Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Rules of Gold

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

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:

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

Filial Piety, Fathers & Sons Revisited

I saw this (Associated Press) article about the son of the Holocaust Museum shooting suspect:


WASHINGTON – The son of a white supremacist accused of killing a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said Monday the shooting was unforgivable and he wished his father had died instead.

Erik von Brunn told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he and his father James didn’t like each other. The interview followed ABC’s release Sunday of comments by the son that his father had long burdened their family with his white supremacist views and that James should have died in the attack.

“I loved my father. But what he did was unforgivable,” Erik von Brunn, 32, said.

James von Brunn, 88, has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of 39-year-old Stephen T. Johns, who was black.

ABC played a short video of Johns’ mother Jacqueline Carter reacting to Erik’s statements about his father.

“I hope that in time his son will be able to forgive his dad and find some peace within his heart also,” Carter said.

In response, Erik von Brunn told ABC, “Forgiveness is very difficult right now.”

“You know, the only bond we had was father and son. We didn’t like each other very much.” …


Something about this didn’t feel right. I can understand condemning the father’s actions–maybe condemning the father as a person, too. But the idea of wishing that one’s father had been the one killed in the tragedy seemed morally strange to me. That got me thinking about the famous (infamous?) Analects passage, 13.18:

The Duke of She informed Confucius, saying, “Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.” Confucius said, “Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.” (Legge translation)

This passage has always struck me as indefensible from the point of view of contemporary ethical theories (though, if anyone wants to give it a go, have at). But something like it lurks about, at least in my consciousness, that makes it seem like one should–as a son–have some extra pity, compassion, or something of the sort toward one’s father, deeply disturbed and hateful an anti-Semitic as he may be.

I have two related questions here:

I. Is the Analects view, as expressed in 13.18, defensible by some contemporary moral theoretic approach?

II. Would it make sense to read Confucius ironically here? By that I mean, would it make sense to read Confucius here as using ‘直’ (“upright”) ironically, in an oblique indictment of his own locality’s standards? (I can’t think of anyone who’s taken that reading…)

Comments welcome!

June 15, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius | 19 Comments

Summer Pace

Things will be sporadically slow here while I dive into a few projects for the summer. Once again, anyone who’s interested in seeing what blogging is like on this end and wants to take advantage of having a ready and willing audience for relatively serious Chinese philosophy discussion, should consider guest blogging. Contact me; you know who you are.

[Moved up to front. Check comment updates for pointers to interesting discussions on other sites...]

June 10, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy | 2 Comments

Survey for Instructors of Chinese Philosophy

MOVING UP TO FRONT (fill out the survey if you have not yet):

Minh Nguyen, who is on the APA Committee on the Status of Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies, is working on a report for that committee on teaching Chinese philosophy. Minh would like to survey anyone who teaches the subject, and collect some data for the report. Here is his request and below it, the survey itself. The survey is being collected throughout the summer, via Minh’s email; I imagine the easiest thing to do would be to cut and paste the survey into an email or doc and answer each question therein. Send him your thoughts!

Minh Nguyen writes:

I am scheduled to write a report for the American Philosophical Association Committee on the Status of Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies. The subject is: the challenges and rewards of teaching Chinese philosophy.

Teaching Chinese philosophy to Western students can be very challenging. It would be fruitful to explore such challenges and discuss how they can be overcome. Any suggestions concerning teaching techniques, classroom strategies, and/or instructional materials would be helpful. Additionally, any information concerning the benefits of teaching and learning Chinese philosophy would be useful to members of our profession.

In order to collect the relevant data for the report, I’d like to conduct a survey on these matters. Below please find the survey. Would you kindly complete the survey and return it to me at

Thank you very much for your assistance. I look forward to hearing from you. Have a pleasant and productive summer.

Minh Nguyen
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Eastern Kentucky University
Member, APA Committee on the Status of Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies

Prepared for a Report for the American Philosophical Association Committee on the Status of Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies

Please send your responses to Minh Nguyen at

1. What are the challenges that you have faced in teaching Chinese philosophy to Western students? Please be specific and detailed.

2. With respect to the challenges that you have succeeded in overcoming, how did you do it? Please specify any teaching techniques (active learning, group work, role playing, etc.) and/or classroom strategies (problem solving, case studies, background reports, etc.) that worked for you.

3. With respect to the challenges that you have yet to overcome, why do they seem so intractable?

4. In “How to Add Chinese Philosophy to Your Introductory Course,” Bryan W. Van Norden writes:

But instead of either Confucius or Laozi [or Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) or Han Feizi (Han Fei Tzu)], I recommend five philosophers for your introductory classes: Mozi (Mo Tzu), an agent-neutral consequentialist, Yang Zhu (Yang Chu), an egoist, Mengzi (Mencius), a Confucian virtue ethician, Gongsun Longzi (Kung-sun Lung Tzu), the author of a sophistical dialogue, and Xunzi (Hsun Tzu), a Confucian virtue ethician who was a critic of Mengzi.

In the context of this essay, “introductory course” and “introductory class” refer to introductory course and introductory class in philosophy that do not focus on Chinese thought. Do you agree with Van Norden? Why or why not?

5. Assuming that Van Norden is right, what is it about the work of Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), or Han Feizi (Han Fei Tzu) that makes the task of teaching it to Western students so challenging?

6. If you are to teach an undergraduate course introducing Chinese philosophy to Western students, what will be the course objectives? What will be the student learning outcomes? (Course objectives correspond to what the instructor will do in the course. Student learning outcomes correspond to what successful students will learn in the course.)

7. Would you recommend any instructional materials (books, software, Web-based resources, etc.) for an undergraduate course introducing Chinese philosophy to Western students?

8. What are the rewards of teaching Chinese philosophy for you? And for your department?

9. What are the rewards of learning Chinese philosophy for you? And for your students?

10. Would you recommend any research (books, articles, reports, etc.) on any of the subjects that we have covered, especially research on the challenges of teaching Chinese philosophy to Western students?

June 5, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Pedagogy | Comments Off

Like the Infant

Sent along by Chris Fraser (much thanks!) — comments welcome:

Scientific research supports Daoist ideas? … (Chris’s question)



To Be a Baby

Bibliolog/ by Evan Lerner / May 5, 2009

Alison Gopnik describes new experiments in developmental psychology that show everything we think we know about babies is wrong.

Thomas Nagel famously asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” That question has become a staple of Philosophy 101 courses, but we might be better served asking a more basic one: What is it like to be a baby? Though all of us experience life as a baby firsthand, we’ve long held misconceptions about what babies are capable of thinking, feeling, and understanding. Only recently have we overturned dominant theories of development in which very young children were thought to be barely conscious at all.   

In The Philosophical Baby developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik compiles the latest in her field’s research to paint a new picture of our inner lives at inception — one in which we are, in some ways, more conscious than adults. Gopnik spoke with Seed’s Evan Lerner about how babies and young children learn from us and what we can learn from them. 

Seed: How does a better understanding of what’s going on in the minds of babies help us as adults?
Alison Gopnik: One of the things we discovered is that imagination, which we often think of as a special adult ability, is actually in place in very young children, as early as 18 months old. That ability is very closely related to children’s ability to figure out how the world works. Imagination isn’t just something we develop for our amusement; it seems to be something innate and connected to how we understand the causal structure of the real world. In fact, the new computational model of development we’ve created —  using what computer scientists call Bayesian networks — shows systematically how understanding causation lets you imagine new possibilities. If children are computing in this way, then we’d expect imagination and learning to go hand in hand.

Seed: You describe children as being “useless on purpose.” What do you mean by that?
AG:  It’s related to one of the basic things that came out of our research: Why do children exist at all? It doesn’t make tremendous evolutionary sense to have these creatures that can’t even keep themselves alive and require an enormous investment of time on the part of adults. That period of dependence is longer for us than it is for any other species, and historically that period has become longer and longer.

The evolutionary answer seems to be that there is a tradeoff between the ability to learn and imagine — which is our great evolutionary advantage as a species — and our ability to apply what we’ve learned and put it to use. So one of the ideas in the book is that children are like the R&D department of the human species. They’re the ones who are always learning about the world. But if you’re always learning, imagining, and finding out, you need a kind of freedom that you don’t have if you’re actually making things happen in the world. And when you’re making things happen, it helps if those actions are based on all of the things you have learned and imagined. The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is by giving us this period of childhood where we don’t have to do anything, where we are completely useless. We’re free to explore the physical world, as well as possible worlds through imaginative play. And when we’re adults, we can use that information to actually change the world.

Seed: You think Freud’s and Piaget’s conceptions of young children’s theory of mind are wrong. What do we know that they didn’t?
AG:  Both Piaget and Freud thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both. The picture we used to have of children was that they spent all of this time doing pretend play because they had these very limited minds, but in fact what we’ve now discovered is that children have more powerful learning abilities than we do as adults. A lot of their characteristic traits, like their pretend play, are signs of how powerful their imaginative abilities are.

Seed: So is this just a matter of a changing frame of reference, where we now value imagination more?
AG: Well, the science has changed, too. For Freud and Piaget, it was a perfectly good hypothesis. If you just looked at young children and babies, they just did not seem very smart. We have new techniques we use to get more subtle measurements of what’s going on in children’s minds, and that’s the thing that has overturned that earlier view. When we take more than a superficial look at what children are doing, it turns out that they both know much more and learn much more than we ever thought before.

Seed: What are these techniques? How can we interrogate the minds of people who can’t yet fully communicate?
AG: Children are not very good at spontaneously telling you what they are thinking. With adults, we give them a questionnaire and have them give us answers. That doesn’t work for babies, who can’t talk, and for young children, who can only give a kind of stream-of-consciousness response. So one thing is to look at what they do rather than what they say. This works if you give them very focused questions with very simple answers. Rather than ask a child to explain how a toy machine works, we’ll ask, “Do you think this block or that block will make the machine go?”

Seed: What have you found?
AG: These techniques show that children can work with very complex statistical information. In the machine example, we show children’s patterns of conditional probability, the relationship between certain blocks and the machine turning on or off. If I tried to give you just a description of the sequence of events in one of these experiments in a conversation, I’d probably get it wrong and you wouldn’t be able to remember it — it’s pretty complicated for even adults to describe. But when you give kids these complicated sets of relationships and then just ask them to make the machine go or make the machine stop, they do the right things. Although they can’t consciously track how these conditional probabilities work, they are unconsciously taking that information into account. And they do this in the same way that sophisticated Bayesian network machine-learning programs do.

Seed: What about less objective causal inferences, such as ones dealing with morality?
AG: One of my favorites of these experiments is one that’s been around for quite awhile but hasn’t been fully appreciated. Two-and-a-half-year-olds already recognize the difference between moral principles and conventional principles. You can ask them if it would be okay to hit someone at daycare if everyone said it would be okay, versus asking them whether it would be okay to not hang up your coat in the cubby if everyone said it would be okay. These children say it’s never okay to hit someone, but whether or not you have to put your clothes in the cubby could change from daycare to daycare. They already seem to appreciate the difference between the kinds of morality that comes from empathy and the kind that comes from our conventional rules. From the time they are two, they recognize both are important but in different ways. That’s pretty amazing.

Seed: So where do adult philosophers go from here?
AG: Back to the 18th century, in some ways. If you look at someone like David Hume, he thought he was doing a kind of theoretical science — he didn’t think there was a line between what we find out from science and what we find out from philosophy. Increasingly, modern philosophers say that we can learn about the big questions by looking at science. But science, especially developmental psychology, can also tell us about philosophy; it can tell us about what we start with, what we learn, and what the basic facets of human nature are. The kind of picture you often get from scientifically oriented philosophy is often very much in the vein of evolutionary psychology, with everything innate and genetically determined. But one of the more important things that has come out of developmental work is that there’s also a powerful capacity for change. And we’re starting to understand how that change takes place at a very detailed neurological and computational level. 

And the same is true when we look at our moral development. A lot of moral psychology has been saying that we have these innate moral instincts, or innate moral grammars. When we look at children, we do see some of these innate moral intuitions, but there is also this tremendous capacity for moral revision. In some ways, I think those are some of the most distinctively human abilities. They give us the ability to say, “Oh wait, the way that we’ve been operating is not working, and that’s wrong.” And this gives us the ability to change those things that are wrong and get to better moral principles than we started out with.

May 17, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | 9 Comments

Confucius makes the “Top Ten”

A fun bit of frivolity: Brian Leiter has been running various “top philosopher” polls among his blogizens. Surprise! Confucius somehow got voted into the top ten among “Most Important Philosophers of the Pre-modern Era.” I was surprised because the (very large) blogizenship of Brian’s site, which consists of mostly professional philosophers, probably knows far, far less about Confucius than any of the other philosophers on the poll list. My guess is that most were voting on reputation. There’s currently a “Most Important Philosophers of All Time” poll running, so go cast your vote if you have time to burn (if you’re blogsurfing, you at least have some time to burn… ).

May 10, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucius | 7 Comments


It’s end of the term here at Fairfield and there’s more to do now (committees and grading) than there ever was during the term. So, I’ll be back in the swing in a couple of weeks. Anyone interested in doing some guest posting either now or later in the summer, should contact me.

May 1, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy | 2 Comments

Daodejing Translations

I’ve been off the air for a bit, trying to catch up to a few things. One of them is ordering books for the Fall semester. I’m teaching a Daoism course and I’ve been pondering a change in the Daodejing translation that I use. I’ve used the Addiss and Lombardo recently–I’m kind of a sucker for their sparse style. I’ve used Lau in the past, and once tried using LaFargue. I’d like to do something different from any of those. I’ll take suggestions. As I implied, I like translations that are not as wordy as Lau and that have some poetry to them. I also like consistency–e.g. dao 道 translated with either the same or with a cognate form of the same word each time. A lot of translations flub that, as far as I’m concerned, in the very first lines of the traditional Chapter 1. Anyway, it’s a good way for me to get back into the flow of blogging. So tell me about a translation you like, and why you like it. Thanks!

April 20, 2009 Posted by | Daoism, Pedagogy, Taoism | 21 Comments

ACPA Report of Pacific APA sessions

I just got back yesterday from a very stimulating and enjoyable Pacific APA meeting in Vancouver (what a great city, by the way). I’ve been trying to catch up a bit with work so I haven’t had much time to blog. Let me just paste here a report from the ACPA Vice President, Jeeloo Liu, of her impressions from the meeting, but also of her call for topics to organize papers around for next years Pacific APA. You can, of course, send them directly to Prof. Liu, or send them to me, or suggest them in the comments section of this post.


ACPA Newsletter April 12, 2009

Dear All

I just returned from the APA Pacific Division meeting held in Vancouver and wish to give you a report and my reflection as it relates to the future direction of the ACPA. I arrived mid-day of Friday, so could only report on the second of our ACPA sessions (the first session is the Dao annual best essay award to Erin Cline). This second session was chaired by Professor Chung-ying Cheng, with three speakers: Yiu-ming Fung from Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Manyul Im of Fairfield University and Sin-Yee Chan of the University of Vermont. Fung’s paper employs two notions in contemporary Western metaphysics, ‘realization’ and ‘supervenience’, to reconstruct Wang Yangming’s metaphysics into a coherent view. Manyul Im’s paper aims to give a consequentialist reading to Mencius’ moral theory. Sin Yee Chan’s paper compares and analyzes Mozi’s, Laozi’s and Xunzi’s views on human desire, with an effort to delineate an intellectual thread in the development of their ideas. All three papers were innovative and seriously composed, and they challenge us to read these philosophers in a different light. The three commentators, Yujian Zheng of Lingnan University, Dan Robins of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and Hagop Sarkissian of City University of New York – Baruch College, have also done an excellent job in raising interesting questions for further discussion. I should congratulate the session organizer, Tongdong Bai, for finding such high-quality commentators. The session was well attended (with about 15 people in the audience) and there were many questions from the floor. Professor Cheng kept good control of time for each talk and discussion, so that we were able to finish the session by 10 pm. Even though it was late in the evening, many people stayed in the room to continue the discussion. A number of us went out to have a late dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant until close to mid-night.

Another major event I wish to report on is the exciting mini-conference on Neo-Confucian moral psychology from a comparative approach. This is the first time the APA has a mini-conference on Chinese philosophy, and we should thank Eric Schwitzgebel (on the APA program committee) for accepting the initial proposal into the main program. Justine Tiwald, along with the planning committee (Philip J. Ivanhoe, Stephen Angle, Yong Huang, Eric Schwitzgebel, Pauline Lee), is instrumental in making this event possible. With their careful planning, the inception of the theme for this conference, the invitation of speakers and guest commentators, as well as the final execution of program on site, the mini-conference was an absolute success in every way. The main focus of the mini-conference is the comparative study of Neo-Confucian moral psychology. By leading off dialogues on such topics as moral perception, moral education, authenticity, anger, moral intuition, self-love and altruism, the speakers jointly open up many new directions for further comparative study on Neo-Confucianism. The commentators, with or without background in Neo-Confucianism, are experts on Western ethics and moral psychology. There were many issues that were highly connected; hence, the discussion was intense and focused. It is simply a wonderful experience to see so many people coming together to discuss Chinese philosophy. All sessions were well attended — even the last session Sunday morning drew about 30-40 people in attendance. Everyone I talked to remarked several times about how wonderful this mini-conference was.

If you wish to take a look at the abstracts/drafts of these presented papers, you can go visit the site: (Please bear in mind that the papers are work-in-progress and should not be cited in any way without the author’s permission.)

Now the real issue. Both Tongdong Bai and I were greatly inspired by the quality of the mini-conference, and we would like to work with our close associates in the future to have group sessions similar to the format of this mini-conference. We have discussed this idea with Prof. Cheng from the ISCP as well as with Steve Angle and Justin Tiwald from ISCWP, and they all agreed that this focused format is something we should work together to promote. I think the APA Pacific Division meeting is the best occasion for our focused group session, because most people are not there for job interviews and the Pacific meeting is usually more well-attended by those scholars from the other side of the Pacific. We are going to try to come up with interesting topics before we send out our CFP for the Pacific meeting, and we invite you to suggest new topics that you think will have a wide appeal.

Respectfully submitted,

JeeLoo Liu

April 13, 2009

JeeLoo Liu
Vice President/Treasurer of the Association of Chinese Philosophers in North America
Associate Professor
Department of Philosophy
California State University, Fullerton
Fullerton, CA 92834

April 13, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy | 1 Comment

Berthrong’s Question

One of the things I just read (on my list of “things I should read before I run into this person at a conference”) is John Berthrong‘s “Boston Confucianism: The Third Wave of Global Confucianism” (Journal of Ecumenical Studies 40, nos. 1-2 (Winter-Spring 2003): 26-47). In it, Berthrong discusses at length questions about “the contested definition of Confucianism” (26) and the extent to which Confucianism can be “a portable intellectual tradition in Boston as well as Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Kyoto, and Tokyo” (ibid). At the end of the piece, he asks an intriguing question:

…wherever the Confucian Dao was seriously entertained as a philosophical and religious teaching, it was studied assiduously in the classical Chinese written language. The great Ruist scholars of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam all wrote in classical Chinese. The question before the modern Confucian community is whether there can be a Ruist movement without a mastery of the communication medium of classical Chinese. …Can a person who does not read classical Chinese be said to be a part of the Confucian Way? If not, why not? Or, if so, why so? This is an important question that should engage anyone interested in the revival of Confucianism in the twenty-first century. …[It] will be up to the Confucian community of scholars to give a reasoned answer to the question of the necessity of linguistic competence for membership as a real twenty-first-century Ruist scholar. (46-7)

Well, I’m not sure I’m a Confucian or a Ruist scholar — though I write about Confucianism/Ruism — but this seems like an interesting question to try to answer. By the way, this is tangentially relevant to Fingarette-palooza, since Fingarette is one of Berthrong’s examples, along with Robert Neville, of contemporary philosophers who “have written important works about Confucian thought” (38) but who were not “trained formally as a Sinologist although each relied on the best scholarship about Chinese thought available in their times” (ibid). Not only that — Berthrong adds more strongly that they “wrote works that often illuminated Confucianism more insightfully than did professional students of the history of Chinese thought” (39).

What say ye?

April 3, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism | 12 Comments


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