Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Some Modes of Subjection

I want to take up a suggestion I made in the previous thread (here).

In the second volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault introduced a way of thinking about ethics that might be helpful in thinking about early Chinese ideas. He set aside questions about the content of the ethical code in question (for us, that would be a dào), and asks instead about the ways in which individuals are expected or invited to become ethical subjects.

Foucault’s analysis picks out as especially important the ethical substance (that in us which must be worked on in order to make us ethical subjects), modes of subjection (ways in which we conceive of ourselves in relation to the ethical code), the ethical work (practices of self-cultivation), and a teleology (the sort of being that one aims to become; the gentleman, the benevolent person, or the sage, perhaps).

My suggestion in the last thread was that appeals to human nature in the Mencius might be best thought of as implying a mode of subjection, and not, for example, an argument in favour of a Mencian dào. The idea is that Mencian ethics invites us to think of the dào as natural for us. (How exactly this gets spelled out differs from passage to passage; one important version is that goodness is in some sense already within us, and we just have to release it, a process that does not require force.) Reading the Mencius this way puts appeals to human nature in the context of an account of the psychology of virtue.

One question I have about modes of subjection in early Chinese thought concerns the extent to which they address individuals as individuals. The Mencius seems to do this. So perhaps does the Analects; a while back Patrick referenced an excellent paper by Herbert Fingarette that is easily read as implying that the Analects offers a mode of subjection that addresses individuals as individuals, in order to bring them into relation to a dào that gives no weight to individuality. (Patrick’s reference is here.)

We find something quite different in the Mòzǐ and, I think, in the Xúnzǐ. The Mohists ask us to see ourselves first and foremost as members of a social order (this is clearest in their arguments in favour of conforming upwards and caring inclusively). Xúnzǐ adds to this, for example he adds the idea that the social order is a response to a constant and non-purposive natural context, but like the Mohists he implies an ethical self-understanding that relates us to the dào as members of a social order, not as individuals.

(I wonder—do we have here the beginnings of an explanation of why scholars whose own assumptions about ethics are individualist tend to prefer the Analects and the Mencius over the Mòzǐ and the Xúnzǐ?)

Does this seem like a useful way to set up questions about early Chinese ethics? What other questions and answers does it suggest? I’m particularly interested in what if anything it might lead us to say about the Zhuāngzǐ. (My first ever paper in Chinese philosophy was an attempt to talk about Zhuāngzǐ in something like these terms.)

March 9, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy

3 Comments

  1. Dan, I’m not exactly sure why you don’t think the Mozi and the Xunzi address individuals “as individuals.” My admittedly partial understanding of the Foucault template you want to use here doesn’t seem to deny that individuals could, as subjects, adopt modes that are embedded within some social ordering. Any “invitation” to fit oneself into a social context addresses individuals as individuals, doesn’t it? Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point. Part of what puzzles me is a general one about how you could even conceive of yourself as a *member* of social order without thinking of yourself as an individual within it. The alternative, i.e. the absence of an “individualist mode of subjection,” would, it seems to me, to be like the fictional “Borg” of Star Trek creation, with no clear or strong sense of individual subjectivity. Is that what the alternative would be? If not, then what would it be not to adopt an individualist mode of subjection? Maybe I’ve been too immersed in some Cartesian fantasy to understand.

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 9, 2008

  2. Manyul, it’s more likely I was just being confusing. Here’s another try.

    The initial idea is that a certain kind of self-conception plays an important role in the psychology of an ethical subject. For Foucault, this is a conception of oneself and one’s relation to the ethical code; the model is in a way individualist, and as I said in the post I think it’s an individualism that is fairly at home in the thought of the Mencius and the Analects.

    What I didn’t make clear enough is that if I’m right about the Mozi and the Xunzi, it’s not quite right to talk about a self-conception with those texts. As you say, any such conception is going to be of an individual, no matter how it relates that individual to a social structure. I should have said something more like this: for the Mohists and for Xunzi, the conception that plays the role in question is not exactly a self-conception, because it’s a thought about the social order as a whole, and its relation to the dao. You presumably also do think of yourself as a member of the social order (and as an individual in a variety of other ways), but that thought doesn’t play the role that Foucault associated with modes of subjection.

    Or anyway that’s the idea I was aiming for in the post. I hope this version makes a bit more sense.

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 9, 2008

  3. On the other hand, it’s always possible I’m just wrong.😉

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 9, 2008


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