Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Happiness East and West Conference Abstracts

I’m headed to Hong Kong tomorrow for the Happiness East and West Conference at HKU. It looks like I’ll come back with some interesting things to discuss on the blog. I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the titles and abstracts of the papers that will be presented there. So, here they are…

AUTHORS, TITLES, AND ABSTRACTS (in alphabetical order by author):

Neera Badhwar (Oklahoma)

“Well-Being: From Subjectivity to Objectivity”

Many philosophers have argued that there are no objective standards for well-being. The best-known argument is by L.W. Sumner, who argues against objective standards on the grounds that neither prudential values nor moral or perfectionist values can serve as such standards. Prudential values cannot do the job, he says, because it is circular to say that the objective requirement for well-being is that the life be truly prudentially valuable, and moral and perfectionist values cannot do the job because there is a conceptual gap between these and prudential values. I show that these arguments fail, hence there is no conceptual or other barrier to the idea of an objective standard for well-being. Moreover, Sumner’s own conception of well-being as authentic happiness is highly implausible, for it allows even paradigmatically inauthentic people to count as authentic. A plausible, descriptively adequate conception of authenticity must be understood in terms of the individual’s attitudes in important areas of her life. Understood thus, I suggest, authenticity serves as an objective standard for a worthwhile life. It thus serves as a standard for authentic happiness as the highest prudential good.

Eugenio (Rick) Benitez (Sydney)

“Happiness as Harmony in Plato and Confucius”

Plato and Confucius can both be called musical philosophers in terms of their belief that happiness is found in a harmonious life. Plato once wrote that “rhythm and harmonious adjustment are essential to the whole of human life” (Protagoras 326b5-6), while Confucius claimed that “of the things brought about by the rites, harmony is the most valuable” (Analects I.12.). Both philosophers have an enlarged conception of music, which incorporates the idea of a harmonious self and a harmonious culture. For them, music provided the framework within which a conception of happiness for both individual and society could be worked out.

This paper examines the ideal of a musical life, as expressed in the writings of Plato and Confucius, with the aim of drawing out reflections that may be useful for our own considerations about happiness. The paper will focus on three ‘levels’ of harmony in Plato and Confucius. The first is the level of rectification, where harmonious adjustment to right ways is necessary to potential future happiness. The second is the level of understanding, where ordinary rectification is adjusted to the greater melody of insight. The third is the level of performance, where musical life enables the philosopher or sage to promote not only personal happiness, but the happiness of society. Both Plato and Confucius believe that musical life constitutes the highest level of harmony, and the greatest happiness, possible for a human being. Thus, the harmony advocated by both philosophers is the very essence of happiness, not something merely instrumental to it.

The conception of happiness as harmony in Plato and Confucius is essentially relational. A person cannot be happy in isolation from others. There are some intriguing differences between these two philosophers and the contemporary Western liberal tradition on this point. These differences stem from presuppositions about nature and convention, and show up in distinctive attitudes towards individuality, diversity, inclusion, and related contemporary values. I will conclude with some observations about the adaptation of Platonic and Confucian harmony to 21st Century society.

Jiwei Ci (HKU)

“Happiness, Modern-style, and Its Discontents”

Chris Fraser (HKU)

“Wandering the Way: A Eudaimonistic Approach to the Zhuangzi”

The philosophy of the early Daoist anthology Zhuangzi clearly contains a eudaimonistic strand, since throughout the text we find a concern with living well, typically expressed through normative descriptions of the ideal or good life. This paper develops a Zhuangist account of such a life on which its defining feature is the exercise of “virtuosity” or “power” (dé) in a general mode of activity called “wandering” or “roaming” (yóu). “Wandering” comprises several key elements, including cognitive understanding of the order and patterns of the cosmos; affective equanimity concerning the contingent, transitory circumstances of one’s life; cognitive and affective identification with the cosmos and the process of change; and the ability to adapt fluidly and efficaciously to changing conditions. This ideal of cognitively aware, affectively calm, adaptive activity appears to be a generalization of features characteristic of the performance of skills. The paper argues that it represents a distinctive view of agency, on which the mode of immediate, responsive, efficacious action epitomized by skills is considered the highest exercise of human capacities. Zhuangzi passages suggest several potential justifications for this view of the good life. Purportedly, such “wandering” reflects a correct understanding of the natural world and human life, promotes psychophysical well-being, facilitates practical success, and constitutes the fullest exercise of our capacities for cognitive understanding, aesthetic and affective appreciation, and intelligent, responsive agency.

The paper argues that these grounds tell against characterizing Zhuangist thought as a “virtue ethic,” despite its eudaimonistic aspects. For the Zhuangzi, the good life—a life of dé (virtuosity)—is distinguished by efficient, harmonious interaction between the agent and the dào (way), or the order and patterns of the cosmos. Thus dé, the Zhuangist analogue of virtue, is not normatively basic. It is understood through its relation to dào, a source of normativity conceptually independent of human flourishing.

Katrin Froese (Calgary)

“Purposeless Laughter: Some Chinese and Western Perspectives”

Laughter places reason, language and the purposive behaviour of human beings under scrutiny providing us with a welcome respite from the straightjackets that we are all too keen to squeeze life into. For this reason it has often been ignored as a topic of philosophical discussion. It is however, necessary to keep philosophers humble, reminding them that philosophy is no substitute for life, but only one way of participating in it. This paper will examine the theories of laughter of Kant and Bergson as well as the use of humour in Zhuangzi and Confucius. Kant reluctantly acknowledges that we need respite from the sternness of our intellect through laughter, but because he cannot readily admit purposelessness into his philosophy relegates laughter to the margins of his thought. His position on laughter inadvertently reveals why philosophers have such a difficult time laughing.

Bergson is one of the few philosophers who dedicates a book to the topic of laughter. He maintains that we laugh when the rigidity of our acts, symptomatic of a kind of embodied reason, gets in the way of the flexibility and adaptability necessary for living life as creatively evolving beings. Reason is not the crown of our existence in Bergson but is reflective of a psychological desire for consistency that is resistant to change. Confucius also uses humour in order to stress the importance of flexibility. Ritual, one of the sacred cows of Confucianism, often becomes the target of his wit. If ritual is to be taken seriously, it must also be taken in jest in order to remind us that we can never be satisfied that we have gone far enough in trying to attain harmony. Thus, there is always a serious undertone to Confucian humour. There is no doubt that Zhuangzi is the philosopher most comfortable with humour, largely because he revels in its purposelessness. Laughter in the Zhuangzi enables us to engage in a kind of aimless wandering, transforming in unexpected ways. Without humour and laughter, we become too engrossed in our linguistic categories and are unable to participate in the wondrous multiplicity that life has to offer. Humour in the Zhuangzi becomes the necessary sidekick to language.

Chad Hansen (HKU)

“Happiness Thought Experiments in Comparative Contexts”

Manyul Im (Fairfield)

“Aesthetic Pleasure as Early Confucian Happiness”

In this paper I address two questions about happiness in early Confucian thought. First, what conception of happiness is predominant therein? Second, what role does that conception play in ideas about the ethically accomplished person? I propose outlines of an account according to which aesthetic pleasure provides the basis for the predominant conception of happiness. On this account the role of such happiness in characterizing the ethically accomplished person is revealing, but is secondary to other concerns that have nothing to do with this or any other conception of happiness.

Philip J. Ivanhoe (City U, HK)

“Happiness in Early Chinese Thought”

Not every thinker in early China was deeply interested in happiness, though some clearly were. Those who were and those who were not can roughly be identified and sorted out by whether or not they were advocates of what we would broadly describe as eudaimonistic forms of ethics. Eudaimonia often is translated as “happiness” or “flourishing” and in many contexts is synonymous with makarios, which means “blessed”; it is a special kind of happiness, something like a sense that one is favored by the gods. While such a sense can give rise to what we might call a “happy” or, perhaps more accurately, satisfying psychological state, it is surely different from many other kinds of happy psychological states. Among other things, it seems to require not just a feeling but a feeling grounded in a fairly complex judgment about how one is living one’s life.

Both Kongzi and Zhuangzi were very concerned with human happiness and especially with distinguishing what they saw as the sources of true and reliable happiness from its semblances and counterfeits. While they described quite different ideas about human happiness, I will argue that the general structure of their conceptions of happiness share some important and revealing similarities, which remain viable in the modern world.

Karyn Lai (UNSW)

“Detachment and Happiness: Zhuangzi’s ‘Ming’.”

This paper discusses the equanimity of the Daoist sage in the Zhuangzi (Inner Chapters). The sage is detached from the fraught doctrinal disagreements of the day. His position is characterised by ming, often translated as ‘illumination’ or ‘clarity’. This paper presents an interpretation of ming as a philosophical bearing rather than a term denoting propositional knowledge. According to this view, the sage in the Zhuangzi does not propose a doctrine, whether one that encompasses all the others, or that is a unity of opposites. Rather, ming captures the illuminated understanding of the sage about the shortcomings of those debates and doctrines. The upshot of this view is that the sage is not bogged down by the disagreements of his milieu or associated attitudes of defensiveness, competitiveness and the like.

Michael Nylan (Berkeley)

“The Vocabulary of Pleasure (not Happiness!)”

The premise of this talk is simple: in the early Chinese literature, Zhanguo through Han (475 BC-AD 220), there is no close counterpart to “happiness” (a state of being), although the early literature is preoccupied with defining the motivations behind the pursuit of personal and social welfare, wise actions as the means to achieve those goals, and the possible interventions by divine spirits or fate in the social sphere. To account for this, we need to consider several factors, including the following:

(1) the very gradual emergence of an integrated qi theory (clearly articulated in the excavated medical manuscripts) that focuses on the arousal of desires in response/reaction to stimuli, internal and external, as well as the impulses, inclinations, and motivations for action – all conceived as bodily motions, rather than as internal states of being;

(2) the extant literature’s insistent focus on the exemplary behavior of members of the governing elite, especially the ruler, rather than on any qualities conceivably shared by the “worthy” and their sociopolitical inferiors;

(3) the consequent fine-tuned considerations of timing as an important factor in achievements of any sort, including those conducive to convivial and serene pleasure-taking.

The talk will do its best to argue that this comparative absence of reflection on happiness (either in the early sense of “favored by fortune” or the modern sense of “individual or autonomous bliss”) led the Chinese, in fruitful ways, to define socially and personally constructive modes of behavior and to distinguish the sustaining versus consuming types of pleasure-giving and pleasure-taking. While a brief presentation cannot possibly hope to review all the extensive vocabulary used in the context of the early pleasure theories, this talk will describe the semantic range, limitations, and connotations of key vocabulary items, including le (describing long-term relational pleasures that tend to be ethical), xi and yue (short-term delight felt or expressed in response to activities, objects, and commodified persons, whether good or bad), as well as yi (“comfort,” “ease”) and xin (“appreciation” of something often invisible to all but the few in the know).

Greek theory, as I understand it, says pleasure can purge the emotions of excess and restore the natural quiescent state of humanity. In early China, the desire to experience pleasure or cares (not pain!) is itself a fundamental human impulse, so conflicting desires, including desires for food and sex, are reckoned the norm. Still, the language of slavery is invoked to shame those in power who prove themselves incapable of prioritizing their desires and pursuing the most rewarding relational pleasures with single-minded purpose.

Timothy O’Leary (HKU)

“In the Thick of Things, with Beckett and Zhuangzi”

This paper addresses the question of the relationship between happiness and things (by which I mean the small objects that populate our everyday lives). I draw on Beckett, who formulated the question ‘what is the correct attitude to adopt towards things?’, and many of whose characters have a heightened sense of both the importance and the disposability of things. I bring Beckett into conversation with one of the core texts of Chinese Daoism – the Zhuangzi – in which things are approached as requiring a particular attitude, which one could characterize as a very ‘light touch’. My aim is to show what, in our world of escalating consumption, can be learned from this modern Western, and this ancient Chinese, reflection on things and their relation to happiness.

Lisa Raphals (UC, Riverside)

“Zhuangzi and Solon on Happiness”

Happiness studies are currently enjoying a vogue in several disciplines. Within the discipline of philosophy, most historical discussion centers on Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia (which may or may not be equivalent to happiness) and Mill’s utilitarian identification of happiness with pleasure and utility. However, many of the contemporary philosophical debates about happiness can be traced back to Aristotle, who has become the ‘default’ for discussion within the Western tradition. I propose to depart from this approach in two ways. First, I begin, not with Aristotle, but with Zhuangzi, the Chinese philosopher who has the most to say on the subject. I ask whether Zhuangzi’s views on happiness may help address the apparent conflict between hedonistic and eudaiomonistic views of happiness in the Western tradition. Second, I engage in a brief comparison, not with Aristotle but with Solon (via Herodotus), who makes the first Western philosophical argument that happiness can only be assessed on the basis of an entire life.

Dan Robins (Stockton)

“Happiness and Early Chinese Consequentialism”

May Sim (Holy Cross)

“Knowledge and Happiness in Aristotle and Confucius”

This paper explores the significance of knowledge for happiness (well-being) in Aristotle and Confucius. Both authors maintain that the ultimate goal of human life is to be virtuous. Virtue contributes to human flourishing in Aristotle and Confucius for it enables one to order well one’s life, do what is right in relation to others, while having the right emotions, appetites, desires and pleasures. Moreover, both agree that it is not a knowledge of rules which enables someone to act virtuously. What are the proper objects of knowledge for these authors, and how does one acquire them? Is the object universal or particular, theoretical or practical, related to the self or to others? Is each author’s view justified, and if so, by what? Is the relevant knowledge for virtue affected by others’ recognition? Whose account is more easily accessible and which account is superior? Answering these questions will hopefully illuminate the role that knowledge plays in Aristotle’s and Confucius’ accounts of happiness.

Christian Wenzel (Taiwan)

“Happiness, Culture, and Beauty: From Freud to Kant.”

Happiness comes and goes. Let us look into some of its kinds and causes. Freud thought that humans pursue happiness through satisfaction of sexual desire, and that this kind of happiness is the most intense but culture hinders it and demands sublimation. In his eyes culture restricts freedom. A very different picture is offered by the Stoics and Kant. They saw freedom as consisting in autonomy and morality, and they recommended pursuing happiness through these sources. Between these two extremes I propose a third option: beauty. Beauty depends on rules and culture, but is not restricted by them. It plays with rules. Autonomy and sublimation merely figure in the background. Beauty offers a positive and creative way of encountering what is not fully understood, as happens when we meet another culture. It requires a certain kind of involvement and creates a multiplicity of perspectives, and it is a source of happiness as well.

Lee Yearley (Stanford)

“Bewilderment, Longing and Happiness: China and the West”

Bewilderment and longing, its normal companion, are both emotions and virtues. As emotions they can be seen either as significant characteristics of genuine happiness or as factors that impede or even damage it. As virtues, exhibiting all the usual characteristics virtues possess, they can be seen as qualities that decisively either contribute to happiness or undermine it. Both China and the West contain perspectives that treat bewilderment and longing as either components of happiness or impediments to it. The differing perspectives rest on the role played by ideals of ease (and thus contentment and consolation) in the understanding of happiness. The more prominent those ideals, the more likely that bewilderment and longing appear to be only stages to be overcome in the attainment of happiness.

Ideals of ease are at least as prominent in China as they are in the West. Nevertheless, the Chinese tradition provides, I think, a more hospitable home than does the Western tradition, before modern times, to connections among bewilderment, longing, and happiness. I examine that contention, and its implication for our own thinking and lives by journeying down two differing avenues.

In the first, I make some brief wide-ranging observations (which are necessarily speculative and controversial) about several pertinent facets of the two tradition’s respective understanding of happiness or its pursuit. Especially important are the ways spiritual ideals of ease or of bewilderment are understood, often in light of broad views of the world’s characteristics, and then evaluated. In the second I examine two poems, one Chinese and one Western, that present paradigmatic examples of the connections among bewilderment, longing, and happiness. The Chinese example is a single, short poem by Li Bai (Li Bo) (701-762) Endless Longing (Chang xiangsi). The Western examples are from a very long poem by Dante (1265-1321), the Commedia. Li Bai’s poem transforms a traditional theme in Chinese poetry, yearning for a lost lover, into a depiction of the role of those absences that are also dominating presences in any full characterization of happiness. The brief selections from Dante concern the kinds of happiness found in the emotional states (and embryonic virtues) depicted in the “desire without hope” that characterizes Limbo and the confused reactions born of “waiting” that characterizes the inhabitants, especially Belacqua, of the Ante-Purgatory. Each example provides us with much to consider, I think, as we reflect on the ways we, as moderns, can or even should understand happiness.

Jiyuan Yu (SUNY, Buffalo)

“Virtue and Happiness: between the Republic and the Nicomachean Ethics”

For Aristotle, virtue is not sufficient for eudaimonia. In addition, eudaimonia requires two more factors: 1. “Evidently, happiness needs the external goods as well.” (EN, 1099a32, the “external goods thesis”). 2. Happiness lies in the activity of virtue rather than the possession of it as a state of the soul (1095b32-1096a2, the “activity thesis”). How is virtue related to happiness in the Republic? How is the position of the Nicomachean Ethics (EN) related to the position in the Republic? Unlike Aristotle, Plato does not make his general stance explicit. Commentators have developed different and even conflicting understandings about Plato’s position, and hence about the relation between Plato and Aristotle. In relation to Aristotle’s “external good thesis”, one position claims that Plato defends the sufficiency thesis (ancient commentators, J.Annas), whereas the other argues that in the main argument from Book 2 to 9 Plato does not maintain that virtue is sufficient for happiness, but holds a comparative thesis which means that the just person is happier than the non-virtuous person (T. Irwin). In relation to Aristotle’s “activity thesis”, one position claims that Plato and Aristotle are in contrast. For Aristotle, happiness consists in virtuous activity rather than the possession of virtue, whereas for Plato, the supreme human good lies in the possession of virtue, as distinct from virtuous activity (S. Broadie, R. Crisp). In contrast, the other contends that “Plato always insists that the bearers of value are activities, not states.” (Nussbaum)

My paper is a comparative study of the Republic and the EN over the issue of the relation between virtue and happiness. Although both classics have been intensively studied and are familiar, this comparative study seeks (1) to develop a better understanding of Plato’s position, (2) to show that Aristotle’s two theses can be seen as reactions to Plato’s view, and (3) to assess to what extent Aristotle’s development over Plato is successful. I hope that the discussion of this paper can also lead to question how Confucianism and Daoism might respond to Aristotle’s two theses.


December 7, 2009 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Conference, Ethical Theory

1 Comment »

  1. I’ll have to try to get a copy of Benitez’s paper at the very least.

    Comment by Joel Dietz | December 8, 2009 | Reply

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