Tag Archives: Confucius

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?