The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China By François Jullien

In this strikingly original contribution to our understanding of Chinese philosophy, Fran�ois Jullien uses the Chinese concept of shi -- disposition or circumstance, power or potential -- as a touchstone to explore Chinese culture and to uncover the intricate and coherent structure underlying Chinese modes of thinking.

This term -- whose very ambivalence and disconcerting polysemy, on the one hand, and simple efficacy, on the other, defy the order of a concept -- insinuates itself into the ordering and conditioning of reality in all its manifold and complex representations. Jullien traces its appearance from military strategy to politics, from the aesthetics of calligraphy and painting to the theory of literature, and from reflection on history to first philosophy.

At the point where these various domains intersect, a fundamental intuition, assumed to be self-evident for centuries on end, emerges: namely, that reality -- every kind of reality -- may be perceived as a particular deployment or arrangement of things to be relied upon and worked to one's advantage. Art or wisdom, as conceived by the Chinese, lies in strategically exploiting the propensity that emanates from this particular configuration of reality. Jullien's analysis of shi and his excursion through Chinese culture ultimately deepen our own comprehension of the world of things and renew the impulse to discover the endless pleasures of inquiry. The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China


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Francois Jullien's The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China is a very interesting, yet also very difficult, book. As Jullien notes in the introduction, he is analyzing the Chinese concept of shi, a common word for the Chinese with no fixed meaning. Shi can be translated as 'position' or 'circumstances,' and at other times as 'power' or 'potential', but Jullien embraces the ambivalence of the word and gives it the far-ranging meaning of the kind of potential that originates not in human initiative but instead results from the very disposition of things. He further explains that shi is the act of strategically exploiting the propensity emanating from the particular configuration of reality, to the maximum effect possible. This is the notion of 'efficacy.'

Jullien points out that the inheritors of Greek thinking have a lot of difficulty with the lack of rigid categories and meanings in Chinese words and philosophies. He delves into the differences of the two outlooks a bit, explaining the Greek view is one of striving to be free from constraints, to be original and free, whereas the Chinese view is one of living in harmony with the world, to be in balance with the world as it is. Greek philosophy focuses on causes and effects, whereas the Chinese focus on the cyclical nature of events. Jullien's goal, though, is to ensure the reader understands that, though the concept of shi seems vague and unintuitive to us, it makes perfect sense in the Chinese worldview. By removing our conditioning, Jullien explains, we can deepen our own comprehension of the state of things.

Jullien writes in a way that can be difficult to understand at first. I found myself rereading paragraphs to try and grasp some of the concepts he presented. The book is also a translation from French (by Janet Lloyd) and this adds to some of the denseness of the text. A background in philosophy and Chinese culture would likely be very helpful when reading the text, though I understood most of it without these.

Jullien laid out the text in a manner that doesn't make logical sense, but does make sense for describing shi. It begins by exploring shi as potential in military strategy and position in politics, concluding that both of these fields use shi, or manipulate circumstances, to be effective. Next, the book explores shi in literature and art, concluding that great works have a dynamism at their core. This concept of shi is vividly explored in the dragon motif, where the undulating form of the dragon, half covered in clouds, embodies the concept of dynamic movement. Finally, shi is explored in history (as situation and tendency) and in reality (as propensity). Jullien concludes by drawing several parallels between being effective in different fields by conforming in some manner. He ends with several lines to sum up the bipolarity of Chinese philosophy:

Any opening out to some Beyond, instead of leading to an endless outpouring of emotion and dizzying ecstasy, is immediately compensated with a corresponding closure. Such is the essence of the whole process and what makes it breathe. There is no need to forge a morality of sublimation. Between joy and fear, there is no need to invent salvation. It is enough to go along with change, change that is also forever regulation, change that helps to create harmony. The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China Who knew? The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China Bản dich tiếng Việt: Bàn về chữ Thế - Thiên hướng của muôn vật: Chữ Thế của người Trung Hoa qua lăng kính tư duy phương Tây. Bước đầu cho việc tìm hiểu về mối liên hệ Tâm - Thế - Lực, theo cách giải thích của một người thầy, có Tâm thì có Thế, mà có Thế thì có Lực, và tôi đi tìm hiểu nguồn gốc của Lực theo lẽ đó, đồng thời chuẩn bị cho mình những ý niệm về Tâm. Quyển sách bàn về chữ Thế qua những quan niệm và lĩnh vực khác nhau, một cách đầy đủ và mạch lạc bằng lối tư duy phân tích của Phương Tây. The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China 2.5 stars. The writer tries to cover too wide a scope, from strategy to aesthetics / literature to history, and I think falls short (not as good as his other book, the Treatise). While the first couple chapters on strategy are pretty good and have some interesting insights, the latter chapters such as those on history are merely a summary of views espoused by historians like Wang Fuzhi. And because statements made by Wang Fuzhi require an understanding of Chinese history to make sense / understand, some of the excerpts of the author make no sense when divorced from their original context, which was a nuanced commentary on reigns of specific rulers and the transition of dynasties. I think M. Jullien perhaps has a better grasp of Warring States philosophy than later Chinese history, and it shows in this book. Nonetheless, as mentioned above, the first few chapters are still worth reading. The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China this kept me going for years, took a long break- it offered years of embodied trans-media research and creative design. The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China