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Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 62, Number 3, July 2012
pp. 408-410 | 10.1353/pew.2012.0037

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It is often argued that Confucian values overwhelm individual interests in Chinese society, where one's duties to family and community seem to require subsuming one's personal concerns for the greater good. If so, what role is there for individualism? Does the term even apply? In Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics, Erica Fox Brindley argues that whether or not concepts such as 'individualism' - with origins in Western intellectual discourse - can be used to explicate Chinese thought depends not on where they arose but instead on whether they are ultimately useful; after all, why "cut off the use of a perfectly good term and analytic device" (p. x) simply because that term has emerged in one cultural context and not another? The main project of Brindley's book is to argue that Chinese history does conceive of the self as 'individual.' If so, then shunning the term 'individualism' can only hamper translation and mask how the self is understood in the tradition itself.

Brindley begins her examination with texts from the early Warring States period, when changes from an old kinship-based political system to one based on merit provided fertile ground to reconceive the individual as a source of agency, power, and authority. The first key source is the philosophy of the Mohists, who argued that individuals ought to conform their own conceptions of rightness to a unified and ultimate ethical standard - Heaven's will. How does such conformity underwrite individualism? The Mohist doctrine of 'conforming upward' relies on individuals to properly decipher Heaven's will and put it into effect; this presupposes that individuals have certain cognitive faculties of appraisal and evaluation. Moreover, conformity to Heaven's will merits rewards, whereas nonconformity warrants punishments, providing a basis for individual responsibility. Importantly, for Brindley, the entire Mohist political system depends on individuals down to the lowest rungs of the social ladder to evaluate one another (including their superiors) and act according to a fixed standard, underscoring notions of agency, authority, and choice.

Brindley then traces this conformism/individualism dialectic through various fourth-century texts. The Laozi, for example, advances an idea Brindley calls "bodily conformism." Through meditative praxis a sage-ruler is able to empty himself of selfish desires and become a vessel for the cosmic Dao - a source of authority in the world. However, because the sage-ruler has transformed into a vessel, Brindley refers to the sage ruler's "self" in scare quotes. Indeed, it is not clear how the Laozi helps enrich early notions of individualism, or why Brindley adopts an explicitly political reading of the text (as a manual of rulership). While parts of the Laozi are no doubt political, Brindley might have taken a more individualistic orientation to the text itself (as many others have done), in order to expand its notion of individual agency beyond the single figure of the ruler.

In different ways, the Mozi and Laozi emphasize conformity to an external standard - Heaven and Dao, respectively. Brindley argues that the crucial move linking conformism with individualistic views of agency occurs in fourth-century discussions of xing 性 (human nature), referring to an idealized agency that inheres in - and is part of - one's self. The Zhuangzi, for example, focuses on the individual's unique and personal link to the cosmos. Conformism is not to some external source (whether Heaven or the Dao) but instead to powers and potentials within individual xing. The Zhuangzi does, of course, advocate a loss of one's sense of self in order to undermine oneself as a conventional actor in the world. Nonetheless, since each individual occupies a unique position in society (cook, wheelwright, scholar, etc.), how individuals will conform to their natures and develop agency will be different; each individual is a unique manifestation of the Dao. Brindley asks a crucial question: "to what extent does this make Zhuangzi's thoughts 'individualistic'?" (p. 62). On the one hand, successful 'mental fasting' frees oneself from the world and marshals imminent powers in the body; on the other hand, one's emergent self seems a mere manifestation of the Dao in the world (p. 58).

Notwithstanding such difficulties, Brindley sees...



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