Li 理

Li | division | cohesion | value

Many Western scholars have sought a Chinese equivalent to Platonic Forms or natural laws in Li 理, translating it as "principle" or "order" or "reason." Western thought's insistent split between appearance and reality has fueled its quest for the transcendent, the eternal, the absolute. Today, science measures and records statistical regularities, searching for the universally valid rules which determine each particular event.

Since ancient Greece, Indo-European thinkers have used mathematics and logic as their prototype for explaining the world. Mathematics is pure quantity, and starts with the "countable particular"––nouns with plural forms that can be directly modified by numbers. These mutually exclusive objects, each occupying its own corner of space, are added together to form aggregates and classes, which are often visualized as hierarchies of ever-larger and more-inclusive containers.

Physics provides the model for describing interactions between these mathematical entities, as the billiard-ball causation of discrete objects exerting force to move and change each other. The idea of abstract force is clearly evident in the Christian conception of God as the maker of the world, an eternal consciousness severed from time, the legislator who acts upon the universe from the outside:

Whereas the West has traditionally used mathematics as its prototype, Chinese culture took ethics as its basic model. Classical Chinese philosophy seemed relatively unconcerned with the problems of metaphysics and cosmology, of what the world is and were it came from. Its focus was axiology, the problem of enacting social values.

The West deploys math and physics to understand human agency and social networks, as objects pushing and pulling each other from without. Chinese thinkers started from the opposite perspective, modeling the interaction of natural objects on the relationships between human beings. Spontaneous motion and mutual response describe the natural realm, not the linear cause-and-effect of forced movement.

The Shuowenjiezi, China's oldest known dictionary, defines Li 理 as "to treat jade." In dynastic China, jade was the stone of Heaven––both a valuable commodity and a symbol of virtue. Skilled, jade-cutting artisans competed in the marketplace, while the virtuosos crafted ornaments and ritual implements for the Imperial court.

It takes a trained eye to discern jade's nuances of color, lustre, and texture. The jade-cutter removes the unwanted streaks and spots, carves out the creamy white or emerald green. If he is sensitive enough to the natural makeup of the raw material––to its veins, flaws, and fissures––the block appears before him already cut up. The master traces the lines which invite human action. He works with and within the given patterns of the raw material to create new patterns of cultural and economic value.

Li is often translated as "pattern." But both the patterns in jade and the patterns of human intention which shape it are secondary to the activity. Li is a verb, a process, a skill: "to cut something away from a background of raw material (division) and shape it into an object (cohesion) which meets some desire or demand (value)." Human value permeates and unifies the entire process, determining what is removed, what is kept, and how the object is shaped. Li is neither an objective pattern waiting to be discovered, nor a subjective pattern of human interest scrawled across a blank canvas. Li is the dynamic interface between nature and mind.

1 comment:

BikesnBugs said...

"modeling the interaction of natural objects on the relationships between human beings. Spontaneous motion and mutual response describe the natural realm, not the linear cause-and-effect of forced movement." As a child I naturally drew conclusions about my place in life as these ancients! I was terribly afraid of the things that were man made, of the adults' preoccupation with all things quantitative. This IS a great post. VERY ACCESSIBLE.