Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

The Shortcomings of the Sages

I’d like to use this as an opportunity to think about depictions of sages in early Confucian texts (Mengzi in particular). I’ve thought, for better or worse, that the authors of these texts used the figures of the sages as representations of fully cultivated people. Yet I’ve noticed that these sages are sometimes described as falling short of perfection, and this gives rise to a question–in what ways can one be deficient, and yet still be considered a sage?

In Mengzi, for instance, Zhou Gong is labeled a sage of antiquity (古聖人), but Mengzi also acknowledges that Zhou Gong did not know (不知) that his brother would rebel against the Zhou (a situation enabled by Zhou Gong appointing his brother overseer of the Yin). In 2B9 Mengzi explains that Zhou Gong did in fact commit an infraction (過), and although appointing his brother as overseer was an appropriate act (宜), it was something in need of reform (改).

In 5B1 Bo Yi, Yi Yin, and Liuxia Hui are described as sages that display virtues of purity, responsibility, and harmony; yet they seem to lack the knowledge (智) that Kongzi possess, allowing him to make use of these various attributes at the proper time.

I’m not sure how to reconcile this with Mengzi’s other statements of a more perfect sage (and that sage-like figures would do as the others have done had they switched places [易地皆然]), but these passages seem to, at the very least, separate wisdom (智) from sageliness. Does this mean that the sage only needs a minimal degree of wisdom in order to be a sage? And if so, how does this lack of wisdom effect his development and display of the other virtues?

I have a few more thoughts to add, but this should be good enough to get the conversation going.

What are the shortcomings of the sages?

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May 2, 2012 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Mencius, Sages

31 Comments »

  1. (Nothing substantive just yet, I only wanted to take this opportunity to welcome Michael Ing, our newest blog contributor and to point out that a brief bio is available for him on the Contributor page.)

    Comment by Manyul Im | May 2, 2012 | Reply

  2. Does this count as evidence against the theory that Confucian metaethics are virtue based, on the grounds that in a virtue-based metaethics the right action just is what a sage would do? Or does this just mean that we need to distinguish between ‘mere sages’ and ‘perfect sages’ or whatever?

    Comment by Carl M. Johnson | May 2, 2012 | Reply

  3. Interesting post, Michael! I wonder if there might be two ways, possibly stages, of approaching your issue:

    1. As a question about the implications of calling someone a sage — This seems like the broad question you are asking about whether “sage,” or 聖人, implies moral perfection or instead some other less than perfect moral ideal (though still an ideal).

    2. As a question about whether there is any commitment to a “unity of virtues” thesis in early Confucianism — Potentially, if there is no commitment, then there might be some kind of “localism” of sageliness — a sage with respect to one or some virtues (whether perfection is implied or not) but not others.

    I don’t want to proceed with the assumption of either perfectionism (in 1) or unity of virtue (in 2) with respect to sages in early Confucianism. Arguments should be given for or against both of those theses. Personally, I think the evidence points to there not being a commitment to perfectionism nor to unity of virtues. I have a presentation paper that I haven’t returned to since I presented it, centering on courage (勇) but really about unity of virtue in early Confucianism. I’ll have to return with some comments after looking back at that.

    Comment by Manyul Im | May 3, 2012 | Reply

  4. Hi Carl,

    Others here know far more about virtue ethics than I, but my sense is that while this poses a challenge to VE interpretations of Confuicanism, there are resources with which to respond. Amy’s _Moral Exemplars_, for instance, takes into account Confucius’ foilbles, recognizing that he is not _always_ good (106, although she softens this on 122: “While it is not generally the case that he appears to be behaving in ways that rise to the level of being _wrong_, his behavior and manner are nonetheless puzzling and without clear foundation.”). These infelicities “keep us on the hook”–serving as reminders that he is human and motivating us to become like him (128). She also argues for a notion of “partial exemplars” such as Zilu and Zigong. So following this line of thought, it does indeed seem that we can and should distinguish between “total exemplars” (e.g., Confucius) and “partial exemplars” (in this case Zhou Gong, et al.), and idiosyncracies and essential features. Admittedly, I’m not sure how one goes about the work of making such distinctions.

    Comment by Michael Ing | May 3, 2012 | Reply

  5. Thanks for the response, Manyul. I’d like to hear more about your thoughts on interentailment. Admittedly, I don’t know much.

    Regarding 1), if we assume that there isn’t a commitment to perfectionism, then I’m curious about the kinds of shortcomings the sages might have. A lack of wisdom and too heavy an emphasis on appropriateness seem to emerge from the passages I quoted in Mencius, and I’m wondering what kinds of implicatiosn this might have for thinking about “sagehood” (How wrong can sages get things?, etc.). I’m also curious about a possible taxonomy of shortcomings.

    Comment by Michael Ing | May 3, 2012 | Reply

  6. Hi Michael, Welcome!

    This is a great question and already some good discussion. Here are a few thoughts. I think it’s notable that within 2B9 itself there seems to be no recognized distinction between sage (shengren) and superior person (junzi). Though it’s interesting that only Sheng Jia uses the term “sage”; not sure if there’s anything to be made of that. At any rate, the idea that even the best of us are susceptible to mistakes seems to be the general message, together with the thought that the truly good are those who take responsibility for their errors. I don’t know if there’s a specific lack of one or another kind of virtue in evidence here, as much as a failure to be all-knowing. In general, I think that both classical and even neo-Confucians tended to shy away from, or at least to minimize the significance of, saying that sages were all-knowing (無所不知), even though that was a trait associated with “sage” from fairly early.

    It may be relevant to bring in what Wang Yangming says; this is from one of his letters, as translated by Julia Ching (Letter 28, p. 49):

    Which human being, indeed, is without fault? The noble thing is to correct one’s fault. Qu Boyu was a worthy man. Yet he said, “I wish to correct my fault, but I am unable to do so.” King Tang and Confucius were two great sages. And yet one said, “I willingly correct my faults,” and the other, “I wish to be free of faults.” Everyone says, “Except for Yao and Shun, who can be without fault?”

    This is also a conventional way of talking. We cannot learn adequately from this what the minds of Yao and Shun were like. If Yao and Shun really considered themselves as faultless, they would not be sages. The advice they gave to each other was: “The mind of man is prone to error, the mind of tao is subtle. Keep always to the Mean; practice discernment and single-mindedness.” Since they themselves regarded the mind of man as prone to error, it shows that their minds were as prone to faults as those of other men.

    Comment by Steve Angle | May 4, 2012 | Reply

  7. This is indeed a great topic – I especially like the question about a taxonomy of flaws.

    Steve, I would think the imperfections of at least some sages according to Mengzi wouldn’t show that the message is that even the best human beings are susceptible to mistakes. Mengzi says in 2A2 that nobody has been as great as Confucius; but he thinks there have been at least several sages, so he must think some sages are less great than others. Also he says in 7B25 that there is a level above mere “sage.”

    Comment by Bill Haines | May 4, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi Bill, I agree that 2B9 is consistent with the idea that there may be sages or super-sages (or spirits) who do not make mistakes, but it seems to me that 2B9 itself suggests nothing of the kind. Whether we are to understand the shen of 7B25 as a genuine option for people, or not, I am not sure. It seems that since we cannot know (anything?) about them, shen are not that relevant to how we live our lives. Unless we take this to be connected to the justice-dispensing spirits of Mozi?

      Comment by Steve Angle | May 6, 2012 | Reply

      • This is headed in a bit of a tangent, but I read 7B25 as a statement of the importance of 神. Mengzi seems to establish some kind of continuity between 善,信,美,大,聖,and 神. The power of shen is in the ability of one who is shen to transcend understanding.

        7A13 links shen to the abilities of the junzi:

        孟子曰:「霸者之民,驩虞如也;王者之民,皞皞如也。殺之而不怨,利之而不庸,民日遷善而不知為之者。夫君子所過者化,所存者神,上下與天地同流,豈曰小補之哉?」
        Mencius said, ‘Under a chief, leading all the princes, the people look brisk and cheerful. Under a true sovereign, they have an air of deep contentment. Though he slay them, they do not murmur. When he benefits them, they do not think of his merit. From day to day they make progress towards what is good, without knowing who makes them do so. Wherever the superior man passes through, transformation follows; wherever he abides, his influence is of a spiritual nature. It flows abroad, above and beneath, like that of Heaven and Earth. How can it be said that he mends society but in a small way!’ (CText.org)

        Beyond Mengzi, the Zhongyong connects “utmost sincerity” to shen (故至誠如神). (In the Liji the shen are everywhere; sometimes quite literally)

        Going further abroad, the “Neiye” in the Guanzi links shen to the sage since both contain a highly refined qi (精):

        凡物之精,此則為生下生五穀,上為列星。流於天地之間,謂之鬼神,藏於胸中,謂之聖人.

        Anyways, sorry for jumping in. Michae Puett also develops the theme of the relationship between shen and human beings in several chapters of _To Become a God_.

        Comment by Michael Ing | May 8, 2012 | Reply

        • Thanks Michael — very helpful. I note that here again, if we look at 7B25 and 7A31 in light of one another, there does not seem to be an obvious distinction between sheng and junzi.

          Comment by Steve Angle | May 10, 2012 | Reply

  8. Hi, I’m enjoying the post and comments. I think a taxonomy of shortcomings will be difficult, but not because there aren’t shortcomings. I think that where shortcomings manifest they tend to show up not in the abstract, general claims (the sort that most readily lend themselves to taxonomic structures) but in the narrative depictions of exemplars. One would have to construct any taxonomy in a more active, inferential manner since it won’t be found in the most direct and explicit claims.

    One thing I’d add to this, and maybe this is already implied in Michael’s post, but even if one denies that there is an operating notion of perfection in the texts, there’s still a lot of interpretive spectrum left. By that I just mean that some interpretations (of the Analects in particular) strike me as tilting toward an assumption of near-perfection in how Confucius qua exemplar is interpretively approached. Because of that, there’s an effort to make what he does and says “come right” and look good or, worse, look didactically good as if *all* he does and says is model for emulation, even when doing so is an interpretive strain. Even where the notion of perfection is off the table, in other words, hermeneutical approaches can implicitly incline toward looking for it. I think very self-consciously eschewing perfection readings and approaching Confucius with the understanding that he’s flawed can make the text read differently. It allows a lot more ambiguity, ambiguity that I think can be quite fruitful. I think Michael’s essay in the latest PEW is a rather wonderful example of how ambiguity can be more engaging than clarity. Clarity can readily strain at what a text by itself can sustain, and since moral life is full of ambiguity, seeing the Confucians as acknowledging this can make them more, not less, appealing.

    Comment by Amy Olberding | May 4, 2012 | Reply

  9. Hi Steve,

    Here are a couple of thoughts, the first more important.

    I don’t know if there’s a specific lack of one or another kind of virtue in evidence here, as much as a failure to be all-knowing.

    If I understand you correctly, you don’t take 知/智 as a virtue; is that right? If not, why not; and what you see as the relationship between 知 and the virtues? I’ve only made a preliminary reading of your _Sagehood_, but my sense (and you can correct me if I’m wrong) is that you advocate a moral perfectionism in sages (“Sages thus come to represent the human achievement of moral perfection” [15]; although “nothing would be lost if a Confucian were to acknowledge the possibility that there never has been a full-on, one-hundred-percent sage.” [26]). I’d like to explore this a bit more, but I want to first make sure I’m following you.

    I think it’s notable that within 2B9 itself there seems to be no recognized distinction between sage (shengren) and superior person (junzi). Though it’s interesting that only Sheng Jia uses the term “sage”; not sure if there’s anything to be made of that.

    I find that interesting as well, and this (as you might be alluding) is where the notion of junzi as “paradigmatic figure” and “ruler” comes in handy for Mengzi–he can turn a criticism of Zhou Gong into a criticism of current rulers. Also, I may be misreading the passage, but I believe it’s actually Mengzi that calls Zhou Gong a 古聖人.

    Hi Amy,

    I think a taxonomy of shortcomings will be difficult, but not because there aren’t shortcomings. I think that where shortcomings manifest they tend to show up not in the abstract, general claims (the sort that most readily lend themselves to taxonomic structures) but in the narrative depictions of exemplars. One would have to construct any taxonomy in a more active, inferential manner since it won’t be found in the most direct and explicit claims.

    For the most part I agree with this, but I think there may be a few general claims that might get something like a taxonomy going (although I really could be persuaded otherwise). So in the Zhongyong, for instance, the following statement appears:

    君子之道費而隱。夫婦之愚,可以與知焉,及其至也,雖聖人亦有所不知焉;夫婦之不肖,可以能行焉,及其至也,雖聖人亦有所不能焉。
    The way which the superior man pursues, reaches wide and far, and yet is secret. Common men and women, however ignorant, may intermeddle with the knowledge of it; yet in its utmost reaches, there is that which even the sage does not know. Common men and women, however much below the ordinary standard of character, can carry it into practice; yet in its utmost reaches, there is that which even the sage is not able to carry into practice. (From CText.org)

    While the text is not clear on what the sage does not know or cannot do, a kind of basic framework for inference seems to be available in some place.

    Comment by Michael Ing | May 4, 2012 | Reply

    • To respond to your two points in reverse order:

      Concerning the junzi and/vs. sage issue: first, you’re right, it’s Mengzi who calls the Duke of Zhou and ancient sage. My bad. Second, my point is more that the passage seems to be equating junzi (whom I don’t believe we are tempted to say are perfect) with sages (whom we are sometimes tempted to say are perfect). This suggests to me that Mengzi is not working with a clear concept of “sage,” distinct from and higher than junzi. At least in this passage.

      On the first point, I do take 知/智 to be a virtue (let’s call it wisdom), but I don’t think it’s the same as have reliable and exhaustive knowledge. One can appreciate the significance of subtle aspects of a situation one encounters and make key distinctions between different kinds of cases (and their relevance to the present case), for exmaple, and yet still be ignorant of some fact or future possibility. Perhaps there just is no evidence that even keen insight and wisdom can use to warn us of this important possibility. Admittedly, for some, the idea of sagehood was bound up with almost super-human abilities to determine such facts, but I’m not sure there is evidence that Mengzi held this view. Does that help clarify things, or further muddy them?

      Comment by Steve Angle | May 6, 2012 | Reply

      • Thanks for the clarification. I’m with you on the Junzi/Shengren point.

        As far as wisdom is concerned, you’re saying that it’s possible to be perfectly virtuous, but not have exhaustive knowledge; is that right? Perhaps something similar to Bill’s (A) below?

        If this is the case, I’m curious about how these limitations impact the other aspects of the sage (perhaps this leads to the question of interentailment). More specifically, I’m looking at Chapter 6 in _Sagehood_ and wondering if regret isn’t a kind of necessary residue given these limitations.

        I forgot to add earlier, that Wang Yangming quote you mentioned is really interesting. Any sense of what he means by faults?

        Comment by Michael Ing | May 7, 2012 | Reply

      • On wisdom: yes. Perfectly virtuous, but lack exhaustive knowledge. So a sage would have a flawless capacity to attend to and weigh appropriate distinctions, but if the world is such that one is faced with a situation in which relevant facts are simply not present, then this flawless capacity may still fail to deliver the result at which an omniscient agent would arrive. This may fit into Bill’s category A, unless lacking supernatural omniscience counts as a merely human limitation?

        With regard to regret, I’m tempted to say the same thing about this “limitation” of wisdom that I say in Sagehood about tragic dilemmas: if the world presents one with a case in which one’s ignorance leads one to choose a suboptimal outcome (though only a very lucky person, or an omniscient angel, would have chosen the right outcome), then grief but not regret is warranted. It doesn’t make sense to regret not being an angel when there are no angels and one can’t become one.

        On Wang Yangming, I think he believes that there is no guaranteed way to assure that one’s human-heartmind never hiccups and originates a self-centered thought. One can make it unlikely, but vigilence is needed, and insofar as one errs (post facto vigilence may not always be enough) one must acknowledge it and make up for it. Something like that! Definitely more grist for your typology….

        Comment by Steve Angle | May 7, 2012 | Reply

        • Hmm…, here are some initial thoughts on regret as it relates to a sage’s lack of knowledge and ability. The difference between grief and regret, at least in my understanding, is that grief recognizes that some harm has been done in a particular situation and regret is seeing oneself somehow responsible for the harm so as to desire to have chosen differently. So if a sage’s friend dies, the sage should feel grief, but should not feel regret because he was not involved in the death. In these circumstances, grief, and not regret, seems quite appropriate since the harm done was beyond the sage’s control. Then there are cases of misfortune where the sage might cause some harm unintentionally; and this is where it seems as if some (minor) form of regret might be more appropriate (coupled with grief). And then there are dilemmas (using one’s hands to protect one’s head) where some (less minor) form of regret might be more appropriate (again, coupled with grief).

          It seems, though, that regret could be mitigated in dilemmas if the sage could say, “I chose the right thing to do.” Or if, as you discuss, the sage could recognize that the world is patterned in such a way that he must “bear” choosing some things over others. The question, though, is the degree to which limitations of knowledge (不知) impact the sage’s ability to make these judgments. If the sage cannot be certain that he has chosen the right course of action, or the sage cannot clearly determine the things that are within his control and the things that are beyond his control, then it seems that some residue in the form of regret must remain.

          Comment by Michael Ing | May 8, 2012 | Reply

        • This is really thought-provoking, thanks! I do indeed want to deny that regret is apt for the sage in the cases that you mention at the end of the first paragraph, for precise the reasons that you note at the beginning of the second. But then your further challenge (the question, though, is the degree to which limitations of knowledge (不知) impact the sage’s ability to make these judgments) is excellent.

          I can think of two things to say. First, the sage is not hostage to the unknowable future in the way that some versions of act consequentialism might be thought to be, because he is not out to maximize outcomes in accord with some measure. Rather, his motivations should be flawless and harmonious.

          Second, another emotion that is all-too-often apt for the sage is worry (and/or sorrow) on behalf of the world. Here’s what I say in Sagehood p. 247-8, n. 31:

          Another classic passage that bears on the present point is Mencius 2B:13, especially as interpreted by Zhu Xi. Mencius has left the state of Qi, having failed to convert its ruler to the Way. He appears saddened, and a disciple questions whether a junzi should have such a reaction: it goes against Mencius’s famous teaching of the “unmoved heart.” Mencius responds rather cryptically that Tian apparently did not wish a true king to arise at this point; why should he be unhappy? Zhu Xi’s commentary is insightful, and whether it is the correct reading or not, reveals his own thinking quite clearly. “We can see here the simultaneous presence, without contradiction, of the sage’s commitment to worry on behalf of the world, and the complete sincerity of his taking joy in Tian” [Zhu 1987, Pt. 4, 58]. Worry or concern or sadness can be combined in the sage’s breast with joy: Mencius is suffering no “regret” in my technical sense. For an insightful and pathbreaking discussion of this passage, see also Ivanhoe [1988].

          (The reference is to Ivanhoe, Philip J. (1988). A Question of Faith: A New Interpretation of Mencius 2B:13. Early China, 13, 153–65.)

          Comment by Steve Angle | May 10, 2012 | Reply

  10. Hm. Maybe the hard thing about working up a taxonomy of shortcomings, even if we had plenty of relevant passages, is the difficulty of working out what sort of finitude should count as a shortcoming. If we could distinguish sharply between the sage’s moral quality (the quality of her will or fundamental intentions) and the extent of her knowledge and power, then perhaps limitations of knowledge or power wouldn’t automatically count as shortcomings. But is any such distinction tenable? And if it isn’t, then the mere fact that the sages are human might be held to imply shortcomings, because it implies that their knowledge and power are not infinite?

    Comment by Bill Haines | May 4, 2012 | Reply

    • Ted Nugent, as reported in today’s New York Times: ““I’m a human being and in fact I’m a perfect human being because I stumble perfectly.”

      Comment by Bill Haines | May 5, 2012 | Reply

  11. Hi, Michael. Can you say a bit more about how you’d use the passage from the Zhongyong to establish a basic framework? I’m not sure I see how it would leverage into a framework and so I’m wondering if I misunderstand the sort of framework and taxonomy you intend.

    Comment by Amy Olberding | May 5, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi Amy, I’m just thinking through this, so I’m not sure I have anything really detailed in mind here. One of the (many) things I like about your recent book on the _Analects_ is the attention you give to constructing a moral theory from a “moral manual.” While you recognize that many of the early texts take up a kind of “blended” position, it seems that the _Analects_ is much more of a manual than a theoretical text. I’m curious, though, as to whether other texts might in fact take up a (comparatively speaking) more theoretical position. The passage from the Zhongyong, for instance, while not to be divorced from context, isn’t set in the same kind of narrative depiction of the sage that other passages are (such as _Mengzi_ 2B9). While I haven’t done the leg-work on this, it seems that the 聖人 is sometimes spoken of in a more abstract sense (by which I mean, passages that employ the 聖人 don’t always illustrate the 聖人 with a named figure).

      So by “framework” I mean that the Zhongyong (purportedly Confucius at this point of the text), asserts, quite categorically, that there are things that extend beyond the knowledge and power of the sage. This fits well with the depiction of Zhou Gong, a sage of antiquity, in _Mengzi_ 2B9. These categories of 不知 and 不能 seem to be a decent starting point for exploring the question about the kinds of limitations the sages were believed to possess.

      Of course in developing them, one might try to further understand what these terms mean in the Zhongyong (they are mentioned, for instance, in relation to the upper limits [至] of the 君子之道; and coincidentally, some commentators explain them in terms of the 神. The 神 are able to do and know the things a sage cannot do and does not know.), and whether or not they adequately explain the narratives given in other early texts (remaining senstive to the likelihood that they do not adequately explain them). This might lead to further developing these categories by specifying the kinds of shortcomings, in knowledge or ability in particular, the authors/redactors of these texts believed the sages to possess.

      Comment by Michael Ing | May 7, 2012 | Reply

  12. Please excuse the brevity and succinctness: doesn’t 聖人 have a 人 in it?

    Comment by Luis Andrade | May 5, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi Louis, I guess I am at least one of the targets. I was too brief above. I’ll elaborate, perhaps for both of us.

      Some early Chinese texts are pretty strange, and I don’t know if some suggest that a human sage can be infinitely great in certain respects that might surprise me.

      That point aside, for there to be such a thing as perfection short of infinite knowledge, power, beauty, size, etc., it would seem there has to be some fairly definite inherent limit involved in the relevant notion of goodness or greatness, the kind of goodness or greatness that might count. Here are some ways to conceive such an inherent limit:

      A. One might suppose that what goodness or greatness is, is not something that admits of infinite degree, as size does, but instead admits of completeness (without reference to species), as straightness does. For example, one might think that perfection is that one has no non-universalizable maxims.

      B. One might take the sage’s humanity as a kind of excuse, quantitatively limiting her responsibility. The sage is not responsible for being superhuman; her being as great (kind, smart, strong, tall, whatever) as a human can be is what counts as her being all the way great, hence perfect.

      C. One might suppose that each species has a uniform final cause that defines what counts as greatness for its members, and that this final cause takes the form of inherently limited standards (such as a certain size, shape, and lifespan; and maybe ritual propriety) rather than inherently unlimited ones (such as, maybe, helpfulness and wisdom).

      One might want to say that while a type-A conception can leave it a wide open question whether any human is capable of perfection, B and C make it necessarily true that human perfection is possible.

      But if, as seems likely, greatness of type B or C has parts or aspects that are not easily commensurable (say, skill in mathematics and skill in swimming), it might well be true that humans are capable of vastly greater development in any one of these aspects than is plausibly compatible with a balanced set, so that the notion of perfection wouldn’t have any interesting application.

      One might go farther, especially if one’s concept of greatness includes skills: one might think that people ought to specialize; that someone is pretty useless who fails to develop some part of greatness much farther than is compatible with an overall balance. (The obvious rebuttal is that on this view, those parts aren’t really parts of greatness, they’re possible instruments toward greatness much more abstractly conceived. But the rebuttal might just be too abstract.) And then the best people would be people who are in many respects worse than some other people; perhaps in most respects far worse than some other people.

      (Over twenty years ago Amélie Rorty told me she thought society permanently needs diversity in kinds of philosophical conception of morality. I’m sure she must have written this up somewhere.)

      A few months ago Steve pointed out – I misunderstood him at the time – that at least some early Chinese, if perhaps not Confucians, thought of sagehood as involving diverse skills. Confucius wanted to move away from that idea; but the salient parts or aspects of sagehood might still be multiple, not easily commensurable, and such that different directions of specialization may be called for.

      One way of thinking about the question of diversity is to ask: can the best people be models for the rest of us? I mean, will their virtues be intelligible to lesser observers, and applicable to observers in general?

      Or we might distinguish the idea that being a good farmer isn’t part of being a sage, from the idea that being a good farmer is greater than not being a good farmer. A sage might be, not someone who is great across the board, but rather someone who has a kind of greatness that is valuable so long as other people are good farmers: thus a sage would be a kind of specialist, rather than there being a general standard of human excellence of which sagehood is the fulfillment.

      *

      Two great mathematicians will agree on arithmetic even if they are separated by a thousand years and ten thousand miles and their traditions are wholly unlinked. There may be a few things they disagree on; there will surely be some respects in which each falls short of the other. If someone theorizes seriously about “the perfect mathematician,” one might conclude that she doesn’t take mathematics seriously as an enterprise, or that she fails to grasp in even an elementary way what it is to be a mathematician. Can we say the same of morality or human greatness?

      Comment by Bill Haines | May 6, 2012 | Reply

      • Sorry Luis!

        Comment by Bill Haines | May 6, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi Bill,

      Thank you. You gave back much, much more that I offered here! Of course, my comment was tongue-in-cheek and pointed to the simple fact that the Chinese rendering for “sage” includes the character for man/human in it. We, Homo Sapiens, as an intelligence bearing species, can come up with high reaching conceptual ideals such as sageness and perfection. Alas, they are created in such a way that they are always a step ahead of us. They are carrots at the end of the stick we strive to reach as we walk along the path of our lives. The irony is that, even those very few who are anointed with “sageness” and “perfection” by the many, are found to be less than that by a few, all the while being those same hard judging few who turn on each other and find imperfections to point at and steal the carrot away from their fellowmen. I suppose they/we ended up devising degrees of sageness the same way we can distinguish shades of gray but never reaching full white.

      Comment by Luis Andrade | May 6, 2012 | Reply

  13. I think this is an interesting thread, but it reminds me of work in something like negative theology, that sageliness, like Godliness, will be understood better by answering, “x is not P, but is still x.” It’s not that it’s logically impossible, but that it’s a much longer route, I think, to a more direct question: What minimal sufficient and necessary conditions are there to being labeled “sagely” under Mengzi? Whatever else goes into a person’s identity, what at least has to be there for one to infer that someone is a sage?

    Comment by Joshua Harwood | May 14, 2012 | Reply

    • Great redirection, Joshua. It strikes me, though, that in some cases the rhetorical effectiveness of citing sage figures depends on their prior existence as mythical culture icons. Recasting them in ways that suit a particular point has to remain plausibly tied to well-“known” achievements and accounts of those sages. Because of that kind of existing iconic characterization, finding sufficient and necessary conditions has to be done in at least two steps. So, for example, try to find how a particular figure, such as Mencius, tries to manipulate accounts of a particular sage, such as the sage king Shun, to customize the account to a point he’s trying to make. Then, (doing some history) separate what is culturally iconic vestige from what is customized for the rhetorical point. Then it might be possible to extract the characteristics that Mencius, say, would find sagely across all sages.

      Things are different for citation of unnamed sages — “the sage” — in other kinds of texts like the Daodejing. We should think about the rhetoric of that kind of citation as well before embarking on the list of nec and suff conditions.

      Comment by Manyul Im | May 15, 2012 | Reply

      • I think, given the nature of revising a cultural icon’s myth/history to fit a given analogy, there may very well be a straightforward way of discharging that concern with Ramsey sentences on the characterizations that Mengzi gives to those who he describes as sages (I linked to an example for non-Analytic-type visitors: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/functionalism/#FunDefRamSen). This method could allow us to disregard the received history of any given sage (since it’s an important placeholder for interlocutors, but not essential to knowing how Mengzi characterizes sagacity), and then see how generally, yet consistently, we can generalize features of sages. This way can also allow us to separate Mengzi’s historical accuracy or popular acceptance on cited sages’ lives from whatever description Mengzi provides for their sagacity.

        The sufficient and necessary conditions would arise upon establishing whether any given portion of the Ramsey sentence (say subsets from power-set-style group of propositions of all possible simplifications of the Ramsey sentence) imply for Mengzi that the person (below, x) was sagacious. We can do the reverse for necessary conditions. If we can reasonably interpret certain sentences as saying as much, then we could be clearer about Mengzi’s thoughts on sagacity more generally.

        U = Mengzi’s text (or roughly, according to Mengzi)

        ∃x(∃y…(P\x\y … ) ⊃ (*sagacious*(x)))
        ∃x((*sagacious*(x)) ⊃ ∃y…(P\x\y … ))

        I think this route may also be better because many of our descriptions of other kinds of people (geniuses, martyrs, traitors, sleuths) are done quite well with archetypal naming and metonymy (Einstein, Christ, Benedict Arnold, Sherlock Holmes), even when our descriptions of the people’s basis for their metonymy are incorrect.

        I used a very similar procedure in the Daodejing, but for ‘道.’

        Comment by Joshua Harwood | May 15, 2012 | Reply

  14. You should use words like shengren as English loanwords. Employing an English translation such as “sage” is highly irritating. –Thorsten Pattberg

    Comment by Thorsten Pattberg | August 22, 2012 | Reply

    • Dear Dr. Pattberg: I was intrigued by this comment, but also (truth be told) slightly irritated, as it seems overly broad and without any clear justification. I’ve now looked at you blog and at your book Shengren, which you have generously made available on your website, and I can see that you have much to say about the use of translations of many Chinese terms — especially about German renditions of shengren. If you would like to share some of these views with the Warp, Weft, and Way community for general discussion, please contact me via email and we can see about arranging a guest posting for you. Best wishes, Steve

      Comment by Steve Angle | August 22, 2012 | Reply

    • Are there terms that can be translated without you finding the translations irritating?

      Comment by Michael Ing | August 22, 2012 | Reply


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