Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Knowing to (act): Confucian situationist epistemology

The Lunyu’s conversations highlight and advocate a wide variety of the junzi’s commitments, dispositions, efficacy, responsiveness, and so on. Many of these focus on a person’s encounters with situations and, therein, one’s appropriate responses to the question, or undertaking of the task, at hand. From an epistemological point of view, how might we best capture these situationist capabilities and competencies?

There are at least three ways of making sense of the junzi’s situationist capacities/knowledge. There are probably more conceptual frameworks, including some plausible combinations of the three below:

(I)                The knowing-how route

This account grows out from the knowing-how/knowing-that distinction. Here, we could cast the junzi’s capacities as practical, in-situ, knowledge, or knowledge manifest in situations. Generally, the focus of accounts set out within this framework would include parameters such as competence, practice, and reliability, to name a few. Of course, there can be more subtle versions of this approach, including those that shatter the dichotomy of knowing-how/knowing that. Included in these approaches is the ‘knowing-to act in the moment’ account that I have argued for (which can be both act- and agent-centred).


(II)             The pragmatism route

Here, again, there is a focus on the practical and, indeed, the contextual element. This account dwells centrally on encounters with and/or responses to particular situations. The vocabulary for a pragmatist account of Confucianist epistemology could include: imaginative encounters in context, inquiry and problem-solving, and reinventing tradition. Could it be that the pragmatist route is, in some versions of pragmatism, only programmatic? I ask this question because I’m not sure.


(III)           Virtue epistemology

This framework, arising from the impetus to represent Confucian ethics as virtue ethics, has attracted some concerns that a situationist epistemology is incompatible with a virtues-based approach to character. There have been some attempts to deal with that in the literature, especially from a Confucian perspective. (I personally think this is not an insurmountable problem for Confucian ethics). Does this account ‘capture’ Confucian epistemology better than the other two?


I’m keen to find out: (a) whether there are other viable conceptual schemes for a situationist epistemology; and (b) whether there are good reasons to think why any one of these, or some such combination, is more plausible than others. Amongst other things, I’m curious about the overlaps across these frameworks and I wonder if scholars working within some of them (myself included) might be re-inventing the wheel by not investigating more broadly. If so, might this be a case of philosophy’s fragmentation into many sub-areas that don’t necessarily speak to each other—with significant implications for those of us in comparative philosophical research.

August 17, 2013 Posted by | Chinese philosophy | Leave a comment