Principle (li) and Place (topos): Correlative Concepts

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Principle (li) and Place (topos): Correlative Concepts?
Michael Harrington, Duquesne University
When Aristotle provides Western philosophy with its first major discussion of the concept of
place, he associates it closely with the part-whole relation: a thing is related to its place as a part
is related to its whole. Though Aristotle goes on to develop a different and more famous
understanding of place (as the interior limit of the surrounding body), many later Western
philosophers will find the part-whole relation to be more useful. Certain Neoplatonists, in
particular, think of place as nothing but what relates parts to their whole. In the words of the
Neoplatonist Damascius, every topos or place is a syntoposis—that is, a setting of something in
relation to other things. When things are in their places, that is, in their proper relationship with
other things, they are then able to be themselves most effectively. The feet, to use one of
Damascius’ examples, can only serve as feet if they are placed below the rest of the body.
The language used in Western discussions of place has already appeared in several
accounts of the classical Chinese concept of “principle” (li 理). Chad Hansen has interpreted
principle in terms of part-whole relationships and, more recently, Brook Ziporyn has described
principle (or “coherence,” as he prefers to translate it) as a center-periphery relationship. Neither
of them develops this vocabulary into an explicit theory of place, or as a way of showing the
relation between principle and place, though the concluding pages of Ziporyn’s 2012 book,
Ironies of Oneness and Difference, do contain some provocative statements on how the
geometrical figures of the Book of Changes and similar works are a “spatial model” of a “system
of harmoniously grouping coherences.” That is, we may see the Book of Changes and similar
works as models of various center-periphery relationships, each of which can be put into practice
in a number of concrete contexts.
There is good reason, then, to see what can be discovered if we apply the conceptual
vocabulary developed in classical Western discussions of place to the study of the Book of
Changes. The Song-dynasty commentary on the Book of Changes composed by Cheng Yi is
particularly useful in this regard, since he frequently and consistently discusses the idea of a
“constant principle.” We will find that the lineaments of Cheng Yi’s constant principle could just
as easily be those of the Neoplatonic syntoposis. The point here is not to compare two
independent theories of place, or to form a more complete theory by combining them, but to use
one theory as a tool in unearthing elements that would otherwise remain hidden in the other.
Cheng Yi, for instance, does not have any explicit theory of place, though the raw material for
such a theory is scattered throughout his commentary. It is helpful, then, to think through his
statements about principle in the context of the classical Western theory of place. Likewise, the
Book of Changes can shed new light on the connection between place and time as described in
classical Western theories. Though place and time appear together in classical Western accounts
from Aristotle onward, these accounts generally draw no clear connection between them, as
though one could possibly have the one without the other.
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