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!