Monthly Archives: April 2008

Cross-Cultural Art and Confucianism

This is from an interesting exhibition by a Chinese artist discussed on a post on Frog in A Well.  The artist was trained in Germany, and her pieces are comparative, with the German conception of something in blue on the left hand side, the Chinese conception on the right.  A few of the pieces struck me as illustrating important points to keep in mind about Confucianism–like the above, which represents the two cultures’ notions of social connectivity.

Check out the post, over at Frog in A Well.  My favorites are the ones on “sense of the self” and “authority/the boss”.  

Yi (義) Can’t Make a Junzi–Analects 17.23

Here’s an argument from Jiyuan Yu:
“for Confucius, being virtuous must involve an intellectual aspect, which he calls yi (義) a term which is etymologically related to yi (宜, ‘what is fitting’ or ‘what is appropriate’) and which I choose to translate as ‘appropriateness.’  Appropriateness is even said to be the most important factor for being an excellent person.  In addition to Analects 4.10 […] Confucius also says: ‘for the excellent man it is appropriateness (yi) that is supreme.’ (17.23).”
(Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle, p. 140)
I’ve got to call Yu out on this one.  There is absolutely no way one can justifiably read 17.23 as showing that yi is “the most important factor for being an excellent person” (I assume he means junzi).  Why is this?  Well, let’s look at the key bit of 17.23 being considered here:
君 子 義 以 為 上 , 君 子 有 勇 而 無 義 為 亂 , 小 人 有 勇 而 無 義 為 盜 。
(trans:  The junzi should take yi as of greatest importance.  The junzi who is brave but lacks yi will be disorderly.  The petty person (xiao ren) who is brave by lacks yi will be a thief.)
I am unsure how anyone can use this to show that yi is a necessary condition for being a junzi.  Not only does Confucius say that there can be a junzi without yi, “the junzi who is brave but lacks yi…”, but he compares such a person with a petty person who lacks yi, and finds that each type of person has different qualities–the junzi without yi will be disordered, the xiao ren without yi will be a thief.  So it simply cannot be the case that being in line with yi is necessary or sufficient for being a junzi.  If it’s necessary, then one cannot be a junzi without it, which 17.33 denies (as clearly as the bright noon sky).  If it’s sufficient, then one with yi should qualify as a junzi, which seems inconsistent with 17.33 (the xiao ren who is brave but lacks yi is a thief, but one who is brave and has yi is not a xiao ren at all??)
Yu seems to be reading Confucius in this way in order to make him closer to Aristotle than he actually is.  The above quote from Yu comes from a chapter in which Yu is arguing that Aristotle’s phronesis (practical wisdom) is similar to Confucius’ yi, in that they are both intellectual aspects of cultivation of virtue the possession of which are necessary for one to be virtuous.  This is true for Aristotle’s phronesis, but it makes a joke out of 17.33–it seems to me that the only reason one would ever consider reading 17.33 the way Yu seems is because they have Aristotle glasses on.  And even then, one has to deny that Confucius meant what he said in order to make it support the Aristotelian reading. 

What Really Matters–Analects 13.18

I’ve been thinking again about Confucian nepotism, because of the discussion on Manyul’s blog some time back, and also because Jiyuan Yu talks a bit about it in his book (see review below).  

The catalyst for all these discussions has been Analects 13.18:  
(trans [Ames/Rosemont, modified]: The Governor of She in conversation with Confucius said, “In our village there is someone called ‘[Upright] Person’.  When his father took a sheep on the sly, he reported him to the authorities.”  Confucius replied:  “Those who are [upright] in my village conduct themselves differently.  A father covers for his son, and a son covers for his father.  [Uprightness consists of this].)
I’ve come to think that Analects 13.18 has a different purpose than some of the interpretations I’ve heard suggest.  Basically, I read 13.18 as nepotistic, sure, but also as anti-theoretical or anti-idealist (I’ll try to explain what I mean by this below).  In a sense, it seems to me that what Confucius offered was simply an example of “common sense” ethics, which of course may have been more common-sensical in the ancient Chinese world than it is for us (although my intuitions strongly agree with Confucius here).  
Consider this, from Jiyuan Yu (The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle, p. 127):  “This passage [13.18] has been a difficulty for commentators, as Confucius appears to endorse here a typical nepotistic behavior.  In Confucius’ judgment, however, this governor is not good because he encourages the disruption of filial love, the root of cultivation of all other virtues.  He must be thinking that if the son turns the father in, he undermines the basis by which all virtues are nourished.”  
Because Yu takes virtue (de) as central for Confucius, he holds that family matters are taken to be important as instructive, teaching one how to gain virtue.  But this, of course, makes Confucius into a virtue consequentialist, and takes every normative claim in the Analects to have its basis in virtue.  Of course, this is done in neither Confucius nor Aristotle.  Confucius, in particular, is nowhere so concerned with theoretical constructs, making close relationships consequentially valuable in the way Yu suggests, and Confucius’ statement in 13.18 might be seen as just such a denial.  No principle, however noble, trumps the love and responsibilities one has for one’s family, and if one takes principles as more important than family duties we can only see them as morally flawed.  
A couple of historical examples come to mind.  Famously, Mao Zedong pronounced his care for the people and his energy for fighting for their causes, yet he treated his own wives in characteristically cold and unfeeling ways (and, even more importantly, was cold toward his children).  Perhaps Mao could justify this treatment by arguing that his energy was spent for the greater benefit of the whole people of China.  A more recent example also comes to mind, that of Pakistani ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto.  She was asked by a journalist about a month before her assassination if her constantly putting herself into danger was bad for her children, who would be emotionally hurt if she were killed.  She answered that she cared about all the children in Pakistan just as much, suggesting that their needs trumped those of her own few children.  Something struck me as deeply morally wrong with this, and I think Confucius would agree.  He wouldn’t buy it in either case.  He was not, in this sense, a consequentialist.  Yu’s interpretation in essence takes Confucius to be a consequentialist with virtue playing the role of the good to be maximized, and family as good insofar as it can lead to virtue–but 13.18 seems to be a denial of that, rather than a theoretical specification of hierarchy of virtue.  
There is a moral flaw in a person, like Mao or Bhutto (or the “upright” man from 13.18), who chooses the greater benefit of the people over his or her own family.  In addition, we may be inclined to think it is a lie.  What is really psychologically operative, we might think, is some callousness or lack of concern for one’s own family, or an all-consuming ambition, rather than a great concern for the people.  We, like Confucius, would find it hard to believe that one who cares so little about family that they could sacrifice them for principle (or cares so much for principle that they could harm their family) could actually care in any real sense for people they don’t even know. (We could imagine Confucius making the inverse statement of 1.2—how could anyone ignoring filial care be ren?)   
To take another example—think of people whose sons or daughters are involved in crimes.  Do we ever hear people say: “well, if my son/daughter did that terrible thing, they ought to be punished…”?  Indeed, wouldn’t we think it rather callous if a parent did react this way?  More common, I think, is the reaction a couple had when they discovered their son had been involved in a hit and run at the University of Connecticut last year—they tried to cover it up.  He was, after all, their son—and I can’t say I would have done differently if my own son were in that situation.  Of course, this does not constitute an argument that such nepotism is morally right, but I think Confucius is simply playing on a common intuition (in his time and place) here.  “Family first” is the intuition, and it’s one I share.
This is actually one of the things I’ve always admired about the Confucius of the Analects—he he has a way of pulling us down to earth when we get carried away constructing fancy ethical theories.  

Are We Arguing Past Each Other?

I really dislike the fact that my posts have become so overwhelmingly negative in the recent past.  There are a couple of reasons (perhaps good ones) for this, however.  First–I’m currently in the middle of writing the “negative portion” of my dissertation, in which I argue against the interpretations of Confucius I oppose, in order to lay the ground for my own interpretation.  This inevitably leads to some negativity, I guess.  Second–I’m in the middle of reading some interpretations of Confucius I believe are very problematic, and thus more objections are rising to the surface of the mind than usually do.

The latest example of this is in my reading of Jiyuan Yu’s book The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue.  I am finding that in this book, as in May Sim’s book on this topic (see below post), my problem is not so much with the interpretations of Confucius presented (which I also disagree with), but rather with the manner of argumentation used to establish these conclusions about Confucius, which in both Sim’s and Yu’s case I find far from ideal.  Their manner of argument is so lacking, by my estimation, that I’ve come to think that maybe something different is going on in these texts than what I expect of philosophical work.  Clearly, both Sim and Yu are very smart people (though both are Aristotle specialists, rather than Chinese philosophy specialists), but some of their interpretive argumentation on Confucius leaves me stunned by its weakness.
Often, I find claims made about what Confucius held, then citations of passages in the Analects where Confucius supposedly says it.  To say the least, this is a problematic way to argue for interpretations of a historical text.  One cannot simply point to a passage in a particular text when there is principled debate over the correct interpretation of that passage.  If we are to offer a particular interpretation and use a passage from a text to reinforce it, we need to argue that the passage we cite actually does the work we claim it does.
Here is an example from Yu’s book of an argument thus wanting.  On p. 27, Yu writes:
“The ‘Mandate of Heaven’ theory presupposes that Heaven has its own will and issues commands.  In the Spring and Autumn period, this is said to be the dao of Heaven.  Heaven was thought to have its own norm, and humankind has its way as well.  When Analects 3:24 claims that Heaven commands Confucius to restore the dao, it shows that Confucius introduces the concepts of Heaven and dao (way) into the center of ethics. […] The divine mission indicates that the correct way of being a human is that which is in accordance with the way of Heaven.”
Note what Yu is doing here.  He is using Analects 3:24 to support his interpretation that tian and dao are at the center of Confucius’ ethics.  And they are at the center in a number of ways, according to Yu, including being, like the ancient Greek concept of ‘the good’, the ground of moral norms.  This view is very similar, of course, to all ancient Greek ones, including Aristotle.  It also has a striking similarity to later medieval Christian views, in which God is the ultimate ground of moral norms, and his command, or what he loves, is what fixes the good.  This is a pretty radical interpretation of Confucius, however, and it makes 3:24 do a lot of work.  If we can get all of this from 3:24, one should at least expect an argument from the text that 3:24 actually does suggest what Yu says it does.  But we are given nothing like this.  No consideration of the language of the text, no comparison to other passages in the Analects in which Confucius uses similar language in order to test the coherence of this interpretation, no consideration of how the terms used in 3:24 are generally used in contemporary and near-contemporary texts… just a pointing to 3:24.
So let’s look at 3:24.  The crucial segment of this passage reads:  
天 將 以 夫 子 為 木 鐸  tian jiang yi fuzi wei mu duo (trans:  “Tian is about to use the master as a wooden warning bell.”)
Now, it requires some muscular argument to show that this justifies the conclusion that tian and dao are at the center of Confucius’ ethics in any sense, especially the strong sense of being the ground of moral norms.  Why, indeed, shouldn’t we simply read this as colloquial and pragmatic–something like “The teacher is about to set people straight on what’s right.”  If I were to utter this sentence right now in a conversation with a friend or student, one could hardly use this as evidence to show that I have any conception of a central ground of moral norms, let alone as evidence to show what that ground is.  
So, what’s the problem here?  It seems obvious to me that robust linguistic and textual argument is required to support one’s interpretation of any historical philosopher, whether it be Confucius, Aristotle, or Descartes.  So maybe there’s something I’m missing.  Perhaps what is going on is that I simply have a different conception of what it is to do historical interpretive philosophy than Sim and Yu (and some others).  Perhaps they are working from a method in which creativity in construing the texts trumps historical accuracy.  But many of the things they claim in their works seem to suggest that this is not what they’re doing.  After all, they are claiming to be representing Confucius, rather than a creative ethical theory inspired by Confucius.  And there is some historical argument (although an inadequate amount) in these works.  And both authors claim to want to offer an authentic picture of Confucius.  So why are these arguments so empty?
What’s going on here?  Are we just arguing past one another because we don’t share methodology?  If so, perhaps the focus of some of these arguments between pro and anti “Confucius as virtue ethicist” philosophers should move from interpretation to interpretive methodology.

Problematic Arguments To Link Confucius and Aristotle

Here is a line of reasoning I don’t understand–or if I do understand it correctly, then it’s an invalid argument.  I thought I’d throw this out there to see what others think about this.

I’ve been reading May Sim’s book Remastering Morals With Aristotle and Confucius, which presents an interpretation of Confucian ethics (mostly represented by the Analects) as resembling to some (great) degree Aristotle’s virtue ethics.  This is the kind of interpretation I’m arguing against in my dissertation (which is consuming the little qi I have left!).  I have numerous problems with virtue ethical interpretations of Confucius, which I won’t go into here–but one common type of argument Sim uses in her book to show the “commensurability” of Confucius (of the Analects) and Aristotle stands out as particularly distressing to me.
She argues, in chapter 2 of her book (a type of argument which is repeated in later chapters), that Confucius implicitly accepted Aristotle’s ten categories (substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time position, state or condition, action, and affection).  She goes about showing this by mentioning passages of the Analects in which Confucius uses language that she takes to presume that he is operating with some view of various of these categories, accepting these categories (in some sense).  
The discussion about substance is the clearest place the problem arises.  Sim argues against those who hold that Confucius has no view of a substantial self similar to that of Aristotle.  Sim first discusses Confucius’ view that one’s roles dictate the actions they ought to perform.  Then she says, on p. 57:  
“Even if one’s roles do dictate how to act (with shu, zhong, or yi) in various situations, an account of that which is capable of issuing forth such actions is still needed.  Confucius, without theorizing about it, does in discussion invoke a stronger sense of a self than commentators allow.  Thus the Confucian self is minimally ‘substantial;’ it persists through various changes, is the source of agency, and can adopt various roles and perform them more or less well.”
This argument seems to me straightforwardly invalid.  Before I discuss that, though, let me quote Sim further (from the same page:
“The distinction between one who fills her roles well and one who does not rests in an investment of the person.  A substantial enough self must be presupposed for such an investment.  Without such a minimal self, we can have neither personal investment nor ownership of the action, let along a creative addition to the tradition.”  The footnote to this reads: “That a more substantial self is already there in Confucian literature is visible when Confucius mentions that filial piety consists in refraining from reforming a father’s way for three years after a father’s death (1.11).  Such talk of refrain or restraint presupposes that there is some figment of a self that is to be restrained beyond that of a son whose role is to adhere to the father’s wishes–for what of the years following the mourning?”
It seems to me that Sim is basically arguing here that Confucius is using language which commits him to a view of the self as substantial–that is, he is using ‘I’ and ‘self’ language.  First of all, it is wrong to assume that language use commits us to any particular metaphysical view.  This is a pretty radical view, so it needs to be argued for.  And there seem to be clear counterexamples to that anyway–what about the (later) Buddhists, or Hume, for example?  The Buddhist view of the self (like Hume’s), is explicitly anti-substance, yet they use the same colloquial language as any of us, including “I” to formulate their views (including ethical views).  Their use of common language to formulate their ethical views does not show that they (implicitly or otherwise) held a view of a substantial self–so how does Confucius’ use of ‘I’ and ‘self’ language show that?  I don’t think that when I utter ‘I’m going up the street to get a soda then I’m coming back’ I commit myself to Aristotelian notions of the substantial self, even if that is the right view of the self.
What Sim might be doing here is claiming that Aristotle’s view of the substantial self is the correct metaphysics of the self, and thus when we talk about selves or use personal pronouns, we are implicitly holding such a view.  If this is what she’s doing, though, it’s false.  Our language use does not commit us to the correct metaphysical view of whatever we are talking about, any more than the identity between water and H20 would have committed Marcus Aurelius to holding the view that the liquid in his chalice was a chemical compound composed of molecules of two hydrogen atoms covalently bonded to one oxygen atom.  Certainly “having a metaphysical view that x” is an opaque context, if anything is.  And if it’s not, then it’s not only Confucius who implicitly accepts Aristotle’s notion of a substantial self, but anyone who has ever used ‘I’ language, including Hume and the Buddhists.  So we all accept Aristotle’s substantial self, whether we know it or not!  But that’s just false–it seems incoherent to say, for example, that the early scientists who proposed the phlogiston theory actually implicitly held the correct view about the chemistry of burning, because they used the language of ‘fire’, ‘burning’, etc.
It seems that the only thing that could make Sim’s argument valid is a premise to the effect that “when one uses language and makes claims about certain concepts, one implicitly accepts (or is committed to) the correct metaphysical theories regarding those concepts.”  But then the argument trades in its invalidity for unsoundness, because that premise is clearly false!
Any thoughts?