance of the Four-Seven Debate”, in Philosophy East and West Vol. 65, No. 2, April 2015, pp. 401-429
Confucius, Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of The Mean, tr. Legge James, Dover Publications, New York, 1993
Kim Richard T., “The Role of Human Nature in Moral Inquiry: MacIntyre, Mencius, and Xunzi”, in History of Philosophy Quarterly Vol. 32, Number 4, October 2015, pp. 313-334
Dean Mitchell, Foucault’s Methods and Historical Sociology, Routledge, New York, 1994
Suk Gabriel Choi, “The Horak Debate Concerning Human Nature and the Nature of All Other Beings”, in Ro Young-Chan, ed., Dao Companion to Korean Confucian Philosophy, Springer, 2019, p. 241