First, some update: my posting has of late been pretty sporadic here at UPJ, but now (finally!) I am finished with my dissertation (titled Moral Personhood in Confucius and Aristotle), and in the midst of making a move from cold northeast Connecticut to somewhat less cold southwest Ohio, where I’ll be starting in the fall as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. I may also be in India for a few weeks sometime during the summer–so I’ll be all over the place. Anyway, during the summer, I have a bit of time to catch up on some projects, and work on a couple of papers developing some topics I touched on in my dissertation–and also to post more stuff here at UPJ…
One of the things I’ve been thinking (or worrying, I’m not sure which) about in connection with one of these projects is the use of the term dang 黨 in the Analects. In particular, 4.7 makes an interesting use of this term:
子曰：“人之過也，各於其黨。觀過，斯知仁矣.” The master said: “The mistakes of people are in each case (ge) attributable (yu) to their group (dang). Observe their mistakes, and you will know whether humanity (ren) obtains.
There are a couple of issues with dang in 4.7. The issue I’m currently occupied with is whether or not dang should be taken as a good or a bad thing in this passage. I offer some reason in the dissertation (and the paper I’m working on) to think it’s neutral, but the origin of one’s agency. Early in the passage it seems to be connected with negative qualities specifically, rather than with positive ones. One’s dang is the source of one’s mistakes (guo). I take dang here to be something like “group” or “community” generally, connected to the uses of dang elsewhere in the Analects to talk about the “village”. The seemingly negative connotation in 4.7 might suggest that dang here means something like “gang” or “clique”, a communal entity through which one could gain certain vices but not (in general) virtues. But I think this might be based on a misreading of the negative connotations of dang in 4.7.
The second part of 4.7 seems to suggest that ren can be present in a dang, in just the way that the first part of the passage suggests that guo are present in a dang, rather than in an individual primarily. The persons we are examining, 4.7 suggests, are in communities, in a particular dang or another. The guo (mistakes) which individuals in the dang make are attributable to their dang (although 4.7 is not clear about this, I offer some interpretive explanation of this “attributability” elsewhere, though I won’t get into it here), in that the dang is at least partly responsible for the guo. Is, then, the lack of guo in the community also attributable to the dang one is associated with? I think this must be the case. It seems odd at least that the author of Analects 4.7 would have thought that social influence from the groups one is integrated into can cause one to act badly, but cannot cause one to act well.
Note that the interpretation that individual virtue might counteract the possibly corrosive influence of the dang is a stretch here, as 4.7 instructs us to observe the guo of an individual or group (it is not specific). Presumably, it is in the absence of particular guo or the mildness of the guo that one can discover ren in the individual or group. It is only on the first of these readings, that guo is absent in an individual, that the “individual virtue counteracting the influence of the dang” interpretation can be maintained. But if this is the correct reading of the second part of 4.7, why talk about guo being attributable to one’s dang in the first part of 4.7? If there are any guo made by the individual, this is because of the dang’s influence, and if we observe that an individual makes no guo, then we can thereby see this individual is ren? This just invites the response: “what if one is simply not part of a dang? Then they also do not have the guo associated with a dang (no matter how they act or what kind of character they have), but this cannot mean that they are ren.” Then, the “individual virtue” proponent has to maintain that 4.7 means to limit the cases to those within a dang–saying that the ren individual is able to counteract the influence of the dang through his individual virtue, such that the guo other members of the dang are making are not made by this individual. This view basically says, then, that only the ren individual is autonomous, whereas others have no power to resist the negative influence of the dang to which they belong.
There are a number of problems with this view, however–not the least of which being that it seems to make the instructions given in 4.7 sound awkward. If the above view is true, wouldn’t it be easier to discover whether an individual is ren by observing the extent to which their actions diverge from those of the dang to which they belong?