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Xenophanes of Colophon March 5, 2012

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Like the other founders of Greek philosophy, Xenophanes lived in Ionia and investigated natural phenomena such as the basic substances, the history and structure of the cosmos, and weather phenomena. He is best known for his criticisms of religious beliefs and practices, for his own conception of the divine, and for being the earliest philosopher to discuss epistemological questions.

A poet who traveled widely in Greek lands, he composed his philosophical work in verse, presumably for performance, which suggests that his radical theological views were not abhorrent to his audiences. Some forty fragments of his writings survive, more than one hundred lines, far more than what remains from any earlier philosopher.

His theological fragments consist in statements that seemingly criticize the anthropomorphic polytheism of Greek tradition and in pronouncements on the true nature of god. He claims that (just like the Greeks) Ethiopians and Thracians believe their gods look like themselves (frag. 16) and that if animals could draw, horses would depict their gods as horses, oxen as oxen, etc. (frag. 15). He reproaches the revered poets Homer and Hesiod for ascribing to the gods actions humans con- sider immoral (frag. 11).

He does not argue that these diverse accounts of the divine are false or even contradictory, but the remark about animals seems intended to ridicule the differing human (including Greek) beliefs about the gods. Nor is the reproach about the gods’ behavior an argument, but it further undermines tradition: Greeks not only think the gods are like humans, they think they are immoral too!

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Xenophon February 27, 2012

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Xenophon

Xenophon

Xenophon was an Athenian citizen, soldier, gentleman-farmer, historian, and author of many varied and often graceful prose works. When young he knew Socrates, whom he consulted before joining, in 401, the famous expedition to Persia narrated in his masterpiece, the Anabasis.

Xenophon played a part in leading the defeated remnant back to Greece. Meanwhile, in 399, Socrates had been executed on trumped-up charges. In the subsequent pamphleteering, Xenophon wrote in Socrates’ defense.

His so-called Apology of Socrates is an unconvincing footnote to Plato’s; but later he compiled his extensive and valuable Memorabilia (Recollections of Socrates) the work that has given Xenophon, not himself a philosopher, considerable importance to all post-Socratic philosophers.

In it Xenophon supplemented his defense of Socrates against specific charges (made in a pamphlet by Polycrates) with a more general description of his character as a man, a friend, and a teacher, strongly emphasizing his beneficial influence on all who knew him and, for illustration, recording many conversations in which Socrates’ views or methods were displayed.

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Xunzi February 22, 2012

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Xunzi

Xunzi

Among the classical Confucian thinkers of the Warring States period (Zhanguo 475–221 BCE), Xunzi plays a commanding role in the systematic development and defense of Confucian Tradition. Xunzi’s teachings are contained in the Xunzi, compiled by Liu Xiang of the Former Han (206 BCE–8 CE).

Although some scholars have questioned the authenticity of some of the essays, this work shows remarkable coherent and reasoned statements of the central aspects of the Confucian ethical and political vision of a harmonious and well-ordered society.

Moreover, especially impressive is Xunzi’s wide-ranging interest in such timeless issues as the ideal of the good human life, relation between morality and human nature, the nature of deliberation, ethical discourse and argumentation, moral agency and moral knowledge, the ethical significance of honor and shame, ethical uses of historical knowledge, moral education, and personal cultivation. Because of the comprehensive and systematic character of his philosophical concerns, Xunzi is sometimes compared to Aristotle.

Whereas both Mencius and Xunzi are exponents and defenders of Confucius’s ideal of well-ordered society, traditional Chinese scholars often distinguish their thought by the contrast between government by ren or benevolence and government by li (rites, rules of proper conduct). However, for both, the key concepts are ren, yi (righteousness, rightness, fittingness), and li.

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Yamazaki Ansai February 19, 2012

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Yamazaki Ansai

Yamazaki Ansai

Yamazaki Ansai, the Japanese Confucianist notable for his ethical bent and Confucian rationalization of Shintoism, was raised at Kyoto in a Buddhist monastery. He was so unruly that he was sent to Tosa (now the city of Kochi) on Shikoku Island, where he came under the influence of Tani Jichu (1598–1649), the originator of the southern branch of the Zhu Xi school of Confucianism in Japan.

Having discarded Buddhism, Yamazaki taught Zhu Xi Confucianism in Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) from 1648. Uncompromising in character, he condescended in 1665 to become the official scholar of Hoshina Masayuki, lord of Aizu (in northeast Japan). At Hoshina’s death in 1672 Yamazaki returned to Kyoto and developed his Confucian Shintoism.

Though a stern Confucianist teacher he gathered around him more than six thousand students; among the best were Asami Keisai (1652–1711), Sato Naokata (1650–1719), and Miyake Shosai (1662–1741). They formed the Kimon or Ansai school. However, Yamazaki’s Shintoism held the seed of disharmony; before his death this school split into four. He urged the ethical formula keinai gigai, that is, “Devotion within, righteousness without”.

By “devotion” he meant not simply Confucian self-cultivation but rather a religiously rectified mind related to cosmic reason. By “righteousness” he meant virtue toward others. His maxim, “Learning is knowing and practice”, suggests a middle way between overemphasis on mastery of the mind and overemphasis on social virtues.

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Yang Xiong February 13, 2012

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Yang Xiong

Yang Xiong

Having achieved his youthful ambition to become court poet, Yang Xiong spent his thirties and forties producing the occasional fu (rhapsodic poems) the throne required.

Sometime around his fiftieth year, perhaps in reaction to the factionalized politics at the capital, Yang came to disparage his own poetic genius, equating the verbal pyrotechnics with childish games injurious to the moral process.

In consequence, Yang turned to composing and then defending three works, the Taixuan jing (Canon of Supreme Mystery; c. 4 CE), the Fayan (Model Sayings;c.12 CE), and the Fangyan (Dialect Words; unfinished?).

Creating these new “classics” (jing) required greater ingenuity on Yang’s part than writing fu, for Yang sought to capture both the inner message and the outer form of the canonical works: The Mystery was patterned after the Yijing (Classic of Changes); the Model Sayings, after the Lunyu (Analects); and the Fangyan claimed inspiration from the ancient Chou transcriptions of the Odes and possibly also the Erya, an early word list ascribed to Confucius. By such bold attempts at “renewing the old”, Yang would restore the authentic teachings of the sages.

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Yang Zhu February 12, 2012

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Yang Zhu

Yang Zhu

Not much has been discovered about Yang Zhu the person from the documents that still exist. However, the Mencius, the Xunzi, the Hanfeizi, the Lushi Chunqiu, the Huainanzi, and the Lunheng all confirm that Yang’s school was one of the most influential in pre-Qin China.

For Mencius, Yang and Mo Di were the most influential thinkers prior to Mencius’s time, although he criticized Yang’s emphasis on the individual and its anarchist consequence, as well as his selfishness and apathy to the public interest. These criticisms, however, are somewhat misleading for an understanding of the true nature of Yang’s thought.

In the past, Chinese intellectuals were led to believe that “Yang Zhu chooses to exist only for his own self, and does nothing for the world, not even by drawing one hair of his” (Mencius 3B 9). Yet an unbiased understanding, based on existing texts, reveals that Yang cherished the value of life and the authenticity of self.

For example, the Hanfeizi said that Yang was one who “despised things and values life”. In the Lushi Chunqiu,it was said that “Scholar Yang elevates the self”. And, according to the Huainanzi, “To keep the totality of one’s natural life and conserve the authenticy of one’s self, not to burden one’s body with external things. This is that upon which Yangzi stands, yet it is criticized by Mencius”.

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Zhuangzi February 3, 2012

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Zhuangzi

Zhuangzi

Zhuangzi, the greatest Daoist next to Laozi, was also known by his private name, Zhou. Not much is known about his life except that he was a minor government official at one time and that he later declined a prime ministership in the state of Chu to retain his freedom.

Although Zhuangzi and Mencius were contemporaries, they were not acquainted with each other’s teachings. Zhuangzi advanced the concept of Dao and gave Daoism a dynamic character. To him, Dao as Nature is not only spontaneity but also a constant flux, for all things are in a state of perpetual “self-transformation”, each according to its own nature and in its own way.

If there is an agent directing this process, there is no evidence of it. Things seem to develop from simple to higher life and finally to man, but man will return to the simple stuff, thus completing a cycle of transformation.

In this unceasing transfiguration, things appear and disappear. In such a universe “time cannot be recalled” and things move like “a galloping horse”. They seem to be different, some large and some small, some beautiful and some ugly, but Dao equalizes them as one.

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Zhu Xi February 2, 2012

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Zhu Xi

Zhu Xi

Zhu Xi was a leading scholar, thinker, and teacher of the revival of philosophical Confucianism known at the time as Daoxue (learning of the way), often referred to as neo-Confucianism. The prolific author of texts synthesizing the views of his immediate predecessors and reinterpreting the classical canon, Zhu Xi attained a status in the Chinese tradition comparable to that of Thomas Aquinas in the European world.

Zhu’s influence has been even more pervasive and long-lived, however; from 1313 until their abolition in 1905, China’s civil service examinations took Zhu’s commentaries to be the authoritative interpretations of the classics. Hence for nearly a millennium every literate individual in China had at least some familiarity with Zhu’s teachings.

Zhu was born into turbulent times. In 1127 Jurchen people conquered northern China. Zhu’s father was among many who protested the humiliating peace treaty that China was forced to accept, and he was demoted to a rural position in Anhui, where Zhu was born.

Zhu took up his father’s politics as he matured, committing himself to the hawkish group that wanted to take back the north. Partly out of disenchantment with the regime’s failure to follow such policies, Zhu never played a significant role in the national bureaucracy despite having passed the highest-level civil service exam and having received his jinshi degree at the age of nineteen.

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Theodor Ziehen January 22, 2012

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Theodor Ziehen

Theodor Ziehen

Theodor Ziehen, the German psychologist and philosopher, was born in Frankfurt am Main and served as professor of psychiatry at the universities of Jena, Utrecht, Halle, and Berlin. He lived as a private scholar in Wiesbaden from 1912 to 1917, when he returned to teaching as professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Halle. He retired in 1930.

Ziehen’s viewpoint in epistemology is in the broadest sense positivistic. Knowledge must start with that which is experientially given, which Ziehen termed “becomings” (gignomene). From this “gignomenal principle” follows the “principle of immanence”, according to which there is no such thing as metaphysical knowledge of the transcendental, and therefore it is nonsensical to want to know that which is not given.

The first task of philosophy thus consists in seeking the laws of all that is given (the “positivistic” or “nomistic” principle). According to Ziehen, such a “gignomenological” investigation leads to the conclusion that the traditional antithesis between the subjective, mental world of consciousness and the objective, material external world is inadmissible because the given is “psychophysically neutral”.

We must, however, distinguish two kinds of law-governed relations: The gignomene are to be called mental insofar as they are considered with regard to their “parallel components” (the mental, subjective ingredients of experiences, which parallel certain physiological processes); and the gignomene are to be understood as physical insofar as attention is fixed on their “reduction ingredients” (“reducts”), which are subject to causal laws.

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Xavier Zubiri January 22, 2012

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Xavier Zubiri

Xavier Zubiri

Xavier Zubiri, the Spanish Christian ontologist, was born in San Sebastián. He was professor of the history of philosophy in Madrid from 1926 to 1936 and in Barcelona from 1940 to 1942, after an absence abroad during the Spanish Civil War. He then left university teaching to give well-attended “private courses” in Madrid. His influence in Spain has been out of all proportion to the scanty amount of his published work.

Zubiri has been called a Christian existentialist, and indeed that is one aspect of his effort to synthesize neoscholastic theology with certain contemporary philosophies (those of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and José Ortega y Gasset) and with modern science. To achieve this harmonizing of separate disciplines, Zubiri undertook studies in theology, philosophy, and natural science that could well have occupied three scholarly lives.

He took a doctorate of theology in Rome and of philosophy in Madrid (where he studied under Ortega) before attending Heidegger’s lectures in Freiburg and studying physics, biology, and Asian languages in various European centers. He translated into Spanish not only metaphysical works by Heidegger but also texts on quantum theory, atomic science, and mathematical physics generally.

From this extensive study Zubiri concluded that positive science and Catholic philosophy were separate points of view concerning the same reality. The philosopher-theologian cannot dispute, correct, or complete anything in science, but neither does he have to accept the philosophical opinions of scientists.

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