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Expanding Process: Exploring Philosophical and Theological Transformations in China and the West (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 61, Number 4, October 2011
pp. 741-744 | 10.1353/pew.2011.0056

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Expanding Process: Exploring Philosophical and Theological Transformations in China and the West, by John Berthrong, is a model study of processive motifs in Chinese traditions and their contributions to global process-relational philosophy. Process-relational philosophy, which became a full-fledged school of thought in the twentieth century with the works of Alfred North Whitehead and the American Pragmatists, conceives of reality as constant flux. This metaphysical view is opposed to the substance-ontological view, which understands reality as a composition of timeless, discrete substances, such as Plato's Forms.

In working to move process philosophy out of its Whiteheadian and American roots, Berthrong draws out processive motifs in classical Confucianism, Daoism, and Neo-Confucianism and integrates them with what he calls North American naturalist notions of process to create a more robust global understanding of process philosophy. These processive motifs are areas within a particular school of thought that emphasize change and flux over substance and permanence. Berthrong's three studies, of Xunzi, the Liezi, and the master-disciple pair of Zhu Xi and Chen Chun, demonstrate the applicability of process thought to moral self-cultivation, conceptions of authority, and metaphysics, respectively, and thus demonstrate not only the processive nature of Chinese philosophy, but also the broad applicability of process thought to a variety of philosophical fields; process thought is not limited to twentieth-century Western philosophy, nor is it limited to metaphysical issues.

In the introductory chapter, Berthrong describes his project as inspired by the work of Nicholas Rescher. Rescher combed Western philosophical texts in search of a history of process thought prior to the works of Whitehead and his contemporaries. Berthrong has a similar goal, but he aims to find a global history of process. Through the accumulation of processive motifs drawn from varying fields of philosophy within three distinct schools of Chinese philosophy, Berthrong aims to construct a more robust conception of process than those limited to a Western perspective.

In the second chapter, Berthrong examines Xunzi's philosophy and argues that the processive motif of transformation is most readily found in Xunzi's theory of self-cultivation, particularly in his epistemology and theory of human nature. Berthrong notes that though the individual's transformation under the guidance of a sage is an excellent and ready example of process thought, the truly interesting question is how the early sages developed morality without someone to model it for them. Berthrong draws from recent scholarship on Xunzi to argue that it is through borrowing and developing, or, in Confucius' terms, learning and reflecting, that the sage begins the process of self-cultivation: the transformation of his innate, rough, and coarse human nature into a refined, moral nature. Berthrong ends this chapter with a brief analysis of cheng (true integrity/sincerity/self-actualization) as the emotional, and ultimately moral, motivation to begin the process of learning and reflecting.

Berthrong's task is somewhat different in his third chapter as he switches both the tradition in focus and the philosophical field. Daoism in general, but particularly the early Daoism of which the Liezi is a foundational text, is structured entirely around the concept of ceaseless change and flux, and thus the identification of general processive motifs is easy. So Berthrong turns his attention to the study what sort of process one finds in the Liezi. He develops the Daoist notion of ziran (spontaneity) and its related trait, open receptivity. He then explores the relation of spontaneity to antiauthoritarian radical social theory. His ultimate conclusion is that though there is a close relationship between the two historically, the philosophy does not necessitate such a relationship.

In chapter 4, Berthrong examines the Neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi and Chen Chun. Berthrong's approach is to examine Chen Chun's Glossary for processive motifs and then to demonstrate that Chen Chun, Zhu Xi's student, offers a vision consistent with Zhu Xi's philosophy. Much of this chapter considers the relationship of li (principle) and qi (vital force). Berthrong concludes that the relationship between the two is not one of "ontological priority" but rather of "ontological parity," to borrow the terms of Justus Buchler. Rather than one generating the other, the pair always...

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