Monthly Archives: October 2007

Philosophical Usefulness of Historical Commentary

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about the commentarial tradition surrounding the Analects, and its relevance for our current understanding of the Analects. I agree with John Makeham, who argues that any contemporary interpretation is inevitably indebted to the commentarial tradition. Most western scholars (myself included) first approached the Analects in English translation, and learned its subtle points from others standing in the same tradition. Influential commentaries on the Analects, such as that of Zhu Xi, played a large role in the understandings of the Analects transmitted by our teachers and translations of the text, which are inevitably interpretive (one’s hermeneutical stance itself will generally also have been affected by training and tradition).

Given this, a better way to understand what is going on in the Analects, and in other historical texts (especially in ancient China and India, where the commentarial tradition was extremely important), is to examine the commentaries themselves, and investigate the views offered in them. In this way, we can come to see how we developed the views we have on the Analects. We can also discover mistakes in our understandings of the Analects, based on mistakes in the commentarial literature. One such mistake, I argue (an ongoing project, and the basis of an upcoming presentation for an ISWCP panel at the eastern APA this year), is the reading of Confucius’ term ren 仁 as a moral property of an individual instantiated by a psychological state. Or, a less contentious formulation–as a moral predicate which can be predicated of an individual in a certain psychological state–x has whatever property ‘ren‘ picks out in virtue of either being in a certain psychological state or having gained the ability to enter into a certain psychological state at will. Even less contentiously–x has the property ‘ren‘ picks out in virtue of having whatever psychological qualities cause x to exhibit certain stable, positive moral patterns of behavior. All of the above formulations, I argue, are incorrect, because they all see ren as being connected to psychological qualities, and individuals.

Confucius sees the criteria for distinguishing ren not as constitutive, but evidential. We can tell that one is ren (speaking loosely here) when one has certain qualities, but it is not the possession of these qualities which makes one ren. So the inevitable question is–what are the constitutive criteria? What is it that makes one ren? Various commentators have offered differing answers to this question–and one influential strain of thought (culminating with Zhu Xi) holds that it is certain psychological qualities that make one ren. This, however, is due, I think, to a misreading of certain key passages in the Analects, and a desire to find in the Analects constitutive criteria, where none are offered. The view of Zhu Xi on many of the key passages is not shared by some earlier commentators of the Analects (arguably Ma Rong, Kong Anguo, and Fan Ning held different views, which are discussed briefly in John Kieschnick’s article “Analects 12.1 and the Commentarial Tradition”), and other alternatives are offered. Some of these alternatives are consistent with my own interpretation of ren as a moral property of groups, realized somehow (whether supervenient on, constituted by, whatever) by more tangible social and individual properties.

Part of the mistake, on my view, is that key passages were read by some commentators as offering constitutive criteria of ren. Interpretations on 12.1 are a good example. There, Confucius mentions a way to cultivate ren, by “turning away from oneself” (ke ji 克己) and toward ritual. This is taken by some (including Zhu Xi) to mean that to have eliminated one’s desires is (in the constitutive sense) to be ren. There are two key moves going on here. Zhu is both reading ‘ji‘ as the desires or emotions which are implicit in the mind, and reading the wei 為 (here meant as the copula ‘is’) in “turning away from oneself and toward ritual is ren” (ke ji fu li wei ren 克己復禮為仁) as expressing some kind of identity relation. Both these moves are wrong, I argue, as there is sufficient evidence from the Analects itself to show it.

Anyway, the important point here is that an examination of the commentarial literature can help us, as I think it does in my own case, to trace the historical development of our inherited interpretive views on the Analects, and to discover whether these interpretations are adequate. Lines of interpretation and argument in the commentaries are indispensable if we are to adequately understand the Analects (and other ancient texts). Many of the commentaries to the Analects don’t exist in English translation, however, so some of the growing number of philosophers and others working on the Analects (already doing some very important work, by the way) have no access to this invaluable resource. If I had the time, I would work on translating the major commentaries myself–I anticipate translating at least a sizable chunk of it as I work on my dissertation, and perhaps after that’s done I can put some effort into translating complete works (at least He Yan, Zhu Xi, Xing Bing, and maybe Huang Kan, all discussed by Makeham). It certainly is a necessary project–so any interested readers, take this as a call to arms. Let’s get working on translating those commentaries!

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The Dangers of and the Promise of "Comparative Philosophy"

It has often struck me that philosophers studying the Chinese philosophical tradition have to rethink the “comparative” project in general, which interprets Chinese thought via a theoretical apparatus largely foreign to it, especially in pre-Buddhist thought. Often the comparative project degenerates into one of trying to justify Chinese philosophy to a contemporary western audience by filtering it through interpretive schemes borrowed from “more familiar” western philosophers. Confucius is worth studying, the argument goes, as he is advocating a similar view to that of Aristotle, or Kant, etc. Or, the way to understand Confucius is through a virtue ethical apparatus mainly borrowed from Aristotle and Aquinas. Bryan Van Norden mentions the Thomist synthesis of Christian and Aristotelian thought as inspiration for this method of doing Chinese philosophy. This is, I admit, admirable–to work on such a synthesis between Chinese and western thought—but it is a poor way of doing history of philosophy. Whatever Aquinas was doing, he certainly wasn’t trying to better understand Aristotle by interpreting him with a Christian apparatus. And it would have been a mistake to do so. Synthesis can only happen after one adequately understands the pieces to be synthesized. One can’t construct a building without wood.

The Chinese tradition, I contend, is not adequately understood on its own terms (by western philosophers) to begin synthesis with western traditions, especially for those outside the field of Chinese philosophy. We do ourselves no favors by jumping into the synthesizing project in order to move out of the “Chinese philosophy ghetto” and into the good graces of the mainstream. The move amounts to moving from the ghetto into the grave. The attitude to this move will inevitably be: “if Confucius is doing Aristotelian virtue ethics and the daoists are worrying about essentialism in metaphysics and philosophy of language, why should we worry about what they had to say—after all, our own tradition has probed and continues to probe those questions. There is nothing new the Chinese philosophers have to offer us.” Of course, this complaint would be wrong-headed, but this is where the “comparative” project as often done today leads.

It reminds me of a similar situation in mainland Chinese philosophy thirty or forty or so years ago (well before my time), when all historical research was filtered through the dominant apparatus of Marxism. The categories of Marxism held ancient Chinese philosophy hostage—every ethical teaching of Confucius had to be thought of in its terms. Of course, Confucius and his students didn’t think in terms of Marxism, and so there was something ridiculous about this project. Universal schemes of interpretation which take themselves to “sum up” the acceptable moves on the philosophical playing field inevitably fail us miserably when they confront traditions and theories which appear not to respect their boundaries, or to have different ones altogether. It is when confronted with such traditions that these universal schemes attempt to force the discovered traditions into its own categories, and thereby necessarily misunderstand the tradition. Forcing classical Chinese philosophical thought (and of course this is not monolithic either!) into contemporary western categories thus is no more fruitful for understanding the tradition than was the forcing into Marxist categories.

Thus we have to struggle within the ghetto, we have to interpret, present, and understand Chinese philosophy on its own terms. This, I contend, is the correct way out of the ghetto. Through concentrating on Chinese philosophy and its uniqueness, we can show our philosophical colleagues that indeed something different is going on in Confucius than in Aristotle and Plato and Aquinas, and thereby may come to be seen by our colleagues as deserving a place at the table. Ancient Chinese philosophy will thereby become “relevant”, as offering different alternatives, a different theoretical background through which to understand problems of philosophy. To do this is going to take some measure of “growing up” on the part of philosophers working in Chinese philosophy. Much will have to be done from the outside. For example, only in history and East Asian studies departments can one gain an adequate historical understanding of the Chinese philosophical traditions not filtered through western philosophy. Where there are specialists of Chinese philosophy in the American academy, for example, they tend to be alone, and without the backing and structure that would allow them to bring students up to speed in the Chinese philosophical tradition, language, and culture. This is not so for students of ancient Greek philosophy, modern philosophy, and even medieval European philosophy (though perhaps moreso for Islamic and Jewish Arabic medieval philosophy).

We often have to make the choice between philosophy and Chinese philosophy. My own philosophical training, for example, has made me much more qualified to write on questions of contemporary analytic metaphysics and logic than it has on ancient Chinese philosophy, even though the latter is my specialization. Most of my knowledge of the Chinese philosophical tradition, thus, was self-taught. Almost all of my knowledge of the language, and all of my knowledge of the history was thus gained. The problem, of course, with such philosophical training is that we inevitably tend to think of what we know about the Chinese tradition in terms of the philosophical training we have received, which all but ignores the Chinese tradition (at most western universities, with a few exceptions—Hawaii being a notable one).

At any rate, the philosophical situation of Chinese philosophy thus requires more concentration on the uniqueness of ancient Chinese philosophy, and we must work to point out the shortcomings of some of the “comparative” understandings of the Confucian tradition, especially those using the apparatus of (Aristotelian) virtue ethics to interpret the tradition. At the same time, we must work to build up alternative interpretations of the main strands of the Confucian ethical system, which are much different from any of the western ethical systems on offer–although there are certain places of agreement and meeting.

Is Han Dynasty Philosophy Important?

This, from Michael Nylan’s book “The Five ‘Confucian’ Classics” (p. 5): “Early classicism has received surprisingly little intellectual attention, and Han studies–the Chinese counterpart to Roman history–continue to languish in relative obscurity.” This is sadly true. Part of the reason it is so is summed up in this bit of thinking, by Chad Hansen: “the onset of the philosophical dark age [Qin and Han], brought on by Qin Dynasty repression followed by Han dynasty policies resulted in a bureaucratic, obscurant, Confucian orthodoxy.”

I very much enjoy Chad Hansen’s work, and think he is in general an excellent philosopher, but he could not be more wrong here. The Han was as far from a philosophical dark age as any, as Nylan argues convincingly in her work. Part of what is disturbing here is that most philosophers seem to assume there is nothing very interesting going on in the Han. Historians, as Nylan points out, are not all that interested in it either, but philosophers tend to hardly even know that the 400 year span of Chinese history that was the Han even happened. Nearly all of the scholars who are doing or have done work on Han philosophers are historians. We philosophers tend to stick to Pre-Qin, or jump much later in time to the Neo-Confucians. More study of the Han is surely necessary. Dong Zhongshu, Yang Xiong, Wang Chong, and Wang Fu alone justify the efforts of many more scholars.

Perhaps some of the work currently underway by the few of us who work on Han philosophy will help things. I’m not too optimistic, though…

Static vs. Dynamic Xing (性)

I’ve been looking at the chapters on Huang Kan’s (488-545 CE) Lunyu yishu (論語義疏) in John Makeham’s book “Transmitters and Creators”, and have been thinking a bit about the views Huang presents on xing 性 (“human nature”), and their similarity to some of what Wang Chong says about xing (by the way–a brief plug–my article on Wang’s reading of the Analects in the Lunheng is going to appear in this December’s Journal of Chinese Philosophy–check it out). More specifically, I have been wondering whether the Huang/Wang view of xing gives us a notion of xing as malleable. Wang’s view certainly seems to be that xing is malleable, but it is not so clear we should attribute this view to Huang. The main reason I am interested in this distinction is that it can help us to discover how a theory of mind subtly formed in the Confucian tradition, not all at once, but over a long period. Part of the formation of a theory of mind (one suitable to support an Aristotelian virtue ethical apparatus) in the tradition seems to have been this movement from a dynamic view of xing to a static view of a xing which supports a number of dynamic properties. We see the latter view in Huang Kan.

Because of the static view of xing Huang adopted, he held that xing could not be characterized as good or bad in itself, but was rather prior to moral value. The acts (or what Makeham calls “emotional responses”) that are shaped, or “completed” (cheng 成) through environmental factors are what possess moral value, not the xing from which these actions in part arise. Huang is also thus able to hold a view which makes sense of what seem the obvious situationist leanings of certain passages of the Analects like 4.1:

里仁為美。擇不處仁﹐焉得知? “To be in (or live in) the midst of ren is wonderful. If one cannot remain in (the midst of) ren, how can one obtain knowledge? (note–I’m not completely satisfied with this translation, but it will do for my purposes here.)

Huang takes 4.1 to be a situationist statement about those whose xing is ordinary or middle grade. He says of 4.1:

This chapter shows that it is in the nature of ordinary people to be readily susceptible to influences. When they encounter what is good, they rise; when they meet with what is wrong, they fall. Hence, it is appropriate that one should be careful about where one lives, making sure to select a neighborhood in which humane (ren) people reside.” (Makeham translation, p. 103 “Transmitters and Creators”)

Thus, one may have a xing of middle grade, that of an ordinary person rather than a sage, and yet by putting oneself in the right situations, produce actions similar to those that would be produced by the sage, or the person who is ren (leave aside my worries about taking ren to be a property of individuals for the moment). One result of this is that one’s xing does not have to be malleable in order for there to be the possibility of moral development–cultivation of character relies on external factors as well as inherent properties of individuals.

There are subtle differences between this view and that of Wang Chong. Although Wang and Huang do agree, as Makeham points out, that xing is only one factor in moral development, and that external factors play a much larger role in the determination of one’s actions, they disagree on a key point–Wang takes xing to be malleable, and holds that xing can be good or bad at different times (echoing to an extent Dong Zhongshu and Yang Xiong). Ideally, we can control the extent to which it is good or bad, and this makes moral self-cultivation possible.

The move from this popular Han dynasty view to that of Huang, where xing becomes more “substantial”, may be a key move in the construction of a theory of mind in the tradition, which, along with apparatus from Buddhism (which also certainly had some influence on Huang!), led to the eventual ascendant psychologism of Zhu Xi, through which much of the contemporary understanding of Confucius is filtered.