by Louis Komjathy 康思奇

Pneumatology refers to discourse on, study of, and theories about pneuma, a Greek term that may indicate “breath,” “life,” “soul,” “spirit,” “wind,” and so forth. In this way, it has some overlap with psukhḗ (Latin: psychē) and, by extension, psychology. In a more technical sense, pneuma connects with energeia (Latin: energia; “activity”) (see, e.g., Smil 2017). While “pneumatology” is often used in modern Christian theological contexts to refer the study of the Holy Spirit (see, e.g., Kärkkäinen 2002), here I want to propose employing it as a comparative and cross-cultural term for exploring culture-specific and tradition-specific terms and views related to vital breath and energy. Such a reframing extends the topic beyond Christocentric frameworks, although Christian views would be included. The comparative framework is particularly relevant for the study of Asian and Chinese philosophies/religions in general and Daoism in particular, although more recent cross-cultural encounters suggest wide application and relevance.

In terms of the Philosophy of Religion, especially as envisioned in its current “global-critical” trajectory, with an additional concern for embodiment, personhood, and subjectivity, pneumatology enables us to avoid certain common (Eurocentric/Christocentric) assumptions and to consider larger, tradition-specific and perhaps trans-cultural insights. Specifically, it inspires us to investigate dimensions of self beyond or within the more conventional “body,” “mind,” and/or “soul” frameworks. It raises the possibility of subtle, underlying, and perhaps mutually infusing influences and presences. While it is presumably uncontroversial to draw attention to breath/breathing/respiration, and perhaps to bone, gesture, movement, skin, and the like, “subtle breath” and “subtle anatomy and physiology” are often taboo topics in mainstream academic discourse, perhaps invoking pre-modern and presumably “unscientific” ideas associated with “vitalism” (see Normandin and Wolfe 2016). So, while one might hear invocations of topics like “quantum physics” or “dark matter,” such views are not necessarily extended to human identity and personhood. How does something like mass-energy equivalence (E=mc2) or the so-called “observer effect” relate to subjectivity on a lived, phenomenological level? The possibility (actuality?) of energy moving in/as/through space and bodies inspires a variety of other questions, further investigation, and perhaps deeper or at least “alternative” modes of being and experiencing.

Pneuma was a central concept and concern among the ancient Hellenistic Stoics, for whom it generally designated the active, generative principle that organizes both the individual and the cosmos. In its highest form, pneuma constitutes psychē (“soul”). The latter, in turn, was regarded as a fragment of the pneuma that is the soul of the Divine (see Sellars 2006; also Hadot 1995). In this way, it may be further connected to eudaimoníā, or flourishing in/as/through virtue. The Hellenistic concept in turn flowed into and influenced early Christianity, including in the form of Gnosticism, and specifically its Hellenized views regarding khristós as logos (cf. Hebrew: messiah) and accompanying paráklētos (cf. Hebrew: ruach; also kavod; shekhinah), usually taken to refer to the Holy Spirit. For present purposes, one area where pneuma enters into the comparative and cross-cultural study of religion is in the work of the Sinologist Edward Schafer (1913–1991) and his intellectual heirs. Like many scholars of his generation, Schafer drew on Classical Studies for his translation methodology, specifically choosing to translate the Chinese and Daoist concept of 氣 (ch’i; Japanese: ki; Korean: gi) as “pneuma” (see, e.g., Schafer 1966). This translation and interpretive trajectory influenced the current entry, although the presentation of qì-as-pneuma is problematic on multiple grounds (see Komjathy 2013). Briefly, it uses a foreign (Greek) concept to translate another foreign (Chinese) concept (qì), which obfuscates the matter. Like translating shén 神 as “daimon,” it also invokes the accompanying ancient Hellenistic views and values to represent radically different ones. The term is thus better left untranslated as “qì,” although it may refer to physical breath and a more subtle presence depending on context. If translation is required, “subtle breath” or “vital breath” are perhaps most viable. Drawing upon the indigenous Chinese tradition, we may, in turn, think of “pneumatology” as qìxué 氣學 (“Qì Studies”), and vice versa.

As received, the character 氣 consists of 气 (“steam”) over 米 (“rice”), thus suggesting that it is somewhat analogous to vapor. The esoteric Daoist variant 炁 consists of 旡 (“collect”) and huǒ 火/灬 (“fire”), thus suggesting subtle warmth. Along with yin-yang 陰陽, qì is one of the key dimensions of traditional Chinese cosmology, including as utilized in both Chinese medicine and Daoism. Perhaps somewhat surprising to non-specialist readers, like the emphasis on ritual (禮) as being human (rén 人), qì also has played a role in Ruist (“Confucian”) views and practices. In any case, Daoism is particularly relevant for present purposes. As part of a classical and foundational Daoist worldview and lifeway, qì refers to a subtle, even numinous presence that underlies and infuses all of existence and every individual being, at times including “non-sentient” ones. While part of one’s original and inherent constitution, qì may be more or less present, and one may be more or less sensitive to it. For Daoists, there are specific contemplative practices, including apophatic (emptiness-/stillness-based) meditation and internal alchemy (nèidān 內丹), that activate and strengthen this enlivening energetic presence. Qì, in turn, relates to other dimensions of human personhood from a Daoist perspective, including xīn 心 (“heart-mind”) and “body” (shēn 身). Like everything in existence, these may be understood and mapped as manifestations of qì. From a Daoist alchemical perspective, qì also is located in an entire “theosomatics” centering on the “subtle body,” which consists of subtle corporeal locations and energy channels (mài 脈). While qì flows throughout this network, the navel region, referred to as the “Elixir Field” (dāntián 丹田) and “Ocean of Qì” (qìhǎi 氣海), is considered the primary storehouse of qì in the body. In addition, Daoists distinguish different types of qì. The most important is dàoqì 道炁, the “qì of the Dao” or “Way-Energy” for short, which also is referred to as língqì 靈氣 (“numinous qì”). This refers to a more primordial and less differentiated form of “energy,” a sacred presence, associated with the Dao 道 (Tao/Way), the sacred and ultimate concern of Daoists, which Daoists attempt to connect with and live through. Such views and orientations further connect with Yǎngshēng 養生 (Nourishing Life) and modern Qìgōng 氣功 (Energy Work/Qì Exercise), which usually refer to health and longevity practice and which may or may not be Daoist (see Komjathy 2013).

As herein proposed, the Chinese and Daoist concept of qì thus represents a culture-specific and sometimes tradition-specific term related to “pneumatology.” It may, in turn, be connected to parallel, cross-cultural terms like àṣẹ (Yoruba), energeia (Greece), ki 氣 (Japan), mana (Melanesia and Polynesia), nilch’i (Navajo), pneuma (Greece), and prāṇa (India), to name some.

The literature on pneumatology, broadly conceived, is vast, especially if one engages tradition-specific materials and studies. On the East Asian side, some works may have broader appeal as well as inspire deeper reflection and application. Yasuo Yuasa (1987, 1993) and Nagatomo Shigenori (1992) have attempted to advance a ki-centered theory and approach, with specific attention to the so-called (imagined/projected?) “mind-body problem.” Shigehisa Kuriyama (1999) discusses issues of embodiment in Chinese and Greek medical traditions, including consideration of the central importance of qì in the former. Finally, Zhang Yu Huan, and Ken Rose (2001) offer a “brief history of qì,” with a specific focus on Chinese medicine.

Related terms: anthropology, embodiment, energy, mana (Proto-Oceanic), 氣 (Chinese), pneuma (Greek), prāṇa (Sanskrit), psychology, shēn 身 (“body/self”; Chinese), somatology, xīn 心 (“heart-mind”; Chinese)


Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell, 1995.

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. Pneumatology: The Holy Spirit in Ecumenical, International, and Contextual Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

Komjathy, Louis. The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Kuriyama, Shigehisa. The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. New York: Zone Books, 1999.

Nagatomo Shigenori. Attunement through the Body. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Normandin, Sebastian and Charles Wolfe, eds. Vitalism and the Scientific Image in Post-Enlightenment Life Science, 1800–2010. New York: Springer, 2016.

Schafer, Edward. “Thoughts about a Students’ Dictionary of Classical Chinese.” Monumenta Serica 25, no. 1 (1966): 197–206.

Sellars, John. Stoicism. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

Smil, Vaclav. Energy and Civilization: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

Yuasa Yasuo. The Body: Toward an Eastern Mind-Body Theory. Translated by Nagatomo Shigenori and T.P. Kasulis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

———. The Body, Self-Cultivation, and Ki-Energy. Translated by Nagatomo Shigenori and Monte Hull. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Zhang Yu Huan and Ken Rose. A Brief History of Qi. Brookline, MA: Paradigm Publications, 2001.