Monthly Archives: April 2006

Ren, Social Properties, and Western Comparisons

The word ‘ren‘ (translated variously as “benevolence”, “human-heartedness”, “humanity”) had, for Confucius, an ineliminably social meaning. It is one of the important ethical concepts in Confucian writings, and is something that cannot, I believe, be attained to by one’s self. In one of my entries below, I discussed Analects 15.33, where Confucius speaks of the person who is able to “guard ren” (shou ren). There are many other places in the Analects where Confucius talks about those “with ren” (ren ren or ren zhe), but it is unclear to me that this entails that one has a property in the same way we today talk of one having courage, or having integrity–qualities that can be the domain of a particular individual, without consideration of what is going on in society around one.

Of course, for Aristotle, it appears that sometimes the individual’s possession of a virtue had to do with external chance–one can only be generous if one is successful at giving, rather than simply having the intention to give, for example. But even Aristotle’s virtues must be considered things had by an individual.

I believe that the notion of ren for Confucius is very different than this. We get into problems, I think, reading Confucius as an Aristotle-type “virtue-ethicist” for this reason (among others I won’t get into here). Ren cannot be thought of as a virtue in the Aristotelian sense mainly because ren cannot be possessed by one in the way a virtue can.

Confucius talks of one’s thoughts being on ren, or guarding ren. Why should we take this as meaning that one guards ren in oneself? Given the social meaning of ren, it seems more plausible to me to hold that Confucius thought that ren could be guarded simply because ren is a property of a social group, perhaps like peace or harmony (which, I know, could also be applied to individuals, but would of necessity reference different parts of individuals, –i.e. the legs are in harmony with the arms, etc.).

Ren as a property of groups can be initiated by an individuals, just as can peace within a group. So the notion of ren as a social property does not make it impossible to make sense of talk of individual involvement with ren. Most ethical properties, in fact, seem to have an individual as well as social component. However, we tend to put the emphasis on one or the other in coming to give an account of the concept–so that honesty, for example, is focused on the individual, even though there is certainly a social aspect of honesty.

I think my opposition to letting ren be cast as a virtue in the Aristotelian sense has much to do with the neglect of the ineliminably social aspects of ren that follows (which is surely the key to the concept), as well as with strong reservations about understanding ancient Chinese thinkers through the goggles of western philosophy.

getting things straight in PRC v. Falun Dafa debate

I have lately come across something rather unsettling. I have heard from people and seen in some major US news sources, that the situation between the Chinese government and the Falun Dafa/Falun Gong religious movement is that between a “totalitarian government” and a “peaceful group.” There are two unsettling things about this whole debate.

Although the PRC may be unfair in their outright ban of the group (though I don’t want to commit to this because I don’t know the circumstances), I think many people in the US have been hoodwinked by the Falun Gong’s claim to be a “peaceful philosophy”, something which is neither a religion nor objectionable. I heard a friend (unaffiliated with the group) in a conversation the other day claim that the group only promotes exercises and health philosophy, and is against human rights violations of the PRC.

This is, in fact, misinformation. First, if Falun Dafa is not a religion, then neither is anything else. It comes replete with gods, talk of Buddhas, and everything else one would associate with a religion.

Second, although perhaps the sect should be allowed to exist and practice, their doctrine is far from unobjectionable. Li Hongzhi, the founder and leader of the Falun Dafa group, has promoted views such as that homosexuality is disgusting, and (what I find most revolting) that those of mixed-race are somehow corrupted and perhaps evil, and that there are various “heavens” for different races. This kind of doctrine, I think, is certainly not only wrong, but offensive. However, these doctrines are often ignored by those unfamiliar with Falun Dafa and instead the group’s opposition to the ban by the PRC is emphasized.

Regardless of which side is right in the battle between the PRC and the Falun Dafa movement, we should at least get straight exactly what both sides promote, and what they don’t. And being a proponent of human rights myself, I don’t think that a group whose spiritual leader promotes racism and homophobia has very much moral force in a debate on human rights.

Translation or Interpretation?

Wandering around through a bookstore this weekend, I noticed a couple more of the ever multiplying translations of the Daodejing. I took a glance at both of these translations (I don’t remember the names of the translators, but I do recall that one of them is a scholar in Buddhist studies). The way I generally appraise translations of the DDJ is to look right at the first chapter, the “dao ke dao fei chang dao” bit to see how the translator handles this. All too often, I see very strange or “non-literal”, overinterpretive translations.

I think translators (especially of the DDJ) have flown too far into the realm of interpretation in their translations. “Literal” translations are fairly hard to come by (moreso for the DDJ and daoist literature than for other sources). Although I realize that it is a near impossibility to really render a classical chinese text in literal translation, I do believe that this ought to be our aim to come as close as we can. Following this methodology, we should translate such that if the original text is ambiguous, our translation should aspire to be equally ambiguous (ambiguous in the same way).

Why is this? Well, when we present hard works like the DDJ to a general audience (or any audience without the ability to read in classical chinese), we ought to allow the audience interpretive license of their own. When we translate texts to precisely follow our particular interpretations, we are begging the question against those who support other interpretations of the text. Thus, when one without the advantage of having classical chinese comes to our loaded intepretations, this person cannot even understand the debate between different camps on interpretations of the text. “How can intepretation x be correct?” the reader will think, “the text explicitly endorses view y!”

For example, in one of the translations of the DDJ I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Chapter 1 is translated to be about metaphysics (dao) and language/concepts (ming). This is certainly contentious–personally I think it’s also incorrect–but at least there is disagreement about this. Given that reasonable scholars disagree on these points, it can’t be the case that the DDJ makes an explicit statement of the “metaphysical dao” view. Of course, those of us familiar with the DDJ know, the text is very unclear on this point (and many others). Thus it seems to me that more “literal-minded” translations serve better as translations geared toward a general audience unfamiliar with the literature or one without classical chinese ability. We ought to save our intepretations (as much as possible) for our books and articles.

Again, I realize that a certain amount of interpretation is inevitable in translation of these texts. But there is certainly more interpretive license being taken when one renders ming ke ming fei chang ming as: “Conceptual constructions that can be grasped as such are not accurate conceptual constructions” (for example), rather than the closer to literal translation: “a name that can name is not a constant name”.

Han Dynasty Needs Philosophers!

I’m currently reading Ban Gu’s “Qian Han Shu” (History of the Former Han), and just finished writing an article I sent off to JCP on Wang Chong, a Han dynasty philosopher. So I’ve been thinking a bit about the Han lately. One thing I find fairly suprising is that there does not seem to be much interest in Han within Chinese philosophy here in the US. What work is done in Han philosophy is mainly within History or East Asian departments (for example Michael Nylan at Berkeley, Anne Behnke Kinney at UVA). I can’t think of any philosophy department with Chinese philosophy scholars interested in Han.

Why is this? I’ve found the Han dynasty philosophy very engaging–although certainly Feng Youlan (and others) were right when they said that by the Han, the main strains of the Chinese philosophical tradition were already in place, the Han was a period of incredible development, and exciting philosophy. You have the Huainanzi, Dong Zhongshu, Yang Xiong, Wang Chong, Wang Fu–many great philosophers and texts, all of whom played key roles in the development of Chinese philosophy. I think there are issues of philosophical method in the Han philosophers that are often ignored, and need to be explored further. But if none of us work on Han, we’ll never be able to fish this stuff out. Historians are working on Han, but they’re not philosophers, and sometimes, I find, they miss certain philosophical points we philosophers would not likely miss.

I guess this is simply my entreaty for more focus by philosophers on Han dynasty philosophy.

Ren and Li according to Analects 15.33

Here is a passage from the Analects that seems to me to defy many of the interpretations of the relationship between ren (humanity…?) and li (ritual). 15.33 reads:

The master said: ‘If one who reaches knowledge is unable to guard ren; even if this person attains it, they necessarily lose it. If one who reaches knowledge is able to guard ren, but does not skillfully manage the people, then the people will not be reverent. If one who reaches knowledge is able to guard ren, skillfully manages the people, but in motivating them does not use li, this person has not yet done the right thing. ‘ (translation is my own)

This seems to go against the interpretation of the ren/li relationship which holds that making one’s actions accord with li is the very definition of what it is to be ren. After all, the end of this passage considers a person who is able to “guard ren” but not “use li“. Surely if to be ren is to act in accordance with li then the above would not be possible (unless “guard” [shou] does not entail “has”–which would be odd, I think).

At the same time, this passage looks like it is opposed to the interpretation of the ren/li relationship which holds that li is a way to enhance ren, the natural “human-heartedness” that a person might cultivate. In 15.33, we have ren discussed the same way in all three sections–it seems not to change. However, the person who has ren can change, and be a better or worse person, depending on what other “virtues” the person has. It looks like this passage might help to support a view of ren as a “non-major” contributing virtue for Confucius. Might it not be that ren is not a supreme virtue, but simply a necessary condition for being a junzi, although one Confucius concentrates on more than, say, yi (“righteousness”…?) or zhi (“knowledge”), because, perhaps, he finds ren more lacking in his students and the society at large than most of the other virtues?

For example, if I were teaching a bunch of lazy students, I might emphasize hard work more than other virtues, in my descriptions of the ideal person. This would not be because being hard-working is more important a virtue than, say, honesty, but rather because all of my students are honest, but most of them are lazy, so I decide they need no help with honesty, and great help with their laziness. I think something like this may be what is going on with ren, which may be part of the reason it is notoriously hard to crack.

Any thoughts?

place for chinese philosophy, etc.

Hello–here is a site that I hope will grow into something much bigger. I will post here on Chinese philosophy in general; topics I’m currently working on, as well as other interesting things going on in the field (and ok, ok–maybe some stuff on philosophy in general too, but not as much). Not sure what the etc. above is supposed to mean, other than that I won’t be held back from mentioning other interesting stuff as it comes my way–but I’ll try to stick mainly to the larger subject matter.
Enjoy–and let’s converse!