Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Usefulness of Commentary?

I keep going back and forth on this issue.  When I started working on the Analects, I was of the view that one should try to read the text independently of the commentarial tradition, so as not to be poisoned by the biases, agendas, etc., of the authors of the various commentaries.  We could, I tended to believe, come closest to “pure” interpretation by simply ignoring the commentaries.  Years later, I came to think differently about the commentaries.  Our readings of the classical texts are inevitably influenced by our teachers, as well as the texts and editions we have read (especially those of us who first encountered Chinese thought in English before understanding Chinese).  Like it or not, I came to believe, we are influenced in our readings by the commentarial tradition, and thus we need to understand the commentaries, in order to discover where our assumptions about the classical texts come from, as well as the strength or weakness of the arguments for them.  Reading the Zhu Xi commentary on the Analects in particular opened my eyes to this necessity.

Now, after even more years, I find my attitude to the commentaries on the Analects taking another turn in a different direction.  My current view is something like this:  the commentaries are often philosophically interesting in their own right, but they are not very useful for helping clear up difficulties in the Analects or in explaining the roots of many of the assumptions we bring to the text.  Looking to Zhu Xi to find the roots of a “psychological” reading of certain concepts in the Analects, for example, is useful in that it helps explain Zhu Xi’s own philosophical agenda, but it is of limited use in discovering whether or not such a reading is justified.  Certainly looking to Zhu Xi’s arguments themselves can tell us whether his reasons for holding his views were good ones, but even if we discover that they were not, we cannot from this show that there are no good reasons for holding his views, or that his view of the Analects in general is not the “right” reading of it, in terms of understanding what views the authors of the Analects actually held and took themselves to be presenting.

In many ways, looking to the vast commentarial literature on the Analects muddies the water, and one can all-too-easily get caught up in the commentaries and differences or arguments between the various philosophers and scholars involved.  Often the commentaries on the Analects and other classical texts were not really about these texts at all, but were primarily tools in debates between the authors and other opposing thinkers of their time.  To look to these commentaries as ways of understanding the Analects and classical texts, then, is like looking to Aquinas to understand Aristotle, or to Plotinus to understand Plato.  Even though there was clearly influence, the concerns were different, and the philosophical views were different.  And, most importantly, the later philosophers were not explicitly engaged in the project of interpreting the earlier philosophers, but rather in advancing their own positions.

“Commentary” then can be misleading in China.  Everyone took themselves to be following the model of Confucius, 述而不作, because this was orthodox–but within the guise of Confucianism the authors of the commentaries were primarily developing their own views.

Thus, I think, interpreters of the classical texts have got to be careful in using the commentaries.  Getting absorbed in the commentaries, we can quickly get away from the original text and swept up into the issues the commentators were concerned with.  Then we find ourselves, as they did, not working on the Analects or other classical texts at all, but engaged in internal debates which used the classical texts as tools for expressing new views.

The Dao of Who?

Been a little while since my last post–unfortunately I was knocked out of the game momentarily by a pretty nasty case of H1N1 “swine” flu.  Caught it just before they released the vaccine in my state.  (Thanks, slow and inefficient federal government!)  Anyway, thankfully now that’s over, and it’s back to the wonderful world of early Chinese philosophy!

Thinking about dao in general this week (although all I was thinking about was sleep and not dying earlier in the week!), and definitely plan to pick up a copy of the new book by founding member of rap group the Wu Tang Clan, the RZA, called “The Tao of Wu”.  I’ve long been interested in the way Wu-Tang understands and uses bits of Chinese religious and philosophical culture.  This influence, in their case, clearly came originally through the influence of 70s kung-fu films (one of the ways I was first introduced to Chinese culture as well), but interestingly took on some elements from other sources in chinese philosophy and religion, mainly (I’ve heard–haven’t read the book yet) through the RZA and his interest in “Eastern philosophy”.  Of course, the elements of Chinese religion and philosophy to be heard in the lyrics of their music and seen in the stylistic elements of their videos, interviews, etc., are mainly stylistic, and there is hardly any substantive discussion of concepts, etc.  I can’t say whether RZA and his group adequately understand the important concepts of Chinese philosophy and religion, because they often just say terms without explaining them, but from what I have heard from interviews, there does seem to be a lot they misunderstand.

This is one of my main problems with “pop culture” use of Chinese philosophical and religious elements in general.  Just as in the case of Wu Tang, one might hear a pop culture source drop the terms ‘yin‘ and ‘yang‘, or ‘dao‘, but then either not explain them (hoping they sound sufficiently “mystical” to get across the main point that their utterer has serious “mysterious and wise eastern sage” credibility), or explains them in ridiculously simplistic and/or simply incorrect ways.  Of course, this is more a gripe about American culture itself, I guess–the tendency toward pure stylistics, pure image, apparently without concern for anything else, is distressing.

Anyway–of course I’m going to read RZA’s book- it ought to be fun.  Plus, I can’t knock it for being shallow without having read it–who knows, maybe RZA proves to be the second coming of Zhuangzi!  (I’ll let you know with a review here on UPJ after I read it.) One thing that occurs to me with all of this pop culture influence in Daoism, though:  everyone wants to be Daoist.  I see lots of use of yin-yang and dao in popular culture, but never see any Confucianism. Where’s the 仁?  The 忠恕?  We can certainly do with a dose or two of these!

I guess we Americans don’t really find things like duty, understanding of others, benevolence, and general uprightness very important.  These things are for boring people and crotchety scholars of Chinese philosophy to worry about, I guess.  Better to concentrate on being cool than being morally good…

Analects 5.12, Proust, and Snobbishness

A couple of recent events have got me thinking, as usual, of the Analects.  First, I’ve been reading Marcel Proust’s gargantuan multi-part novel “In Search of Lost Time”, in which he takes a great deal of time and care discussing the nature of snobbishness, what it is to be a snob, who is a snob, etc.  Then today, in deciding to have some business cards made through the university, I had to decide whether or not to use ‘Ph.D.’ after my name, or ‘Dr.’ before it, or simply just leave my name as ‘Alexus McLeod’, with no indication of the degree I hold.

At first, I was inclined simply to put ‘Alexus McLeod’ on my cards, with no reference to my PhD.  After all, I thought, it would be fairly clear to anyone receiving my card that I hold a PhD, given the title ‘Assistant Professor’ beneath my name.  And at any rate, I thought, I didn’t want to appear presumptuous or taken with titles to those to whom I give my card.  It will mainly be at conferences and to people in my field, and most of us have PhDs anyway, so what good does it do to point out that I have one as well?

Then, reflecting on these reasons, soon Analects 5.12 came to mind, and followed by a passage from Proust.  First, Analects 5.12:

子貢曰:“我不欲人之加諸我也,吾亦欲無加諸人。”子曰:“賜也,非爾所及也。”  Zigong said: “what I do not desire other people to do to me, I also desire not to do this to others.”  Confucius replied: “Ci [Zigong], you don’t measure up to this kind of thing.”

In connection with my dilemma over the cards, I began to think of 5.12 in a new way.  Throw in the Proust, and 5.12 (as well as my situation) was illuminated even further.  The passages I’m thinking of are in the first volume of Proust’s novel, “Swann’s Way” (in the Penguin Lydia Davis translation):

“he [Legrandin] often launched against the aristocracy, against fashionable life, against snobbery, ‘certainly the sin which Saint Paul has in mind when he speaks of the sin for which there is no forgiveness.'”(p.69)

Legrandin, according to the narrator, wore simple clothes and professed his love for simple things–he had this down to an art, cultivating the style of simplicity and “non-snobbishness”.  But the narrator discovers that this itself is due to Legrandin’s inherent snobbishness.  One who was not a snob, as Laozi might suggest, would never feel the need to rail so hard against snobbishness.  Legrandin is “discovered” as a snob later in the story:

“what I did understand was that Legrandin was not being completely truthful when he said he cared only for churches, moonlight, and youth; he cared very much for the people from the chateaux and in their presence was overcome by so great a fear of displeasing them that he did not dare let them see that some of his friends were bourgeois people…” (p. 131)

What Legrandin had been doing, in other words, was affectation.  All of the “simpleness”, the cultivated appearance of being unconcerned with how others see him–it is this itself that reveals his snobbishness.  Only a snob would try so hard to seem disaffected.  People actually devoid of snobbishness would be like the narrator’s grandmother–

“Worldly ambition was a sentiment that my grandmother was so incapable of feeling or even, almost, of understanding, that it seemed to her quite pointless to bring about so much ardor to stigmatizing it.” (p. 69)

Of course, something similar is going on with Zigong in Analects 5.12.  Perhaps with the best of motives, he is trying to make himself into an ideal person by convincing himself that he is someone who doesn’t desire to treat others in ways he wouldn’t want to be treated.  Maybe he even believes that he is this way, just as Proust suggests that Legrandin may actually believe that he is not a snob and really is only concerned with “simple” things.  In one of (to me) the most psychologically insightful passages in the book, Proust writes:

“And this certainly does not mean that M. Legrandin was not sincere when he ranted against snobs.  He could not be aware, at least from his own knowledge, that he was one, since we are familiar only with the passions of others, and what we come to know about our own, we have been able to learn only from them.  Upon ourselves they act only secondarily, by way of our imagination, which substitutes for our primary motives alternative motives that are more seemly.” (p. 132)

Likewise, Zigong’s boast might not have been intentionally devised to boost his ego, to make him look good in front of Confucius.  He probably had other reasons for saying it, or felt that he actually was that way, did “reach up to” the ideal Confucius prized.  Confucius, however, being this other whose observations of Zigong’s actions were purer than anything Zigong could bring on himself, knew better.  We as individuals can, through this “imagination” Proust speaks about, reduce cognitive dissonance between our actions and our beliefs about what is “seemly” by inventing all kinds of creative “motivations”.  So I purchase a new suit because “the old one is falling apart, and wool will keep me warmer in the winter,” etc., etc., rather than because “I look good in that suit and will impress my peers because it’s a very expensive suit.”

Zigong in 5.12 is probably having a similar “reducing cognitive dissonance” moment.  Perhaps Zigong has done a number of virtuous actions, and may have even been praised for doing so.  But why has he acted in these ways?  Zigong’s natural response, as an individual who wants to see himself in the best light, as all individuals do (so reducing cognitive dissonance, or “saving face”), is that it is the lofty principle described in 5.12 that motivates him.  But Confucius, like the narrator in Proust’s novel, knows better.  Based on what he sees in Zigong’s actions, he can tell that it is something like praise or “a name for being virtuous” that truly motivates Zigong.  Thus, even though it would be excellent if Zigong did actually think in the way he claims to, the truth is that he “doesn’t measure up” to that.

So, back to my dilemma with the cards.  I was inclined to do away with any mention of my degree, but what if, I thought, like Zigong and Legrandin, I was simply being snobbish by insisting that I am unconcerned with titles and positions?  Do I really think of the cleaning staff in my building or the construction workers outside as equal to myself and my colleagues?  Do I really think that one’s degree is unimportant to their state of intellectual, so that one who has a Ph.D. is not necessarily any more knowledgeable or intelligent that one with only a bachelor’s degree?  Am I really that egalitarian?

I decided “probably not.”  And one of the messages of Confucius and Proust, when I think of it, may have been that it’s better to be a snob than to be a snob like Legrandin or Zigong, which involves a kind of self-deception and hypocrisy that is shameful in itself, to cover up one’s true snobbishness and thereby become an even more egregious snob.

So what was the way out?  I’ve always found that when confronted with insoluble difficulties, the motto “do as the Pyrrhonian Skeptics do” leads often to the best result (if not the ataraxia, or “peace of mind” they claimed):  follow what is customary.

…So I went with the ‘Ph.D.’ after my name.

Tan Sitong Really Understood Ren 仁

I’ve just begun reading the late Qing scholar Tan Sitong’s Renxue 仁學, and I’m pleased to see that Tan seems to have understood ren in some sense similarly to the way I understand it, and that I argue the authors of the Analects understood it, in at least one key feature.  Tan says:

仁以通為第一義。…   通之義以 “道通為一”  為最渾 括  The first or fundamental meaning of ren is tong (commonality or connection). … The meaning of tong is best expressed by “the Way connecting things as one”.


Although Tan’s understanding of tong here (as he goes on to explain) is more Buddhistic than representative of the behaviorist communitarianism of the Analects (and I realize that “all things” is what he has in mind here rather than “people in a community”), I think this is still a good way to describe ren, allowing for differences in what falls within the scope of tong. In fact, I think this line from Tan is almost exactly how I’d put it (though I might add a word or two about good or thriving community–but it comes to much the same).

By the way–I learned through Wikipedia that Tan Sitong was portrayed as a character in two Shaw Brothers kung-fu flicks, “Iron Bodyguard” and “The Last Tempest”.  As an enormous, ridiculously rabid kung fu movie fan, I find this totally awesome.

Tan Sitong-my new favorite person.

Basically, It’s All Zhu Xi’s Fault…

I’ve been reading through Daniel Gardner’s Zhu Xi’s Reading of the Analects again, as I’ve been working on a paper on the psychologization of the concept of ren, for which I primarily blame Zhu Xi and the Buddhists.  Here’s an example of Zhu’s thinking on the topic, from his 論語集註 (Lunyu Jizhu):


Ren, for Zhu Xi, as we can see here, is a de (virtue…even though I’m not in love with this translation) of the xin (mind-heart).  It is not particular behavior itself which is ren, but rather something which underlies behavior.  One has to apply one’s strength to practice ren.  Of course, the behavior manifested in this practice is not itself ren, Zhu Xi wants to be insistent about that.  It is, rather, xing ren, which I previously translated as “practice of ren“, but I think now it better illustrates Zhu Xi’s purpose to translate this as “manifestation of ren“.  The ren person shows that he is ren through his practice–he doesn’t become ren through his practice.  When one is able through strength to manifest ren, as considered in Zhu’s quote above, although this may be difficult, it is desirable.

One interesting thing to notice is that if this is what Zhu Xi is on about, it looks like he holds a view of de unlike Aristotle’s view of arete, in that practice is unnecessary.  One can possess de (in this case the de of ren) without doing ren-like acts, and it is the existence of ren in the mind-heart that makes it possible for there to be ren-like activity.  This is the reverse of Aristotle’s view that arete depends on practice first–one practices activities the virtuous person would do and thereby becomes virtuous.  This seems also to show that Zhu Xi cannot be considered in any way a behaviorist, and that we might see ren for him as something like an emotional state.  There’s more than a little bit of Buddhism lurking here…

I’m Back, Baby!

…alive and kickin’.  And ready to do some philosophy.  Took a while to get through that first hurdle of getting meetings and orientations and course construction and article completion and all that other stuff out of the way (although I’m still doing all of these, but not quite at the fever pitch I’ve been doing them for the last couple of months).  But now at last I can return to the blogosphere (and with a new and improved wardrobe, I might add–check the cool bowtie in my new profile pic!).

As I’ve got to run to another meeting now, more substantive philosophical discussion is on its way.  But for now, I thought I’d share some of my experiences teaching Zhuangzi for the past week or so.  It’s a work I’ve stayed away from in my previous teaching for the most part, mainly because I tried it once (the first time I ever taught) and it was a huge disaster.  This time, things went a bit better, but there were still some problems.

I wonder–to what extent is this material difficult for students due to the roundabout and jocular way the Zhuangzi is written?  Zhuangzi is pretty clearly having fun, and trying to be “hard to corner”, but when students who are used to having arguments made explicit (which we generally strive to do but don’t always succeed in doing in contemporary philosophy) this might be frustrating at best, completely unintelligible at worst.  I’m finding that a non-negligible number of students are having this problem.  The Analects is also difficult for them, but for different reasons, I suspect.  Ah well–what to do…