Does Analects 12.1 Really Say Anything About Human Nature?

Bryan Van Norden seems to suggest (on p. 127 in his “Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy”) that Analects 12.1 presents us with a view of human nature relatively close to Xunzi’s.  Although Van Norden is careful to make clear that he thinks there is no worked out conception of human nature in the Analects, he does seem to think that 12.1 offers some hint that Confucius thought of humans as naturally “resistant to virtue” in something like the way Xunzi did.  Although I agree with Van Norden that there is no worked out view of human nature in the Analects, and that what we can glean from the Analects seems to make Confucius closer to Xunzi on what we ought to expect from humans in general (even aside from the issue of xing ), 12.1 doesn’t seem to me to suggest any particular view of human nature.  The key to this reading, I think, is the term ji 己.  If we read it as simply “oneself”, then it does seem to suggest a Xunzian view of human nature.  But I think there is reason (which I’ve been attempting to polish up arguments for in the dissertation) to see ji in 12.1 not as referring to the self, but instead as referring to certain features of oneself.  Zhu Xi suggests that the right way to read ji in 12.1 is as something like “selfish desires”  (The jizhu commentary on the line of 12.1 in question reads: 己謂身之私欲…).  I don’t take quite this line, but something relatively close.  “socially non-contextualized individual” might be closer to my own reading.  I take ji as representing oneself as isolated individual, which is the owner of desires and other features that can belong uniquely to individuals.  I take this isolated individual, however, as something less than a full person, because it is not socially contextualized.  Then, the issue becomes what human nature attaches to:  the isolated individual (ji) or the properly formed person (ren人)?  The Analects, although it does I think make this distinction, has no answer about which of these two human nature is involved with.  There are some really difficult issues surrounding this, which I’ve not sufficiently thought through yet.  What is clear, however, is that if ji is correctly read in either my way or Zhu Xi’s “selfish desire” way, then  turning away from one’s ji is necessary for moral development, but there is no hint as to whether humans naturally are concerned with this ji instead of with something else.  What is clear from 12.1 is that either 1) people focusing on ji to the detriment of ritual was a pressing problem among Confucius’ contemporaries–because if it were not, there would be no reason to mention it in giving an answer to how one achieves ren .; 2) paying undue attention to one’s ji was a potential or actual problem of Yan Hui’s , as the response (克己復禮爲仁 “Turning away from ji and returning/adhering to ritual is ren”) was given by Confucius in answer to Yan Hui’s question about ren  (Yan Hui was a great student, but he wasn’t perfect, after all); or 3) both 1 and 2 are true.  Regardless of whether 1,2, or 3 is true, however, 12.1 then does not suggest any particular view of human nature, without further information such as “not only do people these days pay too much attention to ji, but humans in general have a natural tendency to do so.”  1,2,or 3 could be true, that is, due to corrupting influences in the society which got in the way (as Mencius suggested) of human nature.  Any thoughts?

10 responses to “Does Analects 12.1 Really Say Anything About Human Nature?

  1. Hi! It’s great to see you back again. I hope there’s a light at the end of your hell.

    Maybe you can just make Word files out of the old blog and put up a page with links to those.

    I wonder whether you’re proposing that (a) One of the standard meanings of ji 己 is something like one’s selfish desires, or (b) ji 己 was used by Confucius and his associates as a casual technical term for something like selfish desires, as a pop guru might say today “Remember not to let the ‘me’ take over”; or (c) what aspect of oneself ji 己 refers to is standardly highly context-sensitive (like ‘oneself’: to shoot oneself is only to shoot some part of one’s body, in the foot is to shoot one’s foot, while to master oneself in a moral context is to master something else, but not to master all of the person) and in this case the context indicates to us, or anyway probably indicated to Yan Yuan, that the term was pointing to something like selfish desires. My impression is that you’re proposing “(b) or (c).”

    At least (c) seems to me highly plausible offhand.

    Somewhere in Plato (maybe more than one place) I think there’s the point that when someone speaks of mastering oneself, she must have in mind two parts of oneself, one mastering the other. But I suppose that isn’t quite true of destroying oneself (unless we count time-slices as parts), and similarly it might not have to be true of ke 克-ing oneself.

    5.26 suggests that Yan Yuan has a relevant imperfection, perhaps acquired under the influence of the Master’s favor. Confucius asks Zilu and Yan Yuan to state their aspirations, and Yan Yuan says “願無伐善,無施勞 I should like never to boast of my own goodness and never impose onerous tasks upon others.” That suggests a kind of self-focus that is “something like selfish desires.”

  2. Hi Bill–

    Thanks–it’s great to be back in the loop!
    I’m beginning to see some end in the future, but it’s still far off on the horizon. At least my teaching duties are slowing down now, though. Whew!

    I like your construction of (c) above, by the way. I think that’s pretty close to what I’m after here, although it seems to be that (b) might even be collapsed into (c)–that is, the ji you suggest in (b) might simply be one of the contexts available in (c). I think that’s right–ji does clearly seem differently used in the Analects, and in 12.1 something like Zhu Xi’s interpretation is probably the right one (this is a rarity for me, to come close to agreement with Zhu Xi’s reading of a passage of the Analects).

    I think the issue of Yan Hui’s faults deserves more attention than it gets–you’re right to point out 5.26–I hadn’t thought of that passage in my consideration of 12.1. Van Norden (I think, but I have to go back and check) takes what is said in 12.1 as generally definitive, because Yan Hui is such a great student and Confucius does not need to tailor his teaching to Yan Hui’s specific needs. On this view, Confucius’ various exchanges with Yan Hui represent Confucius’ full views on some topic. I think this is wrong, of course–it assumes Yan Hui’s perfection, and ignores some good reasons to think that having selfish desire is a problem for Yan Hui. Indeed, if Confucius is an archetypical virtue ethicist, we might even see Yan Hui’s case as a live example of the “narcissism” objection against virtue ethics. As an exemplary student whose main goal is to internalize Confucius’ teachings and obtain virtue, maybe this itself leads Yan Hui to have an unseemly focus on himself and his own properties. It’s BECAUSE he is such an excellent student that he has this shortcoming, perhaps?

    Great stuff! This could all be relevant to the debate about whether Confucius thought complete virtue, or sagehood, was actually possible, or whether it was a fictional ideal one could never actually hope to reach. I tend to take the fictionalist line about sagehood, at least for the Analects.

  3. In the back-end of your blog, under the “Tools” tab, click on “Import” then follow the prompt.

    I think part of what you’re getting at may depend on a clarification of ‘human nature’. Are you saying that ji in 12.1 has no necessary connection to a theory of xing in the Analects? If you’re not, then why wouldn’t a “feature of the self” also be a part of “human nature”? I know Zhu Xi’s reading is to posit the selfish desire in the qizhi zhi xing, but I don’t see why such a distinction would be operative in the Analects.

    Personally, I find this passage extremely difficult to make sense of. Beyond the problem with ji, there are still the issues of ke and fu. I believe John Keischnick has an article on this passage, although it’s been a while since I read it: ‘Analects 12.1 and the Commentarial Tradition,’ Journal of the American Oriental Society vol.112, no.4 (1992), pp.567-576.

  4. Alexus,

    I have nothing to say about this problem at the moment, but I will soon — T-minus 10 days to sabbatical, and counting.

    I just wanted to say that I’m glad to see that you abandoned blogspot for wordpress, which is infinitely easier to use and graphically much more pleasing.

    Be back later.

    The Keischnich article is quite good, by the way, a good walk through the commentarial tradition on 12.1. I taught it in a class last year.


  5. Yeah–Kieschnick’s article (along with John Makeham’s book “Transmitters and Creators”) was what got me thinking about the commentarial tradition surrounding the Analects in a serious way a couple of years ago. I dealt more extensively with this passage in the presentation I gave at the Eastern APA in Baltimore last year, but the issue I was dealing with there was ‘ren’ rather than ‘xing’. I actually disagree with Zhu Xi’s reading of 12.1 in general, mainly because he wants to identify ren with desires and interprets the wei ren in 12.1 as xing ren (“practice of ren”) in order to avoid linking ren with activity rather than desire or something more internal. The reason I single out Zhu Xi’s “selfish desire” as something somewhat similar to my own view is because it avoids the ji in 12.1 being construed as directly connected to xing in the way Van Norden suggests. Reading it in a more robust way as “the self” seems to suggest that there is something natural about our focus on the concerns of the ji, a connection to xing. Although even on my (and Zhu Xi’s!) reading, our involvement with ji and neglect of ritual might still be due to our xing, if one reads ji in the Zhu Xi way or my own the hint a connection with a view about xing is missing. It’s not a huge issue in Van Norden’s book, but it seems that if this is right, he needs some argument that ji ought to be read in the way he suggests, rather than my own or Zhu Xi’s.

    By the way–I tried that import of the blog, but I’ve got my old blog through Blogger hosted on my own site, by ftp, so it’s causing more hassle. If it wasn’t for this, I would have changed over to wordpress long ago. When I get some time this week, though, there are a couple of tricks I’m going to try to get all those old posts changed over.

  6. I think 12.1 is a tremendously complicated passage, and I’m not ready yet (9 days…) to make a jump into this one. However, a few quick thoughts.

    1. Just to clarify your claim here, so that I’m not misunderstanding it. Can you say a bit more about this claim: “I take this isolated individual, however, as something less than a full person, because it is not socially contextualized. Then, the issue becomes what human nature attaches to: the isolated individual (ji) or the properly formed person (ren人)?” Here it sounds as if you are saying that a xiao ren, say, is not fully human due to its lack of “social context”. In a sense, such an object has no full “human significance”. Are you suggesting that as a result, it has no “human” nature? And that “human” nature comes into being with the emergent-like property of ren?

    2. Bill mentions Hui’s flaw in 5.26; I agree with him on this (we’ve had this discussion on Hui before). However, if I recall my discussion with Bill some time ago, there is some oddness in 12.1 — if Confucius’ claims about ren are context-specific, then why tell Hui that Li is the path to ren? Is this really Hui’s weakness? Is there any evidence of this in the text? 5.26 doesn’t strike me as such a passage. It does point to a weakness, but it seems more closely associated with the message at the end of book one — “don’t look for recognition, but rather seek to be worthy of recognition.”

    3. On the blogger stuff: I think WordPress has a transfer from Blogger feature. I can’t remember where it is — have you located it?

  7. Pingback: Looking Around teh Internets « A Ku Indeed!

  8. Alexus,

    Have you gone to your Dashboard, down to Tools, and then clicked on Import? That should give you a link for importing everything from Blogger.

    Good luck!

  9. Excellent. I’ve finally moved the posts. I had to rehost my old page on blogger instead of my own site, and then use the import tool you spoke about. Thanks!

  10. Sweet; it’s good to know that stuff actually works like they say.

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