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Saturday, May 28, 2005

The First Chinese Materialist, part three

It was only after the introduction of Buddhism to China that men became concerned with the problem of the immortality of the soul. When that happened, complicated theories requiring a high degree of training in speculative thought were simplified into religious doctrines of salvation, the metaphysical idea of a chain of being was popularised into the moral doctrines of reincarnation, and the void of Buddhist epistemology was solidified into a concrete heaven. The “Pure Land” school founded by Hui-yuan was the chief example of the trend toward religious beliefs that would harmonize both with existing popular beliefs and with the religious needs of the great mass of the common people, while at the same time answering to the pessimistic escapist mood of the ruling classes. This trend reduced the abstruse theories of the Mahayana to their lowest common denominator: salvation. It was against this popular form of Buddhism encouraged by the court that Fan Chen set out to do battle.

His short tract is written in dialogue form – a form that had already been adopted by Mou Tzu, the first apologist for Buddhism in China, and that had been in favour since the fourth century. Fan Chen asks himself the kind of questions that any average Buddhist of the time might have asked, and replies in the capacity of “host” to the questions put by the “guest” (these being the descriptions of the debating partners given in the Chinese text). The thirty-one questions fall into five sections.

The first section (questions 1-13) contains metaphors concerning the problem of the relations between the body and the soul, for which a materialistic, monist solution is found. The materialist view, strongly reminiscent of Lucretius, is summed up in the thesis: “The body is the soul’s material basis; the soul is the functioning of the body.” Fan Chen meets his imaginary opponent’s arid, mechanistic way of thinking with dialectical arguments stressing developmental factors. In the second section (questions 14-24), the problem of the soul as function is viewed from another angle. The opponent asks about the location of the soul, and Fan Chen replies according to the deep-rooted convictions of his time. The heart had always been regarded by the Chinese as the seat of thought, in just the same way as Aristotle held that the central psycho-physical organ was not the brain, but the heart. The argument here, however, depends upon a differentiation between thought on the one hand, and feeling and perception on the other. Like the ancient philosophers, Fan Chen did not distinguish between perceptio and sensatio. This results in his arriving at a solution with a very modern ring to it: thought is differentiated from feeling only by degree of intensity.

Source: Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy, (Yale university Press, 1964) pp261-2.


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