Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Loving Brothers and Handsome Men

Anybody want to talk about ai 愛? It seems like this might be the day for it.

The natural topic (for me, anyway) is the Mohist doctrine of jian ai 兼愛, or inclusive care. But, awkwardly enough, it’s perfectly clear that this doctrine isn’t about love, much less romantic love. So that won’t do.

But what about the statement in the “Lesser Selection 小取” that though Huo does ai her younger brother, who is a handsome man, she does not ai a handsome man. That second ai maybe looks a bit Valentine-y. Does anyone think they know what’s going on?

The line about Huo is part of an extended argument in the “Lesser Selection” apparently intended to show that a kind of argument that the Mohists refer to as mou 侔 (parallelism?) doesn’t work. In this case, the rejected argument is something like this: Huo’s younger brother is a handsome man, so when she loves her younger brother, she loves a handsome man.

(I’m going to translate “ai” as “love” in honour of today’s festival, though “care for” might be more accurate.)

What’s supposed to be wrong with the argument? The English-language argument I’ve used to gloss it is valid, so it must get something wrong. But what?

Maybe the issue is classical Chinese’s lack of grammaticalised singular/plural and definite/indefinite (“the”/”a”) distinctions. Maybe the argument would translate more accurately as: her younger brother is a handsome man, so when she loves her younger brother, she loves handsome men. This is obviously bad.

One reason to like this diagnosis is that it goes wrong for reasons that the Later Mohists recognised in other contexts. To count as being 美人 (handsome man), you just have to be one of them; but to count as loving 美人, you actually have to love all of them. (Okay, not all of them exactly, but love them somehow generically.) This is a pretty good parallel for the distinction the later Mohists find between riding horses (which only requires that you ride some horses) and caring for people (which requires that you care for all people). Admittedly the fact that classical Chinese does not use a verbal copula might have obscured the parallel.

One reason not to like this diagnosis is that it makes it irrelevant that the argument is about handsome men and not, say, Confucians. “Her brother is a Confucian, in loving her brother she is loving Confucians”—this argument goes wrong in exactly the same way as the parallel argument about handsome men. But it’s hard to believe it’s irrelevant that the argument is about handsome men.

The usual approach, I think, is to say that the fact that the love is of a handsome man is supposed to change the kind of love that’s in question. Huo feels one kind of love for her younger brother. She’d feel an entirely different kind of love for a handsome man.

That doesn’t answer the question of how the Mohists would explain what’s going on here. A couple of recent-ish treatments (by Zong Desheng in PEW 50.2 and by Marshall D. Williams in CP 1.1) have suggested that the issue is intensional contexts. (“Thinks” creates an intensional context, and that’s why “Lois Lane thinks Superman is handsome” doesn’t entail “Lois Lane thinks Clark Kent is handsome,” even though Clark Kent is Superman.)

I don’t buy it. We’re not talking here about the substitution of coreferential terms. The issue seems to be that a verb’s sense can be affected by the noun it takes as object, and that’s not intensionality (though whatever it is it’s pretty neat). And even if it were intensionality, the Mohists don’t seem to be trying to explain why these arguments fail, it’s enough for them that they do fail, so they’re unlikely to be saying that they fail because of intensionality. Certainly they don’t develop a theory that would motivate a distinction between extensional and intensional contexts.

But forget about all that. Today is Valentine’s Day, and what’s interesting today is what kind of love the Mohists were talking about when they raised the possibility that Huo might love a handsome man. My own academic formation makes me resist the idea that they’re talking about anything we would recognise as romantic love. But that doesn’t mean I have anything smart to say about what they were talking about.

Or we could just talk about inclusive care. It’s actually an important issue whether inclusive care would be consistent with love (of any sort, though including especially 親). In my view it would be, and the Mohists assumed as much. But maybe not everyone agrees?

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February 14, 2011 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Later Mohists, Mohism

5 Comments »

  1. I ♥ this post, Dan. I don’t think the Leonard Cohen lyric that jumps to mind is relevant, but maybe someone will be inspired by it: “You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception…”

    I actually like the lack-of-article-and-lack-of-plurals explanation. I love my wife; my wife is a caring mother; that doesn’t mean we should conclude that I love caring mothers. But, you say,

    One reason not to like this diagnosis is that it makes it irrelevant that the argument is about handsome men and not, say, Confucians. “Her brother is a Confucian, in loving her brother she is loving Confucians”—this argument goes wrong in exactly the same way as the parallel argument about handsome men. But it’s hard to believe it’s irrelevant that the argument is about handsome men.

    Maybe, from a rhetorical angle, it matters that it’s about handsome men. Maybe the thought is that Huo’s loving handsome men has a scandalous air to it. I have a minor quibble about this. The question is, what is responsible for the shade of scandal? I don’t actually think it’s difference in the kind of love that one feels toward brothers versus handsome non-brothers. Instead, it’s the implications — often action implications — that differ, and hence that will prevent the conclusion from being acceptable. Huo loves her younger brother, so maybe she tends to his bedside when he is ill. Obviously, she can’t do that for other handsome men, unless they are otherwise related by blood (in appropriate ways — e.g. perhaps she can’t tend to her uncles this way) or by marriage. Likewise with being a Confucian man. Huo may love her Confucian brother, but the same applies to what that implies about what she may or may not do with other Confucian men. So, actually, the argument goes through — i.e. fails to go through — in the same way for Confucian men as for handsome men.

    This seems all very relevant to the discussion in Mencius 6A4-5 (I hate to drag Mencius into the mix (do I really?) but the Mohists and Mencius are always joined at the hip). I revere my grand uncle; he is elderly; that does not mean I revere the elderly — think of old horses, for example. And so on. It’s not the quality of my reverence, but what reverence implies, socially, for acceptable actions based on it.

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 14, 2011 | Reply

    • Who wouldn’t make an exception for Leonard Cohen?

      On the substance, I take it the issue is whether they’re assuming that she doesn’t love her brother as a handsome men, or (alternatively) that she doesn’t love other handsome men the way she loves her brother. Is the scandalous thought that she has the wrong kind of love for her brother, or that she might care for some other handsome man in ways it would only be proper to care for a relative?

      I’m actually pretty pleased you like the “as” reading. I’m not sure it had ever occurred to me as a possibility until putting the post together last night, and I’m still not sure what I think of it. (I am rather embarrassed I didn’t consider this possibility in my article on the “Xiaoqu,” oh well.)

      Another issue is how it fits with the climactic bit about killing thieves. The Mohists insist that killing thieves isn’t killing people, and the usual explanation is that they’re talking about two different kinds of killing. But maybe it works with the generic reading too: making a policy of killing thieves isn’t making a policy of killing people.

      Comment by Dan Robins | February 14, 2011 | Reply

  2. “My own academic formation makes me resist the idea that they’re talking about anything we would recognise as romantic love.” Do you mean, because you’ve tended not to think 愛 extends to that, or because by “romantic love” you mean something extreme enough not to be culturally universal, and in fact not present in the Mohists’ milieu?

    Perhaps indeed the standard worry about sisters is about a different kind of 愛. (Contrast the Book of Genesis, in which the device by which the good guys suggest that their wives are available to be rented out is to pretend that their wives are their sisters.)

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 14, 2011 | Reply

  3. I know that Mohists use 愛 in a special technical way a lot of the time. But outside Mozi, say in Zuozhuan and such, I always think of 愛 as meaning “to treat or look upon with special favor” (often inappropriately, from a moral/ritual point of view). In most Zuozhuan narratives, if someone 愛 their mate, trouble is usually on the way. I wonder if, in the example with the brother and the handsome man, the 愛 she has for her brother is some kind of appropriate 愛, while the 愛 she has for the handsome man is not so appropriate?

    That said, I would also argue that even in the handsome man context 愛 doesn’t seem like romantic love. (Definitely not culturally universal!!) Sexual love though, maybe?

    Comment by Esther Klein | February 14, 2011 | Reply

    • Esther, yes, it’s the cultural universality I was trained (or whatever) to distrust. It’s interesting what you say about the Zuozhuan narratives. Could that be like King Xuan’s alleged ai for the ox? (I trust everybody knows the context!)

      In the texts I know, I usually think of ai as implying a commendable concern for something’s well-being. Not a lot has to be built in: the gentleman has ai for animals, but reserves benevolence for the people and love (qin 親) for his family (Mencius 7A/45). Against this background, I’m not sure the Mohist usage has to be especially novel or technical.

      Comment by Dan Robins | February 14, 2011 | Reply


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