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…

5 responses to “Basically, It’s All Zhu Xi’s Fault…

  1. Hi Alexus,

    Interesting post. I’ve argued in the past the in ancient China, you are what you do. But I no longer think it’s that simple. Michael LaFargue has compared virtues to skills and says just because one isn’t currently exercising one’s skill it doesn’t follow that one doesn’t have it.

    And just yesterday I read something interesting by psychologist/primatologist Frans de Waal:

    “In discussing what constitutes morality, the actual behavior is less important than the underlying capacities. For example, instead of arguing that food-sharing is a building block of morality, it is rather the capacities thought to underlie food-sharing (e.g., high levels of tolerance, sensitivity to other’s needs, reciprocal exchange) that seem relevant. Ants, too, share food, but likely based on quite different urges than those that make chimpanzees or people share.
    (Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved 2009 p. 16)

    I am also reminded that the character for ren often had a heart element in it in Warring States texts.

  2. Hey nice to hear from you again!

    I just wrote a long comment in response but my stupid browser killed it when I tried to post it, so let me try this again–

    I agree with you (and LaFargue) that virtue can be thought of as a skill (although Aristotle wants to resist this identification, and I’m not sure I’d totally go along with it either). It does seem that Zhu’s views on this are not consistent with those of the Analects, which was previously my main concern. Even considered as a theory of ren as a virtue in its own right, though, Zhu Xi’s theory has always struck me as strange, because his ontology is kind of screwy.

    Aristotle, for example, has a good way of explaining how we come to have virtues, through practice and activity, and after gaining a virtue we don’t need to be using it, and it can be dormant (he uses the potentiality/first actuality/second actuality distinction to support this). Zhu Xi, however, seems to think that ren belongs to us as originally part of our nature (xing). It is the practice or manifestation of ren we have to work hard for. But if ren is thought of along the lines of a skill, there’s a difficulty.

    If we consider, for example, the skill of riding a bike, and I make the claim that my son intrinsically knows how to ride a bike, but that he has to work hard and practice, etc., in order for this knowledge to translate into the actual riding of a bike, this is problematic, because what we generally mean by knowing how to ride a bike is simply the ability of riding a bike (even if he knows certain propositions such as “one must balance oneself, pedal in such-and-such manner, etc., knowing how is not simply having this propositional knowledge but being able to ride the bike when called upon to). So if my son proved unable to ride the bike, we’d use this as evidence that he DOESN’T know how to ride a bike. He doesn’t have the skill.

    It seems a similar problem will come up for Zhu Xi if we consider ren to be something like a skill to act in a ren manner, or manifest ren (xing ren, for Zhu). If we originally possess ren as part of our nature but have to work hard to practice or manifest ren in our actions, then we will have “one explanation too many” just as in the bike-riding case. So it looks like this ren can’t be a skill to act in a certain manner unless one who has it can, like the person with first actuality in Aristotle, perform when called upon. But then this raises the question of what ren is, if it’s not a skill, for Zhu Xi. Should we think of it as something like Aristotle’s “potentiality”–that is, the ability to gain the skill of acting in a ren manner? If this is all ren is, though, then it looks like an almost useless concept, as to say “Bill is ren” is only to say “Bill has the potential to become a person who is skilled at acting in a ren manner” which, generalized to all humans seems no more than to say “people have the potential to become morally good.”

    So it looks like ren on Zhu Xi’s view is unimportant if it’s a potentiality, and if it’s a skill, it problematizes what he says about practice in the quote in my original post (and others). But what else could it be than one of these? We seem to get similar problems, I think, if ren is an emotion, or something like “benevolence”. Indeed, even bigger problems. If ren is the emotion itself, how can we explain infants or otherwise unformed persons having it–and if it’s only the potential for the emotion, again claims about it sink into triviality, as with the “skill” case., it looks like I’ve succeeded at creating another pretty big comment! (I think I made more sense in the first version though.)

  3. re: “Hey nice to hear from you again!”
    — It’s good to see you back as well 🙂

    re: “I just wrote a long comment in response but my stupid browser killed it when I tried to post it”
    — That’s happened to all of us I imagine. I now type out my replies in Notepad and then copy-paste them, so if it doesn’t work, I still have it in Notepad.

    re: virtues as skills
    — perhaps not all skills make good analogies. There’s aspects of language that are currently believed to be inborn, and some people have aptitudes for certain things (which others do not have).

    re: “Aristotle, for example, has a good way of explaining how we come to have virtues, through practice and activity, and after gaining a virtue we don’t need to be using it, and it can be dormant (he uses the potentiality/first actuality/second actuality distinction to support this). Zhu Xi, however, seems to think that ren belongs to us as originally part of our nature (xing). It is the practice or manifestation of ren we have to work hard for…”
    — Zhu Xi seems to be following Mengzi then, yes? Mengzi believed we have the “sprouts” of the various human virtues in us from conception, but we have to cultivate them in order for them to fully express themselves. I don’t think this is “one explanation too many.”

  4. Yeah, Zhu Xi has certainly got Mengzi in mind. Of course, I’ve never found Mengzi’s view on this plausible either. But it also seems that Zhu Xi goes even further than Mencius, in saying that the ren contained in our xing is there from the beginning, and that it’s only the practice which needs to be cultivated in the Mencian sense, and to cultivate the practice we have to follow the ke ji fu li of Analects 12.1.
    Zhu says about this (Gardner’s translation here):
    “To practice true goodness, one must have the wherewithal to subdue selfish desires and thereby return to ritual … it each day one subdues it [the self] and finds no difficulty in doing so, the selfish desires will be cleansed entirely and heavenly principle will prevail…”

    It sounds here like the ren beneath the “practice of ren” is more than just a sprout in the Mencian sense–it seems fully grown, because what he focuses on cultivating is the practice of ren, but because he doesn’t claim that ren itself is cultivated or in any way brought about by the practice, it’s not ren that’s being developed by “ke ji fu li”. I just don’t see in Zhu Xi’s case where the “sprout” is that becomes ren. It looks here like ren IS the sprout, and the practice of ren is the fully cultivated virtue. But this can’t be right for Zhu Xi, because he explicitly says that the practice is NOT the virtue, but rather the virtue is “original feature of the heart-mind”.

  5. Alexus, I read the post on Manyul’s site in regards to consequentalism and the remark about Zhu’s “psychologizing” ren. This led me here to your site because I was unsure where you were coming from. As an empiricist I would argue that all moral decisions are at the bottom psychological–whether the act will lead to pleasure or pain (for the agent himself or other is still a human psychological perception). So in reality, every moral act is a consequentalist act. If a decision did not have a pain-pleasure principle, it would not be a moral decision. Clearly, this goes back to Mencius who claims that the virtues are “feelings” in relation to the event of about to see a person fall in the well, which of course includes wisdom–the feeling of whether something is right or not right. As there is no mind-body separation going on in Confucianism, just a little curious on how you are separating the two here. Are you going back to Confucious being worried about the thunder storm headed his way so that he has to go inside and check his conscience to make sure his robes are white? A higher authority for virtue? Now this might make sense of consequentalism not being related to psychology. If so, then I would agree with you that Zhu Xi and Mencius are talking psychology and Confucius was referring to a higher power that Aristotle might have accepted….but not one that many modern philosophers today would. Maybe I’m just missing something….

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