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Anomalies and Natural Philosophy in Early Japan?

 
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Sima Qian
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PostPosted: Mon Jan 19, 2009 7:47 am    Post subject: Anomalies and Natural Philosophy in Early Japan? Reply with quote
A civilization's philosophical orientation tends to shape its assumptions about what can and cannot be known about the natural world. And perhaps one of the most critical questions to ask for philosophy and science is: why do things change?

For example:

Graeco-Roman models addressed the natural world from a perspective that the changes we see in nature are underwritten by a universal, unchanging, eternal regularity - natural law. Both Plato and Aristotle advocated this view point which was further compounded by the arrival of Christianity - which neatly provided proto-scientists and natural philosophers a universal "law giver" and an essential guarantor of the reasonability of the universe.

Belief: There are Underlying Regularities.
Methodology: Our senses are inaccurate. Stepwise approximation of truth via Logic and Mathematics yields Truth.

The Indian perspective took a different turn from this. Not only did one's senses "lie" but Reality itself was a Lie. While Logic and Mathematics were appropriate for conventional knowledge - at best it could only help us construct something that made sense to us. The only way to reach true knowledge was via a refinement of one's senses.

Belief: The Truth of Reality and the Natural World can only be reached by Experiential knowledge. (not just Empirical)
Methodology: Meditation and Yogic practice to heighten the senses.

The Chinese perspective grew in veritable isolation for a long period of time from the above. While the ancient dynasties seemed to have held a similar view to Plato's conviction of eternal patterns that underly the flux of nature - natural philosophers and proto-scientists of tended to see the ultimate nature of reality as something too subtle to be fully measured or comprehended by empirical investigation.

Belief: Reality IS Change.
Methodology: Bending Mathematics and other quasi-calculative arts toward analyzing the Flow of Change.

****************************************************

SO what the heck does this have to do with Japan?

The knee-jerk assumption is to assume that at least in this era of history, whatever was imported from China would be "the norm." However, this doesn't necessarily seem to be the case at all.

Let me share a few findings with you all, and perhaps those acquainted with literature, social history, philosophy, religion et al could add some input into this. Very Happy

The Western model tends to emphasize philosophical and logical concepts and the Indian model refinement of the senses.

The Chinese and Japanese model share a stronger orientation toward tracking historical changes and searching for discontinuities.

Historical analogy rather than a tightly constructed chain of logical reasoning became predominant for some time in all 3 East Asian nations until the resurgence of logic via the influx of Buddhism - and even then historical studies still triumphed.

Turning to the differences between the Chinese and Japanese models - a person can see a number of striking differences esp. in terms of the pre-eminent science of the age: Astronomy.

The most "high profile" difference is the subject matter of anomalies.

From the Greek mindset, anomalies were generally given little or scant attention. The theory and the idea of regularity was preserved.

The Chinese interpreted natural anomalies generally took a negative turn.

On the practical level, if the moon was in a position radically different from where it was supposed to be - that would be a cause for either for the Chinese astronomer to consider his theory compromised which could have a variety of detrimental effects (including loss of life given the political importance of astronomy).

Or it could take on a quasi-apocalyptic character - that the "natural order was out of sync" due to the actions of the Emperor or some high official.

This doesn't seem to be the case in the Japanese orientation. Shigeru Nakayama points out that the early Japanese seemed to have paid much less attention to "regularity" and had a much keener curiousity regarding the particular and the exceptional.

Not every single phenomena needed to be "fit in a box" nor did such a situation imply that the universe was about to cave-in on all of humanity if such things did exist.

Referring back to the Chinese example, if the moon happened to be in a different location, it would simply be written off as a irregularity - it was not the astronomer's fault that the moon moved eratically!

SO, here's the big question for you all:

Why do you think this type of attitude came about?

What social, economic, political, or religious factors do you think played a part in shaping this rather unique openness to odd phenomena?

(The Chinese reaction wasn't necessarily unique, case in point with the Aztec reaction to eclipses. The universal order has gone astray - a sacrifice must be made.)
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JLBadgley
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PostPosted: Tue Jan 20, 2009 4:17 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
Can you more concisely iterate your hypothesis regarding Chinese and Japanese beliefs vis a vis the regularity or irregularity of events? I think we could more fully respond if you did so.


However, taking what I think I grasp of your views from the writings above, I think you may be painting with too broad a brush. We have many things to consider, including when and where we are talking about. For instance, while the court grew more sinified through contacts with the mainland, what were the beliefs held in the provinces, and what kind of syncreticism evolved therefrom?

In China, the beliefs were, to some extent, indigenous. Granted, they had their own syncreticism in the Han period of various differing theories, but by the Tang dynasty, they all fit rather nicely together. Not necessarily in Japan.

I wonder if this is why the Japanese onmyoji who dealt in signs and portents became so much more influential than those who studied and regulated the calendar? Furthermore, calendarical sciences seem to have leaned towards simpler constructions, which would give rise to an appearance of more anomalies. In China, the calendar was more important, and as they recorded more and more the various things that previously had been seen as portents or anomalies were slowly fitting into place within the science, rather than the mysticism, of their cosmological view.

In addition, I'd argue that Japan was much more theocratic than was China, by that time. Japan still relied very much on its ruling families' claims to divine ancestry, while China was content with the more secular concept of a mandate of Heaven. Combined with a strong belief in the present and real manifestation of the supernatural, this could help describe the way the different societies shaped their individual world views.

-Josh
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Sima Qian
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PostPosted: Tue Jan 20, 2009 10:25 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
Actually i can't claim any credit for the hypothesis, i'm picking up on statements and articles written by those willing to venture into the Edo and Pre-Edo science like Shigeru Nakayama and James R. Bartholomew. Most historians of Japanese science i've encountered seem to prefer starting the narrative around the late-Edo period - whereas the two listed don't mind "plumming the depths" if you will.

Concisely:

The argument is framed as placing early scientific traditions on a spectrum.

"The West" - China (the supposed Intermediate Case) - and Japan.

Like most "grand narrative" histories - the brushstroke is broad as i assume they are trying to paint a type of tendency or trajectory.

So China and Japan are characterized as paying more attention to irregular events and phenomena than the West is.

Quote:
..the former assumes that there are eternal and universal truths and seeks to formulate underlying laws. The latter denies that such truth is attainable, and is therefore not predisposed to debate its existence. Those who relentlessly pursue regularity overlook the individual and accidental. Those who value the extraordinary, pay little attention to persons or events that conform without deviation to stereotyped patterns. If the former are unresponsive to change because of their preoccupation with order and system, the latter reject change reflexively, because they lack set principles against which to measure it.


Or something to that affect i suppose. I believe that the time frame being addressed in the Japanese case spans the period of Prince Shotoku down to the end of the Heian era.

Quote:
I wonder if this is why the Japanese onmyoji who dealt in signs and portents became so much more influential than those who studied and regulated the calendar? Furthermore, calendarical sciences seem to have leaned towards simpler constructions, which would give rise to an appearance of more anomalies.


Funny you should mention that. The Divination branch in Chinese Imperial government was under and subordinate to the Board of Astronomy for the reasons you alluded to - the Calendar is a symbol of political authority and the Emperor's mandate (he's "ordering the universe" after all).

If i understand the situation at least in the Heian era - it was reversed with the Divination board being in much higher prestige and set apart from Astronomy. Furthermore - it was a hereditary position right? Not a bureaucratic office where the occupant is waiting to be promoted?


Quote:
In China, the calendar was more important, and as they recorded more and more the various things that previously had been seen as portents or anomalies were slowly fitting into place within the science, rather than the mysticism, of their cosmological view.


It pretty much killed their metaphysics - at least in terms of the movement of the Heavens, and introduced a very powerful strain of Epistemological skepticism: Can man really know nature?

JB Henderson wrote a lovely monograph about this - the rise/fall of Chinese cosmology:

Quote:
With the attenuation and marginalization of correlative cosmology in postHan astronomy, do any other "concepts of nature" step in to fill the metaphysical void? A new metaphysics of the heavens may be hard to find in the astronomical or calendrical treatises of the standard dynastic histories. But there is at least a new sort of epistemology, one that contravenes that of such Han correlative cosmologists as Dong Zhongshu, for whom Heaven's ways were scrutable and transparent, and for whom it was possible for humans to devise terrestrial replicas of celestial configurations. Many postHan astronomers, on the contrary, would have been more likely to agree with Wang Xishan's remark that "Celestial movements are profound and subtle, but man's knowledge is shallow and superficial. The more one studies [these movements], the more one knows his inability to enter into them fully and deeply." This more modest assessment of man's capacity to bridge the gap between his own cogitations and a greater cosmic reality is more in tune with classical Confucian (and Daoist) thought than it is with that of the Han cosmologists. The heavens, at the end of the night, could be as elusive as was the Confucian Way of Lunyu 9.11: "The more I look up at it, the higher it appears. The more I bore into it the harder it becomes. I see it before me. Suddenly it is behind me."

This perception of a gap between human cognition and cosmic reality led postHan astronomers to abjure efforts to force fit the latter into a manmade mold, as in the following oft-repeated phrase: "One ought to accord with the heavens in seeking harmonization, and not for the sake of harmonization survey the heavens." Some postHan astronomers, however, no longer even invoked such harmonization, recognizing that the heavens marched to the beat of a different drummer, and that this particular drummer's beat could be rather irregular. These astronomers were inclined to describe celestial movements not so much in terms of the harmonies of the world, but with such words as "cha" (anomaly, discrepancy) and "chuan" (deviate from, run counter to, confused), which are not usually included in lexicons of Chinese philosophical or cosmological terms with the likes of yin-yang and wuxing. In scanning the treatises on calendrical astronomy in the standard histories, one is impressed by the frequency of terms denoting some sort of anomaly, irregularity, or disjunction, and by the comparatively rare appearance of some of the old cosmological chestnuts.


Last edited by Sima Qian on Tue Jan 20, 2009 6:30 pm; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Tue Jan 20, 2009 6:26 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote
As far as calendars go, the Chinese kept refining the calendar calculation method to better predict new moons (and eclipses) and the winter solstice. (This slowed down after the Mongol period when the calendar was almost perfect). On the other hand, in Japan they imported several of the Chinese methods during the period of the Tang embassies, but after that just continued using the same Chinese calculation method until mid-Edo.

As to the fact that "the Japanese onmyoji who dealt in signs and portents became so much more influential than those who studied and regulated the calendar," the latter only did mathematical calculations according to the Chinese calculation method then in use. It is much less fun than making profound guesses about strange phenomena.
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