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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