Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.2, 136-142
Published Online May 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Philosophy and Aesthetic: To Begin with the Case of
Western Postmodern Art
Shi-Ying Zhang
Faculty of Philosophy, Peking Univer s i ty, Beijing, China
Email: zhangsy1921@
Received January 27th, 2012; revised February 25th, 2 012; accepted March 10th, 2012
Philosophy is, generally speaking, divorced from real life, and therefore, monotonous and rigid. But the
author maintains that philosophy must be poetic. He advocates philosophy with beautiful features. Western
postmodern art is closely related to real life, so art becomes life-oriented and vitalized. Philosophy may be
inspired by Western postmodern art as follows: It should philosophize about life; philosophers may use
reason to argue for an art-oriented realm of life and achieve a philosophy featuring beauty. Traditional
Western philosophy is typical of pursuit of abstract concepts and ideals and an estrangement from the
sensible world and life. To make philosophy achieve artistic beauty, we must bring to an end traditional
Western philosophy. With the end of old philosophy, a new philosophy came into being with the name of
“post-philosophy”. One of the features of “post-philosophy” is the union of philosophy and poetry, which
is no other than making philosophy achieve artistic beauty. The union of philosophy and poetry is also an
important feature of most of traditional Chinese philosophy. Traditional Chinese philosophy, especially,
that of Daoism is similar to Western post-modern art. Both of them stress the realm of life and uphold the
beauty of life, mind and spirit. Since the middle of the last century, under the influence of traditional
Western philosophy, Chinese philosophy lost its traditional beauty. To keep this beauty, we need to go
further and understand philosophy as a discipline to upgrade the realm of life. The beauty of life realm
comes before the beauty of philosophy. Therefore, Chinese philosophy needs to become life-oriented like
postmodern art. Inheriting and developing Daoism philosophy while absorbing the philosophy of life
shown through postmodern art, seems to be a good way for us to enhance the realm of life and pursue the
beauty of philosophy.
Keywords: Postmodern Art; Perceptive Beauty; Spiritual Beauty; Post-Philosophy; The Union of
Philosophy and Poetry; Traditional Chinese Philosophy
Western postmodern art may be characterized as different
from modern painting as follows: First, modern painting values
visual beauty while postmodern art despises or opposes it for
the sake of mental or spiritual beauty. Second, modern art advo-
cates “art for art’s sake” so much so th at the art of painting was
appreciated only by the few elites. By contrast, postmodern art
is closely related to real life, so art becomes life-oriented. Third,
modern art has some deep connections with reason and science,
but postmodern art suggests that art should get free of all limits
imposed by reason and science, and enjoy freedom in a realm
of no differentiation.
We may see that the basic difference between modern
painting and postmodern art is the change of aesthetic standard
or point of view: modern painting considers visual “good-looking ”
to be beautiful (This doesn’t mean, of course, that modern
painting seeks visual beauty at the expense of artist realm.), and
this is what aesthetics explains as “formal beauty” characterized
by harmony, proportion and balance. In fact, this form of
beauty is pleasing to our eyes and ears. The beauty of beautiful
jades and beautiful eyes belongs to this category. By contrast,
postmodern art regards as beautiful mental and spiritual freedom,
especially a lofty and far-reaching realm of life. Visual or
perceptual beauty certainly contains some elements of freedom,
but they are not definite or clear enough. Let’s take Marcel
Duchamp (1887-1968 ), father of post modern art, as ou r example.
Usually a door is either open or closed, but it can’t be the unity
of being open and closed. Duchamp designed, however, a door
that is both open and closed. He made two doorframes for two
walls at a right-angle connection. The two doorframes use the
same door. When closed to this doorframe, it must be open to
the other doorframe. This work of art by Duchamp intends to
overturn a time-honored pursuit of opposition, division and
separation in western tradition. This door was later taken into a
color picture of life size and put on an exhibition. Many visitors
lingered for a while, lost in thought. Were they attracted by
visual beauty of the door? No, they weren’t. Duchamp’s thi nking
mode is quite close to that in Chinese tradition. Traditional
Chinese thought, especially teachings of Yi Jing and Laozi,
stresses unity of opposites, of Yin and Yang, of one in the other,
of one in two and two in one. This is very different from the
western thinking mode which stresses definition, division and
differentiation, hence no relation between one and two. Western
modernity stresses one-sidedly inflexibility of reason and sci-
ence, and resulted in a stereotyped and uninteresting style of
life and mentality. Duchamp’s Door added to it an “interesting
and humorous color” (Duchamp’s words). Beauty of the Door
cannot be appreciated by merely the “sense of eyes”; it calls
also for the “sense of mind”. Door provides us with artistic
enjoyment, not in the form of visual or perceptual beauty, but in
the form of mental beauty.
Due to his “sub-consciousness to combat perceptual beauty”,
(Pierre Cabanne and Trans., 2003) Duchamp went so far as to
use mechanical drawings. His painting “Change from Virgin to
Bride” does not have any physical image which may suggest
visual sexuality, on the contrary, it is composed of mechanical
lines, so humans were turned into “machines”. Seen from left to
right, however, this mechanical painting po rtrays the “ch ange ” a
woman underwent step by step from a virgin to a young lady so
much so that an instant image of a male peeper appears at the
extreme right. At this instant “virgin” was turned into “bride”.
The title of the painting appears on the left-bottom corner which
has the word “passage”. This is the very “instant of change”
from a virgin to a bride, a focus Duchamp was trying to think
about and put forward in the painting. No sexuality or
pornography, a most mysterious scene in human life, an em-
barrassing topic to many people, was depicted to the full. What
viewers see here is not ordinary visual beauty, pleasing to eyes
or ears only, which is what Duchamp combated, but a thought-
provoking passage of life, which is also an aesthetic conscious-
ness, a beauty of the realm of life, an d a mental beauty .
Duchamp’s objection to perceptual beauty went so far that he
gave up painting completely and devoted himself to playing
chess for a long time in order to arrive at a realm of life where
differentiations disappear, things in the world are related to
each other and freedom prevails. He said: “My life is my best
work,” “art serves thought,” but not sight or perception. It is
clear that Duchamp’s art is not traditional or perceptive, for it
tries to uncover directly the philosophy of life.
Duchamp’s concept of art is life-oriented and his aesthetics
philosophical and thought-provoking. This attitude is expressed
more clearly in subsequent postmodern art. Mierle Laderman
Ukles, a woman artist in New York, spent about a year living
among cleaners and experiencing their life. On one occasion
she stood at the entrance of a cleaning company, shook hands
with and expressed thanks to over eight thousand cleaners,
saying “Thank you for making New York full of vitality”. The
woman artist regarded this action as a special “work of art” for
cleaners. The cleaners said: “We have never had such ex-
perience in our life. If this is art, we like it” (Wang, 2004). The
artist filled up the gap between art and real life. Her action got
completely free from visual beauty and embodied a beauty of
the lofty realm of life. This is a beauty of loftiness in thought.
Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), a famous postmodern artist in
Germany, substantiated his “art of actions” in practical life. To
take part in the campaign for parliament membership, to lead
people to do cleaning in the woods, to see to planting over
seven thousand oaks and the like were all considered to be his
works of art. He hoped these works of art-artistic actions-might
help to save human society and heal their heart. Art was turned
into an art for upgrading the realm of life. To make the world
perfect and agree to his ideals, he often did something un-
practical, shouting like a child: “My intention is good”. In the
bottom of his heart was hidden an infant’s heart that goes
against the tide of public opinion.
Postmodern art moved from visually and perceptively aes-
thetic consciousness to philosophical thoughts of life and socie-
ty. Some of the postmodern artists say it is a transition from
“art” to “non-art”. Words like this naturally remind us of
Hegel’s view that art will be replaced by philosophy. In fact,
postmodernism and Hegel are definitely different. Hegel classi fie d
levels of arts by the degree to which mind may reach in
overcoming matte r: the more limited a form of art i s by matter,
the less free its mental activities will be, and a lower level it
belongs to; on the contrary, the more unlimited a form of art is
by matter, the more free its mental activities will be, and a
higher level it belongs to. Symbolic art belongs to the lowest
level of arts because here matter prevails over mind; by contrast,
romantic art is the highest level of arts because mind prevails
over matter. The top level of romantic art means that mind
prevails over matter pure and simple, without any appeal to
perceptive images, therefore it is able to know the highest
reality with concepts (through the stage of religion)—the
“Absolute Idea”, which declares the end of art and the be-
ginning of philosophy. We may see that in Hegel’s thought the
transition from art to philosophy means, in the final analysis, a
separation of mind from matter, and thought from perception.
Of course Hegel didn’t say, as some researchers argue, that art
should “die”. He only said that “the form of art is no longer the
highest demand of mind” (ihre Form hat aufgehört, das
hörchst Bedürfnis des Geistes zu sein) (G. W. F. Hegel: Werke,
1981). Hegel did believe, however, that “the highest demand of
mind” is its separation from matter and sensitivity to arrive at a
super-sensible, “pure conceptual” philosophy. Comparatively
speaking, the non-art as postmodern artists called it and as the
“art of actions” mentioned above, is not at all super-sensible but
real life. Hegel says that the highest certainty of mind is
freedom. We believe he is right. But he believes in supremacy
of reason, and argues that although art has gone through various
stages of limitation such as the satisfaction of human demand
for natural desires, knowledge and volitions, it is still bound by
sensitivity and has not yet achieved absolute and complete
freedom; it is in the stage of concept that mind is able to
compromise at last the mutually-limited opposition, arrives at
the fullest freedom and satisfies its highest need. “To grasp the
concept of truth is the business of philosophy” (Diesen Begriff
der Wahrheit zu fassen, ist die Aufgabe der Philosophie).
(Hegel, 1981). Concepts may overcome, step by step, our
natural needs and our needs for knowledge and volitions,
finally they may go beyond all limits of human sensitivity.
Hegel named such concepts “pure concepts”. Aiming at a grasp
of the “pure concepts”, Hegel’s philosophy has actually
separated itself from real life, therefore from his point of view,
life was boring, lack of colour and vitality, just opposite to the
postmodern view that art should be life-oriented.
Modern western thought stresses the importance of reason,
which was originally a product of the counter-movement to
theocracy in medieval times and has played a positive role in
liberating humanity and mobilizing their free creativity. Un-
fortunately, supremacy of reason understands humanity one-
sidedly as mere subject of reason, ignoring or denying such
non-reason aspects as human feelings, sensations or instincts.
Hegel didn’t reject human feelings, in fact he highly praised
Aristotle for his criticism of Socrates—Plato’s definition of
morality lacks illogical and irrational elements. He said clearly,
however, that “morality should restrict passions”, and “some-
thing rational should prevail in morality”. (Hegel: Werke, 1981).
His “pure concept” theory calls off all irrational elements in
particular. As a matter of fact, humanity and their history and
culture must be a unity of reason and non-reason. Rule of mere
reason may turn life into a tough and rigid formula. Hegel
claims that mind may enjoy freedom in “concept s”, but it is these
rationalistic “concepts” that make humanity lose his integrity,
creativity and freedom. Postmodernism claims that irrational
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 137
elements such as sensations, desires, instincts and the li k e a re t h e
source of our life and creativity. Postmodern art, especially
some of the “art of actions”, is no other than free and full
expression of our natural features, primitive desires and pas-
sions. The French postmodern artist Yves Klein (1928-1962)
went so far as to create a work of art named Emptiness. There is
a mere empty house and nothing else for visitors to see. Many
visitors laughed and left, but the great writer Albert Camus
(1913-1960) sa w something deep and made a very philosophical
remark in the notebook: “The emptiness is filled with power”.
On the strength of his skills in judo, this artist even jumped off
from the second floor of a building to show that he was flying
in emptiness. Works of actions such as this may seem ridiculous,
yet they do show human impulse to be free and creative.
Probably the impulse is radical. Free creation is the feature of
artistic aesthetics. In postmodern art it extends from visual field
in the past to the field of real life, so it becomes more definite,
vivid and deep. Hegel argues that art should give way to
philosophy, a view that fails to extend the freedom of art; to
make matters worse, it throttles this feature altogether. By
contrast, postmodern art argues for “non-art”, a view that makes
life art-oriented and realm of thought upgraded. Art’s giving
way to philosophy, as Hegel understood it, resulted in a life
lack of colour, vitality and formularization of philosophical
Postmodern art does have many radical and ridiculous
elements. For example, some artists of actions shut thems elves up
in a cage to gain experience and haven’t communicated with the
world for a year; some kept running between two walls dozens
of meters apart till they were exhausted and fell, and they called
it the “art of body”. Things like this are many, and they tried to
break new ground in order to show their unique realm of artistic
life. As a matter of fact, few can see what mental realms these
extraordinary works of life are trying to express. Paying no
respect to conventions and following the course of nature,
postmodern art presents itself as an anti-traditional thought.
Supremacy of reason and science has dominated western mind
for a long time, a view that advocates blindly division and
analysis, and insists on universality of concepts, unchangeable-
ness of standards and eternity of laws, hence a rigid and
uninteresting life and a dull and boring philosophy. Conscious-
ly or not, postmodernism made use of traditional Chinese mode
of thought, which is characterized by fuzzy boundaries and
universal connectedness, to combat western tradition, but
sometimes it goes so far as appealing to some unacceptable or
unreasonable actions. The tenet of postmodern arts is freedom
of thought and unrestraint of life, a view that calls for our
special attention and appreciation.
As mentioned above, Duchamp considered his life his ‘best
work of art.’ He said clearly that his philosophy of life is
complementarity of opposites and no-differentiation. Duchamp
had a great personality, detached, indifferent to fame and
fortune, ready to help, so he was very popular with the people
around him. Chinese views like “making all things equal” and
“carefree roaming” by Zhuangzi, or Zen Buddhist view that
even carrying water and cutting firewood are oriented by Zen,
may be summed up as follows: all things are connected, and A
can be B and vice versa without restraint; thoughts like this
seem to be a mirror of Duchamp’s realm of life and philosophy.
As a matter of fact, “non-art” or “non-beauty” by Duchamp
belongs to the highest level of art and beauty. Some postmo-
dern arts in the sixties of the last century were radical and went
astray when they were learning from Duchamp and Chinese
Zen Buddhism; leaving this aside, Duchamp’s art of life should
be counted the best representative of western postmodern art.
However, postmodern art typical of Duchamp is not philosophy
after all; most postmodern arts are philosophical, yet to be
philosophical is short of philosophical theory. As a discipline,
philosophy must use concepts and argument, by contrast,
postmodern art is strong in real life but weak in argument. Step
by step Hegel moved away from real life and entered into a
world of pure concepts and pure reason, thus depriving
philosophy of any vitality of life and beauty of art. By comparison,
postmodern art is an art of li fe, not a discipline that makes use of
concepts and arguments at all. Of course we should not ask
artists to become philosophers, yet we have our reasons to ask
philosophy to share in artistic beauty. Philosophy may be
inspired by postmodern art as follows: It should philosophize
about life; philosophers may use reason to argue for an art-
oriented realm of life and achieve a philosophy of beauty.
Part II
Beginning with Plato, traditional western philosophy has
almost become synonymous to “metaphysics”, a tradition that
is typical of subject-object dichotomy, supremacy of reason,
pursuit of abstract concepts and ideals, and an estrangement
from the sensible world and life. Plato plays down the impor-
tance of art, so he argues that poets must be driven out of his
Republic. He teaches that our supreme happiness and pleasure
lie in a rational pursuit of abstract concepts, thus human
feelings and passions are confined to a minimum. Traditional
western philosophy culminated in Hegel, his theory that art
should give way to pure-concept philosophy remains an exten-
sion and variation of Platonism (Zhang, 2007). To make phi-
losophy achieve artistic beauty, we must bring to an end
traditional western metaphysics. With the end of old philosophy,
a new philosophy came into being with the name of “post-
philosophy” or “post-modern philosophy”. One of the features
of post-philosophy is the union of philosophy and poetry, a
view that presents itself clearly in Heidegger’s later philosophy,
while Derrida went further in removing the fence between the
two (Zhang, 2007). The so-called union of philosophy and
poetry is no other than making philosophy achieve artistic
To become beautiful, philosophy must unite life closely. As
mentioned above, a philosophy of concepts, divorced from life
and super-sensible, cannot produce the beauty of philosophy.
Philosophy is concerned with “rational, systematic and metho-
dological thoughts about the important questions of life” (The
New Encyclopedia Britannica,1993). Life has various aspects
and forms: science, morality, aesthetics and so on belong there.
Deep inquiries about different aspects of life (“rational, syste-
matic and methodological reflections”, or as the Chinese pro-
verb says: Keep asking questions till we arrive at the bottom of
the matter,打破沙锅问到底), have culminated in different
philosophies like the philosophy of science, of economics, of
politics, of morality, of aesthetics and the like. In Chinese, we
usually leave out the preposition “of”, hence “scientific phi-
losophy”, “political philosophy” and so on. To reflect on
natural events, we discovered laws of nature; and the same is
true to the laws of politics and morality. Certain disciplines
must be concerned with the laws of certain events. Physics is
concerned with physical laws, and politics political laws, etc.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Therefore some argue that philosophy is different from other
specific disciplines in that it is concerned with the most
universal laws. Certainly, laws are always universal and unified.
The “most” universal law must have the “highest” universality
and unification. Thus the view goes further and argues that
philosophy is the only science.
Our reflections on human life certainly include a pursuit of
universal laws, even the “most” universal law. Sciences are
systems of knowledge; the science of the “most” universal law
is also a system of knowledge. But is it true that our reflections
on life stop as soon as they arrive at a system of knowledge? I
think a mere grasp of certain law, including the “most universal
law”, cannot count as the zenith of our reflections on life or
philosophy. Probably it is true that philosophical pursuits begin
as soon as scientific laws present themselves to us. Philosophical
reflections are characterized by keeping asking questions till we
reach the bottom of the matter: What is the ultimate ground of
these laws? What attitude should we take toward these laws?
And why these attitudes? Questions like this are proper to
philosophy, so none of the other sciences can take its place.
Questions like these may be simply called the question of life
realm. This is the ultimate question that philosophy should
investigate. Philosophy is the science of life realm directed at
enhancing human realm of life (not as some claim that “the
business of philosophy is to grasp the most universal law”). The
realm of life an individual or a group have determines their
philosophy, hence pessimism, optimism, egoism, anthropocentrism,
non-anthropocentrism, etc. People in different walks of life ha ve
different realms of life, thus different philosophies. Different
nations have different realms of life, thus philosophies of
different nations. People of different religious beliefs have
different realms of life, thus different philosophies of religion.
People of different times have different realms of life, thus
philosophies of different times. Questions that philosophy
pursues and reflects on are not those that science can answer,
on the contrary, they do not have a final or decisive answer.
Therefore the only scientific philosophy does not exist. Of
course, due to some common environment of life, people of the
same nati on with t he same re ligious belief in the same period of
time may have the “resonant” (“sympathetic”) philosophy; how-
ever, the “resonant” does not mean it is the only true philosophy
(Zhang, 2008).
According to the degree of mental freedom, I divide life
realm into four different levels: the lowest level is the “realm of
desires”. People of this realm know nothing but satisfying their
most basic needs of life. “Mengzi” said: “Eating and having sex
are human nature”. This is the realm of desires. As Mengzi
claimed, it is “not far from the life of animals”, not free at all.
The second level is the “truth-seeking realm”. Man of this
realm has gone beyond the level of simply satisfying his most
basic needs for existence and become eager to know the world
so that he may understand the orders and laws of the tings there.
Ignorance means limitation. With knowledge and various laws,
man’s mental freedom will make very great progress. So
“truth-seeking realm” gains certain degree of freedom. We
usually say that “to know necessity is to gain freedom”; as a
matter of fact, this is only half of the story. As discussed above,
having grasped laws and necessities, a new question turns up:
How are we to look at them? Following them passively with
moans cannot be counted as freedom; by contrast, following
them actively, as Nietzsche suggested that we “embrace
necessity with love”, will lead us to true freedom. In the pursuit
of science, man is a knowing subject who is concerned to
understand external objects. To define philosophy as a science
of universal laws will lead to a monotonous understanding of
human life, but this is by no means a philosophy of freedom,
not to mention the beauty of it. With the development of
science and the socialization of individuals, man will come to
see that he and other things in the world as well as other people
can be integrated into a unity, and scientific pursuit cannot be
separated from morality (Zhang, 2007). With this knowledge,
life moves into its third realm—the realm of morality, where man
is freed, in certain extent, from the externality between subject
and object and has gained more freedom. (Between scientific
activities and moral activities, there are economic and political
activities, which include both our natural desires (for example,
economic activities cannot separate themselves from natural
desire for self-preservation) and non-natural aspects. The for-
mer is close to scientific activities, the latter moral activities.
Therefore, the freedom of economic and political activities is
also between science and morality. The four realms of life I am
discussing here are recapitulative, thus I did not classify a
separate realm of life for economic and political activities). But
morality is always conditioned by the distance between ideals
and reality, when subject and object have not reached a
complete integration, of which the moral “ought” is an expre-
ssion. Realization and completion of morality means both its
zenith and its end. Here begins the fourth realm of life, name ly
the “aesthetic realm”. This realm includes morality but goes
beyond it, too. In this realm man acts by neither the restraint of
moral duties (even if it is based on our wills), nor the moral
“ought”, but by a natural state of mind where man and all other
things of the world are integrated into a whole. “Being natural”
is used in Laozis sense which claims that “Dao imitates
nature”, different from any “ought-ism”. The latter is not
completely free, but the former is. Man of the aesthetic realm
acts necessarily by morality, yet he remains “natural”—free to
do what he should without any restraint.
As mentioned above, Hegel believes that freedom is the nature
of mind. By different levels of freedom, he classifies human
activity into many levels from the lowest satisfaction of basic
desires to the highest pursuit of mind. Unfortunately he is just
one step short of success, for he argues that only through a
complete sepa ration from all human activities, including that of
arts and arriving at the stage of pure concepts, can we achieve
the highest freedom (Hegel, 1981). By comparison, the four
realms of life I am discussing here are connected to concrete
life all the time, where life and freedom go hand in hand.
Generally speaking, life must be some interwovenness among
these four realms, where some people are dominated by lower
realms while others by some higher ones. Broadly, lower
realms are included in higher realms, but they cannot separate
from each other; that is to say, a man of aesthetic realm, such as
a real poet, cannot but satisfy his basic needs for existence. As a
man of aesthetic realm and a poet, however, he may look at this
part of life for basic existence in an aesthetic perspective. The
business of philosophy is to enhance realm of life. In other
words, it is engaged in upgrading a common realm of life to
aesthetic realm; in Schiller’s words, its purpose is to create a
personality where perceptions and reason are united and “aesthe-
tic intuition” is achieved—a person of “freedom” and “integrity”.
I have stressed in many of my writings that aesthetics may be
different in value. Beauty of forms, perceptions and visions
belongs to the lower level, while beauty of mind and life realms
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 139
a higher level. As mentioned above, the transition of modern
western art to its postmodern form includes a change from an
emphasis on the beauty of form, perception and vision to that of
mind and life realm. We should say that this is a progress in
aesthetics. I think the zenith of ‘aesthetic realm’ is characteriz-
ed by a high and far realm of life, typical of a unity of all things
in the world, of heaven and man, and no limitations among
things. The life of Duchamp, father of postmodern art, may be
considered to belong there. Regretfully, as an artist, Duchamp
did not give detailed descriptions of his realm of life, and the
descriptions lack for rational reflections and systematic argu-
ment, so he cannot be counted a philosopher. Postmodern artists
after Duchamp enjoy an aesthetic realm of life, but they gave
less rational reflections and theoretical arguments, so actions are
much more than words with them, and the beauty of philosophy
is out of the question.
By the principle that art must be combined with life, we can
see clearly that an aesthetic realm usually shows itself in some
lower levels of life and results in various beauties of life at
different levels: Seen in a perspective of subject-object dicho-
tomy, if one regards sexual love, t he lowest “desire”, simply as a
tool to satisfy his animal instincts, as people in lower realms of
life usually do, then beauty is out of the question; on the
contrary, seen in a perspective of man-world unity, one will
experience a beauty in sexual love. “A soft jade and warm
fragrant flowers in full bosom Spring comes and flowers
show their beautiful colours Dew drops fall on the peony in
blossom”. Thus sexual love becomes poetic and beautiful, a
beauty that is not only visual and perceptive, but also contains
something of a higher level—a beauty of mind or spirit. I call
this beauty of life that shows itself in sexual love “emotive
beauty”. Scientific activity of a higher level can be put in the
same perspective. Seen in a perspective of subject-object dic-
hotomy, science is nothing but universal laws of external objects
that man as subjects is trying to uncover; with these laws it
makes objects serve man’s purpose, just like the view which
regards philosophy as the only science that is engaged in
discovering the most universal laws. If this is the case, then
beauty is also out of the question in science. Seen in a per-
spective of man-world unity, however, we can experience
beauty in scientific activity: First of all, we may experience a
formal beauty derived from harmony and integration of the
universal law and theorem (not to mention the beauty that
appears under a microscope or an astronomical telescope). But
mental or spiritual beauty is more important. For example,
Einstein once said that he embraced a “religious feeling” for the
cosmic order and intelligibility (“Intelligibility” refers to the
unity between man and things); he believed that this feeling,
derived from an impersonal God, is the driving force of
scientists to pursue continuously physical studies. He called this
impersonal God the “God of Spinoza”. In my view, the “religious
feeling” of Einstein belongs to a higher level of aesthetic realm,
as a beauty of sublimity. Furthermore, I believe that scientific
activities characteristic of disinterested free spirits may bring
scientists a sense of pleasure, and this also belongs to a higher
level of aesthetic realm. To all this beauty shown in scientific
activities I gave the name of “scientific beauty”. (See my
discussions in Chapter Five: Science and Aesthet ics, Realm and
Culture. Renmin Press, 2008). Moral activities are derived from
some “ought”, close to its aesthetic counterpart; if one does the
“ought” freely and naturally, then he or she achieves a “moral
beauty”, an uncommon phrase in our language. In one word,
life—the relation between man and the world, means not only
the use of certain tools, but also a deep level of aesthetic
enjoyment. But it is not the case that everyone may reach the
realm of aesthetic enjoyment: Everyone has sexual desires, but
only those who have reached aesthetic realm may experience
“emotive beauty”; the same is true to the world of science,
namely, only those scientists who have reached aesthetic realm
may experience “scientific beauty” (Of course, beauty of a low
level such as visual or natural beauty shown under a micros-
cope or astronomical telescope, may be within the reach of all
scientists, but I do not suggest that we take them as the main
instance of “scientific beauty”). Western postmodern art gives
expression to various beauties of life, but it lacks theoretical
discussions and analyses, without making difference among
different levels like me. Philosophy characterized by beauty
aims at reflecting on and rationalizing aesthetic life.
Part III
Western “post-philosophy ” rejects the weakness of tr aditi onal
philosophy which claims super- se nsibility , oppo siti on of dich oto-
my (including subject-object division) and the supremacy of
reason and science, but stresses realm of life, so it enjoys a
beauty of philosophy. Heidegger, Derrida and other philoso-
phers argued like this. Before them, Nietzsche is a case in point.
He pointed out that “Compared with artists, scientists degrade
and limit life”, “Art is more valuable than truth”. Nietzsche
argues that “ignorance is preferable”, and the highest realm of
life is that of “drunkenness” and free detachedness. Moreover,
he contended for mental vision. All these discussions are not
only vivid and detailed elaboratio ns on the beauty of philosophy ,
but also good examples for us to understand this kind of beauty
(Zhang, 2007).
Ancient Chinese believed in “heaven-man unity”, a view that
enables most of traditional Chinese philosophy to combine with
poetry. Therefore, works of ancient Chinese philosophy are
usually that of literature, and philosophers were usually literary
writers. This is because “heaven-man unity” is a realm of
aesthetics without me-thing s or subject-object division, on whic h
most of the traditional Chinese philosophy are reflections and
elaborations. Confucianism makes moral realm the highest
realm of life. It also advocates “heaven-man unity”, but its
“heaven” is moral to a great extent. Despite all that, its
“heaven-man unity” remains to be poetic, for it tries, through a
poetic and aesthetic consciousness, to turn a moralized “hea-
venly principle” into a spontaneous pursuit of the mind. By
contrast, Daoism clearly regards aesthetic realm the highest
realm of life, and its philosophy features the beauty of phi-
Chapter Twelve of Laozi writes: “Too much colour blinds
the eye, Too much music deafens the ear In this way the
gentle care for people: They provide for the belly, not for the
senses”. It seems that Laozi is dening visual beauty, but in his
ideal society he still teaches that people should “eat well and
dress well” (Laozi, 80). We see that Laozi is not totally denying
visual beauty. He intends to emphasize not visual beauty but
mental or spiritual beauty. He described the realm as follows:
“My heart is foolish, muddled and cloudy”; “But I am tranquil
and wandering, like a newborn before it learns to smile”; “The
people are busy with purpose, where I am impractical and
rough” (Laozi, 20). Laozi called this realm “profound same-
ness” (玄同) and the people there are “fed at nature’s breast”
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
(贵食母), namely they understand Dao, so they pay no attention
to personal gains and look dim and dull. This is Laozi’s ideal
personality. Though as short as about five thousand Chinese
characters, Laozi contains the earl iest and also rich philosophical
arguments and elaborations in Chinese history, whose very
purpose is to discuss ontological basis of the aesthetic realm -
namely, the Dao. It is the first work that can be called “phi-
losophy” in Chinese history, and also the first work of phi-
losophy that embodies the beauty of philosophy.
Based on Laozi’s philosophy of Dao, Zhuangzi developed
Laozi’s “profound sameness” into a mental realm of “heaven-
man unity” where “Heaven, Earth, and I were produced to-
gether, and all things and I are one”, a realm that is more poetic
and beautiful than that of Laozi’s “profound sameness”. “Bu-
tterfly dream” is Zhuangzi’s most vivid and beautiful des-
cription of his realm of “heaven-man unity”.
Zhuangzi’s discussions of aesthetic freedom are especially
brilliant. This expresses itself in his theory of “waiting for and
not waiting for” when he said that “There was Liezi, who rode
on the wind and pur sued his way , with an admi rable indiffe renc e
(to all external things) but though he had not to walk, there
was still something for which he had to wait. But suppose one
who mounts on (the ether of) heaven and earth in its normal
operation, and drives along the six elemental energies of the
changing (seasons), thus enjoying himself in the illimitable—
what has he to wait for? Therefore it is said, The Perfect man
has no (thought of) self; the Spirit-like man, none of merit; the
Sagely-minded man, none of fame”. (Zhuangzi: Enjoyment in
Untroubled Ease). Riding on the wind makes it unnecessary for
one to walk, but he still “waits for something”—he depends on
the wind, so this cannot count as untroubled ease or complete
freedom. Common people occupy themselves in pursuing
wealth and position, and regard them as freedom; in fact, this
freedom is still “waiting for something”, namely, it’s waiting
for wealth and position to satisfy itself. It will become
completely limited as soon as wealth and position fall short of
expectation. This is due to its “waiting for”. Not waiting for
anything at all is the only way to real freedom or untroubled
ease, and this requires “not waiting for”—not dependent on
anything external. If one can “go” the right way of heaven and
earth, and “follow” the changes of yin and yang, in one word, if
one can follow the course of nature and reach the realm of
“heaven-man unity”, he will become independent of all things
in the world and achieve real freedom and untroubled ease.
“The Perfect man, the Spirit-like man or the Sagely-minded
man” may forget himself and get free from the entanglements
of wealth and position, hence a person of real freedom and
untroubled ease. In other words, “not waiting for” means to
follow the course of nature in the realm of “heaven-man unity”,
not limited by things (“things outside of us”) in the world of
common people. This freedom is the feature of what Schiller
called “games”, namely “aesthetics”. Zhuangzi inherited and
developed Laozi’s view that everlasting Inner Power “comes
back again to nativeness” (Laozi, 28); he rejected all
ornamental beauty but advocated a mental beauty that turns up
truthfully and naturally (Zhang, 2007). Moreover, Zhuangzi
argues that, to create this beauty, one must have a “rambling”
mind which is different from a common mind. A rambling
mind refers to an emotion with which aesthetic subjects
transcend finite reality and achieve infinite emptiness in the
realm of heaven-man unity. Zhuangzi made a vivid analogy: If
there is no emptiness in an apartment, grudges are likely to
develop between a mother and her daughter-in-law; likewise, if
mind does not ramble in the sky, the six orifices of the body are
not likely to enjoy harmony. That is to say, emptiness (“ramb-
ling in the sky” or “a rambling mind”) serves to “harmonize”
() finite things in reality. To achieve harmony, real things
must appeal to surreal “emptiness”. “Rambling mind” actually
means that mind rambles in emptiness; seen in this way, the
word of “emptiness” is the kernel of beauty with Zhuangzi and
all Daoist philosophy (Zhang, 2007). Zhuangzi’s analyses of
“rambling mind”, “emptiness” and “the empty apartment that is
filled with light through it” (Zhuangzi: Man in the World),
remind us spontaneously of the above-mentioned French post-
modern artist Klein and his work Emptiness. Zhuangzi is an
ancient Chinese, Klein a contemporary westerner; one is a phi-
losopher, the other an artist. Ancient and contemporary, Chinese
and western, different minds seem to shine through each other
and illuminate each other; art (beauty) and philosophy are
different in method, but similar in thought.
In the philosophy of Zhuangzi, “emptiness” is beautiful. This
means a transcendence over the three of the four realms I have
discussed above, but not a simple negation. Zhuangzi is neither
a nihilist, nor an ascetic. He teaches that “The Perfect man has
no (thought of) self; the Spirit-like man, none of merit; the
Sagely-minded man, none of fame”. This means neither that all
is nothing, nor that things like personal desires, wealth and
position, morality and principles are not important, but a
transcendence over “desires”, “principles” or “morality”. When
his wife died, Zhuangzi drummed on a basin and sang. Huizi
asked for the reason and was replied as follows: “When she
first died, was it possible for me to be singular and not affected
by the event? But I reflected on the commencement of her
being. She had not yet been born to life There is now a
change again, and she is dead. The relation between these
things is like the procession of the four seasons from spring to
autumn, from winter to summer. There now she lies with her
face up, sleeping in the Great Chamber; and if I were to fall
sobbing and going on to wail for her, I should think that I did
not understand what was appointed (for all). I therefore
restrained myself! (Zhuangzi: Zhuangzi. Perfect Enjoyment).
We see that the drumming on the basin and singing of Zhuangzi
implies not at all that he was callous or heartless, but a far and
high realm of mentality he achieved to follow actively the
course of nature when he was struggling out of his painful loss.
Part IV
It seems neither fish nor fowl when we compare the
philosophy of Zhuangzi with western postmodern art: one is
philosophy and the other art, two different areas. How are we to
make comparisons? But there are some similarities (commu-
nivation) between the two in their thoughts, so it must be
interesting and important if we make the comparison. Without
his philosophical explanation to Huizi, Zhuangzi’s drumming
on the basin and singing can be counted very well as an
excellent work of art in the postmodern “art of actions”. We
feel postmodern art is “grotesque” and hard to understand, but
Zhuangzi’s drumming on the basin and singing is not. Why?
Because Zhuangzi is a philosopher and has made philosophical
explanations for his action. On the contrary, Emptiness as a
work of the postmodern artist Klein, made visitors laugh and
leave without any reflection, since he was not a philosopher and
has not provided such philosophical expositions. Fortunately
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 141
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
the great writer Camus has left incisive comments that
“Emptiness is filled with power”. Thanks to his words, people
begin to understand this work of art. In reality, we may say that
the hearts of Zhuangzi and Camus have a common beat when
the former said that “the empty apartment is filled with light
through it”, and “Grudges are likely to develop between a
mother and her daughter-in-law if there is no emptiness in an
apartment”, and when the latter made the comments, an
excellent interpretation of Klein’s work. A philosophical dis-
cussion of the postmodern work of art Emptiness may well be-
come the philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Why is Zhuang-
zi’s philosophy or that of Chinese Daoism so similar to western
postmodern art? The reason is that both of them stress the realm
of life and uphold the beauty of life, mind and spirit, the core of
which is to break down limits and enhance communication and
free creation, therefore it is not visual or perceptive beauty. The
beauty of art and philosophy is thus combined. The difference
lies in the fact that they are products of different times and
national traditions: postmodern art is post-scientific culture in
the west, while the Daoist philosophy pre-scientific culture in
China. Postmodern art is a reaction to and criticism of the
supremacy of reason and science, a modern view in the west
which simply stresses de finition and analysis; on the other hand,
due to inflexibility and solidification of the tradition, post-
modern art failed to free itself from the thinking mode of strict
division and separation, hence going from one extreme to the
other. That is to say, modern art claims separation of art from
life and dominion of art, on the contrary, postmodern art (art of
actions or bodies) claims to reject art and beauty; modern art
stresses visual and perceptive beauty, while postmodern art
refuses both altogether, stressing thought and realm of life so
much so that it called painters to give up painting. The watchword
of postmodern artists is to “blur” the distinction between art and
life, a view that intended to oppose the traditional thinking
mode; as a matter of fact, however, it separates life from art and
mental beauty from visual beauty, falling into the set pattern of
traditional thought. This is the origin of some unconventional
works of life and of actions purposely designed by postmodern
artists. I think it is a big mistake with western postmodern art
when it absolutely opposed visual and perceptive beauty to that
of mind and life.
Part V
Laozi-Zhuangzi philosophy and that of Daoism in China
belongs to a primitive thought typical of heaven-man unity.
Compared with the traditional mode of thought in the west,
obviously it lacks scientific definition and clear-cut analysis.
Though Laozi-Zhuangzi philosophy and that of Daoism include
some argumentation, so they can also be regarded as reflective
philosophy, but they think in images, and poetry usually
overtakes philosophical analysis—they are too simple after all.
Nowadays when science is flourishing, Chinese philosophy
cannot stay in its pre-scientific simplicity ; its future development
may be like this: We should keep the beauty of Laozi-Zhuangzi
philosophy but absorb all the strong points in western science
and culture, and upgrade our ability in making analysis so that
traditional Chinese philosophy may take on a brand-new look
in the world.
Since the middle of the last century, under the influence of
modern western philosophy, Chinese philosophy has been
dominated by a thinking pattern of subject-object dichotomy,
believing that philosophy is concerned with finding the most
universal laws of external things while man is regarded as
subjects and things objects. Thus philosophy lost its traditional
beauty and strength. To keep this beauty, we cannot stop either
with the definition that the business of philosophy is to uncover
the most general laws of the world, or with the thinking mode
characteristic of subject-object dichotomy, on the contrary, we
need to go further and understand philosophy as a discipline to
upgrade the realm of life. The beauty of life realm comes before
the beauty of philosophy. Therefore, Chinese philosophy needs
to become life-oriented like postmodern art. Inheriting and
developing Laozi-Zhuangzi philosophy while absorbing the
philosophy of life shown through postmodern art, seems to be a
good way for us to enhance the realm of life and pursue the
beauty of philosophy.
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