“Yu Jiyuan 余紀元 and Retrofitting ‘Metaphysics’ for Confucian Philosophy: Human ‘Beings’ or Human ‘Becomings’?
In past work on Chinese “cosmology”, I have resisted using the term “metaphysics” because of the history of this term in classical Greek philosophy. Angus Graham has warned us of the equivocations that arise in eliding the distinction between Greek ontology and classical Chinese cosmology. In this essay, I have been inspired by my dear friend the late Yu Jiyuan’s distinction between classical Greek “metaphysics” and “contemporary metaphysics with ambiguous edges” to adapt the term “metaphysics” for use within the classical Confucian corpus. In the language of Confucian “metaphysics”, the ultimate goal of our philosophical inquiry is quite literally “to know one’s way around things’” (zhidao 知道) in the broadest possible sense of the term “things”. In the application of Confucian metaphysics, “knowing” certainly begins from the cognitive understanding of a situation, but then goes on to include the creative and practical activity of “realizing a world” through ars contextualis—the art of contextualizing things. I apply the insight that “metaphysics” so understood in the Confucian context provides a warrant for establishing a useful contrast between a Greek conception of the “human being” and a Confucian conception of “human becomings”.
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