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  • Mirrors, Minds, and Metaphors
  • Erin M. Cline

As most scholars of classical Chinese philosophy are well aware, the Zhuangzi and the Xunzi both make use of the metaphor of the heart-mind (xin) as a mirror. For Zhuangzi, a heart-mind like a mirror constitutes the ideal state of unity with the Way: "The sage's heart-mind in stillness is the mirror of Heaven and earth, the glass of the ten thousand things."1 For Xunzi, one must have a heart-mind like a mirror in order to learn about the Way. Just as a pan of water can be "clear and pure enough to see your beard and eyebrows and to examine the lines on your face," so, too, can the heart-mind be clear and pure enough to respond appropriately to learning.2 A number of scholars have discussed the significance of the mirror metaphor in these and other Chinese texts.3 It may be of particular interest to comparative philosophers that the mirror metaphor is not confined to the Chinese tradition. Søren Kierkegaard is one example of a Western philosopher who used this metaphor, maintaining that the properly attuned heart "mirrors" the Good: "As the sea mirrors the elevation of heaven in its pure depths, so may the heart when it is calm and deeply transparent mirror the divine elevation of the Good in its pure depths."4 Richard Rorty, too, makes use of the mirror metaphor in his work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, arguing that "The picture which holds traditional philosophy captive is that of the mind as a great mirror, containing various representations—some accurate, some not—and capable of being studied by pure, non-empirical methods."5

What should comparative philosophers learn from the shared use of metaphors across different cultural and philosophical traditions? In his recent work, Edward Slingerland suggests that the shared use of metaphors across different cultural, philosophical, and religious contexts points toward deeper similarities between what may at first appear to be contrasting views.6 In this article, by comparing the mirror metaphor in Zhuangzi, Xunzi, Kierkegaard, and Rorty, I argue that a properly contextualized comparison of different uses of a metaphor sometimes uncovers more differences than similarities between philosophical views. I begin by discussing the uses of the mirror metaphor in the Zhuangzi and the Xunzi. I then turn to the uses of the metaphor in the work of Kierkegaard and Rorty, focusing on what makes their understanding of the mirror metaphor distinctively Western, thereby marking a contrast to Chinese understandings. In the final part of this article I discuss Slingerland's suggestion that shared metaphors indicate deeper similarities between views, and I show how the foregoing comparative analysis constitutes a counterexample to his view. I aim to show that an analysis of different understandings of the same metaphor is one way of coming to appreciate features of cultural, philosophical, and religious views that might otherwise be overlooked, but that these features are [End Page 337] appreciated primarily as a result of the differences between the uses of the metaphor under study.

The Mirror Metaphor in the Zhuangzi

Quite early in China's history, mirrors were seen as possessing great religious significance. Instead of passively reflecting the objects that came before them, mirrors were thought to respond to their environment in active and dynamic ways, evidencing a mysterious power. Some of the earliest recorded references to bronze mirrors (jian) are found in the Zuozhuan (Commentary of Zuo). The Zhouli and the Huainanzi both refer to the use of bronze mirrors and concave mirrors (fu suior yang sui) in ceremonial practices.7 Mirrors came to be seen as active, responsive objects because they could be used to produce fire and water. When placed outside, concave mirrors focused sunlight to produce fire, while bronze mirrors gathered condensation in the light of the moon. But it was not simply the fact that mirrors had the power to gather or produce that made them objects of religious significance in ancient China; it was what they produced. Water and fire were thought to be the pure essences of yin and yang, respectively, and the fact that mirrors appeared to...


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