Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Confucius and Aristotle – book review

With much thanks to Patrick for the heads up, here is the link to Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews‘ review of Jiyuan Yu’s The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, a book that is on our Shamelessly Brief Book Review list.

While I’m thinking of it, here’s something that occurred to me while I was at the APA meetings last week, listening to Stephen Angle and Michael Slote talking about Bryan van Norden’s book, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy (also reviewed on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews here). I wondered how things would look if instead of trying to read Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Xunzi, or other Chinese philosophers as virtue ethicists, Aristotelians, Humeans, Kantians, or consequentialists someone did a close comparative exegesis from the other direction: try to read Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Mill, Hursthouse, Slote, or some other Western philosopher as a Confucian, a ritualist, a Mohist, or Daoist. That’s probably a bit of the crank in me being tired of the philosophical taxonomy game that seems only concerned with assimilating Chinese philosophy into Western ethical theory.

On the other hand, I’m on record (comment #23) saying that “philosophy” is really a Western concept. So, maybe it’s really that I’m tired of the taxonomy game in either direction when it’s not clear what that gets us. So what if Mencius is more like Aristotle than Hume, or vice versa? Why not just try to understand Mencius as Mencian and just leave it at that? Am I just being cranky or missing something of value in the taxonomy enterprise?

By the way, this shouldn’t be construed as being about Jiyuan Yu’s book; I haven’t read it (nor have I formed any opinions about it yet!). Comments about Yu’s book or the review of it are, of course, welcome as well.

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March 26, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics

39 Comments »

  1. That’s probably a bit of the crank in me being tired of the philosophical taxonomy game that seems only concerned with assimilating Chinese philosophy into Western ethical theory.

    On the other hand, I’m on record (comment #23) saying that “philosophy” is really a Western concept. So, maybe it’s really that I’m tired of the taxonomy game in either direction when it’s not clear what that gets us. So what if Mencius is more like Aristotle than Hume, or vice versa? Why not just try to understand Mencius as Mencian and just leave it at that? Am I just being cranky or missing something of value in the taxonomy enterprise?

    I don’t think you’re just being cranky. I think that taxonomic games should never be played for their own sake and it seems that more than a few papers comparing say Mencius to Hume have really only been about Hume. The virtues of taxonomy however must not go unmentioned. For a dull-witted fellow like myself, a certain amount of taxonomy enables me to get a better grasp on the ideas of a Mencius or a Confucius. The problem is remembering to jettison the footstool of the familiar once it has served its usefulness. Confucius IS NOT Aristotle or even technically a western-style virtue ethicist. This can be hard to remember if you are still standing on that stool…which I confess, when I look down is still under me.

    Comment by Thomas Wood | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  2. Incidentally, at the beginning of his book Yu explicitly rejects the approach that is bothering you so much. But note that neither does he think that simply switching the direction of comparison is any better. Why not compare in both directions?

    “When comparison is used in the study of non-Western philosophy, Western philosophy is usually treated as some established framework or tool of analysis to be applied rather than as a subject matter that is itself subject to investigation. The focus of discussion has always been on the non-Western side. In contrast, in this book, although we appropriate Aristotle’s methodology, his ethical doctrines are also the object to be studied. This book treats both sides equally and aims at developing an interpretation of each side through comparison.” (p.3)

    Comment by Tim | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  3. Tim,

    Thanks for the info! I am genuinely curious about how someone might present a reading of Hume, say, as a Mencian but it’s a wanton curiosity. The thing I’m dubious about, I guess, is why or how comparison illuminates–in either direction. I think the tendency is more that a comparison invites misconstruals by introducing theoretically-laden language from one “system” into the analysis of another. Of course, theoretically-laden language has to be used in any interpretive exercise, but doesn’t it seem like introducing a “foreign,” explicit philosophical theory into the analysis of, say, a Confucian text makes it actually *harder*, if not impossible, to get the latter “correct” in some way?

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  4. Personally, I would like to see a Daoist reading of Descartes!

    I share your skepticism about whether comparison illuminates. The work in the area that I like, I guess, is what shows you precisely a different way of thinking about an issue. So it then forces you to go back and ask about someone in your own tradition, “why does x think about this issue in this way, if there are other ways of thinking about it? What assumptions is x making? what traditional ways of thinking about the issue constrain x’s approach?” So it is a way of generating new ideas about thinkers for which new ideas are pretty hard to come by (like Aristotle). But these ideas are attained by way of seeing their dissimilarities to thinkers in other traditions. Any support for changing the name to “Contrastative Philosophy”?

    Comment by Tim | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  5. Contrastive Philosophy! I like it. I’m going to put that on my CV. We should form a Society for Contrastive Philosophy. (Or, is ‘Contrastative’ better? I keep getting spell-check alarms at that.)

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  6. “Society of Distinguishing Gentlefolk”?

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  7. When I was a paralegal years ago, one of the firm’s lawyers phoned me at my desk on a day when we were having phone problems. “Hello?” I said. “Hello?” he said. And again, for several rounds. Oddly, it became apparent to both of us that we could hear each other before it became apparent to us that we had a connection and could converse.

    Is that what “comparative philosophy” means?

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  8. I’m with Tim: For Western philosophers like (most of?) us, looking at philosophers from other cultures can help us see our own tradition in new ways.

    Maybe someone (Manyul, I’m looking at you here) ought to edit a book of essays with titles of the form: “Is [insert-Western-philosopher-here] a Confucian?”

    The OED, Google, and the dictionary on my Mac all like ‘contrastive’ better than ‘contrastative’, although the OED also includes “contrastment,” which is “the action of contrasting.”

    Comment by David Morrow | March 27, 2008 | Reply

  9. “Contrastive” is a better term grammatically speaking. But “contrastative” sounds wittier when you want to distinguish yourself from someone doing the “comparative” sort!

    Comment by Tim | March 27, 2008 | Reply

  10. I always thought Hume was a Mencian who got things a bit wrong–e.g., the operation of sympathy is not just causal (as Hume supposes), but also inferential (a point that I insisted on repeatedly about Mencius’s “extension” talk–probably by now everyone here thinks I’m a cranky lunatic who is best ignored).

    Hume’s argument in the Treatise 2.3.3 can be taken in two ways: as arguing that there is no such thing as practical reasoning (there’s only theoretical reasoning about desire-modifying beliefs), or that all practical reasoning is instrumental reasoning about how best to satisfy ends, taking the ends as given. But perhaps Mencian extension could be used to show that there is a distinctive form of practical reasoning about ends, which expands the range of things we care about through sympathetic reasoning.

    Comment by Boram Lee | March 27, 2008 | Reply

  11. I’m actually in the middle of a dissertation in this “contrastive philosophy” (a nice title!), arguing that it is problematic to take the early Confucians (of Analects, Mencius, and Xunzi) as virtue ethicists, and offering the beginning of what I take to be a “ground up” interpretation (mainly of the Analects filled out with Xunzi–just because I’ve always thought Xunzi was more faithful to the Analects), in which the early Confucians look nothing like Aristotle or modern virtue ethicists.

    Part of the reason, I think, that there is so much interest in comparative philosophy in the Chinese–>Western direction is simply because historical western philosophers (Aristotle, Hume, etc.) are generally so much better understood in philosophy departments today. I’ve found myself forced to make comparisons when I present the Chinese material to philosophers outside of Chinese philosophy, because the background knowledge required to have an adequate understanding of the ancient Chinese concepts is lacking in that audience. In discussing the concept of ‘ren’ from the Analects with philosophers, I’ve often had to compare it to ‘justice’ to make certain aspects of it understood, even though interpreting ren as justice would be, in my book, a crime worthy of the gallows.

    I’ve tried to explain ‘ren’ before without recourse to western comparisons, but I’ve found that it just doesn’t work. One philosopher told me after one such explanation that ‘ren’ sounded like a sui generis term, and thus he had a hard time understanding it. This brought out an important truth, I think–many of the Chinese ethical concepts ARE sui generis, if we’re considering them only with the stock of western philosophical concepts. In order to understand the Chinese concepts, we have to expand our total stock of concepts. However, most philosophers come to Chinese philosophy already having learned much about philosophy (of the western kind), and thus are prone to understanding philosophical positions and arguments in terms of what they’ve learned as the basic concepts, issues, and debates of philosophy. In my own case, I studied Chinese philosophy before studying western philosophy, which I think helped the learning process.

    As Chinese philosophy (hopefully!) becomes more integrated into the contemporary philosophical framework, we’ll probably see more philosophers work on Chinese philosophy in its own right (as we see now, but did not always see, in ancient Greek philosophy). Perhaps the fact that many of us here are doing this already shows that the field is beginning to mature in this way.

    Comment by Alexus | March 27, 2008 | Reply

  12. I think that “comparative philosophy” and “contrastive philosophy” are about equally good and equally limited, no matter where one is (nearer the interpretive end or the constructive end) on the continuum of various philosophical projects. The comparisons and contrasts are instrumental to prompting better interpretations of past texts/philosophers (which is Yu’s focus) and/or more fruitful philosophical construction (which might be suggested by Tim’s #4, with its emphasis on new ideas). I want to emphasize the continuum idea, because I think we are almost never doing pure interpretation or pure construction. A good example is Yu’s book: in part because of his reliance on the “Four Books” as his source — which on no one’s theory counts as a unified text — there is certainly some creativity involved in the “Confucianism” he is interpreting.

    For what it’s worth, I thought that one useful outcome of the conversation among Bryan, Michael, and myself at the APA last week was to highlight the ways in which Mengzi and contemporary Mengzianism (if it is to be pursued) are like Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hume (respectively) in certain key respects and dislike them each in other key respects. That is, Mengzi’s project is distinctive, and thus any development of it today is going to continue to be distinctive. Whether it is so distinctive as not to count as a version of virtue ethics (as Alexus suggests, #11) is a different question that I’m not going to take up right now: a student just showed up for office hours!

    Comment by Steve Angle | March 27, 2008 | Reply

  13. Alexus,

    Here we have a test case for the value of comparative philosophy: ‘Ren’ as ‘justice’? Really? I don’t see that at all. But, I’m a bumbling amateur when it comes to Chinese philosophy, so maybe this is because of something I don’t understand about ‘ren’ (or justice!).

    Can you explain how ‘justice’ helps illuminate ‘ren’? We promise not to hang you for forcing ren into a Western mold.

    Side note: Do you all translate terms like ren and li when teaching this stuff to undergrads? I tell them how the terms are translated, but then use the original terms in class, since I want them to get to know these concepts on their own terms, as it were.

    Comment by David Morrow | March 28, 2008 | Reply

  14. David, I think Alexus meant: Ren *through* justice, more than *as* justice (this feels a bit Clintonian, I realize even as I write it!). Nonetheless, it would be interesting, Alexus, to see an example of the sort of constructive illumination to which Steve and Tim are referring.

    “Side note: Do you all translate terms like ren and li when teaching this stuff to undergrads?” — Good question; I tend to use the translation that the students see in the particular translations that they are assigned (“benevolence” or “humaneness” usually) and remind them each time that we’re talking about ren. It’s a bit clumsy, but I do want to stay attuned to the text that they are reading. Side note to the side note (sounds like ibn Rushd): I find the sense of yi 義 the hardest to convey to students; “righteousness,” common in translations, seems too Christian; “rectitude” seems too vague; maybe some combination of “upright” and “pure” would work, but I’m not sure.

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 28, 2008 | Reply

  15. I was thinking of ‘justice’ in the Platonic sense, mainly–which admittedly is much different from the sense of the term today (Rawls, and all that). For Plato, of course, justice was a harmony among different elements of the soul, and the state could be seen as something like the individual soul writ large, so justice in the state was a harmony between different elements of the state. I interpret the ren of the Analects (Mencius is a different story) along somewhat similar lines, as a social concept which has to do with the correct adherence to li (ritual) and has a dual nature similarly to Plato’s ‘justice’. I argue that the communal sense of ren is the more important one–the ren which belongs to the whole community as a property of a thriving community (Analects 4.1, I read “being in the vicinity of ren” in this way–and yes, I have been laughed at for doing so…), but that there is also a derivative, individual sense of ren, as a property one gains in virtue of contributing (whether actually or counterfactually) to the thriving society. Plato’s conception of justice is the closest parallel to this I can think of, though maybe there are some better ones I haven’t encountered. Mostly, I construct the interpretation of ren without using western comparisons, but find the justice comparison useful in presentation.

    Still, the comparison to ‘justice’ can’t be much more useful, I think, than to simply illuminate certain aspects of ren–and even this seems useful mainly for explaining what ren is to people who understand Plato’s ‘justice’ but not Confucian ethical concepts.

    At the same time, I think Steve and Tim’s point about such comparisons being useful for “philosophical construction” is a good one. I tend to think we should take different stances given whether we are doing history or philosophy (although I realize that the two are closely related here). In doing ethics, for example, there might be no problem interpreting Confucius via Aristotle or anyone else, because such creative “cross-pollination” is often the basis on which unique and illuminating philosophical theories are built. In doing history, though, such comparison should make us a bit nervous. I tend to be more conservative there, and think we should approach comparisons with caution and skepticism. There is certainly room for both the philosophical and the historical approaches in Chinese philosophy (and the history of philosophy more generally), as there is for the comparative and contrastive (as Steve points out). I just normally (though not always!) tend toward the paranoid historical approach. I blame my early teachers for this.

    Comment by Alexus McLeod | March 28, 2008 | Reply

  16. The idea of “comparative philosophy” bothers me because I think of it as regarding the “other” side of the comparison as an object rather than an interlocutor. And because in job descriptions it’s a misleading term for “the candidate should also be familiar with Western philosophy.”

    But as I get into Chinese philosophy I’m finding comparison useful, mostly on the contrastive side. I think a main way to *stop* oneself from importing ideas laden with home theory is to raise comparative questions explicitly. Also, Alexus, for the paranoid-historical writer, explicit contrasts might be a way to protect the reader.

    Alexus, it has never occurred to me that ren in the Analects might be read communally. If true, it’s an extremely important point. The question is a little off-thread, but I’d love to see more of an argument if you don’t mind presenting it.

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 28, 2008 | Reply

  17. Hi David (on Comment 13),

    Besides Alexus’s remarks in Comment 15, justice can be taken as comprehensive virtue including all the virtues, or as one particular virtue among other virtues like courage, wisdom and temperance. In the same way, it seems to me that ren can be taken as comprehensive virtue, or as particular virtue meaning benevolence, alongside justice, ritual propriety, and wisdom. In these respects (but not in what they are as particular virtues), they could be similar enough to afford a provisionary handle on ren for the audience trained in Western philosophy.

    There needs to be an explanation of why ren can be taken to be comprehensive virtue, though. Does anyone know of any? Or perhaps it shouldn’t even be understood as comprehensive virtue, if Alexus is right on this score. I need to think more about this.

    Manyul,, you write, I find the sense of yi 義 the hardest to convey to students; “righteousness,” common in translations, seems too Christian….

    De Bary would agree with you there: “righteousness” sounds too much like something that the Old Testament prophets talked about. If I remember correctly he uses “rightness” instead. Why not “the right”? I seem to recall Bill saying he prefers to render it “justice”, and that seems good too.

    Comment by Boram Lee | March 30, 2008 | Reply

  18. I like “the right,” partly because it brings out the point that (as I see it) like justice or the just, yi 義is primarily an external standard and only derivatively a quality of character. In a paper I translated yi 義as “being just” in a passage where it is used to name a virtue or practice; and gave the following explanation in a footnote, which is what Boram is thinking of:

    ‘Fairness’ has the advantage that it is thinner and tends not to suggest an institutional framework. ‘Morality’, like ‘right’, has the advantage that it is thin and suggests a final standard.

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 30, 2008 | Reply

  19. My footnote in #18 disappeared upon posting, apparently because I put carrots around it. Here it is:

    There is a term somewhat continuous across Western languages–“just” in English–that (a) contrasts with personal advantage, (b) is often explained as “fitting” or “appropriate” (in matters of import), and (c) in a wide sense is often equated with morally right conduct toward others. These are reasons to translate yi as “just.”

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 30, 2008 | Reply

  20. Boram and Bill,

    I don’t know that “rightness” or “justice” expresses enough of the purity of motive that seems attached to yi 義 when it is predicated of people (e.g. Analects 14.12, 16.10, 16.11, 17.23, 19.1)–if only because “rightness” and “justice” have become recently to be predicated primarily of acts or other non-agential subjects (institutions, states of affairs, etc.). I think Bill actually takes the latter to be good reason to translate yi as “rightness” or “justice.” But I think yi is not derivatively predicated of agents, but primarily. Yi seems to me to be primarily a characteristic of people, not of acts, institutions, etc. That’s why I prefer to gloss it as some combination of “being upright” and “being pure (of motive).” I don’t know that this means I take any stand on yi’s not being an “external standard”–you’d have to say more about what that means.

    (Boram, since I’m the “pusher” vis a vis your addiction, I’m not sure I should be dismayed as much as be thinking confidently: “He’ll be back, he’ll be back…”)

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 30, 2008 | Reply

  21. Manyul, my sense is that yi 義 in the Analects is not primarily acts or institutions or states of affairs, but rather external standards for such things. I’m thinking of the way that what I owe you doesn’t depend on my motives or even my knowledge; it doesn’t get its shape from psychological considerations about me.

    I’m thinking especially of 2.24 (“to see what is yi 義 and not do it”) and 6.22 (“focus on the people’s yi 義”) and also of the many passages that contrast yi 義 with li 利, such as three of those you list (14.12, 16.10, 19.1) and also 4.16 and 14.13.

    17.23 and some other passages at least consider yi 義 alongside virtues.

    I think that for “just” the priority of the external is an idea that goes back at least to Aristotle (for whom external standards, or to dikaion, seemed to set the standards for the virtue of dikaiosune). I suspect that Plato’s psychological analysis was a bit idiosyncratic.

    (Boram, another thing that mysteriously vanished from my #18 was its opening expression of dismay at your resolution. While Manyul pushes, I’ll prod.)

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 30, 2008 | Reply

  22. Oops, only one of the passages I listed in #21 as contrasting yi 義 with li 利 actually do that. The rest contrast yi 義 with de 得 or qu 取.

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 30, 2008 | Reply

  23. Bill, I think what you’re saying is partially consistent with what I am; I need to be more precise, however. The standards for acts, institutions, states of affairs *or* for agents to be regarded as yi are *independent* of them (though again I’m not so sure what the contrast is to, by calling that “external”). Any standard for calling motives “pure” has to be independent of the motives themselves, it has to be something about what kinds of motives are pure and what makes them so. My point was just that there is priority of yi-agency in the following way: acts, institutions, and states of affairs are yi because they are the things an yi-agent would approve of. Or, to substitute, they are the things an agent with pure motives would approve of.

    The further question then, for my view, would be “What makes motives pure in such a way that they are the motives of an yi-agent?” I think the answer to that has to be surmised from the kinds of contrasts that are drawn; so, for example, a motive pure of (the “contamination” of) the consideration of profit/benefit (li 利) is yi. If we could construct a further, fuller account of such purity of motive, then we would have an account of an yi-agent. So, we could regard yi as understandable through that specified kind of motive purity. Then, other things would be yi *only if* an agent with that kind of motive purity would approve of them.

    Important sidenote: I don’t regard this as a “virtue-ethics” reading of yi, even though it is agent-centered. The role of motive is agent-centered in a similar way in Kant’s moral theory and it would be a stretch to call Kant a virtue-ethicist. Of course in Kant, purity of motive is specified more formally (not to mention explicitly) than with in early Chinese Confucians, so certainly neither would I want to say I’m reading the latter as Kantians.

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 30, 2008 | Reply

  24. Hi Manyul,

    (I was unclear again: when I wrote “I’m thinking of the way that what I owe you doesn’t depend on my motives or even my knowledge; it doesn’t get its shape from psychological considerations about me,” I meant to be opposing a virtue-ethics view of yi 義 but not addressing the particular account of yi 義 as purity of motive.)

    I don’t think I have a knock-down argument. I’m not sure what your argument is, though maybe it’s related to the point that throughout the Analects Confucius is concerned about distractions from virtue or the right way, such as sex, power, reputation, and wealth.

    The profit passages remind me, perhaps irrelevantly, of Aristotle’s brief and abortive attempt to define dikaiosune psychologicaly as the absence of pleonexia.

    In the Analects we see yi 義 contrasted consistently with what appears to be material gain, or advantage over others; not contrasted with, say, a concern for sex or glory. That seems to fit the notion of concern with the people’s yi 義 in 6.22, read as a concern to use the people only at the objectively proper times and to tax no more than 10%. Do you read 6.22 as advocating working on the people’s purity of motive? I think Confucius thought the way to rule is to attend more to one’s own character; and I think Confucius would be unlikely to recommend a very ambitious program to Fan Chi.

    Confucius seems to think the requirements of yi 義 are relatively easily observable (2.24). In 17.23 a failure of yi義 is a threat to social order and property rights.

    Confucius says he’s worried about the failing of “hearing of yi 義 but not going to it.” But when it comes to purity of motive, what’s to hear?

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 30, 2008 | Reply

  25. OK, I see that you are not saying yi 義 is *nothing but* purity of motive. But I don’t see what would lead you to emphasize purity of motive in connection with yi 義. Maybe it’s idea that objective standards are simply unavailable (or that Confucius thought so)?

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 30, 2008 | Reply

  26. The passage I quote at the end of #24 is 7.3. Here’s another profit passage I hadn’t found before (7.16):

    子曰:[…] 不義而富且貴,於我如浮雲。”
    The Master said, “… Riches and honors acquired by unrighteousness, are to me as a floating cloud.”
    http://chinese.dsturgeon.net/text.pl?node=1088&if=en

    On the purity of motive reading, this statement would say either “I do not wish for riches and honors pursued from a wish for riches and honors” or “I would not be interested in riches and honors I had pursued from an interest in riches and honors.” On an external-standard view the point would make plainer sense: “Riches and honors that are not rightly mine would be of no interest to me.”

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 31, 2008 | Reply

  27. Bill, you’re right, I don’t have an argument but it is related to the overall sense I get in the Analects that yi seems to be the thing that can prevent susceptibility to those sorts of distractions, though I certainly agree that motive for material gain is the chief distraction against which yi is supposed to be potent. I do read 6.22 as advocating working on the people’s purity of motive. The line that follows that admonition seems to me not only to support that, but also relatively inexplicable otherwise: 敬鬼神而遠之, “revere spirits but keep them at a distance,” which I read as further admonishing that the aspiring junzi show the pure motive–reverence–and avoid the “impure” one–material or some other sort of gain as a quid pro quo for sacrifices. One should “distance them” in that sense and show the people that the (ancestral?) spirits are not to be bartered with. (I vaguely recall some similar remonstration by Plato in the Laws, but I’m not going to look that up right now; it’s not really important.)

    I’m not sure why 2.24 (the observability of yi) and 17.23 (the threat of yi’s failure to social order and property rights) should be any problem for my reading. Respectively, “motive” needn’t be construed as mental and private in the Chinese context and so could easily be thought of as a seen (見) phenomenon; and 17.23’s worry is about yong 勇, bravado, in the absence of yi (君子有勇而無義為亂,小人有勇而無義為盜) so could clearly be understood as being about the dangers of being daring but not motivated properly.

    “Hearing of yi” in 7.3 seems straightforwardly unproblematic: purity of motive is something one could be taught about, reminded of, given explanations of, and other forms of “hearing of” it, while failing to follow the right motive.

    To be frank, I hadn’t previously thought this through as much as you’re forcing me to right now, but it seems only to be strengthening my initial hunches about yi. I’ll have to see more carefully how it holds up in Mencius and Xunzi.

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 31, 2008 | Reply

  28. Actually (in reference to #26), I rather like “I would not be interested in riches and honors I had pursued from an interest in riches and honors.” It expresses a sentiment similar to not being interested in fame (ming 名) that comes of being interested in fame.

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 31, 2008 | Reply

  29. In reference to your question in #25: I don’t see why a purity of motive standard can’t be “objective.” This might be getting to the same puzzlement I have with you using the term “external” as well…

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 31, 2008 | Reply

  30. Thanks, Manyul! This is really interesting. You’ve made me think for hours, and here are some results.

    (1)
    I wrote, “I don’t see what would lead you to emphasize purity of motive in connection with yi 義. Maybe it’s idea that objective standards are simply unavailable (or that Confucius thought so)?” And you wrote, “I don’t see why a purity of motive standard can’t be “objective.” This might be getting to the same puzzlement I have with [your] term “external” as well.…”

    By an objective standard here I guess I meant a standard whose fulfilment or nonfulfilment by someone can be fairly directly and easily observed—observed anyway without examining the agent’s motives. Examples include repaying a debt, taxing at 10%, and not conscripting people during harvesting or planting time. Whether I repay a debt is a fact about where the money is, not about my character or motives or maxims. (To simplify grossly.) That’s part of what makes it potentially legitimate to enforce such rules coercively. (To oversimplify again.)

    Maybe I’m thinking of yi 義 as:
    Most thinly: what’s right
    Less thinly: what’s fair
    Thickly: people’s playing their proper roles in cooperative schemes and not interfering with others’ playing *their* roles.

    (Which is Plato’s view of social justice; not that that matters.)

    (2)
    To explain what motivates you to emphasize pure motives in connection with yi 義, you speak of “the overall sense I [Manyul] get in the Analects that yi seems to be the thing that can prevent susceptibility to those sorts of distractions”.

    To your first point: I can see how taking a moment to think on fairness or property rights or desert or sex could take my mind off gain, but taking a moment to contemplate the notion of not being motivated by gain – the bare negation of pursuing gain – would seem far less potent.

    The fact that it’s mainly yi 義 that Confucius mentions in connection with gain needn’t suggest that yi 義 is the only thing or the main thing that he thinks would be potent. It could show instead that yi 義 is what is most directly relevant, which it would be if it consisted in something like the rules about money and roles-in-production and the demands we may make on each other. (Of course it would also be directly relevant if it consisted simply in unconcern about gain.)

    That is, the reason why it’s a good thing to think about yi 義 when there’s a chance for gain need not be that one needs something to distract one from gain, but because there are standards about what one may grab.

    (3)
    You write, “Actually (in reference to #26), I rather like [A] “I would not be interested in riches and honors I had pursued from an interest in riches and honors.” It expresses a sentiment similar to [B] not being interested in fame (ming 名) that comes of being interested in fame.”

    Confucius’ views on reputation/honor/office/fame are indeed complex. But he is willing to say, if casually, that there’s nothing wrong with pursuing riches, within certain limits of what’s permissible (7.12). (A) makes Confucius say something strange about himself: that if he pursued riches or position from an interest in riches or position, his attitude would change after he got them. The vividness of Confucius’ floating cloud metaphor suggests to me that he’s talking about his actual attitude now, not a hypothetical attitude in a peculiar case. So I should rewrite my own paraphrase thus: “Riches and position that could be gained in violation of what’s right are as nothing to me.”

    (4)
    You write, “I’m not sure why 2.24 (the observability of yi) … should be any problem for my reading. …“motive” needn’t be construed as mental and private in the Chinese context and so could easily be thought of as a seen (見) phenomenon”.

    Right: the argument as I presented it is a non sequitur. What I should have said is that 2.24 contemplates that I will see yi義 before the action in question is done, and even if it is not done at all. “見義不為,無勇也.” (Lao: “Faced with what is right, to leave it undone shows a lack of courage.”) The idea that one sees one’s duty and does it (or not) is an easy idea. The idea that one sees an opportunity for not caring about something is a lot less plain, and so less plausible as a reading.

    On the other hand, my argument just above works mainly against a wholly negative conception of yi義, such as “not caring about money.” It doesn’t work against a conception like “not caring about money but instead caring that your maxims be universalizable.”

    It seems to me there are two ways of reading the complex account I’ve just given. One is as a list of two attitudes (but why put them together), and the other is as one attitude whose account begins with the wholly redundant phrase “not caring about money but instead”. As I think you suggest in #23, what we need instead, to give a positive side to the purity view of yi義, is a positive element that somehow dovetails especially with unconcern about riches and status.

    I think the idea that yi義 is something like fairness fits the contrast with partisanship at 4.10.

    (5)
    You write, “ ‘Hearing of yi’ in 7.3 seems straightforwardly unproblematic: purity of motive is something one could be taught about, reminded of, given explanations of, and other forms of ‘hearing of’ it, while failing to follow the right motive.”

    Hm. So you would be thinking of such hearings as in 17.5 and 17.7. OK, you’re right, that’s not so problematic. Still something bugs me about it, probably connected to the sheer negativity of the mere idea of “not caring about gain”, which is perhaps not your account of yi義 anyway. Maybe unconcern about gain seems too small a thing for Confucius to talk about having difficulty with.

    (6)
    Regarding 6.22, your thought is that the advice to Fan Chi about yi義 is to work on the people’s purity, and that it is tacitly understood that the way for him to do this is to work on his own purity; and that the advice about spirits is a concrete example: avoid leading the people into petitionary sacrifice, by yourself avoiding petitionary sacrifice.

    I hadn’t thought of that reading of the advice about spirits! I don’t recall any explicit mention of petitionary sacrifice or petitionary prayer in the Analects, unless as a euphemism for ignoring spirits (3.13). If the advice about spirits is about petitionary sacrifice as you say, then that would seem to be analogous to the advice not to grab pleonectically from the people.

    One way to read the advice about spirits is as similar to the advice given to Zilu in 11.12: focus on people rather than spirits. Similarly, when at 12.22 Fan Chi asks about ren 仁 and 智, the answers are “Love people” and “Know people.”

    Is there any other place where Confucius says that in governing one should work on the people’s virtue? He seems usually either to say “Here is how to work on the people’s virtue: focus on your own virtue instead” or “Make sure people have adequate food, education, weapons, trust in you, and non-interference.”

    I think the two pieces of advice in 6.22 have in common that they both counsel respectful distance, unambitious non-involvement. As is appropriate, perhaps, when addressing someone prone to the opposite error (13.4).

    (7)
    I guess I have to concede that 17.23 is neutral as between us.

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 31, 2008 | Reply

  31. Alexus and Boram (re: #15 and #17),

    Thanks for the responses. Sorry to be slow in replying.

    Both of those glosses on justice help me see the connection between justice and ren. I’m still not sure how much they would help me to understand what ren is if I really knew nothing about it, but they do elucidate the role that ren plays in Confucius’ thought.

    Comment by David Morrow | April 5, 2008 | Reply

  32. So what if Mencius is more like Aristotle than Hume, or vice versa? Why not just try to understand Mencius as Mencian and just leave it at that? Am I just being cranky or missing something of value in the taxonomy enterprise?

    What did you think of the answer you got to this question when you asked it at the panel?

    Comment by Bryan | May 1, 2008 | Reply

  33. I thought your answer at the panel was worth serious consideration. I did want to think about other people’s views on the issue as well.

    My recollection is, and correct me if I’m confusing your answer with Michael Slote’s, that you think it helps for philosophers to think of the unfamiliar sometimes in terms of the familiar, but that such a project need not be reductive in nature.

    The discussion above has helped me to see that that’s a valuable aspect of taxonomy. So now I’m better off.

    Comment by Manyul Im | May 1, 2008 | Reply

  34. Nope, that wasn’t my answer. David Wong also said something in reply that you forgot.

    Comment by Bryan | May 2, 2008 | Reply

  35. Just for the record (and then I’ll shut up)…

    Michael Slote’s point was that it is just intellectually interesting whether Mengzi is more like virtue ethics than like Kant, whether or not there is any philosophical payoff. (He made an analogy with how we might be interested in comparing how similar different style of painting are.)

    I agreed with Slote that the question is intrinsically interesting, but I argued that there is also a philosophical payoff in seeing Mengzi as an Aristotelian, because he can be seen as presenting a version of virtue ethics that is importantly different from any version we have today. In particular, his views on ethical cultivation and ritual bring new and important things to contemporary virtue ethics.

    I also noted that there are alternative interpretations like the postmodernist one that explicitly deny any substantive similarity between Mengzi and virtue ethics, so it is necessary to address them.

    Next, I suggested that there are interesting interpetive questions suggested by using a virtue ethics framework, such as what are the different aspects of “wisdom.”

    Finally, I argued that we can better appreciate Mengzi’s ethical reasoning if we see it as similar to that of virtue ethics. For example, some interpreters of Mengzi (I mentioned Waley as an example) assume that an ethical theory must be consequentialist or rule-deontological. Hence, when they read Mengzi, they end up dismissing him as arguing poorly or disingenously, simply because he is not using one of those frameworks.

    David Wong spoke up and said (and this is an almost exact quotation), “The very act of trying to assess a contribution is done within our current framework, and within our ethical and theoretical commitments. Those of us who appreciate Mengzi’s emphasis upon cultivation, emotion, and the cultivation of emotion, are probably inclined toward some version of virtue ethics. So in assessing his contribution, we have to assess it in terms of some frame. And for those of us in this room primarily trained in Western philosophy, it’s going to come from Western theories. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to re-examine our commitments or say that he got it right in some respects, but we are going to use some framework. And the same holds true in the Chinese tradition, where Neo-Confucians brought their framework to understanding the texts.”

    I agreed and added that there is an illuminating quip by Hilary Putnam, who said, “We should use somebody else’s conceptual scheme??” The point is that we have to use a conceptual scheme in interpreting, and of course we’ll start from our own, because we have no choice. But that does not rule out the possibilty of discovering that one’s current scheme does not do justice to the text. As a result, we can expand or modify our own scheme or, as MacIntyre points out, we can be led to abandon our current scheme completely in favor of the new one that we have come to discover. (I used the example of how one might begin from a Ptolemaic-Aristotelian framework for astronomy, then completely give it up in favor of a Galilean-Copernican one.)

    Comment by Bryan | May 2, 2008 | Reply

  36. Typo: Change there is also a philosophical payoff in seeing Mengzi as an Aristotelian to “there is also a philosophical payoff in seeing Mengzi as a virtue ethicist.” (Perhaps a critic might argue that this is a Freudian slip.)

    Comment by Bryan | May 2, 2008 | Reply

  37. In response to Bryan above. Where does there appear an “explicit denial” of any similarity between Mengzi and Virtue Ethics by a Postmodernist? I feel like I’m missing out on something. A specific reference would be great.

    Comment by Carl | May 2, 2008 | Reply

  38. I might open this up – if anyone has any references for contemporary continental philosophers engaging Chinese philosophy (in addition to the ones that Bryan knows of) please pass those on.

    Comment by Carl | May 2, 2008 | Reply

  39. In response to Bryan above. Where does there appear an “explicit denial” of any similarity between Mengzi and Virtue Ethics by a Postmodernist?

    The primary ‘postmodern’ interpreters Bryan refers to in his book are Hall and Ames. That may or may not be who he refers to here. I’m also unaware of any ‘explicit denial’ on their part, although may it’s an implication of incommensurability (and in that case not so ‘explicit’).

    Comment by Agui | May 5, 2008 | Reply


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