Encompassing the Horse: Analogy, Category, and Scale in the Yijing

William Matthews

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Abstract:  The canonised Yijing had a decisive influence over the development of so-called “correlative cosmology” in China’s early imperial period, presenting the cosmos as knowable through sixty-four hexagrams and classifiable according to eight trigrams. The exact nature of these correlative categories continues to inspire debate. On the one hand, they appear to be defined relationally, but on the other they purport to describe everything in the cosmos in terms of fixed principles. These apparently discordant properties can be reconciled by paying due attention to the role of scale. This is revealed through a focus on the hexagram images as two distinct but interrelated forms of analogy, as human constructs for symbolic manipulation and as empirical descriptors of cosmic circumstances. Adopting perspectives from cognitive linguistics and anthropology, this symbolic manipulation allows unknown situations to be understood metaphorically via the hexagrams, and then metonymically incorporated into a natural category of cosmic circumstances. This transition between metaphoric and metonymic relations is a function of scale, and is reflected in the Yijing’s correlative categories. These correspond to perceived absolute natural kinds, but maintain a relational character dependant on the salience of metaphorical and metonymic relations at different scales.

KeywordsYijing; cosmology; analogy; correlative thinking; early China; divination; scale; metaphor; metonymy.