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  • First Order Relationality and Its Implications:A Response to David Elstein
  • Roger T. Ames (bio)

David Elstein has asked a series of important questions about Human Becomings that provide me with an opportunity to try to bring the argument of the book into clearer focus. Let me begin by thanking David for his always generous and intelligent reflection on not only my new monograph [End Page 181] but also on Henry Rosemont's and my best efforts to expand upon the idea of "role ethics" as a productive way to read Confucian ethics.

David asks: Is relationality truly a part of original Confucian thought? Does relationality rule out any notion of essential human nature, and does it necessarily imply or entail role ethics? Is relationality true or merely a useful way of thinking (if these can be distinguished)? Do we know that it's useful?

I think the answer to these questions turns on two very different ways of understanding relationality, namely the doctrines of first and second order relationality. The term 'ontology' as "the science of being per se or in itself" gives us a doctrine of external, second order relations. Ontology was introduced into our philosophical vocabulary as a new term for an old way of thinking at the beginning of the seventeenth century by two German philosophers.1 For the classical Greeks, "the science of being per se" (to on he on) was posited as their "first philosophy" with all of its implications for metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, philosophy of religion, and so on. Ontology is that branch of metaphysics that seeks to classify and explain the things that exist, with its underlying assumption that there are unchanging substances or essences internal to things that are available to us to classify them as this and not that. Ontology privileges "being per se" with its categorical language and its "substance" and "attribute" dualism, giving us a grammar of substances as property-bearers and properties that are borne, respectively.

Such ontological thinking animates Plato's pursuit of formal, "real" definitions in his quest for certainty (that is, definitions not of words but of what really is), and underlies Aristotle's taxonomical science of knowing "what is what." For these classical Greek philosophers, only what is real and is thus true can be the proper object of knowledge, giving us a logic of the changeless. Corollary to ontology is causal thinking, formal definitions, and, important for David's question, a doctrine of external, second order relationality in which relations conjoin discrete and self-sufficient things, such as human "beings." As the contemporary philosopher Zhao Tingyang 趙汀陽 avers, this kind of substance ontology defining the real things that constitute the content of an orderly and structured cosmos

provides a "dictionary" kind of explanation of the world, seeking to set up an accurate understanding of the limits of all things. In simple terms, it determines "what is what," and all concepts are footnotes to "being" or "is."2

In the Book of Changes, we find a vocabulary making explicit cosmological assumptions that stand in stark contrast to this substance ontology and that brings with it a doctrine of first order, constitutive relations. This alternative "first philosophy" has prompted me to create the neologism "zoetology," with the Greek zoe- "life" and -logia "discourse," as my own new term for an old way of thinking that we might translate into modern Chinese as shengshenglun 生生論: "the art of living." The starting point in this zoetological cosmology, then, is that nothing does anything by [End Page 182] itself; association is a fact. Since the very nature of life is associative and transactional, the vocabulary appealed to in defining Confucian cosmology is irreducibly dyadic and collateral: always multiple, never one.

And further, it is the nature of life itself that it seeks to optimize the available conditions for its continuing growth, where such growth has a persistent existential and thus intentional aspect. "Life" is the productive correlation between organism and environment that gives rise to correlative, relational, ecological thinking that many of our best sinologists (Marcel Granet, David Keightley, Tang Junyi, K. C. Chang, A. C. Graham, and many others) would ascribe to the earliest semblances of Chinese...