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The intelligence of emotions? Debates over the structure of moral life in Early China

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-109
Number of pages25
JournalL'Atelier du centre de recherche historique
Publication statusPublished - 17 May 2016

Abstract

Around the fourth century B.C. in China, the term xin 心 (“heart”, “mind”, “heart-mind”) came to acquire distinct cognitive functions. While xin had previously been identified primarily as a site of feeling, it now came to be understood as an organ of thought and reflection as well. My paper examines this development in the larger trajectory of shifting ethical and political values in early China. It considers the ethical conception of emotions in three major texts that would come to define the mainstream in traditional Chinese thought – the Mencius, the Daodejing, and the Xunzi – and seeks to understand how these texts conceived the respective roles of thinking and feeling in the context of the properly realized life.
In characterizing early Chinese perspectives, I avoid two common approaches: the myth of holism (i.e., early Chinese thinkers did not distinguish between cognition and feeling) and the assumption of dualism (i.e., some Chinese thinkers accepted a strict dichotomy of cognition and feeling). I argue, rather, that these early accounts were marked by a strong consciousness of the potential tension between cognitive and emotive sources of direction, but that they also reveal a concern with reconciling this tension through various distinct models of the moral self – models that recognized multiple channels of knowledge, perception and understanding. These were hybrid, composite models that deployed mixed metaphors and apparent paradoxes. Underlying these varying solutions was a shared awareness that any resolution of the tension was not to be achieved theoretically, as it were, but at the level of the practical action of the fully realized individual – the sage or the junzi (superior person).

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