Monthly Archives: February 2008

A Matter of Efficacy

Well–I’m finally on my way back to the good old USA, and thought: “what could be a better way of spending my last few hours in India than doing some writing on early Confucianism?”

So–I’ve been thinking recently about a question that seems to continually arise when I present my work on Confucianism to philosophers working outside of Chinese philosophy. The question is: to what extent for Confucians (as represented by the Analects, at least) is the use of force acceptable as a means of ensuring communal agreement and the correct ordering of the social hierarchy? Variations of this question, I have noticed, always come up when I present to non-specialists, and hardly ever come up when I present to specialists. In fact, when I was first confronted with this question, I had to respond that I hadn’t given it much thought myself, even though I spend a whole lot of time thinking about early Confucianism.

So, two questions occur to me now: 1) why do non-specialists tend to worry about the issue mentioned above more than specialists? 2) what is Confucius’ view on the use of force? I think that both of these questions can be answered by looking not to the Analects, however, but to the Daodejing, which shares certain features with Confucian literature (even the Analects!), and offers better explanations of some processes discussed in the Confucian as well as the Daoist literature.

The passage of the DDJ that seems relevant here (as well as my favorite DDJ passage) is DDJ 17 (Lau trans.):

“The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects. Next comes the ruler they love and praise; next comes the one they fear; next comes the one with whom they take liberties. When there is not enough faith, there is lack of good faith. Hesitant, he does not utter words lightly. When his task is accomplished and his work done, the people all say, ‘it happened to us naturally.'”

For the daoist, like the Confucian, the use of force to attain order (or one’s goals, whatever they are) is acceptable, but a sign that one is doing something wrong. A ruler who needs to resort to force has failed in a fundamental way. This, of course, is not because it is somehow wrong to use force–arguably the classical Chinese tradition in general did not see violence as intrinsically an evil, as does (for the most part) the post-Christianity western tradition. Rather, the reason using force is not as good as other methods is, as DDJ 17 suggests, a matter of efficacy, with which the Chinese tradition is deeply concerned.

DDJ 17 suggests that the “shadowy presence” is the best kind of ruler because this ruler is the one who will be able to impose his will on the people without their even knowing it. Why, we might ask, is this situation the best one for a ruler to be in? To take a strictly Machiavellian (or Legalist, for that matter) line here, the “shadowy presence” will be, of the four types of ruler, the one whose power is most secure. Think of this in terms of likelihood of rebellion and overthrow. The “shadowy presence” cannot be rebelled against or overthrown, because his will is invisible. The people do his will seemingly of their own will, so the only ones they have to rebel against if they disapprove of what they must do is themselves! The ruler who is loved is not quite as stable in his power. He has some stability, however, because the people are unlikely to rebel against and overthrow this ruler. Their love for him keeps him in power, and the people will not go against their ruler even when the opportunity arises. The ruler who is feared and imposes his will by force (this is where the “justifiability of force” question comes to play) is less secure than either the “shadowy presence” or the ruler who is loved, because even though he can keep order while he has strength, if the opportunity arises or if the ruler’s strength diminishes, the people will quickly rebel and overthrow this ruler. Thus, his power is based on volatile external situations–there is much that is simply out of his control, and thus his hold on power is less secure. The ruler with whom the people take liberties, of course, is doomed, because he does not even have the fear of the people to rely on. They do not respect his will, and are likely to subvert it whenever they feel like it. This kind of ruler is a ruler in name only, and has no control over his people.

It is not only in terms of holding power that we can read DDJ 17, however. It will also be true that the better types of rulers will be more effective at making a virtuous society, etc. Just like much of the DDJ, 17 does not offer us normative claims about ends, but about means. The DDJ offers us a method, whereas the Confucian and Mohist texts give us a picture of the ends we ought to be aiming to achieve. The Daoist concern with method rather than ends, however, does not mean that its methods are all that different from those of the Confucian, and on this issue (rulership), they seem to line up nicely. What is the “shadowy presence” of DDJ 17, after all, if not the sagely ruler of Analects 2.1 who, like the pole star, simply “facing south” creates virtue through the de around which the people gravitate?

So, this is the beginning of an answer to question 2 above, I think. What about question 1? That is–why do non-specialists focus on the question of whether force is justified in Confucianism as a way to realize the goals of the community? I suspect that one of the reasons for this is that the notion of the rulership in the western tradition has developed in a somewhat different way than in the Chinese tradition. The “shadowy presence” has not been seen as the ideal of rulership in much of western history (there are, of course, exceptions, including Machiavelli). Rather, the “loved and praised” ruler whose power is on full display has been the ideal for much of western history (Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, etc.). The benevolent and powerful king whose commands are direct and clear for the world to see but who is well loved–this has been the western ideal. The noble Homeric warrior, storming the front lines of the enemy’s army, rather than the ninja in the shadows or the sniper blending in with concrete and raining silent death from above, has been the western ideal. Thus, perhaps resorting to force to control a community is seen as a “plan B” in this tradition, whereas it is less justified in the Chinese tradition, being a measly “plan C”. This, along with the fact that violence in itself is not seen as intrinsically evil in Chinese thought, as it is in much of western (post-Christian) thought, may help to explain why the “force question” arises more among non-specialists in Chinese philosophy than it does among specialists. Of course, I’m not completely comfortable with this answer, but I’ll need to reflect on this some more to come up with something better. Any thoughts?

That’s What Superdelegates (Like Friends) Are For

I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with the talk during this year’s presidential elections about the unfairness of the status of “superdelegates” in the primary process. Of course, this issue has only arisen in the Democratic party contest this year, as the Republican race is all but settled in favor of my candidate, John McCain (I was a McCain supporter at the beginning of all this when he was only polling 10 percent, I might add).

In the Democratic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, of course, superdelegates are likely to play an important role (this, from the Washington Times, is some evidence). This seems to have many people upset, as they see this as intrinsically “undemocratic”. The flames of this fire are, of course, fanned by the news media. However, I’m not sure why Americans should be upset about superdelegates and their status. Consider first this fact (often insisted upon by fellow Republicans): The U.S.A. is not a democracy, in the pure sense of the word. It is is a federal republic. We practice representative government, not direct democracy. We do not take national votes on issues of the legislature, and we vote for people to hold offices in which they are entitled to make decisions affecting the actions of the government. Second, consider this: superdelegates are (mostly) elected officials, part of whose responsibilities are to exercise their own judgments (not those of the polls) in order to come to decisions on whom to support. If their votes “count more than ours”, it is because they have responsibilites beyond ours for which they have been selected by vote. It is similar to the case of Presidents selecting Supreme Court nominees.

So please, my Democratic friends, please…stop complaining about the superdelegates or expecting them to “validate the will of the people”. Ought they not, as we would expect of a responsible person, decide what they think is best, rather than following the tide, changing with the wind?

Brainwashing With A Light Touch

I’ve been reading Kathleen Taylor’s book “Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control” lately, and have learned some interesting things which I think are relevant to the project of understanding Confucius and Chinese philosophical thought in general. According to Taylor, the origin of the term “brainwashing” comes from (guess what!) the Chinese term xi nao, which described a process of “thought control” used by the Chinese Communists, and which US captives were subjected to during the Korean War.

This revelation prompted me to write this post, as I’ve been thinking about these issues quite a bit lately. In a post a few days ago, I talked about the difference between Aristotelian “virtues” and Confucian “dispositions” (for lack of a better term) as turning on the lack of reason as necessary support for Confucius. What is important for Confucius is that one have certain dispositions, not that one have them supported by any particular reasons. This, of course, raises the question of how one comes to gain dispositions one does not already have. The Analects and other Confucian literature is deeply concerned with this. It is the central question: how do we cultivate good dispositions? For Confucius, gaining such dispositions is a complex task, and requires surrounding oneself with others who have the desired dispositions, being open to instruction and deferent to one’s superiors, avoiding people without the desired dispositions, and strictly adhering to ritual (li), which includes integrating oneself fully into the community–becoming ren, (remember Analects 12.1–ke ji fu li wei ren). In addition, Confucius seems to think that it is helpful to have a ruler with good dispositions in order to cultivate these in the people. Many passages in the Analects attest to the moral importance of the ruler. He is to act as the “pole star” around which others orbit, setting an example for others. Indeed, Confucius says that if the ruler is virtuous, the people will simply become so, with no particular effort on the part of the ruler. It is the de of the good ruler which causes the people to rectify their own behavior, rather than any actions the ruler takes.

Confucius speaks similarly about how one manages to gain ren (“humanity”). Analects 4.1, for example, suggests that li ren (“being in the vicinity of ren) is instrumental to gaining ren. How does this process work? It seems to me that in both cases (being in the midst of ren and the ruler as moral example) what is working here is a kind of psychological habituation. This is a well known phenomenon in psychology–and even us non-psychologists know that we tend to be like the people we run with. We always advise the addict to cut their old ties and surround themselves with people who avoid their drug of choice and are supportive of their new lifestyle. This is also the case with moral cultivation, for Confucius. We might take the Analects to be recommending a kind of moral rehab. And the moral rehab, like its substance abuse cousin, isn’t in the business of reasons.

So what’s really going on here? I think that the practice of “brainwashing” offers us a useful analogy. Robert Lifton, in his book “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism”, describes what he sees as eight indicators of thought control regimens, carried out by totalitarian groups. All eight of them seemed very familiar as recommended to some extent by most of the classical Chinese philosophers I’ve studied. But three of Lifton’s indicators in particular struck me as very Confucian:

mystical manipulation–evoking certain patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that they seem to be spontaneous…the demand for purity–the belief that elements outside the chosen group should be eliminated [or avoided] to prevent them from contaminating the minds of group members…sacred science–viewing the ideology’s basic dogmas as both morally unchallengeable and scientifically exact, thus increasing their apparent authority…” (from Taylor).

With some change in wording, these principles could have come right out of the Analects. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the term ‘brainwashing’ originated with Chinese practices. The ancients endorsed it. We might call what sages like Confucius advocated as “Brainwashing with a Light Touch.” Certainly Confucius would have thought something had gone wrong if one had to resort to torture or other harsh methods in order to “reform one’s thought”, but it is not so clear that he would have rejected the basic methods of brainwashing in order to bring about good dispositions. It is, after all, in the Confucian Xunzi (a better Confucian than Mencius, I think), where we see a great deal of “expedient means” style teaching, which becomes even more apparent in the work of Xunzi’s most brilliant student and (I think) the only one who truly realized the inherent power of the Confucian “method” (even though he clearly ignored other bits of Confucian teaching). It’s always seemed to me that “brainwashing” is an extreme version of habituation anyway, in which the process of habituation is sped up through a variety of means.

Don’t Scientologists Have Rights?

Forgive me, enlightened readers, for defending Scientology for a moment. Of course, I am not a scientologist myself, and I find many of their teachings and methods as strange as the next man, but I can’t help but believe that they are not given a fair shake in the general public, including the media. A Washington Post article today quotes Michael Shermer, in an LA Times piece, in which he said:

“I’m a scientist who studies belief systems for a living, so take it from me: Scientology is unlike any other religion in history. Although the Church of Scientology is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt religion (despite years of litigation by the IRS to collect taxes on its income), no other religion I know of considers theological doctrines and core religious tenets to be intellectual property accessible only for a fee.”

As the Post article rightly points out, the Scientology clan doesn’t have a corner on the practice of making money on religion (just cruise by the home of any pastor of an evangelical megachurch in your neighborhood and you’ll be quickly disabused of the notion that Scientology alone is a profitable business). So how exactly does their focus on being profitable set Scientology apart from other major religions operating today? Scientologists, just as Evangelical Christians, would tell you that “saving souls” is their first priority, but why must that rule out making money?
Shermer seems to suggest that the reason this practice is unacceptable in the case of Scientology is that “most of us do not consider Scientology a religion, at least not a religion that resembles in the slightest the world’s major faiths.” But this seems like a sorry reason to me. Since when is it is a necessity that any religion, in order to qualify as a religion, must resemble “the world’s major faiths?” Imagine that Hinduism were formed today, instead of thousands of years ago. If this were the case, it would certainly not resemble the established religions in many ways. Would we therefore be justified in withholding the title of “religion” from Hinduism?

Indeed, it seems trivially true that any truly new religion will differ greatly from other established religions–otherwise it would not be a new religion, but a variant of an already existing religion. Scientology, even with its focus on making a profit, seems to me to qualify as a religion. We, in the United States, have decided that religious organizations qualify for tax-exempt status. If we are going to be consistent with this, we ought to accept that Scientology qualifies. If, however, we are wary of granting this status to Scientology, perhaps we ought to rethink the practice in general. Perhaps the evangelical megachurches should not be tax-exempt.

I suspect that what is behind much of the mud being slung at Scientology is simply the resistance many of us feel toward new religions in general. We tend to think of religions which are not old and revered traditions as somehow fake or insincere. I’m not sure why this is the case, considering that every religion was once “new”. And as much as I heap scorn upon new religions here (see my post on Falun Gong, for example, which I particularly dislike), as a good libertarian (at least concerning social issues) I can’t help but feel that we should give Scientologists a break. Plus–isn’t free enterprise the American ideal? They’re selling a product and people are buying it!

Reasons? We Don’t Need No Stinking Reasons!

One of the key differences between Confucius and Aristotle (or perhaps the western virtue ethical tradition in general) is the focus on reason in the cultivation of virtue–which is central to Aristotle, and completely missing in Confucius. For Aristotle, a “natural disposition” which one has and which predisposes them to a certain type of action, does not count as an “excellence” unless this disposition is supported by right reason. A person who performs generous actions does not have the virtue of “generosity” unless their actions are in conformity with right reasons, which, in this case, would have to do with the knowledge of the goodness of acts of generous type for one’s character, with the intention being to aim at eudaimonia, etc. One who is generous not for these reasons but simply because they have an innate, natural tendency to act generously (genetically inherited, perhaps), does not have the virtue of “generosity”–that is, they do not have “excellence proper” (N. Ethics, Ross translation), but “natural excellence”, which is of lower quality, and does not entail unity of the virtues. One who only has the natural excellence of generosity and not the full excellence might be unvirtuous in a number of other ways (cowardly, weak-willed, etc.), while one with the virtue of generosity will possess, of necessity, practical wisdom (phronesis), which (if I’m reading the Nicomachean Ethics correctly) ensures that one possesses all the other virtues.

I read Confucius as taking a very different line on virtue. For him, what Aristotle calls the “natural excellences” are actually superior to those which need to be learned (or supported by reasons). Analects 16.9 reads:

Confucius said: ‘Those who are born knowing it are the first class (shang); those who know it through study (xue) are next; those who have difficulty yet learn it are next; those who have difficulty and do not learn it, they are the lowest class of the people!’

This passage talks specifically about zhi zhi (“knowing it”), and thus one might claim that it is not virtue that is discussed in this passage, but knowledge of the reasons for action, or knowledge of what to do–or something like this. However, I think this is the wrong way to interpret 16.9. “Knowledge” seems to be used here, as often (but not always!) in the Analects, as performance, so that “knowing it” is here taken as identical to “doing it”. When zhi is used this way in the Analects, it is generally shown in a positive light. On the other hand, when zhi is used in the sense of “propositional knowledge” it is disparaged. And if this latter sense is what is meant in 16.9, it is unclear why those who possess such knowledge from birth (perhaps Confucius was way ahead of his time…) are ranked higher than the rest of us just because they possess it. After all, if possession of such knowledge does not necessitate performance, than one who has knowledge from birth might in practice be a xiao ren (“petty person”), while one who has to learn it might act in an exemplary fashion even approaching sageliness. So it seems likely that 16.9 is talking about something like disposition or performance, rather than propositional knowledge.

Given that this is the case, there are no virtues in the system of the Analects, by Aristotle’s lights. And it seems worse than this. Given that right reason occupies such an important place in Aristotle’s ethics, doesn’t the absence of this feature in Confucius’ ethics make it difficult to hold, as Van Norden does, that Confucius and Aristotle are simply giving two different “thick” theoretical descriptions of the same “thin” concept of virtue? Without the rational requirement, Aristotle might simply say that we are not dealing with anything like virtue, because “natural excellence” has no connection with practical wisdom, unity of the virtues, or the all-important eudaimonia!
I’ve not yet read completely through Van Norden’s Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, so I’m not sure how he confronts this difficulty, but he doesn’t say much about it in the early part of the book. I, for one, don’t buy into the “virtue” interpretation of Confucius, for a number of reasons–this being only one of them.

Any ideas on this?

Why No Trancendence in China, Then?

Heinrich Zimmer’s classic “Philosophies of India” (edited by J. Campbell) makes an interesting and occassionally remarked on point about the reasons for the focus on transcendence in Indian philosophy, while this is seemingly absent in Chinese philosophy (misreadings of Daoism aside, of course…). Zimmer says:

“One cannot but feel that such a sublime flight as India’s into the transcendental realm would never have been attempted had the conditions of life been the least bit less hopeless. Release (moksa) can become the main preoccupation of thought only when what binds human beings to their secular normal existences affords absolutely no hope–represents only duties, burdens, and obligations, proposing no promising tasks or aims that stimulate and justify mature ambitions on the plane of earth. India’s propensity for transcendental pursuit and the misery of India’s history are, most certainly, intimately related to each other; they must not be regarded separately.” (p. 82-83)

Of course, Zimmer was clearly being careful to maintain that hopelessness is a necessary, not a sufficient condition for a culture’s concern with transcendence. Still, is this right? The obvious difficulty of course is the case of ancient China. Prospects for people in many periods in Chinese history (including the formative Warring States period) were every bit as bleak as those in low periods in Indian history. If there is such a close connection between misery and concern with transcendence, as Zimmer claims, why should misery not be a sufficient condition? And if it isn’t a sufficient condition, what else is required to bring about the concern with transcendence? I suspect that Zimmer’s claim is false. In the Chinese case, we see two very different responses to a collapsing society and human misery–the advent of the social crusader who strives to bring back order (Confucians, Mohists), and the attempt to salvage one’s own “vital essence” (qi) (Yangists, Daoists). It’s certainly not obvious that either of these are connected with “transcendental pursuit”. And, even though Zimmer’s claim is only that misery is a necessary condition, we still might ask the question of him: what was so different about China that made its misery cause philosophers to look to the order of the world, rather than, like ancient India and Greece (Plato, at least), to the transcendent? For that matter–what was the necessary (according to Zimmer) strife that led Plato to his own transcendental pursuits? His disastrous lack of success in politics?

Back In Action!

As readers may have noticed, there’s been an enormous pause at this blog–it was even down for a week or so. Lots has happened to make this the case, including sickness (myself and my son), traveling to India (where I’ve been since the start of January and will be for another week), and worrying about how to get some work done on the dissertation over here. So–now since many of the problems have been solved, I’m ready to jump back into the action. Manyul Im has recently begun a Chinese Philosophy blog, at, where there are some interesting things going on.

Meanwhile, I’m busy making a bit of a change at Unpolished Jade. I’ll be collapsing my general website into this page (consolidation gives birth to organization!), and in following with this, I’ll also be bringing my various blogging concerns together. So, while this blog will still be filled with Chinese philosophy, now you’ll also see more broad topics here (most likely some history, contemporary politics, globalization, foreign relations, etc.). And also I’ll sometimes post a bit on books that might be of interest to those with interest in things Asian (in general). Still, the words of the sages are always the priority here!