Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Fingarette, Confucius, and the Vessel

Continuing Fingarette-palooza, begun on Chris’s, Peony’s, and Sam’s blogs:

Herbert Fingarette, in Confucius–the Secular as Sacred, chapter 5, discusses something about the relationship between ceremony and the individual’s place within it that is far more radical than either of the alternatives that currently presents itself as the “correct” reading of the moral individual within Confucius’s thought (to the extent that we can reasonably reconstruct it). Fingarette argues, or suggests really, that for Confucius the ethical value of the individual can only be a “function” (p. 75) of the value of ritual ceremony. The idea, as Fingarette construes it, is analogous to the value that a ceremonial vessel has in the context of ritual ceremony: the ceremonial vessel’s value is merely a function of the value of the ceremony, which does not depend at all on the utility of the vessel outside of that context, but on its ritual significance within the ritual. So, the analogous value of the individual human being would be a mere function of the value that human ceremony (li 禮) has. And what kind of value does that have? That’s less clear. According to Fingarette:

The shapes of human relationships are not imposed on man, not physically inevitable, not an instinct or reflex. They are rites learned and voluntarily participated in. The rite is self-justifying. The beings, the gestures, the words are not subordinate to rite, nor is rite subordinate to them…. Although the individual must cultivate himself, just as the temple vessel must be carved and chiseled and polished, this self-cultivation is no more central to man’s dignity, in Confucius’s views, than the preparation of the vessel is central. Preparation and training are essential, but it is the ceremony that is central, and all the elements and relationships and actions in it are sacred though each has its special characteristics. (78)

What could this mean? I’ll say this. It does not mean that the cultivation of the virtues in humans is somehow valuable as a function of human good–the Aristotelian picture, broadly construed, of the virtues contributing to human flourishing, which flourishing is based on human nature–or, as Fingarette puts it, “imposed on man” or “physically inevitable.” On Fingarette’s view, that would put Confucius really at odds with a more Mencian view on which, if the rituals had any value whatsoever, it would be because of their role in expressing what was indeed “imposed on man” through his nature (xing 性) by Heaven.

On the other hand, Fingarette’s reading also implies that “role-based” value of humans does not quite get Confucius’s point narrowly enough. A role has to be indexed to some role-context. Most role-based readings of Confucius, I think, read that context as that of the family and, by extension, of the state through a broadening of the family relationship types to include state relationships. But I don’t think Fingarette’s Confucius thinks this way. If Fingarette is right, Confucius isn’t concerned as much with “the family” or “the state” generically construed, but with a particular ceremonialized version of those things. It is the role, very narrowly, that a person can play within the family or state, as ritualized through the Zhou dynastic rituals, that confers upon the individual (as a “vessel” within that ceremony) the kind of value that Confucius champions.

To that extent Fingarette’s reading, I think, actually makes Confucius less relevant for contemporary concerns than he might wish to admit. Or perhaps he likes to think that we can return to the values of Zhou ritual…

Comments welcome, as always.


March 19, 2009 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius


  1. Manyul,

    I suspect this is largely correct, and I continue to be surprised at how much my (amateur yet inspired) understanding of Confucius differs from Fingarette’s.

    Does the following passage in any way qualify what you’ve said here?:

    “Society, at least *insofar as regulated by human convention and moral obligations,* becomes in the Confucian vision one great ceremonial performance, a ceremony with all the holy beauty of an elaborate religious ritual….” [emphasis added]

    In other words, the kind of value Fingarette understands Confucius to be celebrating is not ritual ceremony simpliciter (albeit in the expanded and broader sense meant by Fingarette, which I think clearly goes beyond Zhou dynastic rituals) but those forms of choreographed daily life that incarnate “human convention and moral obligations.” As I said elsewhere, and in terms of contemporary ethical discussions and debates, this would, alas, make Fingarette’s Confucian a “communitarian,” albeit a Confucian communitarian (and help account, to some degree, for Confucianism’s ideological appeal within particular political regimes). In other words, and for example, Sandel, Bellah, and MacIntyre would find in Confucius a kindred spirit. For when Fingarette speaks of the centrality of ceremony, this is in reference to a certain kind of communal or societal living (according to conventions, social and moral norms) in which neither society nor individuals qua individuals have ontological or metaphysical (and for that matter, ethical) priority owing to their fundamental and mutually fecund interdependence, thus “traditions” become the primary locus of li (and jen), and there is no “getting outside of (or beyond)” traditions or communities as such. On this model, community or tradition incarnates the highest virtue: the sociality of individuals. For what it’s worth, I do not believe this represents the sociality of “true” individuals on the order of eudaimonistic individualism or theories of moral individualism after Kant. Again (and apologies to those who read my earlier comments), and for better and worse, Fingarette’s Confucius brings out the Liberal (or Kantian) in me.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  2. Incidentally, I was just putting my first edition pbk. copy of Fingarette’s book back on the shelf when I noticed the blurb on the back cover from, of all people, Robert Bellah(!), which is a tad revealing: “…Fingarette discerns the deepest meaning of the thought of Confucius and, paradoxically, its application to our own time.”

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  3. Patrick,

    Interesting–particularly the Bellah quote (a little spooky, in fact, in the context).

    I’ve always thought Fingarette’s reading makes Confucius a communitarian. The funny thing about communitarianism, it has always seemed to me, is that from “the inside out” a communitarian can’t quite have the ironic distance from his/her own historically situated tradition to be so liberal (a la classical liberalism) about the value others’ communities. Otherwise, what would be the difference really between communitarianism and liberalism? (I mean that rhetorically, but it’s been a while since I’ve thought about MacIntyre, Bellah, et al so if I’ve misconstrued communitarianism’s “flexibility” let me know.)

    So, I can’t really see Fingarette’s Confucius being able to transcend the Zhou-ritual-based community to value something so much more general as a *human* community “regulated by human convention and moral obligations.” There’s much more specificity to the community that Confucius sees as valuable, that Fingarette seems to point out so well, that prevents Fingarette from moving his own Confucius to the broader conception. At least that’s how that last chapter of his reads to me. That’s what is so interesting to me about the book as a whole too–the tension that Fingarette ends up with between the sort of broadly humanistic picture of Confucius’s views Fingarette hints at and the anchored down historical situatedness of those views that makes them interesting (because so exotic?) to Fingarette.

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  4. Manyul,

    I think you’re absolutely right about the location of tension in Herb’s account. What’s also intriguing if not puzzling is the picture of the Confucian “self” that appears to enchant him seems so fundamentally at odds with the model of the self he relies upon or is attracted to elsewhere, be it in The Self in Transformation (1963), the concern with self-deception (Self-Deception, 2nd ed., 2000), or in his controversial but quite insightful work on alcoholism (Heavy Drinking, 1989), for example. In the latter, his critique of the “disease” model of alcoholism is based on a conception of individualized moral responsibility that strikes me about as far as can be from a “Confucian self” in Fingarette’s sense, although it *is* perfectly compatible with his treatments of moral and legal responsibility in other works outside the studies of Confucian thought. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I can’t help but think that the Fingarette of these other works would (should?) find much that is psychologically and morally troubling in the Confucian “self” of that other Fingarette.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  5. Hi Manyul,

    I really enjoyed your post and started composing a response; a response which got longer and longer, and I then found myself going off on a tangent (growing nostaligic thinking of cooking small fish in bronze dings with you know who).

    It was just too long for this space so I compiled all my thoughts (such as they are) into a posting over at my place. Please take a look when you get a moment. In a nutshell, I tend to agree with Patrick’s take– (though– as by now you are no doubt aware– there is no dormant liberal or Kantian in me to bring out– Fingarette or no Fingarette!!)

    I also perhaps dis-agreed with your take on Zhou rituals as presented by Fingarette. I am always open to persuasion, though.

    Post linked above. Best.

    Comment by Peony | March 22, 2009 | Reply

  6. Manyul,

    As in the other thread, I’m again not sure how central “dedication to Zhou” is here.

    But on your question: “what is the central value here of the ritual?” — I am more and more inclined to think (over time) that the value is mutual recognition. I am drawn closer to the view that there is a Levinas-like point here; that “seeing the other” or existing in a space where one is “responsive” to the other is what is crucial, and that this requires (perhaps in a constitutive sense, so not simply instrumentally) certain Li as the “space” of recognition and at the same time, certain well developed habits drawn from successful self-cultivation (virtues, dispositions, patterns of seeing, whatever).

    If this is right, “self-cultivation” would not be the ultimate value (just as the carving of the vessel would not be). It would lie in the moment of recognition, part of which requires the carving in order to be possible.

    Whether this puts the importance of *specific* roles like “the family” in a different light is interesting, and again I suspect comes back to the question, in general, of how central Zhou ritual is to the ultimate value of “recognition.”

    Comment by Chris | March 25, 2009 | Reply

  7. Hi Chris and Peony,

    Thanks for the questions about the importance of the Zhou rituals. My thinking was roughly this:

    According to Fingarette’s Confucius, “the shapes of human relationships” are not predefined, or given, by anything. Instead, they are defined by the rites. “The rites” here can only mean the Zhou rituals. Those rituals might be plastic, to a certain extent, because they need to adapt to changes in available material, etc.–though that is much more a Mencius textual position rather than an Analects one. Nonetheless, I take Fingarette’s point to be that the value of a particular relationship and its constituent roles (ruler, minister, father, son, etc.) is dependent on how those roles are characterized and situated within the ritual-based network of relationships, as defined by the rites. In other words, those roles do not have independent or prior “shapes” apart from the rites. So it’s not that the roles are *human* in some prior sense, nor are they “moral” or “social” or any other way that floats free from their conceptual construction within the rites–again, this is how I see Fingarette’s Confucius being portrayed in ch. 5. Going further than Fingarette, now, this seems to imply that for his Confucius, a substantive sense of ren 人, “human,” also depends on the definition one can only construct through the relationships available in the rites, so that ren really should be translated “ritual member” or something like that. (I think if Fingarette is right, there is a remnant of this in Mencius’s 2A6 claim that someone without the four hearts “is not human.”)

    So, I think of the Zhou rituals as being absolutely necessary for Confucius here, if Fingarette is correct, because what are the historically available options for Confucius? Here are some possibilities:

    1. The Zhou rituals are the sole source of a correct definition of humanity (人 here, though 仁 should be derived from this) and the proper relationships for them.

    2. The source of a correct definition of humanity and its proper relationships is in some socially independent, perhaps “natural” set of facts about them. (Mencius’s view, I think)

    3. The source of a correct definition of humanity and its proper relationships is available, in principle, from any number of socially or historically contingent sets of rituals (or other ways of socially constructing such definitions).

    I think Fingarette is committed to 1 because he denies 2, and 3 only makes sense if something like 2 is allowable. The latter, I say, because the idea of a multiply realizable *correct* definition (using “definition” loosely, as I have been throughout these comments, following Fingarette) only makes sense if there is some socially independent, correct definition against which to measure the multiple social realizations of humanity and its relationships. Or, at least that’s my reasoning behind the post. Maybe that’s too simplistic?

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 26, 2009 | Reply

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