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The Mutual Cultivation of Self and Things: A Contemporary Chinese Philosophy of the Meaning of Being

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Yang Guorong is one of the most prominent Chinese philosophers working today and is best known for using the full range of Chinese philosophical resources in connection with the thought of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Heidegger. In The Mutual Cultivation of Self and Things, Yang grapples with the philosophical problem of how the complexly interwoven nature of things and being relates to human nature, values, affairs, and facts, and ultimately creates a world of meaning. Yang outlines how humans might live more fully integrated lives on philosophical, religious, cultural, aesthetic, and material planes. This first English translation introduces current, influential work from China to readers worldwide.

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1 Meaning in the Context of Accomplishing Oneself and Accomplishing Things

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ACCOMPLISHING ONESELF and accomplishing things is a concrete historical process of knowing the world and knowing oneself and reforming the world and refining oneself, which simultaneously generates meaning and produces a world of meaning. The world in-itself cannot pose for itself the question of meaning, which is to say that there is no way to dissociate meaning from one’s own being. Humans question the meaning of the world and the meaning of their own being; therefore, the genesis of meaning owes its origin to the “being” of humans. As the introduction to this book has already demonstrated, from the perspective of one’s own being and its relation to the world, the intension of meaning or “the meaning of meaning” implicates within itself several questions: “What is it?” “What does it mean?” and “What should it become?” The question “What is it?” specifically refers to which things exist and how they exist (in what form do things exist?), which involves the connection between the presentation of things and the human being’s intentional activity. The question “What does it mean?” refers to the value or worth that a being may have.1 With regard to objects, such a question asks whether or not something accords with the needs and ideals of human beings and to what extent; such needs and ideals concern not only life as a process of survival on the material level, but also cognition and practice in spiritual life and the social sphere. With regard to the human being, “What does it mean?” is directed at the very meaning of one’s own being: Why, or for what, in the end, does one exist? The meaning of one’s own being or the confirmation of the meaning of human life is always grounded in the ends and ideals that human beings value. When the process of one’s own being is consistent with the specific ends or ideals one finds worthy, life appears to be richly fulfilled with meaning; and vise versa, when one is either lacking or distantly separated from a valued goal, human life then inevitably strikes one with a sense of meaninglessness.

 

2 Human Capacities and a World of Meaning

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DIRECTED AT THE genesis of a world of meaning, accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things unfolds throughout the whole process of one’s being. But as the basic way in which human being exists, how is this process possible? The question “How is it possible?” primarily concerns grounds and conditions. Here, the capacities of human being intrinsically condition the genesis of a world of meaning as the internal conditions of accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things. Similar to “wisdom,” the phrase “human capacities” has its everyday connotations, but as a concept, it has philosophical meaning as well. In everyday terms, just as being wise is seen as a synonym for having some perspicacity or intellectual aptitude, a capacity is usually understood to be some ability to solve concrete problems in the process of cognizing or practicing. At the philosophical level, however, wisdom differs from such specialized kinds of knowledge in the empirical realm and consists much more in deeper thoughts concerning human nature and the way of Nature as a whole.1 In the same way, as the deepest underlying conditions of the process of accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things, capacities are also distinct from a set of particular abilities. As human being’s intrinsic properties, capacities encompass multiple facets. Differing from extrinsic means, capacities are the embodiment of human being’s essential powers; differing from abstract logical forms, capacities integrate into the process of being and become one with human being. So, capacities not only have epistemological meaning, but ontological and axiological meaning as well, and so we name them human capacities.

 

3 Systems of Norms and the Genesis of Meaning

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THE HISTORICAL PROCESS of accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things, as we have seen, is internally conditioned by human capacities, but many forms of normative systems condition it as well. On the one hand, accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things concretely unfolds as a process of knowing and practicing, which involves different senses of normativity. On the other hand, the knowledge and wisdom formed through this process further constrain knowing and practicing by means of externalizing, transforming into universal systems of norms. Directed at knowing the world and the self and changing both the self and the world, norms not only involve questions like “what to do” and “how to do it” but “what to be” as well. In connection with purposiveness, norms encompass an axiological dimension, but insofar as they are based on both reality and what ought to be, norms also have their ontological ground. At the formal level, a norm is similar to a principle (li ) insofar as a norm is external and impersonal.1 However, the actual role of norms cannot be dissociated from inner consciousness or the affective mind (xin ). So, the relationship between norms, the individual, and his or her conscious activity concretely unfolds as the interaction between the affective mind and principle. As normative principles, which constrain the human process of being and the human mode of being, norms constitute the condition of possibility of humans being-with humans; here, norms grounding the possibility of living-in-common reflects the social universality and commonality of norms and reveals their concrete historicality as well.

 

4 Meaning in the World of Spirit

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CONDITIONED BY THE interrelation of human capacities with systems of norms, accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things constitutes human being’s basic way of being and mode of being. In the historical unfolding of accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things, the presentation of things and the directionality of intentions reciprocally interact; the world enters the realm of ideas through this interaction and henceforth becomes being with meaning. As noted earlier, the problem of meaning does not occur to the world in-itself; rather, the source of meaning lies in the historical process of one coming to know the world and oneself while transforming both oneself and the world. Originating from the being of humans and the being of the world, meaning is within and unfolds within humanized reality, but also emerges in the form of ideas. The former (humanizing reality) means that humans transform “Nature in-itself” into “Nature for-humans” through practical action, by means of which the world in-itself becomes being, which is impressed with the mark of human, and which embodies the ideal of human values. The latter (meaning in the form of ideas) is not only being that is known or understood, insofar as it also unfolds into different forms of the world of spirit in the process of being evaluated and being invested with senses of value.

 

5 Meaning and Reality

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IN THE PROCESS of accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things, meaning is not only presented at the level of ideas in the act of cognizing and evaluating; when grounded in practical activity, meaning is also externalized as the world of actual beings or the real world. As the externalization or actualization of meaning, this domain of being, which is generated through the process of knowing and practicing could also be seen as the actual or external formation of a world of meaning, whose actual content is the Nature for-humans or things-for-us as social reality or the living world.

A world of meaning, as actual being, is first of all said in opposition to being in-itself. Being in-itself is what has not entered the human sphere of cognition and practice, and whose meaning therefore is still concealed for human being. A world of meaning, on the other hand, is already imprinted with the mark of human and presents the different levels of things for-us. In Chinese philosophy, Nature in-itself (tian zhi tian ) refers to things in-themselves. As the form of being beyond the domain of cognition and practice, Nature in-itself has never formed an actual connection with human being; so, it does not constitute an object with meaning at the level of ideas and has no actual meaning in the practical realm. Abstractly speaking, “being” is attributed to both human being and Nature in-itself, so they are not absolutely divided from one another, but while Nature in-itself still lies beyond the domain of practice and cognition, they are presented more as two worlds divided apart rather than as a world integrally whole.

 

6 Meaning and the Individual

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GROUNDED IN THE historical process of accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things, a world of meaning may take shape into different forms. Whether it is exhibited internally in the form of ideas or unfolds externally into humanized reality, a world of meaning is always inseparable from the being of humans. Now, when considering the relation between the being of humans and a world of meaning, the individual or the person is an important aspect that cannot be ignored, because a world of meaning is first opened up and presented to the concrete individual or person. At a much broader level, the being of the individual possesses some sort of ontological priority: accomplishing oneself in the social sphere is likewise the concern of a specific individual. As a historical process, accomplishing things and accomplishing oneself and the consequent genesis of a world of meaning concerns the being of the individual at both the metaphysical and social level. Therefore, it is impossible to dodge the problem of the individual in a concrete consideration of a world of meaning.

 

7 Accomplishing Oneself and Accomplishing Things: Value in a World of Meaning

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FREE INDIVIDUALITY, HUMAN capacities, and inner state of mind most directly involve the personal space of the self but also in a broader sense the distinction and interaction between the individual domain and the public sphere. As interrelated aspects of the social world, the individual domain and its connection to the public sphere also sets the concrete background for the historical process of accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things. As the actual mode of being, accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things is never separable from diverse social resources, and the acquisition, possession, and distribution of resources involves the issue of social justice. Since accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things is one unified process, the individual domain is inseparable from the public sphere as self-realization is from social justice. Involving the transformation of society, justice is itself historical, that is, it will be overcome in the course of historical evolution. With the elevated growth of resources and material wealth as its historical precondition, the genuine realization of the value of the being of humans is concretely exhibited in human being freely developing itself with the aim of refining itself and refining the world. Through the interaction of the free development of each with the free development of all, accomplishing oneself and accomplishing things possesses deeper significance as the historical genesis of a world of meaning.

 

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