Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Bootstrapping Problem in Mencius

There’s a very problematic passage–I’ve always thought–in Mencius 6A: 15:

Gongduzi asked: Though equally human, but some are great men (daren 大人) and some are petty men (xiaoren 小人). Why is this?

Mencius replied: Following their greater parts (dati 大體) makes them great men; following their lesser parts (xiaoti 小體) makes them petty men.

Gongduzi asked: But being equally human, how is it that some follow their greater parts and some follow their lesser parts?

Mencius replied: The organs of the ears and eyes do not think and are wrapped up in things (bi yu wu 蔽於物). When there is interaction among things, [those organs] are only led around. The organ of the heart thinks and because it thinks, it can attain (de ) things [i.e. control and/or transform things]; if something does not think, it cannot attain things. This is what is given to us by Heaven. First, take a stand (li hu qi da zhe 立乎其大者) on the greater; then the lesser is unable to take over. That is all there is to being a great man.

Mencius doesn’t really answer Gongduzi’s question to my satisfaction because it seems clear to me that Gongduzi can just repeat the question in this form: “But being equally human, how is it that some ‘take a stand’ on their greater parts while others do not?”

I call this a bootstrapping problem because it seems to require some kind of “super-agency” in which a person has to take a stand on the better part of herself without being able to rely on that part to guide her in taking that stand. Or so I’ve argued in “Wielding Virtue in the Mengzi” (in Conceptions of Virtue East and West, Kim-chong Chong (ed.), 2006).

Doesn’t this seem like a problem for Mencius? Is there a solution?

November 12, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Mencius

22 Comments

  1. If he means “One of the actions that is a *sign* of greatness because it is a consequence of the greatness of a great person is that she thinks,” then he has a regress problem. But if he means, “What causes someone to be great is that she thinks,” then he has only not explained everything. He hasn’t explained the thinking.

    To explain thinking, he needn’t appeal to “super agency.” Early thinking could come from being lucky in having early circumstances parents, associates, secure but moderate means) that encourage or don’t discourage thinking. As for a great person’s later thinking, that can be explained maybe by habit (or qi), and/or by her having learned that thinking is a good idea, her being surrounded by people who remind her to think or help her think, etc.: all largely consequences of her early thinking. And in general the more you think, the better you do.

    Mencius hasn’t completed the connection with differential circumstances, but he has said something that might help with that. We should look to the kinds of circumstances that help or hinder thinking. Alas that he is not clearer about what he means by thinking.

    There may still be a regress if the point of his contrast with the senses is to say that the heart does not operate unless we *first* think (given that thinking is an operation of the heart). But his point can instead be that the heart operates by thinking, or that a key part of its operation is thinking, so that the heart does not influence our action if we never think.

    OBJECTION: The penultimate sentence of our passage 6A15, about taking one’s stand on the greater, seems to allude to 6A14, in which Mencius says that we can tell whether a person is great or a gardener is a good one by whether she takes care of the greater things at the expense of the lesser. The allusion suggests that in our passage 6A15, taking one’s stand on the greater, i.e. thinking, hence even early thinking, is a *sign* of greatness. The idea must be that thinking is a consequence of greatness, and that idea gives us a regress.

    REPLY: A sign of X need not be a consequence of X. It need only correlate with X, perhaps because it causes X or is part of X or is caused by X, or perhaps different mixes of these on various occasions. The non-regressive reading of our passage 6A15 still allows that regular thinking is normally a sign of greatness. Regular thinking in a child is a sign of coming greatness; and more importantly, regular thinking in an adult is a sign of current (or coming) greatness. An individual act of thinking isn’t a strong sign, but then neither is caring for an individual precious tree a strong sign of being a good gardener.

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 12, 2008

  2. … I’m not sure 6A14 is talking about signs. We’ve talked about this somewhere here? Gotta run now though.

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 12, 2008

  3. Hey Bill,

    Let me put aside 6A14 for the moment. Here’s how I see the problem. You’re certainly right that the heart can think and begin to think without agency; if the analogy to the eyes, etc. holds, those things begin doing their thing from the start. And of course, Mencius must think the heart does its thinking–in whatever rudimentary forms–from the beginning, then gets better and better at it IF there is no harm to it.

    The way I see the problem, however, is how any of that answers Gongduzi’s challenge–viz. to explain why some people end up with the heart leading them rather than being led around hither and yon by the shiny, glittery, tasty, aromatic, and pleasurable things. I read the point about “taking a stand on the greater” (立乎其大者) as one about *putting one’s weight*, as it were, behind the normatively superior (though not necessarily superior as a matter of fact) part of oneself. (This reminds me of Frankfurt’s idea of “identification” of oneself with one’s second-order desire. I think Frankfurt’s view has a similar boot-strapping problem.) So if the difference in the great-man lies in “taking a stand” I can’t see how that could be successful in the right way, because there are two possibilities:

    A) In some people, the heart happens to be stronger, relative to the other senses. This might come about through luck, or better, through proper upbringing.

    B) Some people “throw their weight” behind the heart, because they can somehow see that they are better off by doing so.

    The boot-strapping occurs on hypothesis B. It doesn’t seem like a person can choose or act on that kind of good reasoning without relying on the heart to be in control *already*, rather than the other senses leading the person around. There would have to be some “super-agent” (an agent over and above the whole composed of the senses and the heart) lurking in the background–a homunculus of some sort, with its own ability to reason on the person’s behalf.

    Hypothesis A seems implausbile to me as a rendering of the argument here between Gongduzi and Mencius. Why invoke the idea of “taking a stand on” the greater part if the trick is just to raise people in the right way?

    I’m not sure we’ve talked exactly about this on the blog, though we’ve surely talked about similar issues–or you and I have conversed in some drunken stupor about this in Hong Kong.

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 13, 2008

  4. Hey Bill, on 6A14:

    I think 6A14 has the same super-agency problem. Who is this “gardener” in charge of tending to the lesser and greater parts? It’s as if, for Mencius, the heart does the thinking and proper choosing, but there is something over and above the heart that needs also to choose properly. There doesn’t seem to be anything here to fill that vacuum coherently.

    Some people seem to gloss right over this problem and assume that the gardeners are just the *other* people in charge of proper upbringing–parents, rulers, teachers, et. al. If that’s what Mencius meant, there wouldn’t be a problem. But clearly that isn’t what Mencius is talking about here. Tending to my own garden requires there to be a “me” who is separate from the stuff I’m tending to–the senses and the heart. But the heart seems to be the proper locus for exercising any form of good practical judgment.

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 13, 2008

  5. Mencius thinks circumstances are relevant to how we turn out (6A7), and he doesn’t mind making that point now and then and especially to kings. But in talking to one’s student (and Gongduzi seems to have been his student) one might want to encourage the taking of responsibility for one’s own character. If my student asks me why some students do well and others do poorly, I might discuss study habits rather than parents. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong, and it doesn’t threaten a regress. I’m just not carrying the explanation as far back as I might have. I haven’t given a complete explanation, and I haven’t carried my explanation back beyond the reach of the person in question, but I’ve given a true and practically useful explanation.

    What I need not have been doing is arguing that the student is responsible for her grade because she was responsible for her study practices. Mencius doesn’t claim to be doing that in 6A15.

    Your (A) and (B) each seem to me to short-circuit a bit of Mencius’ story. To the question “Why do some of us throw our weight behind our hearts and others not?, (A) says “circumstance” and (B) says “character,” but I think Mencius says “Thinking” and leaves us to worry, if we like, about whether that in turn is best explained by circumstance or character. And the answer is presumably that it is best explained by circumstance early in life, and perhaps by character later in life.

    Thus I’m identifying “taking one’s stand on the greater” (at the end of 6A15) to refer most directly to the initial explanation “following the greater part” rather than to the second explanation “thinking.”

    There is a problem about what the heart is and what sort of thinking one is supposed to do. If the heart just *is* thinking, and thinking just *is* contemplating the heart, then we have a puzzle about what the heck is supposed to be going on. And maybe we have a regress. But I don’t see that Mencius is committed to those premises, and I especially don’t see that he commits himself to them in 6A14 and 6A15.

    There’s a problem about the translation of 6A14. Here is the first part of it with Legge’s translation, with one part specially marked:

    孟子曰:“人之於身也,兼所愛。兼所愛,則兼所養也。無尺寸之膚不愛焉,則無尺寸 之膚不養也。所以考其善不善者,豈有他哉?於己取之而已矣。體有貴賤,有小大。無以小害大,無以賤害貴。養其小者為小人,養其大者為大人。…”
    Mencius said, ‘There is no part of himself which a man does not love, and as he loves all, so he must nourish all. There is not an inch of skin which he does not love, and so there is not an inch of skin which he will not nourish. <> Some parts of the body are noble, and some ignoble; some great, and some small. The great must not be injured for the small, nor the noble for the ignoble. He who nourishes the little belonging to him is a little man, and he who nourishes the great is a great man. …”

    I don’t have my Lau or Van Norden with me, but I remember that they both render that marked bit as though it is talking about how an observer is to judge whether a person is good or not, where Legge says it is about how the person is to judge what to do. Legge looks right to me.

    But this is turning into a very long comment, and my brain is pervaded by certain fluids that flow after talks by visting speakers, and it’s one of my sleeping nights again, so I’ll stop here, in the middle.

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 13, 2008

  6. Oh, the symbols I put in to mark a bit of text in 6A14 had the effect of eliminating that bit, replacing it with a mysterious diamond. Here was that bit:

    “For examining whether his way of nourishing be good or not, what other rule is there but this, that he determine by reflecting on himself where it should be applied?”

    And here again is the original Chinese:
    所以考其善不善者,豈有他哉?於己取之而已矣.

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 13, 2008

  7. What I was arguing just above about 6A14, is that the main sign that 6A14 is mainly about signs of goodness may be based on a misreading of a key sentence or two.

    But let’s turn to the question whether 6A14 raises a regress problem. Here’s all of 6A14, via Legge:

    “Mencius said, ‘There is no part of himself which a man does not love, and as he loves all, so he must nourish all. There is not an inch of skin which he does not love, and so there is not an inch of skin which he will not nourish. For examining whether his way of nourishing be good or not, what other rule is there but this, that he determine by reflecting on himself where it should be applied? Some parts of the body are noble, and some ignoble; some great, and some small. The great must not be injured for the small, nor the noble for the ignoble. He who nourishes the little belonging to him is a little man, and he who nourishes the great is a great man. Here is a plantation-keeper, who neglects his wu and jia, and cultivates his sour jujube-trees; he is a poor plantation-keeper. He who nourishes one of his fingers, neglecting his shoulders or his back, without knowing that he is doing so, is a man who resembles a hurried wolf. A man who only eats and drinks is counted mean by others; because he nourishes what is little to the neglect of what is great. If a man, fond of his eating and drinking, were not to neglect what is of more importance, how should his mouth and belly be considered as no more than an inch of skin?’”

    Manyul, you write, “I think 6A14 has the same super-agency problem. Who is this “gardener” in charge of tending to the lesser and greater parts? It’s as if, for Mencius, the heart does the thinking and proper choosing, but there is something over and above the heart that needs also to choose properly. There doesn’t seem to be anything here to fill that vacuum coherently.”

    Mencius does not here say the heart thinks or chooses, but what if he did? I think that to say that the heart thinks is shorthand for saying that the heart is the organ whereby a person thinks. Same for the brain. Much of what makes it plausible to say that is that it is also roughly literally true that the brain thinks. That is, if you could cut away the rest of the person without affecting the brain – keeping the same general kinds of inputs coming in – it would probably still be right to say there is thinking going on.

    I think 6A14 alleges that if we understood our interests better, as we would if we thought more or paid better attention to what is within us, we would care about the right things. The gardener simile is imperfect for expressing that point, because it suggests a homuncular regress, and it suggests a homuncular regress because the trees are not parts of the gardener.

    But we needn’t suppose that Mencius intends that aspect of the simile to be significant. Mencius gives us another simile that doesn’t have that flaw: caring for luxury instead of your heart is like caring for your finger instead of your shoulder. Here the cared-for objects are both parts of the person. Some of my caring for my finger and shoulder are things I do with my finger and my shoulder. That doesn’t involve me in a regress.

    One of my fellows in grad school was worrying about the Milgram experiment and had a kind of epiphany: a terribly important virtue that too often gets left off the lists is the disposition to *think,* that is, to deliberate: not the disposition to deliberate well rather than poorly, but the disposition to think or deliberate more rather than less. Actually that virtue is on Sidgwick’s list, and here it is on Mencius’ radar too. Arguably it’s represented in the Ten Commandments by the commandment about the Sabbath. It seems to me important.

    There’s a bit of a puzzle, I suppose, about how somebody who doesn’t think can come to think. If a Kantian wants to argue that to acquire this virtue we need no help from circumstances because we have within our noumenal selves everything it takes to acquire the virtue from a starting-position of utter thoughtlessness, she has a bootstrapping problem. The problem you see Mencius facing – is it something like that?

    (In Analects 5.20 Confucius may seem to be arguing for not thinking too much: “季文子三思而後行。子聞之,曰:“再,斯可矣。”Ji Wen thought thrice, and then acted. When the Master was informed of it, he said,” — well, what he said could mean (a) “Twice is enough,” but it could also mean (b) “He should think again,” i.e. one or three more times. I’m inclined to read it as a play on words suggesting (b).)

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 14, 2008

  8. I suggested above that Mencius might have been interested in giving practical advice to Gongduzi in particular, and that’s surely not what he was doing, or not what he was mainly doing. The topic was general theory. But I don’t think that ruins the broader point that Mencius is interested in the practical uses to which a bit of theoretical language might be put. And that we shouldn’t think he’s claiming here that circumstances don’t help determine who ends up good and who bad.

    Gongduzi may have been trying to understand Mencius’ claim that it is our nature to be good. There was a puzzle back in 6A6 that was never really answered. Gongduzi laid out three theories and asked whether in Mencius was indeed rejecting them all. In Legge’s translation:

    View 1: 性無善無不善也
    [Our] nature not good, not bad.

    View 2: 性可以為善,可以為不善
    [Our] nature can do/become good, can do/become bad

    View 3: 有性善,有性不善
    Some natures good, some natures bad

    Mencius replied: 其情,則可以為善矣,乃所謂善也。若夫為不善,非才之罪也
    As far as what actually happens is concerned, we can (keyi 可以) do/become good. That’s what I mean by “good.” As for acting badly, that is not the fault of our endowment.

    The distinction between 1 and 2 is obscure, and Mencius hasn’t clearly distinguished his view from either of them, as far as I can see. So in 6A14, Gongduzi might be trying to pin Mencius down on this point.

    And maybe Mencius isn’t exactly refusing to be pinned down. The heart has a kind of direction toward goodness in it, as the brain has a kind of direction toward truth rather than falsehood about arithmetic and whether Africa is a country and other such things: but to activate that direction one has to actually think. The heart has 4 basic preferences, or it has 4 basic moves (elementary acts of thinking), and he goes on to lay them out. But they aren’t operational unless we are actually thinking.

    How about that?

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 14, 2008

  9. I’m alway a bit confused by these “problems” that regress is supposed to throw up. Why is it problematic at all?

    You know and I know and Mencius knows that humans do engage in meta-thinking, that we act on ourselves just as we act on the world. We also know that we have moments of strength and moments of weakness, that we act inconsistently and do things we know to be wrong sometimes. Call them id, ego and superego or devils and angels on our shoulders or whatever. And the interplay between these different sides of us may go on consciously or subconsciously.

    Mencius may not have an explicit psychological theory that includes all that. Still today we can’t fully explain these processes. But they are part of everyone’s experience. And Mencius conceding that in his philosophy shouldn’t be a problem, surely?

    Comment by Phil Hand | November 15, 2008

  10. Hi Phil,

    Let me see if I can clarify. You’re certainly right that people engage in “meta-thinking” of various sorts; you’re also right to think of the Freudian paradigm, along with the Manichean(?) one. In these cases, and in the Mencius case, the question is about how to explain (a) the inner psychological struggle among competing desires and/or practical judgments and (b) the exercise of agency that arises within the process of resolving those struggles. Surely the phenomenon is familiar and resolutions undeniably occur. But that’s precisely to the point here: some analyses of this kind of “meta-thinking” provide coherent and potentially plausible explanations of a and b. What I’m arguing here is that Mencius doesn’t provide one that is coherent.

    With the Freudian view, we have relatively distinct functions played by the id, ego, and superego along with theories about how each develops. For the sake of simplicity, let me say that in Mencius’s view, there’s no coherent analogue to the ego. In the “eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and limbs” (the “lesser parts”) we have the equivalent of the id. In the heart (the “greater part”) we have the rough equivalent of the superego. My claim is that there’s nothing left to play the role equivalent to the ego.

    Now, I take it Bill and maybe you too are taking it as unproblematic that the particular person, who chooses between the beck of her lesser parts and the greater part, functions as the ego would in Freud’s version. However, this is where I tend to think Mencius is actually providing an exhaustive analysis of personhood–of all the psychological constituents of a person–by dividing the person up into lesser and greater parts. Once that is done, then, I don’t see how a separate person, or agent, emerges over and above the constituent parts.

    If I’m right, then either some kind of agent-homunculus is being snuck in through the back door, or the heart itself plays the role of the superego AND the ego. The latter is what would generate a boot-strapping problem because then the struggle between the lesser organs and the heart has to be adjudicated by the heart itself. The former, the homunculus model, doesn’t generate the problem, but it would require that we rethink what the analysis of the person into lesser and greater parts is supposed to accomplish. I take it Bill is arguing that the parts analysis, contrary to my view, isn’t giving an exhaustive, reductive account of personhood. I haven’t fully digested his textual argument for that, but I’m pretty sure I see the arc of his responses in the right way.

    Maybe that helps; let me know.

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 15, 2008

  11. Sorry–I should say that my own account of my view in the comment above is really only one of the ways that I think of the problem. Sometimes I think of it differently–such as right now. The other way to think of the problem is to assume there are three distinct parts: the lesser, the greater, and the agent-as-chooser. There’s a distinct problem that can be generated here as well–and mostly what I’ve said addresses this problem rather than the “exhuastive analysis of personhood” problem above.

    The problem is that the agent must adjudicate between the lesser and greater parts, but what Mencius has provided the agent is no resource whatsoever for making that adjudication according to good reasons. Why? Because all the “good-reasoning” abilities are nestled precisely in one of those competing parts–namely, the greater part, the heart. So, the agent, as I’ve said in the original post, has to take a stand on the greater part without being able to rely on it to help her take that stand. To be influenced in that way by the heart would show that the agent *already* has chosen to follow the heart’s lead; but that would be bootstrapping. So, either the agent chooses to take a stand on the heart *without* good reason, or she needs already to have the heart “in charge” of her, hence making it unneccesary for her to take a stand on it.

    Sorry for being so schizophrenic here. I’m not sure which problem I think is worse or, relatedly, which problem I want to charge Mencius with.

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 15, 2008

  12. Manyul, you write, “I take it Bill is arguing that the parts analysis, contrary to my view, isn’t giving an exhaustive, reductive account of personhood. I haven’t fully digested his textual argument for that,…”

    The idea that Menicus was trying to give an account of personhood, or an exhaustive, reductive account of anything, had never crossed my mind. So I wasn’t arguing against that.

    Mencius doesn’t say he’s giving an account of personhood, or an exhaustive reductive account of anything. My impression of him is that exhaustive reductive accounts aren’t his bag. In fact that’s my impression of ancient Chinese philsophy in general. I could be wrong of course.

    Manyul, if I understand you, your #10 finds a problem about psychological explanation mainly in 6A15, which is a passage offering some psychological explanation; and your #11 finds a problem about justification or practical reason mainly based on Legge’s reading of the bit of 6A14 I quoted in #6 above.

    Regarding justification or practical reason:

    There’s a familiar facile piece of advice for dealing with quandaries: “Look within.” If that means “Follow that which is within,” then it seems to miss the point that in quandaries one’s innards are pulling in two directions. (Mencius could seem to be giving manifestly empty advice of that sort.) But if instead the facile saying means, “Look (further) within and you will find yourself convinced by what you find,” then the advice might be wrong but it isn’t necessarily wrong or useless. It would be like the arithmetic teacher’s advice: “Think through the problem again.” (That could be what Mencius means.)

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 15, 2008

  13. Hey Bill,

    That’s helpful. But it does seem like Mencius is talking about greatness of persons, not just greatness of particular episodes of choice. So, the “look within” model only works as an explanation or advice for being a 大人 if that’s the first thing a person always does–i.e. if someone “takes a stand” on thinking, on reflection. But how does someone end up being reflective? Here’s where I agree partially with what you say. “Look further” or “Think through it again” sounds like empty advice to me. Either you just find what you found inside the first time and nothing is resolved, or you find something that appeals to you *this* time as opposed to the last time. Nothing here seems to provide reinforcement or guidance; one seems victim not to the first pull but the second–and the second could in principle come from either the lesser part or from the greater. But what kind of path or coherent progress could that provide for great personhood, I wonder? Maybe this strays into being a third version of the problem, but it seems related to my original worries.

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 15, 2008

  14. I’ll quote your most recent comment with interruptions, but no omissions once I begin.

    M1> “it does seem like Mencius is talking about greatness of persons, not just greatness of particular episodes of choice.”

    We’ve been agreeing on that much at any rate.

    M2> “So, the ‘look within’ model only works as an explanation or advice for being a 大人 if that’s the first thing a person always does”

    Or what she usually does at some point in her decisionmaking.

    M3> “—i.e. if someone ‘takes a stand’ on thinking, on reflection.”

    I don’t think that’s the same thing at all. I can think about a problem to see whether compelling reasons come to light, without having decided in advance to ‘take my stand on thinking’. If listening to reason rather than the senses were like following the comand in the green box rather than the command in the red box, then maybe I’d be with you. But I don’t think it’s quite like that.

    M4> “But how does someone end up being reflective?”

    OK, here we’re talking about the psychological-explanation problem. And I think it’s fair to say that Mencius thinks the answer has to do with circumstances, and that it’s not an error on his part to stop short of talking about that in 6A15.

    M5> “Here’s where I agree partially with what you say.”

    I think, but I’m not sure, that ‘Here’ means ‘in the following’ rather than ‘in the preceding’.

    M6> “‘Look further’ or ‘Think through it again’ sounds like empty advice to me.”

    Then on that point we flat-out disagree.

    M7> “Either you just find what you found inside the first time and nothing is resolved, or you find something that appeals to you *this* time as opposed to the last time.”

    Yes. And whenever I do a math problem I find an answer that appeals to me that time. (Sometimes it’s the wrong answer.) But it would be wrong to say something further: “whenever I do a math problem or think through where I must have left my keys, what I find out is *only* that a certain answer *appeals* to me (this time).” If there is such a thing as reasoning, that further claim isn’t true. From what you go on to say below, it seems to me you are accepting this view that I think is false.

    M8> “Nothing here seems to provide reinforcement or guidance; one seems victim not to the first pull but the second–and the second could in principle come from either the lesser part or from the greater.”

    Perhaps your thought is that for Mencius, “thinking” is simply focusing on or activating certain desires. If that’s what he thinks, that’s indeed a problem.

    M9> “But what kind of path or coherent progress could that provide for great personhood, I wonder?”

    Well, suppose greatness is generosity. And suppose what he counts as the “heart” or “thinking” is an inclination to generosity. It would follow that thinking, or attending to the heart, tends to make someone a great person. That’s a path, right?

    M10> “Maybe this strays into being a third version of the problem, but it seems related to my original worries.”

    Do you mean – you’re concerned here not so much about a path to greatness as about a path to heightened personhood?

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 15, 2008

  15. Whether “think about it” is helpful advice depends on whether and how much the person has already been thinking about it. If someone has already been worrying thoughtfully over a dilemma, simply telling her to think again is not likely to be helpful advice, though it isn’t empty advice. But if you see a friend working through a book of Sudoku, you might interrupt her at the beginning of a puzzle to ask her to stop and think about whether that’s what she really wants to do. Your assumption is that if she does stop and think, there’s something she’s likely to think of that will get her to put the book down by being a good reason to put the book down. Your advice is likely to be helpful.

    There’s a kind of a problem that we might put this way: “What’s so reasonable about reason?” It’s not a very compelling problem when the kind of reason we’re thinking of is logic in the narrow sense. It’s more compelling when we’re talking about inferring future facts from present evidence, or arriving at reasonable moral views.

    If the worry is that Mencius’ four hearts just don’t have the same transparency of authority as the law of non-contradiction or Ockham’s razor or other things we think of as principles of good thinking, then I think that’s an important and interesting problem about Mencius, and I have some ideas about it; but maybe it’s not what’s worrying you.

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 15, 2008

  16. M2> “So, the ‘look within’ model only works as an explanation or advice for being a 大人 if that’s the first thing a person always does”

    Are you here thinking of each deliberation as a chain of events wholly determined by its first link?

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 15, 2008

  17. Bill, again (as ever) very helpful–referring to 15; I just saw that you inserted comment 16. “Transparency” of the authority of the heart on Mencius’s view is very much what worries me. Mencius’s picture seems to me like the following: desires, urges, and/or judgments about what to pursue present themselves in the person; but these sorts of things can come from different sources–the parts that compose the lesser part, and the heart. The desires, urges, and/or judgments from the heart don’t carry any extra *actual* motivational push or pull with them. So, it seems to me, Mencius glosses their reliable effectiveness through the trope of taking a stand–“siding with” them so as to *provide* the extra motivational help.

    Now if there was some way for Mencius to talk of the extra “normative weight” that the desires etc of the heart carry on their sleeves, that would provide some form of transparency, allowing a person to have some good *reason* to side with them. But I don’t really see anything in Mencius to do that theoretical work. So, the choice to side with heart-generated motivations and/or judgments seems arbitrary in Mencius.

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 15, 2008

  18. OK! Good! Here are some sketchy thoughts on that.

    4. shi-fei 是非. What is this? It could mean cognitive judgment in general, or moral judgment in general, etc. Let’s set it aside, since it’s probably not a main motor of your worry.

    1. Compassion. This is arguably a kind of perception. Feeling another’s actual or potential pain, or another’s desires or preferences. That would make it a kind of cognition.

    2. Respect (6A6). Respect has a reputation in the West of being integrally bound up with reason, scientific method, etc. It certainly seems reasonable to respect others as having some authority on questions of what’s right and what’s the capital of Turkmenistan, and whether the experiment that seemed to work for you really works in general, and what ‘eleemosynary’ means.

    3. xiu-wu or xiu-e 羞惡. Shame-disapproval, or shame at being bad. There’s an argument for the latter reading, since the phrase ‘tui wu e zhi xin’ 推惡惡之心 appears in 2A9. Anyway we seem to have here something hovering between the respect-for-others that we find in 2, and the general appreciation of value that we might find in 4. Let’s set it aside along with 4, and focus just on 1 and 2.

    Being caring rather than uncaring, and being respectful rather than contemptuous – these tend to cause and endorse each other, to a large extent. That’s what transparency is.

    How about that?
    ________

    The rest of this comment is what I was about to post, just before I saw your #17. Maybe it’s still useful somehow.

    From your #11 on justification/reason:

    “The problem is that the agent must adjudicate between the lesser and greater parts, but what Mencius has provided the agent is no resource whatsoever for making that adjudication according to good reasons. Why? Because all the “good-reasoning” abilities are nestled precisely in one of those competing parts–namely, the greater part, the heart. So, the agent, as I’ve said in the original post, has to take a stand on the greater part without being able to rely on it to help her take that stand. To be influenced in that way by the heart would show that the agent *already* has chosen to follow the heart’s lead; but that would be bootstrapping.”

    The agent “must adjudicate” – well, the agent will in fact go with one or the other, and might adjudicate, and ought to decide for the heart.
    If she does try adjudicating, she’ll be using the heart. (One might say she’ll be using part of the heart.) This current use of the heart will speak for or against her use of the heart in future. That it is the same thing – the heart – doesn’t on its face automatically settle the matter. The heart doesn’t advocate thinking as a way of getting your food chewed. Using the mind now in deliberation about whether to use the mind a minute from now is not the same thing as already having chosen to use the mind a minute from now.
    Adjudication isn’t fair if it is ruled by one of the parties – if we’re talking about adjudication between humans. But we’re not talking about adjudication between humans, we’re talking about adjudication between a person’s mind and her tongue.

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 15, 2008

  19. Thanks for the reply, Manyul. I have two responses.

    The first may put me in the camp of the “prominent historian” you quoted in that APA newsletter: I think you’re expecting too much of Mencius. Not because he’s not a great thinker, but because even today these questions of agency and motivation haven’t been resolved. Mencius (and everyone else in the world) can only work with partial/inconsistent psychological theories because that’s all there are. Having said that, of course it’s valuable to uncover where those inconsistencies lie.

    So second, I think the problem lies with the introduction of the homunculus. Mencius does seem to be introducing it with his statement that “the organ of the heart thinks”. In the context of the argument, though, it seems to me that we’re seeing a metaphor stretched past its breaking point. M contrasts the heart with the sense organs, and suggests that a man can “take a stand” on one or the other. It is absurd to suggest that a man could reject thinking and be only a sensual being – that would make him an animal. Even petty men are clearly different to animals. So M’s splitting of the man into a heart part and other parts is unsatisfying from the start, and I can’t believe he meant it to be taken as an exhaustive theory. I’m guessing (hoping!) it’s a kind of synecdoche, where he uses the sense organs as a metaphor for indulgence in sensual pleasures and ignoring higher moral reasoning. On this interpretation, the heart stands for choosing to reason and apply moral logic, and is not meant to be understood (in this passage) as a distinct facet of human psychology.

    I think talk of a homunculus is pretty much always wrong (possibly in the case of real “split personalities” we could use it, but not for psychologically healthy people). I’m afraid I don’t have any theory to back me up on this, I just haven’t done the reading. I don’t know if Freud did actually ascribe agency to the ego alone, separated from the superego and the id; if he did, he’s wrong (says me). To be honest, I’m not sure why I reject this idea so strongly. Perhaps because of the regression problem, or perhaps because we don’t have any psychological theory which would allow us to correctly identify the homunculus. In the back of my mind are also some of the new ideas that neuroscience is putting forward about consciousness: that it’s not constant, but is a product of mental acts.

    Also, I think positing a homunculus(/heart/agency) is a way of avoiding the complexity of “meta-thinking” or acting on ourselves. The homunculus functions to preserve the familiar agent-object model of action. It becomes possible to say that a person acting on themselves (or making a decision about themselves) is not a case of agent=object; rather you have agent=(homunculus that contains the person’s agency), object=(other bits of the person). I see this as a fudge to preserve some formal theory. What’s needed is a theory which allows for action on the self, does not require an agent that is external to the object. This would solve the regression problem at a stroke (while no doubt throwing up many others).

    So, without having read more Mencius, I don’t know if he really is a homunculus man. If he is, you’re right, and you’ve found a problem with his theory. If the passage you quote could be explained as a metaphor-gone-too-far, then could we give him the benefit of the doubt?

    Comment by Phil Hand | November 15, 2008

  20. Bill, your points about adjudicating in #18 sound interesting and I’ll have to think more about it before replying. Meanwhile, I’m not really sure about this part:

    “Being caring rather than uncaring, and being respectful rather than contemptuous – these tend to cause and endorse each other, to a large extent. That’s what transparency is.”

    The transparency I think is missing is transparency of the normative authority of the heart’s urgings, as opposed to the authority of the urgings from other, lesser parts. So, the fact that caring tends to cause and endorse being respectful (if that’s what you meant) and vice versa doesn’t provide the right kind of “cross-parts” transparency. The mouth, for example, endorses certain kinds of flavors but whether that has endorsement has normative authority is unclear; but it is just as unclear whether the heart’s endorsement of respect has normative authority. By this I mean that it is unclear to the agent; the normative authority of any particular urge, whether the urge is from the mouth or the limbs, can only be ascertained by the heart’s thinking. But if the agent doesn’t reliably “seek the heart’s advice” then she ends up being a 小人. So to graduate to 大人-hood requires that she reliably seek the heart’s advice–i.e. that she reliably let’s herself be led by the heart. That’s what I take “taking a stand” on it to mean. But, again, it doesn’t seem like the agent has the motivational strength or, more to the point here, a transparent *reason* to seek the heart’s advice unless she is already prone, or open, to seeking it.

    In other words, assessing good reasons to phi is one of the functions of the heart’s “thinking” (si 思), so that unless the agent is already open to, and using, that function–i.e. is already “thinking”–then she can’t really choose to be led by the heart *for a good reason.*

    I have the subtle feeling that you’ve already addressed this above, but I can’t quite locate it, so I’ll let this comment stand and await your reply.

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 16, 2008

  21. Phil, I appreciate your point. I wouldn’t want to ask too much of the Mencian text. I’m not so sure that’s what I’m doing, however. I’m trying to construct a plausible Mencian view that would address what seems genuinely of interest to Mencius, namely, the problem that Gongduzi raises. From the textual point of view, I’m pretty sure Gongduzi is portrayed asking about how people become ethically differentiated because that is a theoretically important problem for Mencius to address given that Mencius thinks people are all endowed with good xing 性 by Heaven. So, I’m putting a lot of weight on the response he gives because it seems like otherwise the conversation would be a “wasted opportunity.” And that seems contrary to the reasons for why the Mencius was concocted as a Ruist (Confucian) text.

    On the other hand, you’re right that one thing the texts from the period tend not to do is to give systematic, exhaustive theories. I kind of see that as my job–well, one of my jobs–as an interpreter of the text in the philosophical “reconstruction” endeavor. So, that’s why I’m “pushing” Mencius on this point in 6A15. Of course, that sort of reconstruction can also go too far, as I think you’re trying to point out. To that I say: “Cheers.” I’ll have to keep an eye on myself…

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 16, 2008

  22. Manyul,

    Regarding transparency, my thought was that as care and respect cause and endorse each other, they will grow as, um, as a mustard seed becomes a great tree, so that they become strong in comparison to the senses even though they are two. And they don’t conflict with the senses much, while the senses don’t cause/endorse much other than themselves. Even if the senses don’t endorse the heart, they may lose the prima facie relative authority that was a premise of your worry: “The desires, urges, and/or judgments from the heart don’t carry any extra *actual* motivational push or pull with them.” And –

    The story has big problems. How it can be elaborated and repaired depends on what kinds of thinking can be brought in beyond noticing and dwelling on one or another of a shortish list of preferences. The reason for telling the story is that there’s a worry that something is missing in Mencius’ idea of thinking. I don’t have a clear picture in my head of what in particular might be supposed to be missing – what kind of thinking the story is supposed to avoid appealing to. So I’ve been sort of drifting in the direction of thinking I should be telling the story as though on the assumption that there’s no kind of thinking we can do except noticing and dwelling on one or another of a shortish list of preferences. And that’s too extreme, of course. Except that in some sense the problem is really how to connect the idea that the heart’s function is those four sprouts with the idea that the heart’s function is si 思 or, more broadly, everything we call thinking.”

    And really the story I started out to tell isn’t about brute preferences from the heart that become active and multiply like gremlins 魔鬼 given water, but rather the idea that we needn’t think Mencius conceived the four hearts or duan 端 as brute preferences or, as Bryan Van Norden translates “hearts” in this context, “feelings.” I think calling them “hearts” suggests that they are kinds of thinking, kinds of move to make. What Mencius means by si 思 in 6A15 need not be limited to attention to the heart; it should include attention to the world as well, and sometimes reasoning. These things are parts of the heart-activities called compassion and respect. How about that?

    Do you have in mind some particular prima facie gap in Mencius’ idea of thinking (or of something else)?
    _____

    Manyul, you write to Phil (Hi Phil) in #21, specifically regarding the 6A15 explanatory problem I think, “I’m pretty sure Gongduzi is portrayed asking about how people become ethically differentiated because that is a theoretically important problem for Mencius to address given that Mencius thinks people are all endowed with good xing 性 by Heaven. So, I’m putting a lot of weight on the response he gives because it seems like otherwise the conversation would be a ‘wasted opportunity.’”

    We know that Mencius thinks circumstances are important determinants of people’s virtue/vice, and we see that he doesn’t mention them in 6A15. So it seems that Mencius’ aim in 6A15 is not to give Gongduzi the fullest answer he can.

    So what’s his aim? Maybe just to reconcile his view that we have a certain four preferences with the point that we seem often not to act that way. And he may feel he completes the reconciliation simply by saying that with these preferences there’s an extra necessary step – rather as seeing depends on opening one’s eyes .

    That’s disappointing, but it may be what’s going on, and then perhaps Mencius would not be making any mistake.

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 16, 2008


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