Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Agency Versus Freedom

Just wanted to share a snippet from a book I just read, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. It’s an excellent book, very readable, that is part social theory and part personal history of someone who left philosophy, as a profession, but kept it with him into his career as a motorcycle mechanic. The primary thrust in the book is to rethink the partitioning off of manual labor as a non-thinking, non-intelligent activity and at the same time to rethink the social engineering that has taken place in the past century of turning labor in general, whether white or blue collar, into something that is divorced from types of activity that contribute to human excellence. You might say it’s a book against the trends in contemporary life that promote both mindlessness and alienation from the “mechanism” of the world. The book is written with style and without any pretentiousness. Great reading; I finished the entire book on a 5 hour flight.

Apropos this blog, I thought there was some excellent resonance in the book with the “skill-mastery” portions of the Zhuangzi, particularly in the ways that Crawford talks about how “freedom” and “autonomy” have been co-opted by the consumer ethic that has taken over our lives. Here’s a bit of it:

…there is a whole ideology of choice and freedom and autonomy, and that if one pays due attention, these ideals start to seem less like a bubbling up of the unfettered Self and more like something that is urged upon us. This becomes most clear in advertising, where Choice and Freedom and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities and all the other heady existentialist slogans of the consumerist Self are invoked with such repetitive urgency that they come to resemble a disciplinary system. Somehow, self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old.

Thinking about manual engagement seems to require nothing less than that we consider what a human being is. That is, we are led to consider how the specifically human manner of being is lit up, as it were, by man’s interaction with his world through his hands. For this a new sort of anthropology is called for, one that is adequate to our experience of agency. Such an account might illuminate the appeal of manual work in a way that is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but rather simply gives credit to the practice of building things, fixing things, and routinely tending to things, as an element of human flourishing. (pp. 63-4)

Crawford’s discussion of music that follows this, reminded me of the Zhuangzi skill passages, not so much in style, but in content:

The errors of freedomism may be illuminated by thinking about music. One can’t be a musician without learning to play a particular instrument, subjecting one’s fingers to the discipline of of frets or keys. The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an ongoing submission. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this is incidental rather than primary — there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music that can be expressed mathematically. … These facts do not arise from the human will, and there is no altering them. I believe the example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making. These limits need not be physical; the important thing is rather that they are external to the self. (p. 64)

Crawford discusses music and its consumption as an example of the loss of the type of agency discussed above:

In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways. Such hardness is at odds with the ontology of consumerism, which seems to demand a different conception of reality. The philosopher Albert Borgmann offers a distinction that clarifies this: he distinguishes between commanding reality and disposable reality, which corresponds to “things” versus “devices.” The former convey meaning through their own inherent qualities, while the latter answer to our shifting psychic needs.

As an instance of “the eclipse of commanding reality and the prominence of disposable reality,” Borgmann focuses on music. People play musical instruments a lot less than they used to; now we listen to the stereo or iPod. An instrument is “arduous to master and limited in its range,” whereas a stereo is undemanding and makes every sort of music instantly available, granting us a kind of musical autonomy. (p. 65, emphasis added).

So, according to Crawford a sort of increase of freedom, or autonomy, afforded by consumer culture also “enables” a lack of interest in pursuing agency-promoting activity. Ultimately, he argues, this makes human life worse.

Comments welcome, as always.

(For some background on the skill-mastery aspects of the Zhuangzi see previous posts and discussion here, here, here, and here.

August 25, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | , | 14 Comments

Special Relationships, Duties and Obligations

Following up on some things we discussed about filial piety on a previous post, I’ve had some thoughts about the nature of family relationships and their moral relevance, particularly with respect to filial piety, but with some hopes for expanding the thoughts more systematically to other aspects.

The Confucian ideal seems to be that the duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are central, in at least two ways:

1) The duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are overriding — they override any duties or obligations that derive from other relations, be they standing relations (subject and ruler, ruler and minister, subject and subject, etc.), or incidental ones based on circumstances (sheep-thief and sheep-owner, chariot-driver and someone run over by chariot-driver, etc.).

2) The duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are paradigmatic — they provide the paradigm, or model, for thinking about what our other duties or obligations are like and how we should think about them. So, for example, the ruler should think about his relationship to his ministers or to his subjects in ways that are modeled on the parent-child relationship.

That represents, I think, a common portrayal of the Confucian view. The questions I have are about how such a view might be justified. There are so-called “special relationships” that some contemporary moral theorists like to talk about, that are based on more or less standing relationships we find ourselves in, sometimes not entirely out of choices that we may have made. But these relationships can involve important moral aspects like trust and deep emotional bonds based on instinctive and cultivated care. The most obvious relationship like this is the parent-child relationship. But in that relationship, it’s always seemed to me like there’s an important asymmetry. As parents, we bring children into the world and it is most often out of some choice or other that we made. But of course the children had no such choice (that’s not the asymmetry I’m interested in) and for many years of their lives, they are in most ways “at our mercy” — they tacitly trust us to take care of them and to prepare them for a relatively happy adult life. Most parents love their children and so the point about trust might seem to without saying, but that’s not always the case and even loving parents don’t always feel particularly fond of their children. So, care is something that we owe to our children, as Kant (through Barbara Herman, among others) might say, even when we don’t on occasion feel like caring for them.

The moral asymmetry, I think, is when we look at the relationship from the side of the children. What is it that they owe to us? (Or, more pressing for many of us, what do we owe our parents?). I’m not so sure how to answer that. One way to characterize the Confucian view is that children owe their parents obedience, allegiance/loyalty, and gratitude — as I suggested about Analects 13.18 in the aforementioned post. But let me introduce Analects 17.21, which says:

Zai Wo asked about the three years’ mourning for parents, saying that one year was long enough….The Master said, “If you were, after a year, to eat good rice, and wear embroidered clothes, would you feel at ease?” “I should,” replied Wo. The Master said, “If you can feel at ease, do it. But a superior man, during the whole period of mourning, does not enjoy pleasant food which he may eat, nor derive pleasure from music which he may hear. He also does not feel at ease, if he is comfortably lodged. Therefore he does not do what you propose. But now you feel at ease and may do it.” Zai Wo then went out, and the Master said, “This shows Yu’s [i.e. Zai Wo’s] want of virtue. It is not till a child is three years old that it is allowed to leave the arms of its parents. And the three years’ mourning is universally observed throughout the empire. Did Yu enjoy the three years’ love of his parents?” (Legge translation)

One way of expressing filial piety is through this expression of mourning. But it really doesn’t work well to think of this on a duty or obligation model. If we think about it on the trust model, the three years spent in “the arms of its parents” are based on what the parents already owe to the child. The parent doesn’t create a subsequent debt by caring for the child, right? But maybe the child, later in life as an adult, comes to appreciate that parental care nonetheless. At that point, it seems like that’s a nice thing, but not only isn’t it morally relevant, I’m not sure it is desirable to think of that sort of appreciation as morally relevant. “I’m really glad that I was lucky to have such caring parents” and “I’m really grateful to my parents for caring about me” are slightly different sentiments, but of a kind. Call them the “fortunate child” or “grateful child” sentiments; they are of a kind because they recognize the virtues of the parents but don’t imply that those virtues then create a debt on the child’s part.

I think for filial piety, at least, to be plausible the view has to be understood in ways that aren’t tied to the duties or obligations of children to their parents. As someone who grew up in a fairly traditional Korean family and in traditional Korean diaspora communities, I get the sense that “on the ground” the Confucian view does require a heavy sense of duty and obligation from children toward their parents — not so much of gratitude or fortune. But what should the sense of duty and obligation toward parents be based on? I don’t think it can plausibly be based on gratitude toward them; being grateful to someone doesn’t seem like grounds for owing them things or having duties toward them, at least not in a strict moral sense. Or does it?

As always, discussion is welcome!

July 8, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Ethical Theory | 20 Comments

Rules of Gold

Analects 15.24 is often cited as the “Reverse Golden Rule” and it’s easy to see why:

子貢問曰:“有一言而可以終身行之者乎?”子曰:“其恕乎!己所不欲,勿施於人。”
Zigong asked: “Is there a single teaching that can be practiced to the end of one’s life?” Confucius replied: “It is reciprocity! What you don’t desire for yourself, do not desire for others.”

The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is found in the Gospels, in Matthew 7:9-12 and Luke 6:27-31. In the latter context, the “rule” follows a discussion of how one ought to treat one’s enemies, while in the former, it is more general.

15.24 is interesting because it raises the question of just what status this “rule”–or better yet, “teaching” (for 言)–has among the many sorts of teachings found in the Analects. In some important ways, it rubs against the idea that for early Confucianism moral virtuosity is somehow incapable of codification, or somewhat stronger, incapable of adequate articulation. Is this a rule? a principle? an articulation of the Confucian dao by the author(s) of this passage? If not any of those, then what? Those who favor a virtue-emphasis reading of the Analects tend to focus on the term for reciprocity, shu 恕, and treat it as a virtue term, though the explanation in terms of the “rule” seems added to present something like a definitional equivalence. (Here, I’m thinking of Van Norden’s discussion in “Unweaving the ‘One Thread’ of Analects 4:15″)

In 5.12, Zigong and Confucius have an exchange that is slightly different, on which Zigong comes off looking a bit too confident in himself:

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 people to do to me, I also desire for it not to be done toward people.” Confucius said, “Zigong my dear, it is not you who has gotten that far.”

The phrasing, 一言, in 15.24 seems to indicate that there is something important, something on the order of a single principle, for which Zigong is asking. I wonder if there other, similarly explicit principles to be found in the Analects, if indeed 15.24 provides an explicit principle.

June 17, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius | 3 Comments

Fingarette’s Confucius and Historical Contingency

I’m just going to post on Fingarette like I’m serving hors d’oeuvres. So, here goes.

So, according to Fingarette’s Confucius, the value of the individual can’t transcend the particular set of ceremonies in which the individual is embedded. On Fingarette’s reading, Confucius is committed, then, to the value of individuals being tied specifically to the Zhou ritual ceremonies. I don’t think Confucius could say something more Rorty-like–namely, that though the particular tradition is dependent on historical contingency, with a bit of irony and reflection, we can embrace the historically contingent and imbue it with value that we recognize to be contingent, since there isn’t any non-contingent value to be had in any case. In other words, Confucius could not think of the Zhou rituals, in so many words, as being historically contingent; he thinks they are absolutely valuable. That doesn’t mean Fingarette’s Confucius is committed, in so many words, to universal values; it means he doesn’t really think in terms of universal versus historically (or culturally) contingent values. His commitment to the Zhou is naively universalist in its assumption of superiority to the norms and mores of “the barbarians.”

I might have caricatured Rorty, or Fingarette for that matter. Comments welcome, as always.

March 23, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius | 4 Comments

Book Review of Lai Textbook

I know that at least Chris was interested in Karyn Lai‘s Chinese philosophy textbook (2008). I thought I would share part of my review of it, written for NDPR, here with you. At the very least, you’ll have some sense of one of the things that kept me busy during the past week. Comments, of course — including your own impressions if you have looked at the book yourself — are welcome. I’ll post a link to the full review when it is posted on NDPR’s site.

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Lai, Karyn L. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2008, 307pp., $34.99 (bpk), ISBN 9780521608923.

by Manyul Im, Fairfield University

It is noteworthy that the two most recent textbooks that bear this title, the current one by Karyn Lai, and one by JeeLoo Liu (2006, Blackwell; also reviewed on NDPR)), limit themselves to introducing the reader to early Chinese philosophy (Warring States period through the Han—roughly 5th century BCE through 3rd century CE) and the early schools of Chinese Buddhism (from ca. 1st through 6th centuries CE). This means that the title is quite misleading for both volumes since there are also significant periods of Chinese philosophy in the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and up to the post-dynastic present; so, roughly 1400 years of the 2500-year tradition are not represented. The similarity and temporal proximity of the two textbooks invite comparison, but for the purposes of this review, I will leave that exercise to others.

Lai’s volume is interesting and bold, as introductory textbooks go. There are aspects to her approach that those who are concerned with issues of historiography will find controversial. Those who care more about comparative philosophy should be pleased to find that Lai’s presentation of Chinese philosophy provides a very useful update to the collection of textbooks that are available. Lai’s discussion provides an excellent sense of the most current interpretations and uses of early Chinese thought by philosophers working in the specialization of Chinese and comparative philosophy, among whom Lai herself numbers.

The penchant to treat early Chinese thought as of primary importance—and to some, the only really interesting philosophical material from the tradition—runs deep through the professional field of Chinese and comparative philosophy in the English speaking world. Some people still refer to Chinese philosophy and simply mean the early material, without apology. That is slowly changing. However, it may very well be that this predilection tracks an affinity, or at least the widespread perception of affinity, that the concerns of early Chinese thought have with those of contemporary ethical theorizing, as broadly construed in western philosophy. On the other hand, the more metaphysical, spiritual, and soteriological concerns of medieval Neo-Confucianism may suffer in comparison in the eyes of contemporary professional philosophers. Those are not Lai’s overt reasons, however, for omitting discussion of the entirety of medieval Neo-Confucian philosophy, not to mention the entirety of modern Chinese “New,” or “Third-Wave,” Confucianism. Rather, she offers this apology:

[I]n order to keep the volume to a manageable size, it has not been possible to include a discussion of Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism was a development of Confucian doctrines and was a prominent philosophical movement from the tenth century [and onward]…. Many of the discussions by Neo-Confucian thinkers focus on metaphysical and meta-philosophical issues and it is unfortunate that these cannot be included…. Hopefully, the discussions in this volume will provide readers with a good understanding of the fundamental conceptual frameworks and concerns of Chinese philosophy and thereby equip readers to understand later developments in Chinese philosophy. (p. 2)

I’m not sure I am convinced by this rationale for this particular editorial choice. Surely it would have been possible to include at least cursory discussion, in at least one chapter of an introductory text, of the main outlines of Neo-Confucianism. To complicate matters in a necessary way, it is worth pointing out that interpretations of early Chinese texts by the Neo-Confucian movement through its commentarial tradition were, and continue to be, very influential in shaping contemporary interpretations and translations of them. From an intellectual history perspective, it is slightly inadequate to think of the tradition as having established “fundamental conceptual frameworks and concerns” early on and then simply having been built upon those as time progressed. Instead, many of the “orthodox” scholarly options available for understanding the early frameworks and concerns have been the product of the ways they were constructed and then retroactively fitted onto the early period by later figures and movements. But a reader who is receiving an introduction to the tradition may not fully appreciate this without seeing at least portions of the larger picture. Some part of that picture, of course, is present in Lai’s inter-textual juxtapositions, according to theme, of Han and pre-Han early Chinese sources, among themselves. By means of that, she hopes “to capture a sense of intellectual debt and cross-influences between the traditions” (p. 2), by which she means, between what are more traditionally called the “schools” of pre-Qin and Han dynastic Chinese thought (Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, Legalism, School of Names, and Buddhism). Though she states this to be a “secondary objective” (ibid.) of the volume, in actuality it would be very difficult to do anything aside from this in order to understand what the individual, compiled sets of teachings were trying to convey, argue, or establish philosophically—at least with regard to the clearly contemporaneous schools.
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Lai has a keen sense of the currents running through recent philosophical secondary literature that concerns itself largely with the early figures of Chinese philosophy. Much of it that is interesting to the western philosophical audience buoys, or at least attempts to buoy, the early texts to contemporary philosophical relevance through contemporary understandings or renderings of the issues, all the while maintaining a healthy concern for historical plausibility. Lai’s discussion of each prominent figure and school of thought is peppered throughout with her presentation and assessment of the views, which are sometimes in disagreement with each other, of major English-writing interpreters of the texts. As a textbook of Chinese philosophy, this is highly unusual but in a good way. Chapters 2-8 read in many respects like a literature survey of contemporary scholarship on early Chinese Confucianism, Daoism, and Mohism rather than the usual presentation of readings of the associated texts as if those readings were uncontestable. The effect, it seems to me, is exactly the sort of thing for which an introduction to this type of literature should aim. These chapters of Lai’s book, at least, give an appropriate sense of the differing interpretive possibilities for the ancient texts.

In particular, two chapters worth singling out for praise are the ones on early Mohism (ch. 4) and later Mohism (ch. 7). Neither of these movements is ordinarily treated with the level of scholarly evenhandedness and care that Lai provides. This reflects Lai’s awareness of the traditional, very strong bias against Mohism that has existed in Chinese philosophy because of the largely Confucian identity of the scholars who have created and transmitted orthodoxies about early Chinese figures.
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Lai’s understanding of the later Mohists is filtered largely through A.C. Graham and Chad Hansen’s emendations and reconstructions of the “drastically compromised” (p. 124) bamboo strip copies that form the basis for the received text. There have been notable scholarly criticisms of those reconstructions. In that respect, Lai is perhaps treading on thin ice. Nonetheless, it is clear that the later Mohist writings, which seem to aim for a kind of near mathematical precision of definition and explanation, represent an important departure from the stylized, literary writing of much of the rest of early Chinese philosophy. Given the nature of the text, it may be risky to draw too many conclusions about what the later Mohists were “onto”—for example, with respect to their understanding of propositions—but it is the sort of risk that makes Lai’s volume not only bolder, but more thought provoking than the usual textbook.

By comparison, Lai’s discussion in chapters 9-11 of Legalism, Han dynasty Confucianism, and Chinese schools of Buddhism seemed somewhat rote to me. This perhaps reflects Lai’s own intellectual background and interests. Though rote, these chapters provide an adequate accounting of those movements. To point this out is less a criticism of their adequacy as it is a compliment to Lai’s much more interesting treatment in the former chapters.

March 9, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Pedagogy | 1 Comment

Pre-Qin Love (愛)

[Moving up to front, to restart discussion on this topic — see new comments]

Because it’s now come up twice, in separate places (here and here), I can’t stop thinking about this question: What does ai 愛, broadly translatable as “love,” connote? If I had the time, I would do some actual research into this. But since the antecedent of that conditional is false, I’m going to allow myself just to post the question and my initial thoughts, and see what others think. Let me paste here a version of the comment I made at Tang Dynasty Times, attempting to understand the early Chinese concept through some early Greek ones, and see what kinds of responses I get:

My sense of ai in early Chinese literature is that it is actually more like agape–along with philia–than eros. Lian 戀, along with perhaps se 色, captures the sense of eros much better. Ai seems very much reserved in Classical Chinese for these two senses:

1) kindly attachment and affection (sort of like philia and agape); benevolence, if the direction of hierarchy in the relationship is right

and

2) fondness; or in the verbal sense, to fancy (sort of like hao 好, in the Classical sense)

I can’t call to mind any instances of ai that I’ve come across that connote the type of longing and lustfully urgent desire that eros suggests.

Or maybe that’s too narrow a rendering of eros? Maybe. Still, I think the broad outlines of what I’m saying are right at least.

Afterthought: The meaning of agape isn’t determined by its use in Christianity. So, I don’t think that’s a factor here.

I might sound confident, but I’m happy, as always, to be set straight.

February 1, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Mohism | 13 Comments

Acupuncture Interlude

I don’t know, maybe someone will find something philosophical to say about this:

(from a yahoo news link)

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WEDNESDAY, Jan. 28 (HealthDay News) — When used to treat pain, acupuncture offers only limited relief that may not be clinically relevant.

So say Danish researchers who examined data from 13 acupuncture pain studies that included more than 3,000 patients.

The studies compared real acupuncture, placebo acupuncture and no acupuncture for a wide range of painful conditions such as knee osteoarthritis, migraine, low back pain and postoperative pain.

Compared to placebo acupuncture, real acupuncture offered only a small amount of relief (about 4 millimeters on a 100-mm pain scoring scale), according to the review authors. A 10-mm change on this scale is classified as “minimal” or “little change,” which means the apparent relief offered by acupuncture seems to be below clinically relevant improvement.

The findings, published online Jan. 28 in the British Medical Journal, support a number of previous reviews that found no clear evidence that acupuncture offers effective pain relief.

Future studies should focus on reducing bias and trying to separate the physiological effect of using a needle and the psychological impact of the treatment ritual, said the researchers at the Nordic Cochrane Center in Copenhagen.

The overall effect of acupuncture in relation to usual care may not be large, but it may be clinically relevant for musculoskeletal conditions due to the limited treatment options and acupuncture’s safety record and patient preference, Dr. Adrian White and Dr. Mike Cummings of the British Medical Acupuncture Society wrote in an accompanying editorial.

Future research should focus on a comparison of acupuncture with the best existing treatments for different conditions, they suggested.

More information

The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has more about acupuncture.

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It’s true, I’m too busy at the moment to generate my own material…

January 28, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy | , | 1 Comment

Argument and Meta-Discourse

Over on Facebook, Stephen Walker and Robert Hymes got me thinking about meta-discourse in early China. Stephen imagined someone in China asking, or perhaps demanding, “Where are the arguments?” Robert suggested that it is perhaps impossible in classical Chinese to say “arguments” in the intended sense, so that someone might know what is being asked or demanded of him. (My thanks to them for stimulating the rest of this post. Maybe they will join in the discussion.)

I had a few initial responses to this, but I wanted to open up the discussion to others as well. Here are my thoughts:

(A) It is hard to know what term from the classical Chinese meta-discourse about language and rhetoric could do all and only the work that “the argument” in contemporary discourse does.

(B) Of course, one wouldn’t have to use meta-discourse simply to ask for a reason, some pattern of reasoning, or some other thing that might answer to “Why do you say that?” in English. One equivalent of “Why do you say that?” is he yan 何言, or simply 何.

There is another locution, an 安, which introduces more ambiguity–generality?–that is used for example in this Zhuangzi passage about the “Happiness of Fish” (魚之樂):

莊子與惠子游於濠梁之上。莊子曰:「鯈魚出游從容,是魚之樂也。」惠子曰:「子非魚,知魚之樂?」莊子曰:「子非我,知我不知魚之樂?」惠子曰:「我非子,固不知子矣;子固非魚也,子之不知魚之樂,全矣。」莊子曰:「請循其本。子曰『汝知魚樂』云者,既已知吾知之而問我。我知之濠上也。」

Zhuangzi and Huizi wandered to a bridge over the Hao River. Zhuangzi said, “See how the small fish meander to and fro. This is the happiness of the fish.” Huizi replied “You are not a fish; how do you know the happiness of the fish?” “You are not I,” retorted Zhuangzi, “How do you know my not knowing the happiness of the fish?” “I am not you,” conceded Huizi, “so I certainly do not know what you know. But you are certainly not a fish, so your not knowing the happiness of the fish is settled.” “Let’s return to the original question” suggested Zhuangzi. “You asked me whence I know the happiness of the fish. That shows that you already knew what I knew when you asked me. I know it from my vantage over the Hao.”

This is an interesting passage because Zhuangzi is depicted, I think, as being aware of the ambiguity of an 安; his answer at the end turns on interpreting Huizi’s question, not as “how do you know?”, which is what Huizi seems to intend, but as “from where do you know?”, (安 being one way to ask for the location of something in classical Chinese). That makes me also think:

(C) One could be aware of the different sorts of things someone is asking for with he 何, an 安, and other similar lexical items, without having an explicit/precise/unambiguous meta-discourse term for those sorts of things. Maybe one of those sorts of things Zhuangzi and others were aware of was “argument.”

Thoughts?

January 15, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics | 10 Comments

Do Chinese Philosophers Think Tilted Coins Look Elliptical?

by Eric Schwitzgebel (guest blogger)

[Cross posted at The Splintered Mind]

In my 2006 essay “Do Things Look Flat?“, I examine some of the cultural history of the opinion that visual appearances involve what I call “projective distortions” — the opinion, that is, that tilted coins look elliptical, rows of streetlights look like they shrink into the distance, etc. I conjecture that our inclination to say such things is due to overanalogizing visual experience to flat, projective media like paintings and photographs. In support of this conjecture, I contrast the contemporary and early modern periods (in the West) with ancient Greece and introspective psychology circa 1900. In the first two cultures, one finds both a tendency to compare visual experience to pictures and a tendency to describe visual experience as projectively distorted. In the latter two cultures, one finds little of either, despite plenty of talk about visual appearances in general.

I didn’t do a systematic search of classical Chinese philosophy, which I love but which has less epistemology of perception, but I did find one relevant passage:

If you look down on a herd of cows from the top of a hill, they will look no bigger than sheep, and yet no one hoping to find sheep is likely to run down the hill after them. It is simply that the distance obscures their actual size. If you look up at a forest from the foot of a hill, the biggest trees appear no taller than chopsticks, and yet no one hoping to find chopsticks is likely to go picking among them. It is simply that the height obscures their actual dimensions (Xunzi ch. 21; Basic Writings, Watson trans., p. 134)

Though I can recall no ancient Chinese comparisons of visual experience and painting, both Xunzi and Zhuangzi compare the mind to a pan of water which can reflect things accurately or inaccurately, an analogy that seems related (Xunzi ibid. p. 131, ch. 25, Knoblock trans. 1999, p. 799; Zhuangzi, Watson trans., Complete Works, p. 97). In medieval China, which I know much less about, I noticed Wang Yangming saying such a comparison was commonplace (Instructions for Practical Living, Chan trans., p. 45).

So my question is, for those of you who know more Chinese philosophy than I, are there other passages I should be looking at — either on perspectival shape or size distortion or on analogies for visual experience? I’m revising the essay for a book chapter and I’d like to expand my discussion to China if I can find enough material. Any help would be much appreciated!

(I also wouldn’t mind more help on Greek passages, too, if anyone has the inclination. Some of the more obvious passages are Plato’s discussion of painters in the Republic and Sophist, Aristotle’s discussion of sensory experience as like impressions in wax, Sextus’s lists of sensory distortions in experience and his discussions of wax impressions, Epicurus’s discussions of the transmission of images, discussions of the sun as looking “one foot wide”, and Euclid’s and Ptolemy’s optics.)

December 11, 2008 Posted by | Comparative philosophy | 11 Comments

Mohism and Maximizing

In thinking about Mohism lately, I’ve wondered to myself if the fact that maximizing benefit (li 利) is not explicitly a part of Mozi’s doctrines makes a difference. Though it is clear that benefit is supposed to be the primary consideration in deciding what to do or what policies to adopt, there isn’t some explicit accompanying doctrine of producing the overall best state of affairs construed in terms benefit, as there is in classcial utilitarianism for example. This could divide into at least two questions: (A) Can it simply be assumed that if someone thinks beneficial consequences should be the primary motive for acting, or rationale for policy, that she also thinks maximizing such consequences should be the primary motive? (B) If maximizing consequences weren’t part of the Mohist view, would it still count as a form of consequentialism?

Obviously, in part I’m interested (in question B) because it makes a difference for how to categorize Mohism in the spectrum of types of ethical theory. But I’m also interested (via an answer to A) in whether there might plausibly be a systematic, primary role for consequence-reasoning that isn’t committed to some kind of maximizing rationality.

Any thoughts?

November 19, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Mohism | | 36 Comments

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