Eric's Reviews > The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China

The Propensity of Things by François Jullien
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Mar 20, 12

Read in April, 2011

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.
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