Every great philosopher has a single thought, Martin Heidegger asserted. However questionable this claim might be, it applies without qualification to Mou Zongsan, China’s greatest modern philosopher (and perhaps also the world’s).
While the breadth of Mou’s scholarship is intimidating, it was made possible only by conformity to a methodical life-long study schedule, organized by a single idea. His one thought, which he translated into the language of Western Philosophy as ‘intellectual intuition’ (νοῦς, intellektuelle Anschauung), integrates not only his own thinking, but also — he consistently maintains — the entire Chinese philosophical tradition, of which it is the cap-stone, or guiding thread. Each of China’s three teachings (三教), Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist, tends to a principle of intellectual intuition in which it finds consummation as a “perfect teaching” and through which it adheres by inner necessity (rather than extrinsic cultural and historical accident) to the integral Chinese canon.
Mou Zongsan opens a gate into the Chinese cultural interior by unswervingly directing his work at its most radically indigenous characteristics, uncompromised by ulterior elements, and therefore undistracted by any seductions of otherness or exoticism that fall short of its inherent destination — connection with the absolute Outside. That alone is authentically Chinese, Mou insists, which originates and culminates in the Way (道), cultivating an unsegregated mutual involvement of thought and being which corresponds closely to the Occidental philosophical concept of intellectual intuition. Whether approached through the Daoist, Buddhist, or Confucian strains of the Chinese cultural complex, the consistent ethnic characteristic is an interior path to exterior reality, continuous with the way of ‘heaven’ (天), or cosmic necessity. The inner voyage is the way out, but more importantly — for the Confucian current at least — it is the way to let the Outside in, making culture a conduit for the cultivation of the world.
From Mou Zongsan’s summit of philosophical intensity, therefore, no true boundary can be drawn between a project marked by extreme cultural ‘nationalism’ and an ontologically-grounded cosmopolitanism, or between a diligent restoration of tradition and a venture beyond the horizon of time. The inward path reaches out (as it fuses with the tendrils of Outsideness, which reach in).
After a difficult half millennium, China’s place in the world is adjusting back towards its longer term norm, at a speed that continues to disconcert even the most diligent observers. With this positive correction comes an inevitable ‘spirit’ of revival, extending from the level of unreflective mood, through partially articulate attitudes, to the loftiest peaks of systematic cultural restoration. As this wave of revitalization intensifies, and refines itself, it becomes increasingly involved in a re-thinking of Confucianism and its historical meaning.
The philosopher most indispensable to this process is Mou Zongsan (1909-1995), the most brilliant of China’s New Confucians, setting the standards of intellectual rigor and audacity for the country’s third-wave of Confucian inspiration, following those of the Pre-Qin and Song-Ming periods. Describing the Confucian tradition as the “main artery” of Chinese culture, responsible not only for its own perpetuation and renewal, but also for the safe-keeping of the country’s Daoist and Buddhist traditions, Mou considered its renaissance a “necessity”. It not only should, but would return, assuming only that Chinese culture has a future. It is due to this indestructible confidence that Mou’s own name is inextricably bound to the wider prospects of Chinese national recovery.
At Guernica, how Zhuxi’s Neoconfucianism became a hidden inspiration for European High-Modernism. (The cryptic by-ways of tradition have rarely been so intriguingly tracked.)