Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

The Value(?) of Philosophical Mindset

Just to pick up on–and to pick on a little bit–some comments in the previous thread:

Don’t there seem to be clear rejections of the value of the philosophical mindset in the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, assuming we can identify the mindset more or less clearly? It also seems like Confucius and Mencius rejected the inherent value of philosophical questioning and argument. Confucius’ love of “learning” (xue 學) is really about ritual, literary, musical, and moral-historical learning. Mencius only seems interested in philosophical thought to the extent that he feels the need to quell interest in Mohism and other movements that he finds calamitous. Maybe with the Neo-Confucians the “investigation of things” implies putting on a philosophical point of view–but even there I’m not so sure it isn’t just more of the type of learning that Confucius loved.

In short, aren’t the Daoist and Confucian traditions actually hostile to the kind of philosophical mindset that challenges and questions, analyzes and clarifies, and so forth? I suppose we could still be interested in Daoism and Confucianism from such a point of view–just like the analytic philosophical interest in the later Wittgenstein–but it all seems a bit perverse, no?


February 7, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Daoism, Mencius, Taoism


  1. For the sake of argument, let’s say the philosophical mindset is about “propositional thought” and that Confucianism and Daoism, like Plato in the West (at least according to Francisco J. Gonzalez in his Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry, 1998), are endeavoring to demonstrate, show, point to, exemplify, and so forth, the value of and what is best termed “nonpropositional thought,” or, after Ryle, “knowing how” in addition to “knowing that” (and yes, I’ve read Stanley and Williamson’s recent paper on the subject). The fact that we have texts that make, in effect, arguments (i.e., we can make them make arguments), could be construed as a concession to the necessity of propositional thinking, albeit the arguments concern the limitations or proper circumscription of such thinking. In other words, it helps us put the “philosophical mindset,” in so far as that is synonymous with reasons and rational methods, in a wider perspective…. So, both the Confucians and the Daoists rely on philosophical reasoning of a sort, but only so as to awaken us, like Pascal (or in his own way, like Kant), to the limitations of such reasoning. Doesn’t Graham Priest make an argument akin to this in his Beyond the Limits of Thought (1995)? I have to run, or else I’d say more, perhaps a bit later.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 7, 2008 | Reply

  2. Patrick start it right, I think. Confucius, I think, is hardly against knowledge or wisdom, but it’s a kind of engaged knowledge, not a propositional one. Here I think of Heidegger — when we’ve arrived at the point at which we’re thinking in terms of theory (propositional knowledge), some sort of _breakdown_ has occured in our normal practices (Heidegger’s notion of circumspection). The question is not to theorize about jen, but to be jen. Given in addition the Chinese preference for “oblique” methods of approaching problems (Francois Jullien has a great book on this if anyone is interested), there’s little chance that we’ll find the Master engaging in theoretical discussions of virtue with Zilu.

    In the end, I think there’s a lot of ways to understand “the philosophical mindset.”

    Comment by Chris | February 7, 2008 | Reply

  3. Chris,

    Jullien has several good books out in English translation, but presumably you’re referring to his comparative study, Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece (2000), yes?

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 7, 2008 | Reply

  4. Patrick,

    That’s the one. I’m actually covering a bit of it in the course I’m teaching this semester on Confucianism. It’s a great book — mostly. I read it on Air China going to and back from Beijing (had a few free Tsingdao’s in the process, as well). Couldn’t put it down, the first 60% was just incredibly engaging. The last 40%, well, not so much. But it doesn’t matter — the first 60% makes up for it and makes it, IMO, a necessary read.

    Comment by Chris | February 7, 2008 | Reply

  5. I actually think that to understand the Confucians and Daoists as engaged in philosophy, it helps to turn away from the idea of philosophy as a mindset, and think of philosophy as a discourse.

    When Book 3 of the Mencius and Book 22 of the Xunzi complain about the need to engage in argument, it’s clear that they are rejecting at least one kind of philosophical mindset, but they’re also recognising a need (or anyway a value) in engaging with a discourse that calls for conceptual clarity and reasoned defenses of one’s views. They don’t think they should have to do that, they think it’s beneath them, but still they do it. In my view, a discourse of that sort, treating the issues the various masters treated, is philosophical, and therefore engaging in it, even if only reluctantly, is a philosophical activity.

    Matters are a bit less straightforward with the Daoist texts, but I’d say there’s pretty good evidence of similar engagement in (rather than simply rejection of) philosophical discourse in parts of the Zhuangzi, if maybe not in the Daodejing.

    (I also think that parts of the Xunzi and the Zhuangzi were written from a philosophical mindset, even given an extremely narrow conception of philosophy, but that’s another issue.)

    Comment by Dan Robins | February 7, 2008 | Reply

  6. Patrick, and anyone else, I’m not familiar with the Gonzalez book, but wouldn’t Plato go in more for something like Russell’s “knowledge by acquaintance” (of the forms) rather than Ryle’s “knowing how”? And I guess with the Confucians and Daoists, I would think of them not so much interested in states of knowing at all, ultimately, but of other states–more aesthetic than epistemic.

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 8, 2008 | Reply

  7. Manyul,

    I’d think that once you get to knowing how, the distinction between epistemic and aesthetic concerns becomes very fuzzy. Both, I’d say, are in play.

    Comment by Chris | February 8, 2008 | Reply

  8. Manyul,

    I’m going to try everyone’s patience in the following, but please bear with me so I can respond as best I can to your question.

    Wisdom being a “state of knowing” *and* a “state of being,” I would argue that Confucians and Daoists are indeed, if rather awkwardly expressed, “interested” in such a state(s) and that aesthetic states or value are, in the end, subsumed within (or parasitic upon) the state of knowing and being. The ability to appreciate and articulate aesthetic value is dependent on a knowledge, or awareness, or acquaintance (however dim or incomplete in the beginnning) with the Good in Plato, and jen in Confucius, and Dao in Daoism. I disagree, in other words, with Hall and Ames on this question and find an “aethetic” interpretation to be wrongheaded, motivated by their attempt to demonstrate an alleged radical difference between classical Chinese metaphysics and epistemology with that found in Platonic thought (an interpretation, I would add, that has a rather crude understanding of what Plato was up to). It is this knowledge that allows one to discern just what is, in fact, real aesthetic value, to discriminate between good and less than good art(s). The Good does, however, enlist our intuitive attraction to beauty, as Iris Murdoch wrote: “We see and love beauty more readily that we love good, it is a spiritual thing to which we are most immediately and instinctively attracted,” which explains why for both Plato and Confucius, a training in the arts (wen) is absolutely crucial for moral and spiritual self-cultivation (for Plato, see his discussion in the Laws).

    According to Gonzalez (hereafter ‘G.’), this “knowledge by acquaintance” as it were, is exemplified by (evidenced in, demonstrated by) “knowing how,” which takes the form of the dialectical praxis of the Socratic dialogues (cf. Confucius in conversation with his students). And the knowledge might be said to be of “the Forms” but only insofar as these are, in the end, part of the Good (cf. jen). I’ll illustrate with some passages from G.:

    First, as Plato stated in the Seventh Letter, and his philosophical counterparts in ancient China would have well understood, “this subject matter cannot at all be expressed in words as other studies can, but instead, from living with the subject itself in frequent dialogue, as a light kindled from a leaping flame [knowledge] comes to be in the soul where it presently nourishes itself.” Inasmuch as we are speaking of sages we are at the same time speaking of wisdom, and in the Chinese case, as with Plato, “wisdom, simply cannot be expressed in words. Here the criticism ceases to be confined to writing and extends to all forms of verbal expression. The target therefore includes the spoken word; writing is only a special case….”
    G. explains how this nonpropositional knowledge by acquaintance (which, unlike its Russellian counterpart, is *not* empirical), what in the Illuminationist tradition of Islamic philosophy is called “knowledge by presence,” is linked to the “knowing how” of dialectical dialogue for Plato:

    “The point is…that neither written nor spoken words can express the principles as what they are. What is inexpressible is therefore knowledge of the principles. There are many parallels in ordinary discourse to this use of the word ‘inexpressible.’ When we say, for example, that we cannot express or describe our love for someone
    dear to us, we do not mean that we cannot talk about this love; we could do so ad nauseum. We mean instead that none of our words can do justice to the meaning of the experience itself. To understand this love, one must experience it for oneself. [….] [T]here is no contradiction between being able to talk and write about [principles or values] and being unable to express their true nature in words. [….] Yet if knowledge of the principles cannot be expressed in words, then how can it be acquired? ‘Plato’ describes the alternatives in the
    following words: ‘but instead, from living with the subject itself in frequent dialogue, suddenly, as a light kindled from a leaping flame, [knowledge] comes to be in the soul where it perfectly nourishes itself’ (341c6-d2). The use of a metaphor is significant. ‘Plato’ has just
    asserted that the knowledge in question cannot be expressed in words; therefore, if he is to talk about it at all, he must do so indirectly through an image. This indirect description suggests three important characteristics of this knowledge: (1) it is the result of living with the thing itself in conversation with others, as opposed to a solitary and purely theoretical grasp of propositions or doctrines, (2) it is nonpropositional, and (3) it is capable of sustaining itself.”

    G. proceeds to explain why propositional thought, the conditio sine qua non of analytical reasoning, is not up to the task of communicating the essence or nature of a thing (that there is a nature or essence of a thing–at least certain kinds of thing–is not a popular assumption to hold or claim to make these days), which of course applies in the first instance to that fundamental metaphysical (if not mystical) unity in Chinese philosophy known as Dao: “A proposition, as well as the names of which it is composed and the images to which it must refer, present us with a multiplicity where what is sought is a unity. The nature is one thing, but a definition of this nature necessarily breaks it up into multiplicity of components or aspects. The result is that we are presented with different ways in which the thing is qualified rather than with a knowledge of the thing [say, the person] itself. The unity of a thing’s being, though presupposed by the definition, must always escape being expressed by it.”

    And here we come to one of the differences (another being the Platonic theory of soul memory or recollection) between Plato and his Chinese counterparts: resort to these names, propositions and images is unavoidable (hence the reasons we have words, the Daodejing, about Dao), and thus form part of the necessary (but not sufficient) means by which we come to attain a knowledge of what a thing truly is. In other words, “one can use these three means in such a way as to obtain an insight that transcends them, that is, an insight into that nature which they themselves presuppose but cannot express.” For Chinese worldviews these “three means” are employed, for example, in the Daodejing, yet it will become clear that they are not themselves sufficient to “obtain an insight that transcends them.” Therefore, while Platonic dialectic relies primarily on *discursive reasoning* in the intimate setting of Socrates and his interlocutors in dialogue to awaken intuitive, nonpropositional insight into a thing’s nature (e.g., the virtues), in Chinese worldviews self-cultivation of one kind or another plays this role, taking us beyond discursive reasoning inasmuch as it entails training in the arts as well as contemplative or meditation exercises that aim to “purify” or “empty” the mind, although in both cases some form of self-examination and self-knowledge is part and parcel of the process of attaining intuitive, nonpropositional understanding.

    Now we’ll depart from G. for a moment and cite scholars of Chinese worldviews to discuss our topic as it relates in particular to Dao/dao:

    We will distinguish between Dao and dao(s): the former term Chad Hansen translates as “the great dao,” although our rendering is more metaphysical or, better, more “mystical” than Hansen would countenance (see Hansen). Dao with a lower case “d” will be understood here in reference to “human” or “social” dao(s), and tian (‘heavenly’) or “natural” dao. In the Analects, Confucius speaks of dao rather than Dao, in Hansen’s words, “Confucius treats dao as the kind of thing that could be heard, spoken, studied, corrected, modeled, walked, or wasted, that could be present or absent. A dao can be born and grow, strengthened; it can be small
    or great. One can master a dao.” Human dao and tian-dao are prescriptive or normative “ways” where this is understood as synonymous with words like “course,” “method,” “manner,” “mode,” “style,” “means,” “practice,” “art” and so on. These daos in effect provide “an answer to any how question, to practical guidance in general” (Hansen). Hence we might speak of the dao of medicine as well as medical dao.

    Yet as Hansen further explains, for Confucius dao is bound up with knowledge (zhi, ‘knowing’) and this is perhaps best not construed in propositional terms, as it is exemplified in a “knowing/knowledge how” rather than a “knowing/knowledge that,” a distinction in contemporary philosophical discourse going back to Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind (1949) wherein “knowing-how” is akin to the learning and mastering of a skill or art (craft), and thus is a complex dispositional capacity or ability. Knowing-how here implies that the knowledge one possesses as exemplified in practice or performance cannot be adequately put into words: one simply knows how to do x, and any verbal description cannot adequately capture or describe one’s knowledge (in part, but no less importantly, because it implicates self-knowledge as well): in other words, if I tell you what I know about playing the piano, it does not fully convey my knowledge of how to play the piano, which can only be demonstrated or revealed in the playing. Of course propositional knowledge or “knowing that” can be used to describe this or that aspect of one’s “knowing-how,” for example, the particular composition being played, descriptions of the performance itself, and so on. Yet all of these descriptions—propositions—do not amount to knowing how to perform, say, as a virtuoso pianist, for learning (mastering) all these propositions does not mean that one can thereby perform in the manner of the master pianist. “Knowing how” is in one sense more than what is revealed in the performance—in the playing—as it provides evidence of propositional knowledge (‘knowing that’), thus “a master pianist who loses both of her arms in a tragic car accident still knows how to play the piano” (Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson). It is more likely than not, therefore, that this “knowing how” is dependent upon a prior “knowing that” in that were Lilly to lack propositional knowledge about playing the piano, she could never play the piano! In other words, “knowing that” is a *necessary but not sufficient condition* for “knowing how,” and so we need not assume any dichotomy between these forms of knowledge. *If* propositional knowledge amounted to a sufficient condition, my learning of these propositions would amount to my knowing how to play the piano. For our purposes it suffices to see that there is something distinctive about “knowing how” that cannot be captured by or reduced to “knowing that.” Indeed, from a Daoist perspective, we might postulate the yin of “knowing how” and the yang of “knowing that,” the two forms of knowing thereby necessarily and intimately related to each other. All the more so because the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) stresses the need for yin in a time and place where yang predominates, that is, we need accord more space, so to speak, to yin such that yin and yang approach proper proportion and harmonious balance. We will have occasion to return to this distinction.

    In Confucianism, the training of the would-be junzi involves, among other things (e.g., learning li and training in wen) the study of texts like The Odes and the Book of Rites. But this learning remains confined to (is best described as) propositional knowledge until such time as the psychological, ethical, and aesthetic impact of “self-cultivation” affects the character and actions of the junzi. The effects of this training will be exemplified in praxis, in a transformed way of living, a way that, in turn, relies on and exhibits the “magical” power of de (virtue or excellence) owing to its capacity to motivate others to emulate li, to be self-surpassing (i.e., transcend an egoist orientation), and to stay on the difficult dao of self-cultivation. It is only when one evidences this “knowing how” in daily life that one can be said, in fact, to be truly in possession of wisdom. Ren (jen), roughly, goodness (the indefinable good in Confucianism involving, minimally, zhong and shu, and which makes possible the critique and alteration of li), is expressed and made evident—by degree—in the proper performance of li (rites, customs, social norms, etiquette, etc.; all conceived as ‘ceremonial acts’ or the choreographed grammar of social behavior). It was, I believe, Fingarette who said “li is the codified, external expression of ren” (I can’t find the citation), as well as that li and ren “are two aspects of the same thing. Each points to an aspect of the action of man in his distinctively human role. Li directs our attention to the traditional social pattern of conduct and relationships, jen directs our attention to the person as the one who pursues that pattern of conduct and thus maintains those relationships. Li also refers to the particular act in its status as exemplification of invariant norm; jen refers to the act as expressive of an orientation of the person, as expressing his commitment to act as prescribed by li. Li refers to the act as overt and distinguishable pattern of sequential behavior; jen refers to the act as the single, individual gesture of an actor, as his, and as particular
    and individual by reference to the unique individual who performs the act and to the unique context of the particular action”(Fingarette).

    G. enables us to see why the ren of the junzi (or sage) as shining forth in li is indeterminate and best understood in nonpropositional terms, as an instance of “knowing how,” for the virtues or “the good” (in itself, its essence—ti esti—not simply its properties or how it is qualified) cannot be wholly captured in the names, propositions and images by which we have come to (however dimly) learn them, be it though naïve emulation and Aristotelian-like habituation or the methods by which we acquire propositional knowledge: “Propositions are well suited to expressing knowledge of objects or facts;
    they can no more express knowledge of the good, however, than they can express knowledge-how or self-knowledge, both of which are involved in knowing the good. [….]Knowledge of the good means here knowing how to be good or how to do things well. [….] My knowledge of the good is itself good; in knowing the good I become good. This means that in some sense the good is the same as the knowledge of the good. Yet the good cannot be the same as knowledge simpliciter [i.e., ‘knowing that’], since then Socrates’
    distinction between the scientific life and the good life would no longer hold. The good must therefore be found in a particular kind of knowing.”

    For Plato (and Socrates), this “particular kind of knowing” is understood as knowledge of virtue and the good acquired and manifest in the process of Socratic inquiry or dialectical dialogue, while for Confucius we would say that this particular kind of knowledge of virtue and the good is acquired and made manifest in li performance, in wen, as well as dialogue, all like as instances of “knowing how” and thus nonpropositional knowledge. We can abstract from either of these “performances” of the good to come to a propositional knowledge of what the good consists in, but one cannot thereby claim one has knowledge of the good (or wisdom) in either a Socratic or Confucian sense (or else those teaching moral philosophy and ethics courses in the widest sense would by definition be the class of those exemplifying knowledge of the good: not without reason do we appreciate the distinction between those who teach about such things and those who are, in fact, good).

    Cf. Steven Shenkman’s “‘These Three Come Forth Together, But are Differently Named:’ Laozi, Zhuangzi, Plato,” in Shankman and Durant, eds. Early China/Ancient Greece: Thinking through Comparisons (2002): 75-92.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 8, 2008 | Reply

  9. I apologize for the formatting, as I was cutting and pasting some of this from a paper I’ve written on Chinese medicine.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 8, 2008 | Reply

  10. Patrick,

    That’s good stuff; I agree with most of it. I still think I’d like to distinguish between the mindset that people are in when they express the height of “know-how” achievement–call that the “virtuoso” mindset–and what plausibly could be called a philosophical one. The strong sense in which the virtuoso mindset is an expression of a *performance* should allow us to say this by way of distinguishing: For some philosophers (Plato, Confucius, maybe Zhuangzi, others?), the value of philosophical inquiry, in acquiring propositional truths, is secondary to the value of a “performance of truths” in a way that shows nearly effortless expertise, or virtuosity. What is interesting, however, is that success in the philosophical inquiry might not seem entirely sufficient for virtuosity of performance (Maybe even unnecessary?). So that there is some further gap that has to be negotiated beyond the philosophical knowing-that.

    I guess the know-how that expresses virtuosity of “performing philosophy” seems like a much broader phenomenon, one which applies to other types of performances–ones that have no relation to propositional knowledge. Prodigies are the relevant category that comes to my mind–they seem often neither to possess propositional knowledge relevant to their arena of performance nor often to care about it; for many of them, the performance is the only thing. That makes me think much of the talk of *philosophical* know-how is trying to inflate the importance of *philosophy*, because there is something always spectacular about a virtuoso performance whether related to philosophical interests or not. Often, in the mouths of philosophers, it’s the other way around–adding “philosophical” to something is meant to elevate the thing that follows the adjective; here, I think philosophers might be trying to elevate philosophy by associating it with know-how that has virtuosity associated with it.

    I don’t mean this to be a turf-war about the term “philosophy”–though it might seem like that’s all that this could be. I really do think the know-how that philosophers like to theorize about is something that transcends philosophical inquiry and mindset–and certainly discourse.

    To borrow from Zhuangzi, however, I’m not really sure I’ve said anything here. Let me know.

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 9, 2008 | Reply

  11. As I’m heading off to work at my non-academic job I have to be brief: ‘thank goodness for that’ not a few are thinking. According to Gonzalez, the dialectical process of coming to a knowledge of propositional truths is part and parcel of a “performance of truth(s)” if only because the interlocutors in the Socratic dialogues are being apprised in conversation with Socrates of the limitations of what they in fact do know about “x” (its perspectival, partial and thus incomplete nature), and it is only in this way that they come to an intimate (as it were) awareness of their limited knowledge of “x” or, conversely, of their ignorance. Only an intimate sense of one’s ignorance on this score, it seems, is capable of motivating the quest to appreciate or value the nonpropositional or nonintentional “performance of truth,” which, again, is a kind of knowledge, indeed, the highest knowledge, as it knows the Good itself. However, and although only hinted at above, there is a clear difference between Socrates’ understanding here and what Plato expresses in the Laws (with the emphasis on music and dance), at least with regard to habituation to moral virtue, which I think is a bit closer in letter to Confucians and in spirit to (some kinds of) Daoists. In short, at least Platonically speaking, I would say some success in philosophical inquiry remains a necessary condition for approaching virtuousity in performance; that may in fact not hold with Zhuangzi and others. I was attempting to highlight some similarities insofar as Platonic thought is often portrayed (pejoratively, in the aftermath of post-modernist posturing) as quite different from classical Chinese philosophy, but of course the differences are no less important.

    I’m not so sure about the inflation stuff, but if true, it may reflect a belief that what is called wisdom here is not accounted for by an Asian version of some kind of radical fideism, that the faith and reason gap one often finds in theism (outside the tradition of Aquinas) is not applicable here.

    Anyway, I have to think much more about your second paragraph before replying (if need be). All this seems too much off the top of my head….

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 9, 2008 | Reply

  12. Manyul,

    I don’t think we need worry that philosophical know-how is motivated by an attempt to inflate the importance of philosophy so much as appreciate the way in which it calls our attention to an older conception of philosophy in the West, one in which philosophy is in reference to a “way of life” (including a spiritual praxis or askesis) in the manner discussed in several important works by Pierre Hadot and akin if not identical to Nussbaum’s treatment of the Hellenistic philosophers’ “therapy of desire.” I’ve probably referenced this before somewhere, but John Haldane has a brilliant discussion of this in his essay, “On the very idea of spiritual values” in Anthony O’Hear, ed., Philosophy, the Good, the True and the Beautiful (2000). Haldane asks if there can be “non-religious philosophy,” and answers in the affirmative, citing the work of Hadot on the Stoics, Epicureans, Platonists, etc. We might also imagine a Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Jonathan Lear, John Cottingham, or Michael McGhee agreeing with him. It is just *this* sort of philosophy one finds among the Confucians and Daoists, and thus I suspect the better we understand the former, the more likely we’ll come to have a nuanced “philosophical” appreciation of the latter. This is even more the case if one sees the Daoist philosophers as mystics, which I’m inclined to do.

    Virtuosity is used here as an analogy and metaphor, and I’m wondering if it may be doing too much work.

    Plenty of food for thought regardless!

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 9, 2008 | Reply

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