Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

More Aesthetic-Moral Fusion

Here are the substantive parts of the paper I presented, “Gentlemen Prefer Bronze: Aesthetic Sensibility as Moral Sense in the Analects” at the recent Pacific Division APA meeting in San Francisco.

Did I say “substantive”? The paper is very programmatic and my project is still in the early stages, so there is much argument and some clarity missing, to say the least. But I don’t mind at all discussing it with my betters — you know who you are. The panel that I was on, by the way, included two excellent and better papers by Stephen Walker and Alexus McLeod. Perhaps they too will share parts of their papers by and by…


…What is to be made of this aesthetic sensibility in terms of a philosophical understanding of early Confucianism? Does it merely provide an interesting social quirkiness to its practitioners—perhaps a quirkiness that, going further, undermines the primary significance of the rhetoric, or doctrines, used by the early followers of Confucius, as some seem to suggest.[1] There have been suggestions and hints about how to integrate the aesthetic aspects of early Confucianism into a philosophical understanding of it, but not much of it has been especially clear about what we are attributing with this concept of aesthetic sensibility—a concept that, it would be plausible to say, isn’t distinguished clearly until the 18th century.[2] So, in the first half of this paper, I’d like to try addressing this issue directly, using a somewhat simplified model of aesthetic sensibility based largely on Kant’s seminal account, in aesthetics theory, of “judgments of taste.” I want to make suggestions in the second half of the paper of how the Kantian model aids us in providing an interesting philosophical analysis of early Confucianism in terms of ritual appreciation and performance as involving activities and attitudes that can seem to be a fusion of the aesthetic and the moral.

Kant and Judgments of Taste[3]

[Let me apologize to those who know Kant’s work on this topic much better than I do. Some of this will be simplistic and rushed for my purposes in this presentation. There is also germane intellectual background to Kant’s work involving British empiricism and its response to rationalism about beauty that I will ignore here. Of course any suggestions and corrections will be appreciated.]

According to Kant, there are three aspects of judgments of taste, two of which allow us to distinguish them variously from judgments of agreeableness, on the one hand and on the other hand, from moral judgments. The first aspect is a kind of “immediacy” of the judgment, “that judgments of beauty are not (or at least not primarily) mediated by inferences from principles or applications of concepts, but rather have all the immediacy of straightforwardly sensory judgments.”[4] So, in his Critique of Judgment he states:

If someone reads me his poem or takes me to a play that in the end fails to please my taste, then he can adduce Batteux or Lessing, or even older and more famous critics of taste, and adduce all the rules they established as proofs that his poem is beautiful… . I will stop my ears, listen to no reasons and arguments, and would rather believe that those rules of the critics are false … than allow that my judgment should be determined by means of a priori grounds of proof, since it is supposed to be a judgment of taste and not of the understanding of reason. (165)[5]

In this regard, judgments of taste, like judgments of agreeableness are primitive judgments in that they are not derived from higher principles or rules of judgment.

However, what distinguished judgments of taste from those of agreeableness is the former’s normative aspect, according to Kant. In making judgments of taste, a person:

…judges not merely for himself, but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Hence he says that the thing is beautiful, and does not count on the agreement of others with his judgment of satisfaction because he has frequently found them to be agreeable with his own, but rather demands it from them. He rebukes them if they judge otherwise, and denies that they have taste, though he nevertheless requires that they ought to have it… . (98)[6]

On the other hand, Kant states, “With regard to the agreeable, everyone is content that his judgment, which he grounds on a private feeling, and in which he says of an object that it pleases him, be restricted merely to his own person.”[7] So, he suggests, preferences based on agreeability to one’s private feelings lack a kind of universal feeling, a normativity that is expressed through the demand that others, if “they have taste,” ought to share one’s judgment. By contrast, Kant thinks, matters of taste involve speaking “of beauty as if it were a property of things.” One way to put his point might be that judgments of taste involve a direction of fit that mimics judgments of fact—about what properties things have—and so they carry with them the normative demand for agreement from others.

The third aspect of judgments of taste, on Kant’s analysis, is an important one for distinguishing them from moral judgments. He argues that judgments of taste are “merely contemplative”[8] or to put it another way, “disinterested” in the sense that they do not have a relationship to any particular sort of desire. As James Shelley puts it:

According to Kant, to say that a pleasure is interested is not to say that it is self-interested in the Hobbesian sense, but rather that it stands in a certain relation to the faculty of desire. The pleasure involved in judging an action to be morally good is interested because such a judgment issues in a desire to bring the action into existence, i.e., to perform it. To judge an action to be morally good is to become aware that one has a duty to perform the action, and to become so aware is to gain a desire to perform it. By contrast, the pleasure involved in judging an object to be beautiful is disinterested because such a judgment issues in no desire to do anything in particular.[9]

This requires stating, for Kant, partly because what is involved in judgments of taste is taking pleasure in an object to which we attribute beauty. Pleasure in other contexts seems interested, in the sense that it produces desires for certain sorts of action. However, the important contrast for us here is with moral judgment, which is interested on Kant’s view in its practicality—in its practically necessary relation to the faculty of desire.

So on a Kantian, working model of aesthetic judgment as a distinct sort, such judgments have three characteristics:

  1. Immediacy – the judgment is not derived from higher principles or rules
  2. Normativity – the judgment carries a normative claim that others’ judgments ought to agree with it
  3. Disinterestedness – the judgment does not stand in a relationship of psychological or practical necessity to desires of any particular sort

These characteristics allow us to distinguish aesthetic judgments from mere personal preference judgments and moral judgments. We might also try to link this account of judgments to a Kantian account of the associated sensibility, in the following way, as Nick Zangwill does with the normative aspect of such judgments:

Since judgments of taste are based on responses of pleasure, it would make little sense if our judgments were more or less appropriate but our responses were not. The normative claim of our judgments of taste must derive from the fact that we think that some responses are better or more appropriate to their object than others. Responses only license judgments which can be more or less appropriate because responses themselves can be more or less appropriate. If I get pleasure from drinking Canary-wine, and you don’t, neither of us will think of the other as being mistaken. But if you don’t get pleasure from Shakespeare’s Sonnets, I will think of you as being in error — not just your judgment, but your liking. I think that I am right to have my response, and that your response is defective. Someone who thinks that there is, in Hume’s words, “an equality of genius” between some inferior composer, on the one hand, and Bach, on the other, has a defective sensibility… .[10]

So, we may speak of aesthetic judgments as being making normative claims because we think of the responses, or sensibility, upon which they are based as being normatively judgeable, either as being the right responses or as defective. A corresponding Kantian, working model of aesthetic sensibility then would be to characterize it similarly to aesthetic judgments as having three aspects:

  1. Immediacy – the sensibility constitutes a direct response to the world and is not a derived response from application of higher principles or rules
  2. Normativity – the sensibility can be deemed as correct or defective
  3. Disinterestedness – the sensibility does not necessarily include motivations of any particular sort

With this model in hand, we can turn to an analysis of roles that aesthetic judgments and sensibility might play within early Confucianism, in particular here, in the kinds of things Confucius seems concerned with in the Analects.

Confucius, the Aesthetic, and the Moral

On any reading of the Analects, ritual propriety, li 禮, must play an intimate role in the final overall ethical vision of the gentleman, or junzi 君子, who seems to embody the virtues dear to Confucius. Ritual propriety carries much of the load for characterization of early Confucianism as prominently fixated on aesthetic education and cultivation. But how are we to understand that role of ritual propriety in the larger ethical vision of the Analects, in light of the model of aesthetic sensibility that we wish to apply to the analysis? After all, haven’t we now an account of aesthetic judgment and sensibility that is distinct from moral judgment and sensibility?

According to Kwong-loi Shun, there are two ways in which interpretations have generally gone regarding ritual propriety in relation to what may seem to be the central moral virtue in the Analects, the virtue of benevolence, ren 仁. On the one hand, some have taken the relationship to be an instrumental one, in which the Analects presents ritual propriety “as standing in a mere instrumental relation to the ideal of ren.”[11] On such a reading, training in ritual propriety serves the development of benevolence by cultivating the kinds of actions that can express that benevolence, both during cultivation of benevolence and after it is brought to completion in the gentleman. So, a passage like 3.3 provides some impetus for this reading:

3.3  – The Master said, “If a man be without the virtues proper to [benevolence], what has he to do with the rites of propriety? If a man be without the virtues proper to [benevolence], what has he to do with music?”

On the other hand, one might regard the relationship to be one that Shun calls a “constitutive” one, in which benevolence is, more intimately, constituted by the practice of ritual propriety. On such a reading, training in ritual propriety is just the same thing as training in benevolence. Analects 12.1 seems to indicate something like this:

Yan Yuan asked about [benevolence]. The Master said, “To subdue one’s self and return to [ritual] propriety, is [benevolence]. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to [ritual] propriety, all under heaven will ascribe [benevolence] to him. Is the practice of [benevolence] from a man himself, or is it from others?” Yan Yuan said, “I beg to ask the steps of that process.” The Master replied, “Look not at what is contrary to [ritual] propriety; listen not to what is contrary to [ritual] propriety; speak not what is contrary to [ritual] propriety; make no movement which is contrary to [ritual] propriety.” Yan Yuan then said, “Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigor, I will make it my business to practice this lesson.”

Shun goes on to try to provide a third alternative that can reconcile these apparently opposing readings. Chenyang Li has argued subsequently that Shun’s reconciliation is not quite successful and proposes an alternative model of the relationship.[12] Here, I don’t want to assess these arguments by Shun and Li. Instead, I want to use the relationship between ritual propriety and benevolence as a launching point from which to consider what the relationship between an aesthetic sensibility and a moral one could be in the circumstances and context in which Confucius was apparently making such pronouncements.

One problem with the Kantian model of aesthetic judgment and sensibility that is worth exploring is the extent to which it is adequate—or more to the point, inadequate—for understanding the role of performance and the performer as in one sense passively making aesthetic judgments, or exercising aesthetic sensibility, and at the same time actively responding to those judgments. The perspective of the performance and the performer is important given the way in which ritual propriety involves performance as well as the performer’s own assessment of his or her own performance. Confucius’s disciple Zengzi’s words in Analects 8.4 are to the point here:

…There are three principles of conduct which the man of high rank should consider specially important: that in his deportment and manner he keep from violence and heedlessness; that in regulating his countenance he keep near to sincerity; and that in his words and tones he keep far from lowness and impropriety. As to such matters as attending to the sacrificial vessels, there are the proper officers for them.

There’s an element of self-regulation during performance which incorporates both the aesthetically passive attitude of “taking in” one’s own performance and the aesthetically active attitude of creating the performance, or to put it in Kantian terminology, of putting the beauty into the object of the judgment, the object here being a dynamic event as opposed to an artifact.

Given this perspective, we may wish to modify our understanding of at least the third characteristic of the Kantian model, that of disinterestedness. Aesthetic judgment may indeed be disinterested in the passive enjoyment of beauty, having no necessary psychological or practical bearing on motivation. But in the act of performance, as the agent of the creation of beauty, it seems like there must be necessary practical bearing on the motivation of the agent. Adjustments are made in response to perceiving aspects of one’s own performance that, to the performer’s aesthetic sensibility, appear as requiring checking, embellishment, or any number of other modifications that respond directly to the performer’s aesthetic experience of his or her activity.

But now, if we’ve complicated the characteristic of aesthetic judgment and sensibility that distinguishes it from moral judgment and sensibility, then there seems to be the possibility of conceptual fusion—whether that is confusion or a more benign type of fusion—between the aesthetic and the moral. The practical necessity for action of a certain sort might be regarded as aesthetic or moral depending on context—assuming that we can specify those contexts in ways that are independent of aesthetic or moral judgment now. Or in our case, if the relationship between ritual propriety and benevolence is intimate enough, practical necessity for action can seem both aesthetic and moral. Or so I’ve tried to suggest….

[1] Most notably in Robert Eno (1990) The Confucian Creation of Heaven, Albany: SUNY Press.

[2] An exception is Ha Poong Kim (2006) “Confucius’s Aesthetic Concept of Noble Man: Beyond Moralism,” Asian Philosophy 16:2 (111-121). Partly, I’m inspired to provide an aesthetic-moral “fusion” account of Confucian concerns in the Analects as a response to Kim’s argument that the aesthetic and moral are separable therein.

[3] My understanding of Kant’s views here owes much to two very clarifying entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Concept of the Aesthetic” by James Shelley (2009) and “Aesthetic Judgment” by Nick Zangwill (2007).

[4] Shelley (2009) – I use the term “immediacy” following Shelley.

[5] Immanuel Kant (1790) Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. P. Guyer, and E. Matthews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid (97).

[8] Ibid (95).

[9] Shelley (2009)

[10] Zangwill (2007)

[11] (56) Kwong-loi Shun (2002) “Ren 仁 and Li 禮 in the Analects,” in Confucius and the Analects: New Essays, edited by Bryan Van Norden, Oxford University Press, (53-72).

[12] Chenyang Li (2007) “Li as Cultural Grammar: On the Relation between Li and Ren in Confucius’ Analects,” Philosophy East and West 57:3 (311-329).


April 7, 2010 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius


  1. Hi Manyul — this is very rich, and I ain’t your “better”! To get the conversation going, though, let me see if I understand your main point here. It’s that activity aimed at the creation of beauty, rather than its merely passive appreciation, is not “disinterested,” which makes such activity different from Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment and sensibility, and in this respect like what he says about moral judgments. Thusfar this could be a point just about Kant: perhaps a criticism of his theory of taste for being too narrowly built upon passive consumption. But you further want to use this as a way in to suggest that the boundaries between aesthetic and “moral” sensibilities in Confucius are not firm. Ritual propriety is performed with an “interested” sensibility toward something like beauty, I think you’re suggesting. Is it moral or aesthetic? The answer’s supposed to be: it crosses or fuses these categories.

    Is that sort of right? I’ll wait to hear back before I say too much more, but I do have one comment and one question. The comment is that the comparison with Kant is going to be tricky in one way, at least: I don’t think that moral sensibility is related to moral judgment in the same way that sensibility and judgment are related in the aesthetic case. The (somewhat related) question is: what might “moral” mean in the context of Confucius?

    Comment by Steve Angle | April 7, 2010 | Reply

  2. Hi Steve; thanks for the comments!

    Yes, in one way this is critical of Kant’s account for focusing too much on “passive consumption” — a nice phrase, by the way. On the other hand, I’m aware that his account provides a prominent attempt at distinguishing aesthetic judgment from moral. But I think to do that distinguishing, it’s going to have to be done in some other way than with the notion of disinterestedness. I haven’t tried to provide that in this paper, but I think it needs addressing, mostly because I want to say that there is a fusion of the two in early Confucianism and to make good on that we at least need to be able to make the distinction in a way that makes sense to us and perhaps also to the early Confucians.

    So then, I think, I want to say that elements of Confucian judgment and sensibility that are identifiable as alternatively moral or aesthetic can be regarded by early Confucians as both moral and aesthetic, without one or the other category being accorded any dominance.

    I think “moral” in the context refers to things that orbit one central cluster of concepts: shan 善, ren 仁, and yi 義 and “aesthetic” refers to things that orbit the cluster: mei 美 and li 禮. The way I’m moving in my thinking is that sometimes things end up orbiting both those clusters at once, for example judgments about things being “orderly” zhi 治 or “straight” zhi 直.

    Most of this I have not indicated in the paper; I’m thinking “aloud” here.

    I have to hear your suggestion about why you don’t think that moral sensibility is related to judgment in the same way as in the aesthetic case before I can say anything about it.

    Comment by Manyul Im | April 8, 2010 | Reply

  3. OK, Two more thoughts. First, what I meant about moral sensibility was that I don’t think this is a central category for Kant. Moral judgment is central, and a rule-governed rational process. The work of Nancy Sherman and others has, to be sure, emphasized that emotions, virtues, and I suppose “sensibility” play more of a role in Kant that many of us were taught as undergrads, but still moral judgment is not “immediate” or intuitive. For Kant.

    Second, what about ways in which style matters to ren and yi (as Kupperman and Olberding, among others, have been emphasizing), and also more direct connection between those notions and mei/li? That is, are there really two distinct clusters? Rhetorically, I wonder if “fusion” is the right trope, as it implies the combination of two things that intuitively we think to be distinct. From the perspective of the early Confucians, at least, I wonder if distinguishing “moral” (or “ethical”?) from “aesthetic” would seem like a surprising and even problematic prying apart of a whole?

    Comment by Steve Angle | April 8, 2010 | Reply

  4. Hey Steve; I agree about moral sensibility in Kant. I should add, however, that aesthetic — or “taste” — sensibility is not central in Kant’s discussion either. Zangwill’s construction of the relationship between taste sensibility and taste judgment, as I understand it, is his attempt to flesh out the normative aspect of the taste judgment in Kant.

    Thanks for bringing in the “style” business that we see in Kupperman and Olberding. In Olberding’s case, I think the role that personal style plays in the Analects has to do with (the historical Confucius’s) pedagogy and the importance that style has as an effect on the student. I’m not sure that she describes style as being aesthetic — only as “personal.” Maybe style is inherently aesthetic, but I would like an analysis of “the aesthetic” as a category prior to that kind of claim.

    In Kupperman’s work, the emphasis is on why style matters for existential questions about the meaning of one’s life. I suppose the link to the aesthetic is also taken for granted here, so the same desire holds here for me, to get an account of the aesthetic in some relatively systematic way. (Perhaps “style” isn’t necessarily an aesthetic mode. There may be formal distinctions of style that track other categories — a style of argument, for example.)

    Your point about “fusion” is a substantive one, not merely rhetorical (is that a fair distinction to make?). I initially began this project thinking that, for the early Confucians, the distinction between the moral and the aesthetic didn’t really exist, i.e. couldn’t really be constructed from the sorts of things they say in the texts. But consider Analects 3.25:

    The Master said of the Shao that it was perfectly beautiful and also perfectly good. He said of the Wu that it was perfectly beautiful but not perfectly good. 子謂韶,“盡美矣,又盡善也。”謂武,“盡美矣,未盡善也”.

    That seems to indicate things are more complicated, that there are ways to make the distinction between the aesthetic and the moral as categories in early China. My argument, then, is to show how it is possible, or probable, the two categories tend to get fused.

    Comment by Manyul Im | April 9, 2010 | Reply

    • Manyul, one quick thought about LY 3:25: if we didn’t have Western philosophical sensibilities (about the centrality of “the good” and “the beautiful”), would reading this passage in the context of the rest of the Analects, and/or pre-Qin writings more generally, suggest that there were two significant and distinct clusters of value concepts?

      Comment by Steve Angle | April 11, 2010 | Reply

    • Great question. I think if we take ordinary, run-of-the-mill translation/interpretation of the material seriously, then it’s not only unavoidable, but also good practice, that we import the distinction between the good and the beautiful into our understanding of pre-Qin texts. Maybe there’s room to wiggle a bit on exactly what sense of “good” is tracked by shan 善 and what sense of “beautiful” by mei 美, but how else can we understand those terms? And understanding those terms isn’t just piecemeal, so that imported distinction has to run somewhat systematically throughout the the other terms that cluster around them. I don’t know, maybe that’s too a priori or “transcendental” but I’m not sure how else to think about understanding early Chinese. Any suggestions?

      Comment by Manyul Im | April 11, 2010 | Reply

  5. Hi, Manyul & Steve,
    I’m currently working on something that relates to your discussion so I’m following your conversation with great interest. I incline to agree with Steve that the moral and aesthetic are treated holistically (in the Analects at least). I grant that passages such 3.25 indicate a separation, but my sense is that the moral and aesthetic feature as distinct evaluative domains only when there is a failure of some sort – here, e.g., the passage is referencing a case when they come apart. It’s less that the domains “fuse” in success cases, but that what should be, or optimally is, a single domain is fractured in failure cases. My question then would be whether there are passages that describe a success case in terms that evoke fusion without also referencing a failure. I suppose I think the division, to the extent it appears in the Analects, more a post hoc explanatory strategy than a fixed conceptual division always in place.

    For what it’s worth, I do think style is an ethico-aesthetic matter. By “personal style,” I mean in part to evoke the sense that attaches to artistic style, such that having a “style” in the relevant sense includes features that distinguish one performer from another. Such is to say that the genuinely adept performer of the li will leave some mark that distinguishes her performance from that of another, just as Glenn Gould and Murray Perriah can play the same score but to very different result.

    Comment by Amy Olberding | April 9, 2010 | Reply

  6. I think this is an intrinsically interesting topic, and quite substantive for the early Ru. I used to claim that for the Ru (and possibly some other thinkers as well), norms were simultaneously moral, pragmatic, and aesthetic – the good is the useful is the beautiful. Or, at the very least, the writers were after all of these, often several at once, so it would be inadequate to characterize any given instruction as normative in one sense as opposed to the other two. Critics pointed out to me several problematic passages, like Analects 3.25, and gradually my stance changed. I no longer think it is quite so useful to say that there is, for example, a fusion of the moral and the aesthetic in early Ru writings. Rather I would say two things: (1) The Analects is so theoretically inarticulate that the whole attempt to analyze its norms in moral vs. aesthetic terms, even as a fusion of the two, may miss the mark. (2) Mengzi and Xunzi are more theoretically articulate, and we may find interesting resources for this kind of analysis in their work. In particular, I’d draw attention to Mengzi’s extensive discourse of moral taste.

    (1) The early Ru simultaneously held many convictions about what was good, what yielded benefit for the agent and those around him, and what was pleasing to the sensibilities of at least a well-cultivated man. They probably sometimes took an aesthetic pleasure in the witnessing, imagining, and performing of actions that they took to be morally good. The obvious pleasure that many Ru took in nature and the cultural arts indicates that they were no boors. But I wonder what their reply would be if asked whether the pleasure they took in, say, the Zhou rituals involved aesthetic judgments of a Kantian kind. I think they would have little difficulty with “normativity”, some difficulty with “immediacy”, and enormous difficulty with “disinterestedness”.

    Warring States thinkers in general grapple less with problems of immediate vs. mediated judgments than do most Western philosophers; absent Mengzi-style theories about moral taste, I see little reason for Ru (especially inarticulate Analects Ru) to insist that their pleasure in the rituals constitutes something immediate rather than reflective. As for “disinterestedness”, I think for most Ru any pleasure they took in proper cultural forms simply confirmed for them that those forms were the best ever discovered, or at least the best we have to work with, and ought to be recognized as such by everybody. As far as I can tell, there is no attempt in the early texts to assess or experience the cultural arts “in and of themselves”, severed from their deeply normative connection to the political success of past dynasties and the behavior-changing effects they were supposed to have. In any case, the Ru writers would seem always to rank social harmony, good character, and political order as goods above such things as delight in sights and sounds. If, in addition to being efficacious at securing order, the songs and rituals of past dynasties are aesthetically pleasing, then so much the better. The argument is obvious (though hardly on the radar in the Analects) that the cultural forms could only be socially efficacious insofar as they are aesthetically pleasing in at least some respects – but I find it hard to imagine that the Ru would value this aesthetic pleasure if they did not see it as conducing to order. The tunes of Zheng and Wei are dismissed because they lead men astray, not because they are in any sense displeasing – indeed, they are probably very pleasing to the ear. Does this picture constitute a “fusion” of moral and aesthetic norms, or simply a set of assumptions about the moral centrality of aesthetic practices, coupled with a disposition to take delight in action recognized as good?

    (2) I think that if we want to find an early Ru answer to the “judgments of taste” that inform classical Western aesthetic theory, we should look first to Mengzi. He not only analogizes the heart’s preferences to the preferences of the sense-organs for certain sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touches – he relates these to each other in a normative (and possibly descriptive) hierarchy, and explains their interactions according to several kinds of cognition and motivation. If we were to use Mengzi’s resources to develop an aesthetic discourse on Warring States foundations, the first thing I think we should notice is that “beauty” is probably not the best description for what pleases the senses. I associate “beauty” with sights and sounds, but Mengzi considers the pleasures of eye and ear right alongside those of lying down on a comfortable couch and anticipating the savor of a roast. The resulting picture of “taste” is more tactile, more physically intimate owing to the equal inclusion of those sensory modalities. For this and other reasons, it would be hard to label tastes of this kind “disinterested”. We have here a theory wherein judgments of taste are intensely interested, even paradigmatically motivating.

    Comment by Stephen C. Walker | April 9, 2010 | Reply

  7. Very interesting comments from Amy and Stephen — thanks.

    Amy: You may be right about the holistic treatment of the moral and aesthetic, though perhaps a large exception to that might be found in Mohist thinking. I’m inclined to say that noting holistic treatment in the optimal, or paradigmatic(?), cases is just putting the point about fusion slightly differently, but still recognizing the conceptual possibility of pulling the two categories apart. My project has evolved into trying to understand how the categories can be understood in such a way that the aesthetic and the moral in early Chinese thought can seem so similar as to provide easy overlap in many cases, but still retain separability in the occasional cases, or perhaps more systematically for the Mohists.

    As a project about methodology, I’m trying to provide models of the aesthetic and the moral that are somewhat more precise than I’ve encountered so far, in analyzing early Chinese thought.

    Stephen: Loads of great feedback. One minor point, first. Regarding your statement: As for “disinterestedness”, I think for most Ru any pleasure they took in proper cultural forms simply confirmed for them that those forms were the best ever discovered, or at least the best we have to work with, and ought to be recognized as such by everybody. Actually, what you’re talking about here would reflect the normativity of those judgments of taste — as Kant puts it, “He rebukes them if they judge otherwise, and denies that they have taste, though he nevertheless requires that they ought to have it.” As you say, normativity for taste judgments seems unproblematic to attribute.

    “Immediacy” is tricky. I’m not sure why you say this: I see little reason for Ru (especially inarticulate Analects Ru) to insist that their pleasure in the rituals constitutes something immediate rather than reflective. Doesn’t it seem like inarticulate, or perhaps unarticulated, justification — or perhaps there is none offered at all! — for the pleasure of rituals actually argues in favor of immediacy? In other words, if the pleasure in rituals is unmediated by higher principles but immediate to observing them, then that might explain the felt lack of need to justify those responses. I say immediacy is tricky because, whether we’re talking 18th century Europe or Warring States China, it’s not as if anyone thinks there are no standards of taste. Some pleasures are thought of as defective, aesthetically, in any context of taste, even within contexts that others might judge “low-brow” (e.g. American Idol: “Dog, that was too pitchy.” — this is the equivalent of honor among thieves). So, when standards are involved, does that make the judgments of taste derived rather than immediate? I think this problem is why the switch to talk of “sensibility” may help — or not. This is an aspect of Kant’s theory about which I need to read some more secondary literature. So, thanks for bringing this up.

    Disinterestedness is also difficult, partly because it is based on Kant’s ideas about the intrinsic relationship to the will that certain types of judgment might or might not have. As indicated in my paper, I don’t think it’s going to be applicable to some contexts of aesthetic judgment. But, let me repeat, if aesthetic judgment is “interested” in the Kantian sense, then distinguishing it from moral judgment will have to be more substantively about the objects of judgment than formally about the relationship to the will. (Damn it, I hate it when I start talking like Kant.)

    Finally (for now), regarding your comments about Mengzi: I’m not sure there’s a problem with associating beauty with pleasures that are more tactile. Nor do I think the early Chinese would have a problem with that. As an aside, pace Kant, a lot of people, including philosophers, today regard aesthetic judgments of the palate — e.g. regarding good or bad wine — as in the realm.

    Comment by Manyul Im | April 10, 2010 | Reply

    • On “disinterestedness”, what I meant to convey is that the beauty of the rituals is not of primary concern – their moral correctness is, particularly as a means to order society. (Or as constitutive of social order, I’m not sure which.) I think that inarticulate (i.e. Analects) Ru might state as much if forced, though they do not discuss the relation between the rituals’ social effectiveness and the pleasure they provoke. The fact that the Zhou rituals are the best social forms ever implemented, to them, is not a disinterested fact – it is a fact that demands the reformation of society. I think the beauty an early Ru would find in, say, the Shao music is beauty that would move him to cultivate himself and strive to promote a certain way of life: the beauty encodes the values of the sages, or could only have been produced by men of their character.

      I do not think that Ru disinclination to analyze or justify their preference for sagely music, songs, and cultural forms indicates that their appreciation of these must be thought of as immediate. If they believe that the Shao music was composed in high antiquity and encodes sagely values, and is in danger of extinction in the turbulent modern world, then there is a lot going on in their positive judgments about it beyond merely pleasure to the ears! Kongzi’s three-month daze after hearing it would probably be much shorter if it did not plunge him into an imaginative world of history and human possibilities. (Perhaps it made him dream of the Duke of Zhou). The Shao and the Wu are equally beautiful, but one of them is morally better than the other; therefore the “beautiful” and the “[morally?] good” cannot be identical. It seems to me that the dazed pleasure Kongzi takes in the Shao must be a function of both 美 and 善, so are we going to claim that appreciation of 善 is immediate? I think agnosticism on the immediacy of such normative judgments is best for the Analects.

      I continue to think we should focus our attention on the aesthetic or quasi-aesthetic theories developed by the Ru themselves, to see how we might rebut or supplement classical Western accounts in understanding what’s at stake in the texts. I have felt a little discomfort every time I have typed “beauty” in this thread, because we should not leap to the conclusion that 美 in these contexts means precisely what we would take “beautiful” to mean in the wake of classical aesthetic theory. 美 might mean something closer to splendid, pleasing, maybe embellished – notions either contained within “beautiful” or partially outside it. I am not sure what our lexical resources are for pre-Qin arts connoisseurship. We could best judge the meaning of 美 by seeing how it fits into connoisseurial language and aesthetic theories proper to the pre-Qin setting. Maybe philosophical analysis of the Analects would yield more of interest once we have figured out e.g. Meng’s and Xun’s views on these topics.

      Comment by Stephen C. Walker | April 11, 2010 | Reply

      • N.B. I just noticed that I wrote “music, songs” – that is, not including “songs” under “music”. This doesn’t work in English, but what I was clumsily implying was the distinction between 樂 and other forms of music-making. We commonly translate 樂 as “music”, but I don’t think we should, since it is a very specific kind of music.

        Comment by Stephen C. Walker | April 12, 2010 | Reply

  8. I brought this discussion to the attention of a soon-to-be colleague of mine, Ludmilla Guenova, who works on Kantian aesthetics (among other things). She gave me permission to share the following comments:

    Kant indeed begins his discussion of aesthetic experience with a seemingly sharp distinction between aesthetic and moral judgment. (And the notion of disinterestedness, of course, plays an important role in laying out the distinction). But even though Kant would continue to insist on the autonomy of judgments of taste, he significantly complicates the purported relation between morality and aesthetic experience. It turns out that we have both an ’empirical’ and an ‘intellectual’ interest in the beautiful, interests stemming from our commitments as practical agents: First, appreciation of artistic beauty exhibits our capacity for sociability. Second, appreciation of natural beauty could be regarded as a sign of our capacity for pure moral deliberation. Moreover, beauty in both art and nature could also serve to express aesthetic ideas that have some moral content.

    So, in short, I am wondering whether, rather than focussing more narrowly on disinterestedness, one should not instead take as a point of departure this far more complex relation between the aesthetic and the moral. Even this more elaborate Kantian model might in the end also prove deficient. But at least it might provide a richer conceptual basis for discussing the relationship between the seemingly pure aesthetic aspects of the ritual and the moral virtues it is supposed to express/cultivate.

    Comment by Steve Angle | April 19, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks, Steve. I’ll have to meet with Ludmilla once she’s in CT. Off the cuff, I think I’d want to see how the sense of “interest” in the empirical and intellectual interest that Kant thinks we have in the aesthetic links up to the one that is concerned with a direct normative relationship to the will. It seems like in the brief bit you pass along, Ludmilla suggests an indirect route to the will via the relationship of the aesthetic to what happens to be morally relevant facts about us or about nature, and not that the things we find aesthetically pleasing directly provide moral, or interested, motives. But, as she says, that might complicate things. Interesting stuff — more interesting than any of the other stuff in Kant that I had to wade through in graduate school.

      Comment by Manyul Im | April 19, 2010 | Reply

  9. Hi Manyul,

    I am really looking forward to reading your paper on this. I added this to my blog–for you–about why ladies also prefer bronze 🙂
    I do recommend the paper I linked to by Stanley O’Connor on SEAsian heirloom jars. I think you will find it interesting.

    More soon. Take care. L.

    Comment by peony | May 6, 2010 | Reply

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