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.