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Kant’s coining of «reflective judgment» in the third Critique by a conceptual clarification of the third higher cognitive faculty has long been criticized as redundant for his philosophical system and deemed a typical Kantian architectonic failure. Zhu Xi’s vital development of the doctrine «gewu» in his commentary on The Great Learning has been attacked for centuries for committing a hermeneutic fallacy. I argue that a comparative study shows that both conceptions steered a metaphysical transition towards «the supersensible» in each philosophy, leading to a similar construction of moral teleology. Zhu Xi’s «li» is comparable to Kant’s «purpose» as a moral teleological property. The Neo-Confucian li-qi dichotomy provides a counterpart of the Kantian double causality. Nevertheless, Neo-Confucian moral teleology does not rely on a Kantian-type rationalistic deduction concerning the idea of highest good (as final purpose) nor on the so-called intellectual intuition. Gewu looks outwards for the moral coherence between humans and things, while Kant ultimately rejects the natural world for the sake of moral certainty in terms of freedom and identifies what is unique within us.

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1 A reconstruction of Kant’s moral teleology

1From 1784 to 1789, roughly the period of Kant’s conceiving and writing of the Critique of Judgment, Kant was directly embroiled in three influential disputes, one with the religious fanatics concerning faith (1784-1786), one with the Wolffians concerning dogmatic metaphysics (1786-1788), and one with Herder concerning organic force (1785). All these controversies point to the same category: the supersensible. Robert Butts thinks that «the problem of the status of the supersensible is Kant’s central problem throughout his philosophical career» (Butts 1984: 5). Although such a strong claim is still debatable, the issue of finding a proper method of ascending to the supersensible in a more positive and consistent manner poses a crucial challenge for Kant in the late critical period. The three Critiques, despite their being devoted to different cognitive powers, finally converge into a common path towards a moral teleology that culminates in Kant’s conceptions of final purpose and highest good.

1.1 The CJ and CPrR in an integrated Philosophical Teleological Review

2In his The Teleology of Reason, Courtney D. Fugate (Fugate 2014.) attempts to provide an integrated explanation of Kant’s critical philosophy in light of teleology. Although like Fugate, I endorse the ultimate teleological motivation of Kant’s critical philosophy and the strong teleological basis of his work, I insist that Kant’s teleology is essentially a moral teleology. Thus, my reading and interpretation of Kant’s teleology is based on a central Kantian moral teleological thesis: the final purpose (Endzweck) as the highest good (höchster Zweck). Furthermore, different from Fugate, I particularly focus on the role of reflective judgment in constructing a coherent Kantian teleology and the place of the third Critique in it. I thereby attempt to integrate Kant’s «Critique of teleological judgment» into a coherent Kantian teleology, which is to an extent overlooked by Fugate.

  • 1 In Peter McLaughlin’s Kant’s Critique of Teleology in Biological Explanation, he reads and interpre (...)

3As I attempt to show in what follows, if philosophical teleology is a doctrine that employs the concepts of purpose and purposiveness and the principle of the causality of purposes for explanation, then Kantian teleology is actually established much earlier before his «Critique of Teleology» in the CJ, and is also much broader than his teleological reflection on the organism. In fact, even the «Critique of Teleology» in the CJ surpasses a mere biological explanation of organism and reaches a more metaphysical level in its discussion of nature as a teleological system, the final purpose of the world, and the validity of the physicotheological teleological proof of the existence of God.1

4Below I will review the major themes investigated by Kant’s reflective judgment from a general philosophical-teleological perspective in the terms of purposiveness and purpose. From there, I also bring the themes of the CPrR into an integrated teleological picture.

a. Purposiveness in the CJ.

The concept of purposiveness in general

  • 2 Kant has various terms for different kinds of rules, such as principle, rule, law, maxim, imperativ (...)

5For Kant, purposiveness is a peculiar lawfulness – «purposiveness is a lawfulness that [something] contingent [may] have [insofar] as [it] is contingent» (Kant 1987: 405)2. Besides this unhelpful, subtle definition, the peculiarity of the concept of purposiveness of the power of reflective judgment is rather clear, which can be understood in the following aspects:

    • 3 Kant states that «objective use of the pure concepts of reason is always transcendent, whereas obje (...)

    The concept of purposiveness is neither immanent like pure concepts of the understanding, nor transcendent like the ideas of reason3. On the one hand, it is not immanent in the sense that «the concept of purposiveness is not at all a constitutive concept of experience; it is not [a concept that can] determine an appearance [and so] belong to an empirical concept of the object, for it is not a category» (ivi: 407-408). On the other hand, the concept of purposiveness is also unlike mere ideas of reason which are transcendent in the sense that «no corresponding object can be given for them in experience» (Kant 1997: 413). The concept of purposiveness, as the a priori principle of reflective judgment, is realized in a «reflection» that entails something given in a presentation, either as intuition or concept (Kant 1987: 399).

  1. Among the Kantian hierarchy of lawfulness, unlike the other sorts of lawfulness such as pure concepts of understanding or imperatives of practical reason, purposiveness of judgment is coordinated with one of the three capacities of the soul, the feelings of pleasure or displeasure (ivi: 16).

  2. Purposiveness is a self-given legislation by an autonomous power of reflective judgment. It is a concept «perceive[d] in our power of judgment[…][when] it merely reflects on[…]the object’s empirical intuition [of the aesthetics presentation][…]or on the empirical concepts [of the natural objects]» (ivi: 408). Therefore, «it is actually the power of judgment that is technical. Nature is presented as technical only insofar as it harmonizes with, and [so] necessitates, that [technical] procedure of judgment» (ivi: 408). By «technical» Kant here means art-like. Insofar as the essence of art is the presupposition of a purpose in its causality (rather than merely something being made, or artificial) (ivi: 179), «technical» can be understood as «purposive» in this context.

6Generally speaking, the two parts of the CJ are devoted to the a priori principles of the power of (reflective) judgment in its concept of purpose (and purposiveness) – the «Critique of Aesthetic Judgment» on subjective purposiveness of aesthetic presentation in ourselves, and the «Critique of Teleological Judgment» on objective purposiveness of organisms.

The concept of purposiveness of aesthetic judgment

7Kant uses purposiveness for interpreting these major notions in the CJ:

  1. He defines beauty in terms of purposiveness without a purpose (Kant 1987: 72), or subjective formal purposiveness (ivi: 30). I argue that the actual inference involves a mediating concept, «cognition in general», that connects beauty with «purposiveness» in a delicate argument (roughly from section 1 to 13 of the CJ). «Cognition in general» is not a specific cognition, but the a priori pattern or structure of the cognitive powers in a «proportioned attunement» (ivi: 61-63).

  2. He defines «the sublime» in terms of a subjective and non-formal purposiveness (ivi: 141-142). «Aesthetic purposiveness is the [subjective] lawfulness of the power of judgment in its freedom» (ivi: 131), which merely refers to subjective bases. He explains that judgments about «the beautiful» or «the sublime» each contain a purposive relation to the cognitive powers. However, the former leads to «cognition in general» which lies a priori at the pattern of understanding (ivi: 63), while the latter lies a priori at the basis of the power of purposes, viz., the will, and thus is associated with practical reason (ivi: 142).

8In this sense, aesthetic reflective judgment via its concept of purpose and principle of subjective purposiveness cooperates with and bridges the other two higher cognitive powers and their respective concepts, nature and freedom. The concept of (aesthetic) purposiveness therefore provides the first moment of a teleological coherence in the critical philosophical system:

Both of these are explications of universally valid aesthetic judging and as such refer to subjective bases. In the case of the beautiful, the reference is to subjective bases of sensibility as they are purposive for the benefit of the contemplative understanding. In the case of the sublime, the reference is to subjective bases as they are purposive in relation to moral feeling, namely, against sensibility but at the same time, and within the very same subject, for the purposes of practical reason. The beautiful prepares us for loving something, even nature, without interest; the sublime, for esteeming it even against our interest (of sense), [and therefore realizing the freedom] (ivi: 127).

The concept of purposiveness of teleological judgment

9In contrast to the above-mentioned two species of aesthetic purposiveness, the objective purposiveness of the natural organism, or so called «natural purpose» in the teleological judgment, manifests a paradox in its very conception: «as concept of a natural product it contains natural necessity; and yet, as concept of that same thing as a purpose, it contains at the same time a contingency» (ivi: 278). It also leads to «the concept of a natural causality in terms of the rule of purposes – and even more so the concept of a being which is the original basis of nature, viz., a being» as the first cause, which «cannot be proved by reason» or «given us in experience» (ivi: 279). The teleological judgment in its reflection on the natural world assumes «a special kind of causality, or at least a quite distinct lawfulness of nature» (ivi: 236), «viz. the causality of purposes (the nexus finalis)» (ibidem) or the so-called second causality, that I will explicate in detail later.

  • 4 «Hence, the methodology [the study of the method] of teleology has at least a negative influence on (...)
  • 5 «Positing purposes of nature in natural products insofar as these form a system in terms of teleolo (...)

10The causality of purposes is not problematic in the practical domain, since Kant defines the will as the faculty of purpose (Kant 1997: 378). However, this causality perceived by the teleological judgment in its reflection on the natural world is merely a pseudo nexus finalis, insofar as it is only «designated […] by analogy with the causality [the real nexus finalis] we have in the technical [purposive] use of reason» (Kant 1987: 264) so as to guide scientific research. It has «a negative [methodological] influence on how we must proceed in theoretical natural science»,4 and provides «a heuristic principle for investigating the particular laws of nature» (ivi: 295), or «a special guide» in «describing nature» in terms of the natural purpose and the teleological system (ivi: 302).5 After all, teleological purposiveness is only a foreign principle, rather than an indigenous (or inherent) principle for science (ivi: 260).

  • 6 «The concept of a thing as a natural purpose is one that subsumes nature under a causality that is (...)

11To conclude, the purposiveness of teleological reflective judgment is a self-legislated lawfulness by reflective judgment in analogy to reason’s capacity, and is vouched for by the peculiarity of our discursive understanding (ivi: 292).6 It is a purposiveness with a presupposed purpose – «we need the idea of purposes in order to study these things in their causal connection and to cognize the lawfulness in that connection» (ivi: 282). It is truly functional as an a priori principle of reflective judgment, but without a confirmation of objective reality by other cognitive powers.

For purposes in nature are not given to us by the object: we do not actually observe purposes in nature as intentional ones, but merely add this concept [to nature’s products] in our thought, as a guide for judgment in reflecting on these products. [And] an a priori justification for accepting such a concept, as having objective reality, is even impossible for us (ivi: 292).

  • 7 She argues that «the purposiveness of nature for our understanding may, on the most straightforward (...)
  • 8 One standard to distinguish pure aesthetic judgment from teleological judgment is whether there is (...)

12Rachel Zuckert (2007: 358) is correct in claiming that «the CJ may be read to comprise a unified project in defense of the subjectively necessary principle of purposiveness, a project necessary to supplement Kant’s account of the a priori conditions for the possibility of judgment, knowledge, and experience in the CPR». In this regard, the CJ is what I call a hermeneutic layer of the critical philosophy established in the CPR. However, her generalization of a unified a priori principle of «three forms of judgment» as «the principle of purposiveness without a purpose» (ivi: 69-87) needs reconsideration. At the least, her argument that purposiveness of teleological judgment is also «the principle of purposiveness without a purpose» (ivi: 90) is inaccurate.7 Different from aesthetic judgment, Kant emphasizes that teleological judgment cannot be simply «without a purpose» but needs to presuppose a purpose as a functional part in the actual judging (Kant 1987: 130, 322), even if this presupposed purpose does not have any objective reality.8

13In the concept of purposiveness of teleological judgment, one finds the second moment of a teleological coherence in the critical philosophical system. However, its mediating role is quite different from that of the purposiveness of aesthetic judgment, which plays the intermediary by referring to two different subjective bases that respectively link to understanding and practical reason. The purposiveness of teleological judgment, via its presupposed natural purpose and causality of purposes in nature as a teleological system, elicits the idea of «final purpose» or the «highest purpose» – a practical concept in the natural domain (Kant 2002: 146-163). The investigation of the different human higher cognitive powers eventually converges into a single idea – final purpose.

It is judgment that presupposes this condition a priori, and without regard to the practical, [so that] this power provides us with the concept that mediates between the concepts of nature and the concept of freedom: the concept of a purposiveness of nature, which makes possible the transition from pure theoretical to pure practical lawfulness, from lawfulness in terms of nature to the final purpose set by the concept of freedom. For it is through this concept that we cognize the possibility of [achieving] the final purpose, which can be actualized only in nature and in accordance with its laws (Kant 1987: 36-37).

b. Purposiveness beyond the CJ

14Lawfulness implies necessity and universality. Purposiveness as a peculiar lawfulness – the a priori principle of reflective judgment (either aesthetic or teleological) – is a peculiar self-given lawfulness which allows us to «put final causes into things» during the reflection of our presentation, which is empirically given, and thus, entails only subjective universality. Kant argues: «[this] concept of reflective judgment, which enables us to perceive inwardly a purposiveness of our presentations, can also be applied to the presentation of the object [itself] as falling under this concept» (Kant 1987: 408). A footnote follows this claim: «We say that we put final causes into things, rather than, as it were, lifting them out of our perception of things» (ivi: 408).

  • 9 Kant also calls this sort of purposiveness as being «intellectual and intrinsically purposive».

15In the CJ, Kant makes a distinction between aesthetic purposiveness and «pure intellectual purposiveness (the supersensible)» - the latter refers to «the moral good» and reveals the «supersensible power» of our «inner freedom» (ivi: 131-133).9 This distinction leads Kant’s teleological thinking on purposiveness to transcending the CJ and merging into a greater theory. In the practical domain, the sort of lawfulness of the purposiveness engaged by practical reason (such as the idea of highest good in a moral purpose) has more than heuristic, self-legislated subjective necessity: rather it concerns the moral imperative which has «the pure objective determining basis» in the pure practical reason of «all finite beings» (Kant 2002: 47). In the Groundwork, Kant conceives the famous «categorical imperative» in terms of purpose (Gregor 1998: 37, 45). The CPrR is Kant’s further systematic study of «the practical use of reason», in which «reason deals with determining bases of the will» (Kant 2002: 5,15). It is «concerned with a will and has to examine reason not in relation to objects but in relation to this will and its causality» (Kant 2002: 23). For Kant, the will «is the faculty of ends» (Kant 1997: 378). As P.C. Lo (1987: 41) points out, «Kant makes it very clear that when we deal with human conduct on an individual level […]we have to deal with it through a teleological perspective».

16Kant’s teleological thinking is clearly present in his philosophy before the «Critique of Teleology». The CJ and the CPrR together depict a broader picture of Kantian philosophical teleology that surpasses the teleological reflection on organism. In this regard, it is not coincidental that both Critiques, even if starting from critical investigations of rather disparate cognitive powers, eventually converge concerning the moral proof of metaphysical ideas such as the special second causality of purpose, the concept of first cause or the original basis of nature (or the world), namely, God, etc. All these points entail a single idea: the highest good.

1.2. The moral teleological confluence: Final purpose as highest good

17Kant’s philosophical teleology is a moral teleology. Critical thinking is finally accomplished in Kant’s identification of the Summum Bonum (highest good) as the final purpose, and consequently sheds light on a moral teleological fact (that has «subjective practical reality»): «the idea of a final purpose in using our freedom according to moral laws […] [lies in that] reason [determining] us a priori to strive to the utmost to further the highest good in the world» (Kant 1987: 343). In addition, the «ultimate purpose of humanity» is «morally good» (ivi: 165). The realization of this moral teleological confluence in the CPrR and in the CJ are related. Below I reconstruct the main arguments:

CPrR: From highest good to final purpose

  • 10 Emphasis mine.
  • 11 Or, the «entire object of a pure practical reason» (Kant 2002: 139).

18In the CPrR, by a transcendental deduction, Kant first demonstrates that the «possibility of the highest good» rests «solely on a priori bases of cognition»: «it is a priori (morally) necessary [and possible] to produce the highest good through freedom of the will» (Kant 2002: 144).10 He then links the moral idea of «highest good» to the teleological idea of «final purpose», or «highest purpose» in light of his reflection on «the moral law». Although the highest good is not «the determining basis» of «a pure practical reason, i.e., of a pure will» (ivi: 139), which is solely the moral law, it is nevertheless «the object and final purpose of pure practical reason» (ivi: 163).11 «The highest good is the necessary highest purpose of a morally determined will – a true object of practical reason» (ivi: 146). «To bring about the highest good in the world is the necessary object of a will determinable by the moral law» (ivi: 155). Finally, based on his moral teleological conception of «highest good», Kant justifies the necessary metaphysical «postulate[s] of pure practical reason», such as «the immortality of the soul» (ibidem) and «a supreme cause» (or «a cause of nature as a whole»), i.e., God (ivi: 158). These so-called transcendental ideas, or «the supersensible», which had been causing perennial problems within the German intellectual scene during Kant’s late critical period, are now for the first time settled within his critical philosophical system with a teleological coherence. Metaphysics was thereby saved, in Kant’s opinion, thanks to the moral teleology.

19However, although Kant’s second Critique for the first time properly settled the issue of «the supersensible» in critical philosophy, it nevertheless caused the split of reason and exposed a vital systemic asymmetry within Kantian critical philosophy. The third Critique, as to some extent a hermeneutic effort of self-exegesis of critical philosophy, was therefore a necessary remedy for the newly emerged systemic problem, as well as a reinforcement for the settlement of the issue of «the supersensible» which still confronted critical philosophy with its new variations (for example, Herder’s «organic force»).

CJ: From final purpose to highest good

20The moral teleological confluence realized in the CJ takes a change in direction: here Kant orients the teleological idea «final purpose» to the moral idea «highest good». By applying the teleological judgment in the study of nature, Kant harvests two major concepts: organism as the natural purpose (Kant 1987: 277), and nature as a teleological system (ivi: 302). The former expands the explanatory power of Kant’s critical philosophy into the inconceivable «chimera of natural powers» (ivi: 295), namely, «natural objects whose possibility is inconceivable to us in terms merely of the principle of mechanism[…]so that we must rely also on teleological principles» (ivi: 298). The latter leads the third Critique eventually to a quest to reach the end of the teleological causal chain, the ultimate purpose of nature, «the purpose by reference to which all other natural things constitute a system of purposes» (ivi: 317). Kant argues that the human is the ultimate purpose of nature, because «he is the only being on earth who can form a concept of purposes and use his reason to turn an aggregate of purposively structured things into a system of purposes».

21Kant then links the ultimate purpose to «the final purpose». Here I outline his key propositions:

221. Ultimate purpose is not congruent with final purpose. Final purpose must be something supersensible rather than «natural» (in the sense of material nature). «We can even prove a priori that what might perhaps be an ultimate purpose for nature can still, insofar as it is a natural thing, never be a final purpose, even if we endow it with all conceivable [natural] attributes and properties» (ivi: 313).

232. Only humans have the capacity to refer to the supersensible. Therefore, through the very existence of the human being, Kant connects the ideas of the ultimate purpose of a teleological system and the final purpose, «If we regard nature as a teleological system, then it is man’s vocation to be the ultimate purpose of nature[…]the final purpose, however we must not seek within nature at all» (ivi: 318). Next, insofar as the supersensible in us (and available to us) is essentially moral, Kant reveals that the final purpose, different from other purposes, is characterized by its moral constitution (property) – it is identical to the highest good. This links the CJ with the CPrR in an integrated moral teleology.

243. Echoing number one, final purpose must be unconditioned, i.e. «[requiring] no other purpose as a condition of its possibility» (ivi: 322), and it is not within nature (ivi: 5, 322), but pertains to the supersensible.

254. The power of judgment in its reflection on nature steers our teleological thinking from the supersensible idea of final purpose – which is essentially beyond its grasp – towards a moral idea of highest good. But only in pure practical reason and its a priori principle can the final purpose be identified as the highest good, as is already established by Kant in the CPrR.

Only pure reason can provide a priori a final purpose (because all the purposes in the world are empirically conditioned and [hence] cannot contain what is good absolutely…). And only a final purpose would instruct me how I must conceive of the supreme cause of nature in order to judge nature as a teleological system[…] (ivi: 329).

265. Therefore, in the existence of the human «as a moral being» and through human’s moral capacity (namely, «the freedom of his power of desire»), the «final purpose of creation» is thereby discovered, and so is its moral property – «the highest good under moral law» (ivi: 331-332).

Moral laws[…]have this peculiar characteristic: they prescribe something to reason and they prescribe it as a purpose not subject to a condition, and hence just as the concept of a final purpose requires[…]the only conceivable final purpose of the existence of a world is the existence of this kind of reason, in other words, the existence of rational beings under moral laws[…]The moral law is reason’s formal condition for the use of our freedom and hence obligates us all by itself, independently of any purpose whatever as material condition. But it also determines for us, and a priori, a final purpose, and makes it obligator for us to strive toward [achieving] it; and that purpose is the highest good in the world that we can achieve through freedom (ivi: 339).

  • 12 Practical reason on its own «provides a suprasensible object of the category of causality, namely f (...)

276. The teleological causality of purpose, in its supreme form, is freedom under moral law: the capacity that all rational beings have to initiate a causal chain in terms of purpose, as confirmed in the CPrR12. In the CJ, Kant again comes to save metaphysics by solving metaphysical puzzles (God, freedom, and immortality) in light of the idea of «freedom under moral law» (ivi: 367).

Among the three pure ideas of reason, God, freedom, and immortality, that of freedom is the only concept of the supersensible which (by means of the causality that we think in it) proves in nature that it has objective reality […] we have in us a principle [the moral law] that can determine the idea of the supersensible within us, and through this also the idea of the supersensible outside us […] Hence the concept of freedom (the concept underlying all unconditioned practical laws) can expand reason beyond those bounds within which any concepts of nature (i.e., theoretical concept) would have to remain hopeless confined (ivi: 368).

  • 13 Kant thinks that «there is indeed a moral teleology. It is connected with the nomothetic of freedom (...)

28By devising a new method of reflective judgement in terms of purposiveness, Kant in the third Critique steers the project of critical philosophy through the metaphysical crisis caused by «the supersensible», and transfers the teleological explanation to the final jurisdiction by practical reason, joining up with the CPrR to form a general Kantian moral teleology.13

2 A comparative analysis of the Neo-Confucian moral teleology

2.1 Philosophical impact of the re-invented «Gewu»

29The revival of Confucianism from the new soil that had been cultivated by Neo-Daoist cosmology and Buddhist metaphysical psychology entails a transition to a metaphysical quest into the realm «beyond the form» or xingershang. The purpose of this metaphysical quest by the Confucians is to relocate the supersensible Dao back into daily life and social order and to reconnect it with morality after it was separated from it by the Buddhists and Daoists. In the return to the Confucian classics in order to facilitate such a metaphysical transition, the doctrine of «gewu» (investigation of things) of The Great Learning is recast by the Neo-Confucian Cheng-Zhu school.

a. From Dao to Li

  • 14 All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated. The translations are sometimes the summarizat (...)

30Zhu Xi believed that the Daoist and Buddhist metaphysical approaches separate daily life from the ultimate truth and make dao «empty, void, still and dead, and of no use to the people» (Zhu 2002: 1690), and even worse, make the dao amoral – they «[are] ignorant and they separate them [dao and virtue] into two things,» «whereas for the Confucians, the dao and virtue are the same thing» (ivi: 397).14 The notion of principle of the Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism is thus to counter the Daoist and Buddhist supersensible, amoral dao, to re-unite the split virtue and ultimate truth, and to save classical Confucianism from its metaphysical crisis.

  • 15 Feng Youlan points out that the Neo-Confucian notion of principle has very minor presence in the th (...)

31Whether self-consciously or not, Zhu Xi’s transition of terminology15 – from dao to principle – strategically adapts to this philosophical demand:

  • 16 , is translated into «material force» by Wing-tsit Chan, or «ether» by Feng Youlan. A.C. Graham le (...)

Dao is the principle that in the past and at the present all depend[ed] on (Zhu 2002: 397).
Dao is so called precisely because it is the natural principle of everyday life (ivi: 1690).
All with form and phenomenon are utility [(qi 器)]. The principle that makes them so as utility is then the dao (ivi: 1573).
Between Heaven and Earth, there are principle[s] and qi energy16. Principle is the dao beyond the form, and the essence [(or root, ben)] that generates things. Qi energy is the utility within the form, and the instrument [(ju 具)] for generating things (ivi: 2755).

32The dao, defined as «beyond the form» in opposition to utility «within the form» in the Book of Changes, is hereby reduced to principle. Consequently, the classical dao vs. qi (utility) division in the Neo-Daoist study of «the formless», is updated in a Neo-Confucian context into li vs. qi energy. Zhu Xi’s disciple Chen Chun clarifies the subtle difference between the terms dao and principle in the Neo-Confucian philosophical and linguistic context in his Beixi Ziyi:

Generally speaking, the dao and principle refer to the same thing. But the two terms are necessarily distinguished in order to indicate a difference [in emphasis]. The term «dao» is named in terms of feasibility for all the people [namely, universality][…][while] the term «principle» implies unchanging certainty. Therefore, [to emphasize the aspect of this same thing] which is universally valid, [use] «dao»; [to emphasize the aspect of this same thing] which is forever unchanging, [use] principle (Chen C 1983: 41-42).

33Chen Chun might be right in this subtle terminological distinction, but in Zhu Xi’s usage and Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism in general, principle apparently becomes a more generic term that incorporates the sense of the metaphysical universality conveyed by the term «dao», not vice versa. Principle as a moral teleological property will be outlined in due course.

b. Investigation of things in operation

34The Neo-Confucian doctrine of «Investigation of Things», recast as «Exhausting Principle(s)» (or probing principle(s) thoroughly), is the method used to bring attention back to daily life. It re-orients the transcendental metaphysical quest back to the living world that is full of things and (social) events in which principle[s] is embodied – «All the things under heaven do not lack principle[s]» (Zhu 2002: 20); «Nothing is without principle, only by investigation of things, one can probe thoroughly principle[s]» (Cheng 1981: 1267).

35Zhu Xi says: «the Sage did not teach people to exhaust principle out of thin air; instead, one must investigate things, which requires one to discover the principle therein. [Principle found in things] is then substantial and concrete (shi 实)» (Zhu 2002: 428.). Cheng-Zhu investigation of things is clearly articulated for countering the introspective philosophical methods such as the Daoist «fasting mind» and Buddhist meditation which are in Confucian eyes used to probe principle out of thin air. Zhu Xi thinks that the Buddhist teachings «only understand “the void” (xu 虚), but [have] not yet recognized [concrete and solid] principle within “the void” (xu). This is precisely why The Great Learning values and promotes [investigation of things and] exhausting principle[s]» (ivi: 311).

36Instead of seeking for a sudden enlightenment by the recognition of a single ultimate principle or truth, Neo-Confucian investigation of things requires the accumulation of concrete principle[s] and the gradual reaching to the state of «all penetrating». Theoretically, the Neo-Confucian proposition «one principle and multiple realizations» (liyi fenshu 理一分殊) presumes the existence of an ultimate universal single principle, which Zhu Xi calls «the one root» (yiben 一本).

A multitude of things is all united in one principle (Zhu 2002: 368).
All in Heaven and on earth, no matter the subtle or the coarse, and the fundamental or the incidental, all are [embodiments] of one principle (ivi: 292).
Principles are naturally coherent. That’s why it is called one principle […] From one principle there scatters ten thousand things, clearly in an order with no chaos. Therefore, everything then embodies one [particular] principle, and everything has a name [(or role, ming)]. Each has its propriety. One should observe whether a thing is proper for its principle or not (ivi: 248-249).

37As Zhu Xi acknowledges, the idea of «one principle and multiple realizations» was similar to the Buddhist idea conveyed by the moon metaphor (Zhu 2002: 607). However, practically, the Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism doctrine investigation of things is designed to shift the emphasis on imprudent discourse on one principle. Zhu Xi says, «It is not hard to recognize [there is] one root, but it is hard to recognize there are ten thousand particular principles» (ivi: 989).

Although ten thousand principles are all [essentially] one principle, the scholar nevertheless must grasp it from the investigation of ten thousand principles in the myriad things. When [the investigation is] done in all aspects, the one principle is naturally revealed. Merely trying to grasp the one [ultimate] principle, without comprehending the ten thousand of principles [of concrete things] […] is just having hallucinations (ivi: 3692).

38One who advocates the theory as heavenly principle (tianli) [the recognition of which will enlighten all other principles] ignorantly expresses human desire [without self-awareness] (ivi: 598). This thinking can be traced back to the writings of the Masters Cheng, who talk about the idea of «extension» (tui 推), meaning to infer the unknown principle from the known, rather than enlightenment by one principle. In brief, Zhu Xi believes that the major reason why, despite all their merits, Buddhism and Daoism are rather limited, is because they do not practice the method of investigation of things (ivi: 485).

2.2 Comparative reconstruction of a Neo-Confucian moral teleology in light of Kant

39In light of Kant’s philosophy, I will conduct a comparative re-construction of Zhu Xi’s moral teleological thinking characterized by the Neo-Confucian elaboration of the notion of principle. Two propositions are to be established: 1) The Neo-Confucian notion of principle is comparable to Kant’s concept of purpose. The Neo-Confucian dichotomy between principle and qi energy provides a counterpart of the Kantian doctrine of double causality, despite its significant incommensurability, and 2) through the method of investigation of things and exhausting principle, a similar moral teleology is realized in Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism, which nevertheless leads to quite disparate practical implications.

a. Purpose vs. Principle

Kant’s purpose

  • 17 These two definitions are revised on the basis on Kant’s four definitions (Kant 1987: 19, 64, 73, 2 (...)

40According to Kant, purpose is a notion that essentially belongs to «pure philosophy» (rather than theology or natural philosophy). Two definitions of purpose in the CJ appear rather contradictory:17

41D1 A purpose is a concept of an object, which contains the basis for the object’s actuality.

42D2 A purpose is an object of a concept which is regarded as the real basis of the object’s possibility.

43The ambiguities in fact show Kant’s prudence in terminology. D2 is the definition of purpose in the transcendental sense, used in very particular arguments. I will be using D1 as my definition for the purposes of comparative re-construction of Zhu Xi’s moral teleology.

44From D1:

    • 18 «The concept of the real ground [basis, grund] is a synthetic concept. That which the real ground c (...)

    Insofar as purpose contains the basis of actuality (the real basis instead of a logical basis), it indicates a sort of causal relation, and thus entails a causality – as Kant defines it, «cause» is a sort of real basis (Kant 1997: 315, 334-33518) that is «the ground of actuality» and «principle of becoming» (ivi: 334). In brief, Kant’s concept of purpose indicates a special kind of causality, for things being or becoming as such.

  1. Purpose necessitates a «concept», which implies the presence of an understanding and will – namely, the higher cognitive powers.

45From D1 and D2, purpose can be either an empirical and contingent basis for the actuality of object, or it can be transcendental, to serve as a real basis of the object’s possibility.

Zhu Xi’s principle

46Now in light of Kant’s concept of purpose, I turn to Zhu Xi’s notion of principle; Zhu Xi explains:

  • 19 Also translated as «reason», as in the reason for x.
  • 20 Also translated as laws or regulation

[(i)] Regarding all the things under Heaven, they must have the cause[s] [(gu 故19)] for being so [as what they are], and also the rule[s] [(ze 则20)] for why they ought to be so. This [gu and ze together] is called principle. [(ii)] No one is incapable of knowing [principle], but often cannot fully probe the subtle and the coarse, and the manifesting and the hidden [principles] without omission. [(iii)] If principle is not exhausted [fully probed], knowledge is still limited – in this circumstance, even if one imposes the extension of knowledge, it is impossible to achieve it. Therefore, the way of the extension of knowledge lies in approaching [daily] matters and observing principle[s] [therein], so as to investigate things. (Zhu 2002: 512).

47I divide the above quotation into three sections. (i) is a standard explanation of the notion of principle, (ii) is about the principle and human capacity, and (iii) emphasizes the importance of investigation of things as a method to acquire principle.

  1. Principle as causality.
    From (i), principle[s] for Zhu Xi are the cause for things being so and the rule[s] for why they ought to be so. On this, Zhu Xi also writes: «things are merely things, while principle for things being as such is the dao» (Zhu 2002: 1858). Therefore, insofar as Zhu Xi’s «principle» is the real basis of the actuality of things, or the principle of becoming things, it is, in Kant’s terms, a causality.

  2. Principle as the non-material cause, and the indication of a cognitive power
    For Zhu Xi, «principle is the dao beyond the form, and the essence (or root, ben) that generates things» (ivi: 2755); it is non-material or non-sensible in Kant’s terms. From (ii), Zhu Xi identifies the affinity between human cognitive capacity and principle. He emphasizes that principle is cognizable (kezhi可知) instead of using the term sensible (kegan 可感). In Zhu Xi’s re-invented fifth commentary and interpretation of The Great Learning, a similar argument is found: «since everyone’s heart-mind is intelligent and no one is incapable of knowing [the principle], while all the things under heaven do not lack principle[s], it is thus only that when the principle is not yet exhausted [fully probed], the knowledge [and wisdom] is still limited» (ivi: 21). In brief, principle in Neo-Confucianism also entails a cognitive power and it is the non-material cause (gu) for why things come to be. At this point I come to my preliminary finding: the Neo-Confucian notion of principle resembles Kant’s concept of purpose.

b. Kant’s Double Causality vs. Neo-Confucian Li-Qi

Kant on Double Causality

48According to Kant, causality in general is a necessary connection between cause (the real basis of actuality or existence) and effect (the consequence of such a basis). Kantian causality is dichotomous: efficient cause (causa efficiens) and its opposite. However, it is notable that the expressions of his doctrine of double causality in Kant’s major writings vary with context. In his early critical period, Kant referred to the other sort of causality (or causal connection) sometimes as final causes, causa finalis (Kant 1997: 202), sometimes as formal causes, causa formalis (ibidem), and sometimes as a «connection of usefulness», nexum utilitatis (ivi: 204). McLaughlin in his analysis of Kant’s concept of purpose in the CJ, points out that, «when Kant speaks of […] a “purpose” or a “final cause”, he usually means […] not the causa finalis in the proper sense but the causa formalis […] Kant does not seem to have distinguished sharply between the two conceptual possibilities [namely, the final causes and the formal causes]» (McLaughlin 1990: 38).

  • 21 In addition, a good illustration is Kant’s own interpretation of his concept of «art in general» – (...)

49From Kant’s perspective, the formal cause and the final cause are not disparate per se. I suggest a possible argument based on Kant’s own thinking: 1) The form is the real basis that determines a thing’s usefulness. 2) The purpose (of a thing’s usefulness) determines the basis of the thing’s actuality (which includes the thing’s form). Via the mediating idea «usefulness» (which Kant also used to express the second causality in contrast to the efficient causes (Kant 1997: 205), this argument demonstrates that the two causes are essentially homogeneous rather than irreducible.21 This is to say, purpose determines the form. Therefore, one can amend McLaughlin’s finding: there is no need to «distinguish sharply» between the two causalities, because for Kant, the final causes and the formal causes, despite the different emphases from the names, essentially refer to the same causality sui generis – let’s call it the second causality. At the end of his critical period, Kant expressed more explicitly a dichotomy between the «effective connection» and the «connection of finality» as a standard version of his double causality (ivi: 337). To summarize, the Kantian second causality is the causality of purposes.

  • 22 It echoes to a great deal Kant’s arguments in the CJ and is to some extent a standard narrative of (...)

50In his metaphysical lectures (1790-1791) at the end of his critical period, Kant defines his double causality more explicitly (ivi: 335.22 Thereby, one can summarize characteristics of Kant’s double causality: 1) The two kinds of causalities are essentially irreducible. But instead of rejecting one in favor of the other, they «must be connected». However, the effective causes are always given epistemological priority in (natural) philosophical research – merely to «call upon the principle of the connection of finality» only leads to «begging the question» (ivi: 336). At the same time, the final causes or purposes are functional in the study of nature – as «a heuristic principle for investigating the particular laws of nature», and necessary in the practical domain (freedom), particularly when it comes to the postulates concerning the supersensible (God, immortality) (ibidem); 2) The two causalities are fundamentally different «in the method of philosophizing» (ibidem); 3) The existence of the organism, viewed as natural purpose – i.e., as a natural product but viewed as purposive by reflective judgment – suggests the confluence of double causality; 4) The existence of humans as moral beings is where the confluence of double causality in this world is objectively confirmed by practical reason in light of the moral law.

Zhu Xi on Li and Qi

51Zhu writes:

Between Heaven and Earth, there are principle[s] and qi energy. Principle is the dao beyond the form, and the essence [or root] that generates things. Qi energy is the utility within the form, and the instrument for generating things. Therefore, for human beings and things come into being, they must possess principle so as to have nature [(xing 性)], and possess the qi energy so as to acquire form [(xing 形)] (Zhu 2002: 2755).
Principle is never separated from qi energy. However, principle is that beyond the form, while qi energy is that within the form (ivi: 115).

52We can gain great insight into Zhu Xi’s thinking on principle and qi energy by viewing it in terms of Kant’s two causalities. I classify a few aspects below:

    • 23 Zhu Xi’s theory prevents the possibility of this hypothesis in his emphasis on the mutual dependenc (...)

    A dichotomy in causal explanation:
    According to Kant, «cause» is the «real basis of actuality» and the «principle of becoming», and causality in general is a necessary connection between cause and effect (the consequence of such a basis). Insofar as Zhu Xi’s thinking on principle and qi energy offers a dichotomous account for the generation of things, it resembles Kant’s doctrine of double causality. However, beneath this structural similarity, the incommensurability between the two versions of double causality informs us of the qualities more fundamental to each philosophical tradition.
    Kant’s «efficient cause» concerns nature’s mechanism and applies to things as «appearance» or «objects of experience» (Pluhar 1996: xxvii). Kant calls this causal connection «in the world of sense according to immutable natural laws», «the necessity of nature» (Kant 1996: 538-539). Kant’s efficient causes incorporate both Aristotelian efficient causes and material causes, insofar as Kant understands material as the «appearance» of «objects of experience» rather than the in-cognizable «thing in itself» or the supersensible substratum. For Zhu Xi, qi energy indeed refers to the sensible and material basis for the being of things (both substance and force) in Kant’s terms, and might be well compared to the Kantian «efficient causes». But it does not postulate anything similar to the controversial thing in itself, as a necessary supersensible substratum underneath the material appearance.
    In addition, Kant’s «efficient causes» are associated with «immutable natural laws» and natural necessity. In this regard it produces and clings to the sense of certainty and accuracy. Zhu Xi’s qi energy, in contrast, has a very different philosophical temperament. It is associated with change and contingency. In Zhu Xi’s famous metaphor on the relation between the supreme ultimate (taiji 太极) and yin-yang (阴阳), he compares qi energy (yin-yang) to a horse, and principle to a rider: «the supreme ultimate is principle while that which moves [yang] or rests [yin] is qi energy[…]If the supreme ultimate (as principle) is like a rider, then that which moves or rests [(viz. qi energy)] is the horse.» (Zhu 2002: 3129.) I think there is a subtext that the horse is the source of change (motion), but without a rider it goes wild.23 Moreover, Zhu Xi uses the notion of qibing (气禀 literally, [innate] gaining from qi energy, I will call it «material nature» for convenience) to explain the contingency in the following two ways:

53a) As the human disposition to enact evil alongside the universal and pure good human nature in the classical Confucian (Mencius’s) ideology. The former is born with, but contingent (viz. differing from person to person), while the latter is innate and universal:

Human nature is good. However, some are born to be good, and some are born to be evil. This is because of the difference in their material nature [(qibing)] […] when the sun and the moon are bright and the climate is harmonious, people who are born gain the clear and vigorous qi energy, and then make good persons; whereas, when the sun and the moon are dark and the climate is abnormal, people who are born gain the violent qi energy, they will make bad persons […] education is to transform the [innate] material nature […] one must endeavor to overcome and remedy it, chopping off its excess and returning it to a balance (Zhu 2002: 198).

  • 24 Highly summarized on the basis of several long passages (Zhu 2002: 204-205, 213).

54b) As the variation in people’s physical and mental ability, personality, and even personal fortune. For instance, clarity and purity of qi energy respectively affect one’s intelligence and moral sense. The five categories of qi energy condition one’s personality differently. Finally, one’s material nature also to some extent influences one’s personal fortune regarding wealth and lifespan.24

55In brief, this dichotomy between principle beyond the form and qi energy within the form in Zhu Xi’s account of the generation of things, is qualified in Kantian terms as two irreducible sorts of real bases of the actuality or existence of things. But Zhu Xi’s qi energy as the constantly changing and contingent vital force has many more theoretical functions than Kant’s «sufficient causes». Kant’s innovative understanding of material, although very different from the predominant conception of the natural philosophers in his time, was still influenced by the idea of matter as inert and dead. In this regard, one finds the divergence in the two versions of double causality and encounters the fundamentally unique philosophical temperaments.

  1. The Unity:
    Kant thinks the two kinds of causality, despite being irreducible, «must be connected», rather than rejecting one in favour of the other. This proposal in fact reveals a Kantian dilemma: his doctrine of two causalities is essentially troubled by his dualism and the assumption of the thing in itself, and suffers from an inevitable side-effect of his split of reason into two (theoretical and practical). Kant’s solution to bridge the gap, only comes at the last stage of his critical philosophical project in an integrated moral teleology brought forth by the CJ, where he reunites nature and freedom in the idea that human beings, as the ultimate purpose of nature, via their existence under the moral law can embody and further the highest good as the final purpose. Zhu Xi does not make such a detour from detachment to reunion, nor demands the unity provided by an integrative third. Zhu Xi’s version of double causality prevents the dualist separation in the first place: «principle is not separated from qi energy» (Zhu 2002 115). Even in the horse metaphor mentioned above, Zhu Xi particularly emphasizes that when qi energy travels, so does principle. «The two are mutually dependent and never separated[…]the horse carries the rider and the rider rides the horse. When the horse comes and goes, so does the rider» (ivi: 3129).

  2. The priority between the two:
    The two irreducible causalities are connected, but there is still a question regarding the priority. Zhu Xi in his later years was reluctant to answer this sort of metaphysical conjecture.

Question: Must there be principle first, and then come the qi energy? How do you think?
Answer: This is not an issue of priority [first or second] […] If one must suppose the genesis, it ought to be that the principle comes first. However, principle is not a different thing, but indispensable from qi energy. Without qi energy, principle has nowhere to be instantiated. If the qi energy is metal, wood, water and fire, the principle[s] then is human-heartedness (ren), righteousness (yi), ritual propriety (li) and wisdom (zhi)(Zhu 2002: 115).

56For Zhu Xi, the relation between the principle and qi energy is characterized by their mutual dependence and indispensability. In other passages, particularly in his early writings, he simply states that principle comes first. Chen Lai argues that «priority» of principle for Zhu Xi is merely logical priority rather than temporal priority (Chen L 2011: 181). In Kant’s case, he gives epistemological priority to the effective causes in (natural) philosophical research, warning that merely «[calling] upon the principle of the connection of finality» leads to «begging the question» (Kant 1997: 337), while in the practical domain, he places priority to the second causality, causality of will (the faculty of purpose), the supreme form of which is freedom («a power of absolute spontaneity») – according to Kant, freedom is the only concept of the supersensible found in us that is approved objective reality (and thus, a moral fact). Therefore, Kant’s second causality has a moral and metaphysical priority, and more precisely, a meta-ethical priority. In light of Kant’s thinking, I suggest that the priority of principle is not only a logical one, as Chen claims, but more importantly, it is a value issue – it is about the moral priority. Both Zhu Xi’s principle and Kant’s purpose are the causality which displays moral property.

c. Principle as moral property and Neo-Confucian meta-ethical ideas

  • 25 In Kant’s terms, the real basis of the actuality of things or the principle of becoming.

57Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian notion of principle, besides being similar to Kant’s purpose as a special kind of causality for things being so (gu),25 is also given a second sense – it is the rule[s] for why things ought to be so (dangran zhi ze). This «ought to be» adds a moral imperative and transforms the principle from a neutral causality into a moral causality. Of the two causalities, it is very clear that principle displays a moral quality. «If the qi energy is metal, wood, water, fire, then the principle[s] is human-heartedness, righteousness, ritual propriety and wisdom.» Again, «human-heartedness, righteousness, ritual propriety and wisdom are the main components of human nature. They are all what is beyond the form. How can they be divided?!» (Zhu 2002: 246). In addition, principle is universally pervasive in daily life, and objectively exists in things. It is not the Kantian «immutable natural laws» for the sensible world, nor the supersensible moral law within us, but the moral rules for why all beings (humans and things alike) ought to be so. This is not a panpsychist proposal or a theological proposition. Zhu Xi’s disciple Chen Chun in his Beixi Ziyi further explains what is meant by the «ought to be so»:

What the ancients mean by investigation of things and exhausting principle[s], is to seek for the [moral] rule [(ze)] for [things] ought to be so (Chen C 1983: 42).

58«Principle[s]» is the rule[s] for why things ought to be so. «Rule» is norm or law. It denotes certainty without variability. What is meant by «ought to be so» [(dangran)] is what is rightly to be done in things, namely, being appropriate [(qiaohao 恰好)], without any excessiveness or deficiency. For example, the ruler rests on the virtue of human-heartedness [(ren)], since resting on the virtue of human-heartedness is the rule for how the ruler ought to be (Chen C 1983: 42).

59For Neo-Confucianism, «ought to be so» means «being appropriate». The appropriateness in a thing (or human being) defines its moral property and determines its existence to be essentially moral. Things might follow various specific rules in order to be appropriate – this makes the principles diverse, but «being appropriate» is the common principle that all things «ought to be so». Similarly, when Zhu Xi argues for the Neo-Confucian doctrine «one principle and multiple realizations», he points out that everything embodies the specific principle that is suitable for its name or role (ming), namely, «each has its propriety [(dang)]», but «principles are naturally coherent» (Zhu 2002: 248-249). It can be inferred from this that the coherence in all principles lies in the idea of «propriety».

  • 26 Here I particularly translated «wu» into «artifacts» to make the contrast in the subtext (Here, Che (...)

60Whether in the natural world or in the human domain, principle is present. As Cheng Yi says, «Grass or wood has principle; an event or an artifact has principle26». Chen Lai (Chen L 2011: 177) points out:

The notion of principle in Neo-Confucianism has two main meanings: the laws of things and the moral principles. Although the meaning of principle is divided into these two senses, they are essentially united from the Neo-Confucian point of view – moral principles are the particular manifestation of universal laws of the universe in human society.

61For Zhu Xi, human beings are not supreme in the Kantian sense – namely, as 1) the only moral being (with freedom) on earth, and 2) the ultimate purpose of nature that strives for the furtherance of the highest good as the final purpose of creation. Human beings and things in Neo-Confucian ideology are not differentiated because of the possibility of being moral (being appropriate), but merely due to the distinct material nature gained from qi energy:

In regard to qi energy, both humans and things are generated by it; [However,] in regard to the quality of qi energy (whether fine or coarse), humans get the proper and fluid qi energy while things get the unbalanced and stiff kind. Because of the proper qi energy, humans can comprehend the principle, while because of the unbalanced qi energy, the principle in things is blocked and they cannot cognize it (Zhu 2002: 194).

62Based on the idea of «appropriateness» or «propriety» that all beings possess and ought to concretize, Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism constructed its meta-ethical foundation, and justified the methodological importance of the re-invented philosophical method investigation of things. Therefore, Zhu Xi proposes that «one should observe whether a thing is proper for its principle or not» right after his explanation of the coherence of principle and the propriety in things (Zhu 2002: 248-249).

63By recognition of the appropriateness in things, one not only encounters the moral facts pervasive in the living world and embodied by all things, but also illuminates the coherent principle in oneself – the possibility of being appropriate and harmonious with one’s context, like boats travelling smoothly on water and carriages travelling successfully on land but not vice versa (ivi: 189). Investigation of things calls for re-orienting the metaphysical quest for meaning, truth and ultimate value back to everyday matters and the ten thousand things that we encounter in the living world, instead of chasing the «distant, abstruse and supersensible» formless dao beyond «the horizon of human domain and heaven», as with the Neo-Daoists, or digging deeply into the heart-mind for the sake of a genuine enlightenment from within as with the Buddhists.

64Moreover, investigation of things also differs from modern scientific research in its explicit goal of looking for moral recognition; thus, it is fundamentally a practical method of self-cultivation rather than a scientific method for cognition. It calls for «returning to oneself» (fanshen 反身) to reinforce the principle.

Question: What is meant by «returning to oneself in order to exhaust [fully probe] principle».
Answer: Returning to oneself means reinforcement. Further answer: search in one’s own body and [one’s own] social role (Zhu 2002: 3766).

65In this sense, Neo-Confucianism should be regarded as true philosophy (or wisdom) in Kant’s terms, which concerns the (moral) final purpose of human cognitive powers. The genuine philosopher is the practical philosopher (Kant 1997: 300). Principle does not exist in a kind of alien space that transcends the domain of the human world. Investigation of things values the moment of encounter – the moment of recognition, where it is held that either inner or outer, it is one and the same principle (Zhu 2002: 723); either in things or in me, it is one and the same principle (Chen C 1983: 42); either heavenly or human, it is one and the same principle (Zhu 2002: 2676, 589).

66I want to conclude this section with another quotation from Zhu Xi:

  • 27 «Xüankong» literally means «suspending in the air». Here I choose to translate it as «abstract and (...)

People usually regard the principle (the dao) as an abstract and transcendental [(xüankong 悬空27)] thing. [The fact that] The Great Learning does not talk about exhausting principle but only about investigation of things, is in order to urge people to grasp [the principle] by means of [investigating] things. In this way one can see the substantial body [(or essence, shiti 实体)]. The so-called substantial body cannot be recognized except by means of [investigating] things. For instance, boats are made for travelling on water while carriages are made for travelling on land. Now even by gathering a multitude of people together to push a boat on land, it will not travel. [Thereby, one] recognizes the boat is not [appropriate] for travelling on land. This shows the so-called substantial body (or essence) (Zhu 2002: 469).

  • 28 Kant’s second causality, the causality of purpose, is also the «connection of usefulness», nexum ut (...)

67Principle is not mysterious. The «substantial body» exists in things, in the appropriateness of things, or in Kant’s terms, the purposiveness, i.e., the usefulness in a specific context.28 In the above passage, Zhu Xi justifies the recasting of the classical doctrine «gewu» as investigation of things, and the association of it with the central Neo-Confucian notion of principle. On the basis of the idea of «appropriateness» as the coherent moral principle or «substantial body» in all beings (human and things alike), Neo-Confucianism constructs a meta-ethical foundation for its normative ethics and practice of moral cultivation, and successfully relocates the metaphysical dao back into the living world.

3 Conclusion: Appraisal of the two versions of moral teleology

68For Zhu Xi, the innate principles in all the things investigated (natural or artificial alike) are moral properties. Neo-Confucian investigation of things finds moral purposiveness in each encounter with the «appropriateness» in things (also in oneself). Each moment of such an encounter is an occasion for self-cultivation and moral enlightenment. But for Kant, reflective judgment as a method, in its study of nature, merely finds the causality of purposes, viz. the means-end relation. Although nature is then viewed as a teleological system, it is not necessarily characterized by any moral property. Kantian moral teleological enlightenment has to make a detour: when reflective judgment in its idea of nature as a teleological system inevitably ascends to the supersensible, and conjures up the idea of an unconditioned final purpose that is essentially beyond its grasp, thereby suffering from an antinomy, reason on the basis of moral law then reveals the profound moral teleological fact in us – the final purpose must be, at the same time, the highest moral good that we have to strive for.

  • 29 «Zhishan» is also an idea from The Great Learning.

69If Zhu Xi could have read Kant, one can imagine that the Kantian approach would suffer no less criticism than Daoism and Buddhism. It is exactly what Zhu Xi would like to avoid – to hang all moral strength and certainty on the recognition of an ultimate idea – albeit the final purpose, highest good, moral law or freedom. Zhu Xi regards this as too easy an approach, one that does not lead to ultimate truth but to mere hallucinations, and shows merely human desire. Although investigation of things theoretically assumes one coherent principle (one «root», or «substantial body»), this method itself is designed for an exactly counter usage – to engage with the «multiple realizations» of the one principle in daily life. This also explains the fact that, even if in Neo-Confucianism there is also the idea of highest good or perfect good (zhishan 至善29), it nevertheless does not have a crucial meta-ethical and methodological role like investigation of things. Zhu Xi intentionally directs this idea to daily matters – as his disciple reports: «when he [Zhu Xi] talks about “highest good”, he again says: “what is shown in daily life, all respectively has its essential and determinative rule”» (Zhu 2002: 579). For the Neo-Confucians, there is no need to wait for the single ultimate idea for moral transformation.

70Neo-Confucian investigation of things looks outwards to find the moral coherence between us and things, while Kant fundamentally rejects the natural world (as mechanical) for the sake of moral certainty in terms of freedom. Neo-Confucianism tries to reveal what is alike in the human and natural domains, while Kant seeks to prove what is unique in us. Nevertheless, both bring meaning to our living world and provide a vision of a better life. One might still ask: Are both philosophers correct? Who holds the ultimate truth? Kant would say: «Interrogate the moral law in you! You always know». While Zhu Xi might say: «Start to investigate things around you, and some day, you will know.»

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Zuckert, R., 2007, Kant on Beauty and Biology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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1 In Peter McLaughlin’s Kant’s Critique of Teleology in Biological Explanation, he reads and interprets «Kant’s critique of teleology as philosophy of biology» and «as a reflection on philosophical, in particular, methodological problems that arose through the constitution of an independent science of life, biology» (McLaughlin 1990: 1).

2 Kant has various terms for different kinds of rules, such as principle, rule, law, maxim, imperative, etc., and each has very distinct applications and pertains to a few specific powers. «Lawfulness» implies necessity and universality and does not simply equate to «law». This terminological arrangement is not accidental. The term «purposiveness», as the reference to a peculiar kind of lawfulness (rather than «law») does not have a strong presence in the first Critique. In the Prolegomena (section 36), Kant started to engage more with this term, and it is only emphasized and intensively used in the third Critique.

3 Kant states that «objective use of the pure concepts of reason is always transcendent, whereas objective use of the pure concept of understanding must by its nature always be immanent, because it limits itself to possible experience alone» (Kant 1996: 371). For more, see ivi: 371, 617; Id. 1997: 380).

4 «Hence, the methodology [the study of the method] of teleology has at least a negative influence on how we must proceed in theoretical natural science, and also on how this science can, in metaphysics, serve as a propaedeutic in relation to theology» (Kant, 1987: 302).

5 «Positing purposes of nature in natural products insofar as these form a system in terms of teleological concepts is only part of describing nature, namely, by using a special guide [provided by the power of judgment]» (ivi: 302).

6 «The concept of a thing as a natural purpose is one that subsumes nature under a causality that is conceivable only [as exercised] by reason, this subsumption then allows us to use that [causal] principle in order to judge what experience gives us of the object» (ivi: 277).

7 She argues that «the purposiveness of nature for our understanding may, on the most straightforward reading, be taken as purposiveness without a purpose» (Zuckert 2007: 80).

8 One standard to distinguish pure aesthetic judgment from teleological judgment is whether there is a presupposed concept of a purpose, see Kant 1987: 130, 322.

9 Kant also calls this sort of purposiveness as being «intellectual and intrinsically purposive».

10 Emphasis mine.

11 Or, the «entire object of a pure practical reason» (Kant 2002: 139).

12 Practical reason on its own «provides a suprasensible object of the category of causality, namely freedom, with reality (a practical concept […] only for practical use)» (Kant 2002: 8).

13 Kant thinks that «there is indeed a moral teleology. It is connected with the nomothetic of freedom on the one hand and with that of nature on the other» (Kant 1987: 337). With this moral teleology, Kant also reconciles the conflict between natural philosophy, metaphysics, and religion, by combining «our cognition of physical purposes with that of the moral purposes[…] [so as to ] support the practical reality of the idea of God», insofar as it is «reason’s maxim to strive to unify principles as much as we can» (ivi: 346.). In brief, teleological judgment in its reflection on nature cannot help but conjure up «a physical teleology», while reason in us provides the philosopher’s stone, turning it into «a moral teleology». With its necessary inference from this moral teleological transformation, there is no more metaphysical daydream or theological dogma around the supersensible. For Kant’s elaboration of moral teleology, see ivi: 336-337.

14 All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated. The translations are sometimes the summarizations of the longer original texts.

15 Feng Youlan points out that the Neo-Confucian notion of principle has very minor presence in the thinking of the Early Song dynasty Neo-Confucians such as Zhou Dunyi, Shao Yong, Zhang Zai, but it only gains «real prominence» in the thinking of the two Chengs and gains clarity (and complexity) in Zhu Xi (Feng 1983: 501).

16 , is translated into «material force» by Wing-tsit Chan, or «ether» by Feng Youlan. A.C. Graham leaves it un-translated. I will call it qi energy to avoid confusion with qi as utility.

17 These two definitions are revised on the basis on Kant’s four definitions (Kant 1987: 19, 64, 73, 292).

18 «The concept of the real ground [basis, grund] is a synthetic concept. That which the real ground contains of something is called cause» (Kant 1997: 316). «Cause and ground are to be distinguished […] Every cause must in itself be something real, for what is the ground of actuality is something positive» (Kant 1997: 334).

19 Also translated as «reason», as in the reason for x.

20 Also translated as laws or regulation

21 In addition, a good illustration is Kant’s own interpretation of his concept of «art in general» – «we say that it is a product of art, rather than of nature, i.e., that the cause which produced it was thinking of a purpose to which this object owes its form» (Kant 1987: 170).

22 It echoes to a great deal Kant’s arguments in the CJ and is to some extent a standard narrative of double causality after the intensive reflection benefited from the Critiques.

23 Zhu Xi’s theory prevents the possibility of this hypothesis in his emphasis on the mutual dependence between principle and qi energy.

24 Highly summarized on the basis of several long passages (Zhu 2002: 204-205, 213).

25 In Kant’s terms, the real basis of the actuality of things or the principle of becoming.

26 Here I particularly translated «wu» into «artifacts» to make the contrast in the subtext (Here, Cheng means man-made things in contrast to the natural things like a grass and a wood). «Wu» generally can mean objects or things.

27 «Xüankong» literally means «suspending in the air». Here I choose to translate it as «abstract and transcendental», because it is to some extent comparable to Kant’s definition of «transcendental», which means without ground in the possible experience and impossible to be objectively confirmed.

28 Kant’s second causality, the causality of purpose, is also the «connection of usefulness», nexum utilitatis (Kant 1997: 204).

29 «Zhishan» is also an idea from The Great Learning.

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Ouyang Xiao, «Towards moral teleology — a comparative study of Kant and Zhu Xi»Rivista di estetica, 72 | 2019, 99-124.

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Ouyang Xiao, «Towards moral teleology — a comparative study of Kant and Zhu Xi»Rivista di estetica [Online], 72 | 2019, online dal 01 mars 2020, consultato il 23 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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