十五．A Philosophical Symphony: Tang Junyi's System
(Hamburg University, Germany)
In my paper I would like to focus on the philosophy of the famous contemporary Confucian scholar Tang Junyi, reflecting on the features which may serve to identify his system of the "Nine Horizons of the Mind" as a piece of world philosophy. Although Tang Junyi never actually used this term himself, the universal concern of his philosophy, his general attitude towards the philosophies of the world and their importance within his system, as well as his notion of the task and usefulness of philosophy in the world justify such a description. It may in this context be helpful to consider Karl Jasper's notion of "world philosophy", as a number of characteristics found in Tang's philosophical system coincide with Jaspers' intended approach to the problem of world philosophy, as it has been expounded in research on the host of Jaspers' unpublished writings.
"World philosophy", thus intended Jaspers, would be the "extensive
systematization of the possibilities of thought. It will bring about immense
openness in understanding...", preparing the ground for universal communication.
Tang Junyi's system of the nine horizons seems to fulfill precisely these
In my discussion of it, I will consider the sources of Tang Junyi's philosophical
inspiration and nature of his project, the system itself, as well as its intended
function and application, its meaning to human life.
In his famous exposition of Kant's philosophy, Korner identifies what he
calls "metaphysical moments", experiences of philosophical inspiration,
which he portrays as "times at which, in reflection, we seem to be confronted
not with any particular isolated problem... but with experience, life or Being
as a whole", emphasizing that "without them there would be no sense
in religion and very little sense in many works of art and philosophy".
Tang's motivation to create an all-comprising system originated - so he explains
- with feelings reminiscent of that description feelings of unity and harmony
with all beings of this world, past present and future, a concern for life
and the world in general. He describes how these feelings had overwhelmed
him at various times in his life and how profound an impact they had had on
his understanding of the world and the formulation of his philosophy.
In his early philosophical works, Tang Junyi's main philosophical concern
rested with the absolute within the individual as well as the infinitude of
transcendence in the world in general. In his last work, "Life-Existences
and Horizons of the Mind" (shengming cunzai yu xinling jingjie, 生命存在与心灵境界),
he sought to put these concepts into perspective, relating them to the reality
of our experience.
Tang introduces a system of nine "horizons"(jingjie, 境界), different
levels of our apperception and understanding of the world. The human mind
(xin, 心) moves freely between those horizons, sometimes rising, sometimes
sinking, gaining a deeper insight or descending to a more shallow view of
the world and of its own position within this world.
The nine horizons are themselves arranged on three levels, the objective,
the subjective and that which transcends any subject-object-division. The
lower horizons, belonging to the objective realm, represent an outlook which
interprets the world as consisting of unconnected independent individual units
(1), as consisting of individuals organized according to kinds (2), or as
a network of causally interlinked units (3). The horizons of the subjective
level inspire us to view the world as either being but a part of our subjective
perception (4), abstract entities of our mind (5), or part of our moral valuations
(6). The last three horizons are superior to all other horizons because they
enrich our interpretation of the world by adding a dimension of transcendence.
They emphasize respectively on relating the world to a single omnipotent deity
(7), on regarding it as empty and illusionary (8), and on an awareness of
the interconnectedness of everything in existence (9). While the human mind
can undergo upwards- as well as downwards-movements on the scale of these
horizons, it is impossible to skip any of them on the way, development proceeds
only according to sequence (cidi, 次第). As Tang was convinced to have found
the key to the activities of the human mind and does but describe and illustrate
them, he takes the view that the nine horizons do not make up an artificially
created system, but are naturally given. While Tang believes that there is
nothing that is outside the nine horizons, he does not presume that it is
complete in the way expounded in his book. He states,
"This book neither makes use of all philosophies, nor does it reach
the horizon of no obstacles, yet it has enough dao to teach people. What I
call dao starts off with people's common talk and extends to an unthinkable
spiritual horizon, without being able to exhaust the meaning of this spiritual
horizon. Therefore the sages may look down on it and achieve it while those
who are not equal to it look up to it and aspire to it ... ... As it can be
perpetually developed and expanded, it can produce new kinds of dao, as it
can be divided and forked, it can produce a great number of dao. I agree to
people's opening up these dao, ... ... all of them can coexist without conflicting
with each other."
The last horizon is thus an endless one which he modestly felt he could
not exhaustively know, for he had not yet reached high enough a level of spiritual
development himself. The last horizon is an open one, comprising everything,
even that which we do not know, and more than even the creator of this system
could definitively tell. Philosophy as a discipline is located on the middle
horizon of abstraction, whereas the diversity of the ways of thought unfolding
within the history of world philosophy are spread over the whole spectrum
of horizons. The existences of these ways of thought are due to a "holding
on" (zhi, 执) to certain horizons by individuals - philosophers - or by
a group of people at certain times in history, initiating fashions of thought
and philosophical traditions.
However, as Tang explains, complex thought can, in its diverse aspects,
belong to more than one horizon at the same time. Some prominent traditions
are therefore chosen as relevant examples in more than one horizon. In this
way, Aristotle's thought is chosen to illustrate all three objective horizons,
as is that of Thomas Aquinas, which in addition features in the seventh transcendent
horizon of monotheism. Plato is made an example of the first two objective
horizons, as well as the fifth, subjective horizon of abstraction, while Buddhism
exemplifies the objective horizon of causation as well as the eighth horizon
Karl Jaspers intended to realize his idea of "world philosophy"
in his unfinished project of creating a history of world philosophies, in
which chronology and cultural spheres would be largely rejected as ordering
principles, while thinkers would be introduced according to common feature
of their thought. While Karl Jaspers was seeking ways in which to point to
the unity and differences of philosophies of the world proposing six different
approaches, Tang believed to have found the natural order in which the human
mind operates and which therefore involves a natural structure of all philosophical
viewpoints. It is not Tang's concern to do justice to these philosophies,
to expound them in full. He simply sifts out their core aspects to depict
certain positions within his system.
While displaying tolerance towards other philosophies of the world, and
even emphasizing the importance of their continued existence as stages towards
a higher truth, Tang, as he deals with these philosophies within the hierarchy
of his system, criticizes them, in order to point out their deficiencies and
to emphasize that, despite their indisputable value as mere stages of philosophical
development, our minds must not permanently reside in any of them. We have
to avoid the danger of them becoming impediments to our continued development.
To tolerate and not to destroy these philosophies, Tang explains, means
benevolence, ren（仁）, yet to criticize them means righteousness, yi（义）.
However, considering that Tang defines the highest horizon, that of jin
xinq li ming （尽性立命）, as all-comprising, as a level higher than all the others,
yet at the same time all containing as of the lower horizons, it would not
be possible to do away with other philosophies, as they are inextricably incapsulated
within the system and consequently within the last horizon. Therefore a philosophy
which would be to do justice to this horizon, and which could be considered
to exist on this highest horizon would have to be a "World philosophy"
in the sense of a philosophy which takes into consideration, or at the very
least is open to, other philosophies of the world. It thus becomes clear that
one of the most remarkable features of Tang Junyi's work is richness and openness.
He succeeds in accommodating a multiplicity of world views drawn from Chinese,
Indian and Western philosophies within one harmonious and consistent body
Tang Junyi's system seems all the more fascinating from a methodological
point of view as he was no doubt aware of the fact that systematic philosophy
in the West had long since had its day, and that current philosophical trends
seem to lead further away from such an approach than ever. Consequently, the
question remains why he chose the form of a system to expound his philosophy.
There are, as far as I can see, two reasons: Firstly, Tang Junyi explains
that in this way he managed to incorporate all aspects of human existence
and the world in general into his network of thought. Secondly, he was hoping
to provide a blueprint for a schematisation of fashions of thought which would
enable us to gain an insight into possible ways of developing towards higher
Although this form of philosophical discourse seems to be quite out of
fashion by contemporary Western standards, Tang Junyi insisted that the motivation
to create his monumental work was closely connected to the status quo of the
present: He meant to answer to what he termed the "call of the era"
(shidai zhi huzhao, 时代之呼召). Interestingly, a few years before that, Jaspers
seems to have heard the same call, as he regarded world philosophy as the
"task of the era". Tang Junyi saw that contemporary philosophies
are not only confronted with a consolidated technocratic consciousness, but
also with the disintegration of religious consciousness. In response to this
challenge, he felt that our time was in need of just such a philosophy, of
metaphysical questions and religious spirit.
Tang Junyi argues that in our present situation there is a strong need
for a transcendent element to thought: We ought to establish a belief in the
possibility of realization of our ideals. In order to do so, we have to regain
a spirit of religious or metaphysical faith. Tang recommends that Western
philosophy should try to establish a link with the spirit of European medieval
religious faith, or with the philosophies of China, in order to overcome the
state of paralysis and helplessness as we find ourselves unable to change
things according to our conceptions, to realize our ideals. We are in danger
of either holding on to an ideal which will always remain pure theory and
may never be realizable or of getting entangled in disillusioning, this-worldly
concerns, from which we cannot draw any strength, as we struggle to guard
against corruption and misuse of our ideals in the real world. As we are often
unaware of the reasons for our failure, Tang argues that true wisdom would
be to understand the key to our rise and decline. The faculty which enables
us to do so he calls xingqing （性情）, our "natural feelings" which-he
likens to Plato's Eros. On the basis of these we can achieve unity of knowledge
and action (zhi xing he yi, 知行合一), as that enable us to distinguish between
right and wrong and prompt us to correct action. It is therefore necessary
to strive to gain an understanding of and recapture a sensitivity for our
As Tang regards our ideals as being of transcendent quality whereas our
actions are of physical quality, he argues that it is necessary to bridge
the two. Reconsidering the values of religious aspects of our own historical
past or those of Eastern philosophies will help us to realize the aim of combining
knowledge and action.
Taking into account different kinds of philosophy of the world within his
own philosophy is, as Tang himself points out, one of the principal ingredients
of his work. He claims that contradictions between different schools of thought
are necessary to further our understanding of the world. To his mind, the
theories brought forth by different philosophers are intended to be contradictory
by Heaven. They all point to the same truth, while displaying different aspects
of it. Tang likens this state of affairs to a piece of literature within which
contradicting emotions, sadness and joy, have their place, not only without
disturbing, but even constituting, the oneness of the work. The key to true
learning and intellectual as well as moral development lies within seeking
to link up such philosophies.
This recognition entails two consequences for Tang Junyi's work: Firstly,
he claims that in writing philosophy he did not primarily pursue the aim of
setting up a new philosophy but the intention of teaching himself and others.
Secondly, in order to make this possible, he sought to establish his arguments
within the points of conflict of contradicting ways of thought, saying that
"where there is mutual difference and opposition (xiang yi xiang fan,
相异相反) there is a suitable opportunity for successful teaching."
However, the nine horizons are designed not merely to be a guide to the
personal development of individuals. Although Tang's system is designed to
be of timeless validity, it may be applied to historical conditions of particular
countries or even the world as a whole.
Tang Junyi writes that in order to estimate the present situation, to grasp
its principal characteristics, all one needs to do is combine the "common
sense of he time" with his system. This will enable us to adequately
interpret social, cultural and political trends.
Illustrating his point, Tang makes an assessment of the world-wide situation
at the time of the creation of this book, the mid-1970's. He believed that
the world was developing downwards from the horizon of abstraction to the
horizon of perception, a "high-speed turning downwards and outside"-movement
"towards the consciousness of the genuine possibility of the extinction
of humanity". Tang believed that this possibility, generated by the construction
of atomic weapons, presented a challenge which humanity, in order to escape
destruction, had to counter by adopting fearless attitude of a Christian or
Buddhist believer or a Confucian sage. In this way an upwards development
towards the last three horizons would be encouraged. To reach the highest
horizon would be possible by making ourselves aware that all things are interconnected.
To affirm and act upon this interconnectedness in the context of human relationships
is what the historical situation demands-an attitude of ren（仁）.
Tang Junyi's concern is for humanity as a whole. In designing his vast
and all-comprising system, Tang believes that such a schematisation of thought
may help us to make ourselves aware of our position within the scale of horizons,
we may be made to reconsider our own viewpoints, to understand how our rise
and decline come about, and are thus given the opportunity to rise above our
present state of mind, developing towards higher horizons-not only in philosophy
but also in everyday life. As this philosophy is to be of such practical use,
it is, with its additional aspect of transcendence, clearly intended to be
of more extensive significance than philosophy as it appears under the heading
of the horizon of abstraction.
Tang Junyi's work may be likened to that of a master-composer: Not only
did he draw his initial inspiration from a similar source as a great musician
may have done, his philosophical composition bears the traits of a symphony,
playing especially on the contrapoints of world philosophies. I can never
stop wondering at the absence of a deafening turmoil which must result from
such a monumental ensemble playing of diversity and differences. But indeed
we never have to cover our ears in apprehension of discord: Tang Jungyi appears
to have succeeded in establishing perfect harmony within disharmony.
One may disagree with his evaluation and classification of the individual
philosophies of the world, as well as with other aspects concerning the structure
of the system, further critical debate of which would certainly be fruitful
as well as desirable not least of all from Tang Junyi's point of view. However,
the attempt of bringing together all possible modes of thought, the great
openness and inner broadness involved in the system, as well as its intended
universal applicability, may justifiablg leave us under the strong impression
that here we are faced with "world philosophy".