Confucian Hylemorphism

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Confucian Hylemorphism

Edward Feser

Quote:What follows is a summary of some of the key ideas. Zhu Xi’s fundamental notion is the distinction between li and qi. Li can be translated as “pattern” or “structure.” It is to be understood as that which gives something what Zhu Xi characterizes as its “nature,” and thus defines the “norm” for things of its kind. Qi, by contrast, is that which receives said pattern or structure and thereby affords li an anchor in the concrete world. Li thus has a kind of priority relative to qi. For Zhu Xi, “li is one, the instances many,” and by itself is “without physical form.” Qi, meanwhile, “is unrefined and has impurities.” Li is the “reason” by which things are as they are, and thereby makes them intelligible.

Needless to say, from this much it is clear that li corresponds pretty closely to form, and qi to matter. However, there is much more to be said, because the phrases quoted so far are compatible with either an Aristotelian or a Platonist reading of Zhu Xi. To put the issue in terms familiar from contemporary analytic metaphysics, Rooney asks whether we should read Zhu Xi as offering a “constituent ontology” or a “relational ontology.” For the Aristotelian, form and matter are each themselves parts or constituents of an individual physical object. For the Platonist, by contrast, though individual physical objects are what they are by virtue of their relations to the Forms, the Forms themselves are not parts or constituents of the objects. The question, then, is whether li is itself a part or constituent of a physical object, as form is for the Aristotelian, or is instead to be conceived of along the lines of a Platonic Form.

Rooney argues for reading Zhu Xi as a constituent ontologist, and thus in a manner that parallels Aristotelian hylemorphism. (Rooney himself prefers the spelling “hylomorphism.” But nothing of substance rides on that, if you’ll pardon the pun.)
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


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