So, continuing some thoughts about language and theory in ethical thought, I’ve been thinking about what significant difference there is supposed to be between ethical guidance through principles as opposed to guidance through some form of “conceptual mastery” or even “skill mastery.”
One way to think of the difference, roughly, between Western and early Chinese ethical thought is to think of the former as emphasizing formulation of principles and guidance through them and the latter as emphasizing either mastery of some sort of “thick” ethical concepts or some set of “ethical skills.” Hence, dominant forms of ethical theorizing in the modern West seem concerned to formulate correct principles of right action so that people can adopt them for deciding how to act, in morally relevant contexts of choice. On the other hand, what seems of concern to early Confucianism seems to be to grasp the meaning and import of certain important terms such as ren 仁 (“humaneness”), li 禮 (“ritual piety”), and so forth; and/or to master certain sorts of “moral perception” skills that involve some kind of correct “connoisseur” responses and judgments–e.g. seeing something as ren or as failing to be li.
There are a few questions about the accuracy of these generalizations that call for some narrowing. Isn’t “Western” really just a gloss for a particular style of theoretical inquiry, largely in the modern era, that models itself on scientific inquiry or on legal reasoning? Shouldn’t something be said about the role of “manuals” of ritual and ceremony, e.g. the Zhouli (The Rituals of the Zhou) and the Liji (The Record of Ritual) for Confucian thinking about ritual piety? They seem to provide discursive action-guidance, and maybe even justification (as a set of rules) for particular ritual actions and attitudes, if not for the institution as a whole (which is something I take Xunzi to have been trying give). Also, the Mohists seem pretty clearly to be formulating an action-guiding principle–viz. to promote benefit.
But those sorts of questions aside, I wonder how different in practice competent application of principles could be from expressions of competence with respect to concept application or skill implementation. What I have in mind is that application of a principle, like application of a concept, actually requires a skill–call it a “connoisseurship of principle application”–that then subsumes the process under similar sorts of success-conditions as any other skill: there has to be something like a “correct perception” of when a principle applies to a situation, just as in the situation where one sees that a concept applies.
Those who know the later Wittgenstein views could maybe see a connection here–I’m not at all an expert on Wittgenstein and it’s been years and years since I read anything on his views, so that would be helpful if someone could speak to the connection or its lack. Those familiar with W.D. Ross should see some connection here, I think, because Ross’s intuitionism requires some kind of noetic perception of one’s true duty from the interactions among considerations of prima facie duties that apply to a situation. That sounds like a skill to me, not unlike skill in legal reasoning (?)–someone who knows about this could also speak to it better than I.
This is all to suggest, tentatively, that there really isn’t much difference when we get down to the business of ethical living between having a “principle-based” view and some more “skill-based” view. Or is there? I’m inclined to reduce principle-application and concept-application to considerations of skill, albeit some kind of mental or “perceptual” skill, but maybe there are problems with that…
I’m working on a couple of papers related to language and ethics in early China. One of the issues that keeps coming up are the arguments, from two distinct directions, that the language of early China points to a tendency to avoid abstract thought, including abstract ethical thought. One argument comes from Chad Hansen’s lengthy mass-noun, stuff-ontology, mereology thesis. The other comes from Roger Ames and David Hall’s somewhat quick argument about the relatively “infrequent resort” to counterfactual conditionals in Chinese philosophy.
In this post, I’ll just say a quick thing about Hansen. In terms of “abstract” theorizing, Hansen’s view seems to have two (related) conclusions based on his argument that early Chinese think of the world in terms of intermixed “stuff” rather than individuals and their properties:
- (H1) universals, or properties, and things are not components of early Chinese thinking; and
- (H2) the mind (or in this case, the xin 心, “heart-mind”) is not conceived of as engaged in representations of the world (in a “mentalese language of thought”), but rather in acts of discrimination regarding the parts and (mass) wholes among which humans navigate.
In those pretty specific senses, Hansen thinks there is no abstract theorizing in early China. At least that’s my quick summary (read both of Hansen’s books, Language and Logic in Ancient China and A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, to check).
Ames and Hall’s view is less systematic and perhaps based on (someone else’s) bad linguistic research, but there may be arguments for their view that transcend that research. I’ll try to summarize their position, from Thinking Through Confucius, and make a call for some examples that might be interesting to discuss as prima facie counterexamples.
Ames and Hall argue that the Confucian sensibility–and more broadly, all of Classical Chinese thought–is shaped by a lack of “consideration of the differential consequences of alternative possibilities” which “underlies the dominant modes of ethical and scientific thinking” (265). The argument is based in part on Alfred Bloom’s 1981 study, The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study in the Impact of Language and Thinking in China and the West. By way of “cheating,” I’ll paste the opening page of Wu Kuang-ming’s Philosophy East and West (37:1) book review as summary of Bloom’s research and to indicate the direction of argument that Wu takes against Bloom’s thesis:
“In this provocative book, Alfred Bloom claims that the Chinese language does
not have a counterfactual formulation, and therefore Chinese people have
difficulty understanding counterfactual expressions. He said this is because
counterfactuals depend on the ability to turn properties and actions into nouns,
lift them up (abstract them) from actuality, and fit them into a new theoretical
framework of universals. Thus in denying counterfactuals in Chinese language,
Bloom also denies universals in Chinese language. Since language allegedly
shapes thinking, the double denial of counterfactuality and universals amounts
to denying both in Chinese thinking. Since argumentation needs both counter-
factuals and universals, Chinese people are either poor arguers or incapable of
argumentation. This is a serious thesis indeed.
To prove the Chinese lack of counterfactuals, Bloom produced (1) a lack of
counterfactuals in contemporary Chinese writings and conversation, and (2)
poor scores on the tests on counterfactuals taken by Chinese people. To prove
the Chinese lack of theoretical abstraction and “entification,” Bloom produced
(3) poor scores on the tests on abstract thinking taken by Chinese people, and
(4) evidence of the difficulty of translating a single complex English sentence
into a single Chinese sentence. And to clinch the whole matter, Bloom reported
that (5) Chinese people themselves confessed to him that they have difficulty
grasping counterfactuals and universals, saying in effect that Chinese language
This review claims that perhaps the situation is more complex than Bloom
would have us believe. Both counterfactuals and universals are needed in think-
ing. What is peculiar about both English and Chinese languages is that they have
their own peculiar ways of expressing these concepts. In other words, counter-
factual thinking must be distinguished from counterfactual formulations in a
specific language; similarly, universals must be distinguished from theoretical
abstract terms, which are a peculiar linguistic form. A lack in the linguistic
formulations of counterfactuals and theoreticals does not necessarily show the
lack of counterfactual thinking and thinking on universals.
The Chinese language has no tense forms, but the Chinese people are one of
the most history-conscious races in the world. The Chinese language has no
gender forms, yet some gender distinction is clearly embedded throughout in
names, adjectives, expressions, and so on, as in English. The fact that Chinese
language lacks linguistic devices for plurality did not prevent the Chinese people
from being good businessmen or engineers….”
In addition to Wu, there have been others critical of Bloom’s thesis (for example, Christoph Harbsmeier in Language and Logic, no. VII:1 in Science and Civilization in China, 116-18).
Ames and Hall admit that though Bloom’s thesis that there is no counterfactual locution in the Chinese language, including Classical Chinese, might be overstated, the “infrequent resort to such locutions in Chinese philosophic argument” (364, note 29) is what matters to their conclusions. So what are the relevant conclusions here? A good and fair summary, I think, lies in this quote:
“If ethics is to be considered always in the light of reflection, deliberation, and conscious judgment among alternatives, then one may certainly assent to the view that such ethical interests are not in any important way represented in classical Chinese philosophy.” (266)
So, two issues:
- How valid is the reasoning from the relative lack of counterfactual locutions to this conclusion?
- Regardless of counterfactuals, does the conclusion ring true? Why or why not?
We could start, I suppose, by discussing the nature and role of an apparent counterexemple: Mencius’s use of the “child in the well” example (from 2A:6, text and Legge’s translation–from Donald Sturgeon’s site):
“When I say that all men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: even now-a-days, if men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress. They will feel so, not as a ground on which they may gain the favour of the child’s parents, nor as a ground on which they may seek the praise of their neighbours and friends, nor from a dislike to the reputation of having been unmoved by such a thing. From this case we may perceive that the feeling of commiseration is essential to man, that the feeling of shame and dislike is essential to man, that the feeling of modesty and complaisance is essential to man, and that the feeling of approving and disapproving is essential to man.”
Does this really count as a counterexample–is it really counterfactual thinking and/or does it engage “reflection, deliberation, and conscious judgment among alternatives”? Are there other, better textual examples to discuss here?
Here’s an issue that I think is relevant to any view about “flourishing” attributed to early Chinese philosophy. If the basic idea of flourishing is some idea about faring well, or “welfare,” we can ask what it takes conceptually to have such an idea. What comes to mind for me is that there has to be some notion of a person’s good, where that good is construed in some way independent of acting correctly–i.e. it has to be a notion of a person’s “non-moral” good. Even as I write that, I’m not quite sure what the reason for that is, but it seems important to me to keep welfare distinct from rightness. I might be totally wrong, but my philosophical instincts whisper otherwise.
The reason this seems important to me vis-a-vis early Chinese philosophy is that it seems like the non-moral good is featured in the Mohist idea of benefit, li 利. But li is not taken as theoretically central or even relevant in the Analects and the Mencius. Maybe it is important in the Xunzi, but I think that is because the Xunzi has a consequentialist view like the Mozi. If any of this is on the right track, then there is not in fact any virtue ethics in early China, in the sense that Van Norden and others think there to be. A lot rides on the idea of flourishing as relying on that of the non-moral good, and hence as being construed independently of rightness, so I wonder what can be said in favor of or against that…
Steve Angle has organized, with Michael Slote, an NEH seminar at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut on “Confucianism and Virtue Ethics.” It is to run from July 7 to August 15. Steve opens the lecture sessions to anyone who is interested and willing. Here (pasted from email) is the schedule for the lecture sessions, along with what Steve has to say by way of invitation:
“It occurred to me that maybe you could post something on the blog about the speakers who will be coming to Middletown for the summer seminar. It would be neat to have a mini-get-together or two. The details I have now are:
May Sim, Holy Cross — July 10
Bryan Van Norden, Vassar — July 15
Shirong Luo, Simmons — July 17
Eric Hutton, Utah — July 24
All lectures held at the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, beginning at 3:30. I encourage anyone planning on coming from out of town to let me know.
(I know I will be at some of these, since I am relatively close by; it would be nice to meet some of you out there if you are also able to make it! Also, Chris Panza, who writes the blog “A Ku Indeed!” will be a seminar attendee. -Manyul)
Thanks to Yuri Pines for the link.
Parents call on Confucius for exam good fortune
Updated: 2008-06-05 08:12
The Temple of Confucius in the center of Shanghai’s old town was unusually full Wednesday morning.
Crowds of people, most of them in their 40s and 50s, burned incense, lit candles and prayed in and around Dacheng Hall where there is a sculpture of Confucius and also where national exams were held during the times of the imperial dynasties.
The good luck notes they hung on the trellises and trees outside the hall gave away their reasons for being there. Most read something like, “Dear Confucius, please help my son/daughter in the college entrance exam”.
With the national examinations starting on Saturday, a growing number of parents have turned to Confucius, as a way to ease the pressure.
A cleaner at the temple, surnamed Xu, told China Daily that local people hardly ever visit the temple, but in the past week, hundreds of them had been.
“There are so many visitors coming these days, all the oil and incense burners keep filling up and I have to empty them several times a day,” Xu said.
Visitors pay 12 yuan ($1.75) for a piece of notepaper, incense sticks, two candles and a length of red ribbon.
At the Temple of Confucius in Beijing, visitors have to pay 188 yuan for a wooden tablet on which to write their wishes, although the shelf on which these are then placed is now full, the Beijing Youth Daily reported Wednesday.
One of the visitors at the Shanghai temple Wednesday was 47-year-old Ye Qing. She said she was making a wish for her son who is hoping to study telecommunication engineering at East China Normal University.
“It will work if I am sincere enough,” she said.
About 100,000 Shanghai students will sit the college entrance exam between Saturday and Monday, and their parents are doubtless all hoping for the same good fortune.
Many, like Ye, have booked hotel rooms close to the test venues.
Staff at several hotels in the city’s Minhang district said they have been taking bookings since the beginning of last month, and many are now full, the Xinmin Evening News reported.
Sun Yu, a teacher at the Shanghai Foreign Language School, said parents are prepared to do whatever they can to help their children succeed, including enrolling them in expensive, extracurricular classes.
High school student Vicky Yang said all her classmates spend at least 500 yuan a month on exam-related books and extra lessons.
“Some pay up to 20,000 yuan a semester for classes that promise to help students secure a university place,” she said.
Apart from books and classes, parents also buy their children special tonics to drink, Yang said.
“If you collected up all the empty bottles of tonic my classmates have drunk, you could make a small hill.”
Some while ago (1999) I tried to argue that Mencius didn’t really believe in proactive moral cultivation because he thought of human nature as already possessing the directional force toward goodness. The only thing a ruler need do is to provide minimally stable political and economic conditions. Then, if people do not interfere with their own development or with the development of others, then everything will turn out fine, with mulberry trees growing in their seasons, the elderly not having to sweat in the fields, children being filial, etc. That puts Mencius more in line with the Daodejing’s political stance than people usually think, though of course he isn’t entirely for the rustic utopia the latter suggests.
Let me suggest here that if that isn’t Mencius’s view, then it is actually very difficult to justify Xunzi’s vehement opposition to Mencius. The view that most of us were taught to believe is that Mencius thinks humans have nascent capacity for goodness that then needs to be cultivated through education and moral training; then at the end of that process they may end up as good subjects, advisors, or the ruler. For convenience, let’s call that the “moral-training” reading of Mencius. The thing that strikes me as problematic here is that if this is indeed Mencius’s view, then there’s really no difference between it and Xunzi’s views of the matter. Or, perhaps I should say instead, either Mencius has a view that is different from Xunzi’s or Xunzi didn’t realize that his view doesn’t really differ from Mencius’s.
Here’s what I have in mind regarding Xunzi on capacities and cultivation. In the “Human Nature is Detestable” (xing e 性惡) chapter, Xunzi argues that anyone could (ke 可) become a sage like the sage-ruler Yu. But not everyone has the possessed ability (neng 能) to be a sage. As it turns out, everyone has the capacities to be ren 仁 and yi 義, benevolent and upright, but not everyone applies himself to the task of accumulating the effort and training to be good. Why is that any different from the view attributed to Mencius by the moral-training reading of him? If it isn’t different, then what is Xunzi’s beef with Mencius since they seem to hold the very same view?
Here’s some of the relevant Xunzi text (I’ve numbered the text so it’s convenient for us to talk about it; and I’ve typed in Watson’s translation):
- “塗之人可以為禹。”曷謂也？曰：凡禹之所以為禹者，以其為仁義法正也。然則仁義法正有可知可能之理。然而塗之人也，皆有可以知仁義法正之質，皆有可以能 仁義法正之具，然則其可以為禹 明矣。The man in the street can become a Yu. What does this mean? What made the sage emperor Yu a Yu, I would reply, was the fact that he practiced benevolence and righteousness and abided by the proper rules and standards. If this is so, then benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards must be based upon principles which can be known and practiced. Any man in the street has the essential faculties needed to understand benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards, and the potential ability to put them into practice. Therefore it is clear that he can become a Yu.
- 今以仁義法正為固無可知可能之理邪？然則唯禹不知仁義法正，不能仁義法正也。Would you maintain that benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards are not based upon any principles that can be known and practiced? If so, then even a Yu could not have understood or practiced them.
- 將使塗之人固無可以知仁義法正之質，而固無可以能仁義法正之具邪？然則 塗之人也，且內不可以知父子之義，外不可以知君臣之正。今不然。Or would you maintain that the man in the street does not have the essential faculties needed to understand them or the potential ability to put them into practice? If so, then you are saying that the man in the street in his family life cannot understand the duties required of a father or a son and in public life cannot comprehend the correct relationship between ruler and subject. But in fact this is not true.
- 塗之人者，皆內可以知父子之義，外可以知君臣之正，然則其可以知之質，可以能之具，其在塗 之人明矣。今使塗之人者，以其可以知之質，可以能之具，本夫仁義法正之可知可能之理，可能之具，然則其可以為禹明矣。Any man in the street can understand the duties required of a father or a son and can comprehend the correct relationship between ruler and subject. Therefore, it is obvious that the essential faculties needed to understand such ethical principles and the potential ability to put them into practice must be a part of his make-up. Now if he takes these faculties and abilities and applies them to the principles of benevolence and righteousness, which we have already shown to be knowable and practicable, then it is obvious that he can become a Yu.
- 今使塗之人伏術為學，專心一志，思索 孰察，加日縣久，積善而不息，則通於神明，參於天地矣。故聖人者，人之所積而致矣。If the man in the street applies himself to training and study, concentrates his mind and will, and considers and examines things carefully, continuing his efforts over a long period of time and accumulating good acts without stop, then he can achieve a godlike understanding and form a triad with Heaven and earth. The sage is a man who has arrived where he has through the accumulation of good acts.
As always, let me know what you think.
Let me restart the conversation Hagop and I started on the Velleman post, but focus on more on wuwei 無為 just by itself. Here’s what Hagop had to say and how I responded:
I’m teaching the Zhuangzi right now in my Chinese philosophy class, and will be discussing Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow along with the stories of the skilled exemplars during our meeting today. Velleman mentions others having made the connection before. I, too, was pointed in the direction of Czikszentmihalyi (by David Wong), but can’t recall at the moment who has written of them together.
As for whether ‘flow’ is a good interpretation of wu-wei, I think there is room to quibble. The phrase ‘wu-wei’ appears two or three times in the inner chapters, and none in relation to Cook Ding. There’s a lot more talk about wu-wei in the outer chapters.
What’s more, the inner chapters seem to include many exemplars who literally ‘do nothing’ (as opposed to acting in a skilled-yet-spontaneous fashion). Think of Zhuangzi’s advice to sit in a gourd or lounge under a tree, or the big yak that is the foil for the weasel (aka Hui Zi), or Zi Qi of South Wall sitting still, or the trees Zhuangzi likes to talk about. All these exemplars are literally doing nothing, and not engaged in flow-like skill activity.
In fact, Butcher Ding is alone as a “skilled” exemplar in the inner chapters (am I foregetting anyone?). Other skilled individuals are mocked. Consider this passage (Watson 2003, 37):
“There is such a thing as completion and injury–Mr. Zhao playing the lute is an example. There is such a thing as no completion and no inury–Mr. Zhao not playing the lute is an example.”
This makes me think that the Butcher is not so central to Zhuangzi’s philosophy and, by extension, that flow is not so central to it either.
(If we are talking about the text as a whole, though, there is more support for the interpretation of wu-wei as flow. In fact, since wu-wei occurs far more often in the outer chapters, along with other stories of skilled exemplars, then perhaps wu-wei as something like ‘flow’ is a later development of the Zhuangist school.)
Hagop, I agree with you about the “flow” interpretation of Zhuangzi, and I think it’s not merely a quibble. What always struck me were the power of the unintuitive examples in the De Chong Fu (”Sign of Virtue Complete” in Watson): People who’ve had their feet, hands, or noses lopped off for offenses against the kingdom, who aren’t skilled in much if anything, and who, like the useless tree, get along in life precisely by being *unskilled*, i.e. useless. Most noteworthy is Ai Tai Tuo who is both ugly and stupid, yet is someone who can be described as complete in talents 才 and power 德. I’ve never been sure that those examples were even compatible with a “flow” reading, particularly when paired with excellence in skill.
Despite the title of this post, I think it’s clear what wuwei means at a base level: “non-doing.” But the problem is how further to understand it — non-intentional doing? non-purposive doing? non-forced, effortless, doing? some other thing? Each of those understandings of it implies very different things, suggests very different examples and images, and seems to commit people to very different readings of Daoism. My own thought about the Zhuangzi is that there is more emphasis on something like “non-learned action” in both of senses of “learned”–picked up through training and picked up through advanced education or acculturation.
Another point is how much the concept of wuwei is particular to Daoism. There seems to be really one Confucian instance of it–the two-character phrase itself, at any rate–with the “non-doing” meaning, in Analects 15.5:
The Master said, “May not Shun be instanced as having governed efficiently without exertion? What did he do? He did nothing but gravely and reverently occupy his royal seat.” [Legge]
But is the concept more generally influential in Chinese philosophical temperament? If so, in which sense or senses, and why?
Let’s see; I’m trying to figure out how to think about the ancient Chinese term shan 善, roughly “good,” in relation to the various senses of “good” that we as philosophers try to distinguish these days. This has a bearing on, among other things, what to make of the pre-Qin positions on human-nature-is-good (ren xing shan ye), bad (e 惡), neither, or both. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that shan means something more like “good at” (“competent”?), but I can’t recall exactly where–Graham? Nivison? Anyway, here are some senses of good that I’m used to hearing philosophers distinguish from among:
- “Good for” – this seems to be the primary “non-moral” sense of “good” that is used in discussing goods that can be indexed to individuals, groups, or things. X can be good for Y in the sense that X is of value to some end or interest of Y. We often speak of something good in this sense as a good or as goods. Such goods seem always quantifiable in this way.
- “Good at” – this seems to be a sense of “good” that tracks something like the Greek term for “excellence,” arete (αρετη–sorry for leaving out diacriticals; can’t seem to do them right now). X is good in this sense if X is capable or competent at doing or being something. Example: “As a golfer, Woods is really good.”
- “Morally or aesthetically good” – this seems to be a sense of “good” that has something to do with worth that “has no price” (to use a Kantian expression). X is good in this sense if it/he/she is praiseworthy for its/his/her own sake, not for its/his/her value to something else or at doing or being some particular thing. Examples: “That painting is good.” “She wasn’t good but she had good intentions.”
I’m pretty sure these are significantly distinct, non-overlapping senses of “good,” although something, or someone, might be good in all three senses. So, let me say or ask a few things.
First, are there more senses of “good” than this that are significantly different from any of them?
Second, it seems to me like we need to figure out which sense or senses of “good” shan overlaps with or else say what other sense it has; otherwise, obviously, we don’t have a handle on what the ren xing debate is about.
Third, it seems to me like li, “benefit,” is closely allied to the first sense, “good for.”
Some initial thoughts that I have: Shan never struck me as meaning “good at” mainly because I haven’t really seen uniformly in the contexts of its use that there is an indication of what something is “shan at.” If so, then it seems like we have to settle on either 1 (good for), 3 (morally/aesthetically good), or some overlap between them. But “good for” suffers from the same contextual problem as “good at”–e.g. it isn’t uniformly clear that there is something a shan thing is “shan for.” Could shan mean something more like morally or aesthetically good? Here is a reason not to go that way too quickly, though we might end up there eventually:
It seems to me like Xunzi, in his discussion of ren xing could be understood as investigating whether it is good at producing order and harmony (which seem themselves on the other had to be li 利, goods in the good for (humans) sense); Xunzi finds that ren xing is not at all good at producing them. However, that moves Xunzi to conclude that ren xing is e 惡, which seems pretty clearly to mean that it is unseemly or ugly. But that suggests either (a) that shan overlaps in meaning between “good at” and “morally/aesthetically good” and Xunzi is equivocating between his criticism of Mencius and his conclusion about ren xing; or (b) Xunzi’s criticism isn’t really about the incompetence of innate disposition to produce order and harmony. I think I prefer (a), but could it really be that shan is so much like the contemporary English term “good” that it has that much similarity in equivocation potential? My instinct here is to be suspicious about that. Any suggestions, comments, critical remarks, interlocutory agreement?
(Posting from Chicago O’Hare, while waiting to see if I can fly standby…Get me home!)
I’ve been wandering through the airport thinking about the supposed Confucian emphasis on the value of community and family – are these really properly, or particularly Confucian values? Three hypotheses for your consideration:
1) The character of the junzi seems pretty important as an individualistic ideal
- the character of the junzi isn’t further specified according to its embodiment in family roles
- the junzi’s character is really an expression of an individualistic ideal, even if it becomes applicable to ends of family and community
- this is not unlike reasonable Western ideals of moral agency—they aren’t meant to have value apart from social ends; moral agency is primarily directed toward reasonability in social interactions
2) The family is a model, emblematic of the sorts of social interactions that are present in community as a whole, but does not have value-primacy of any sort
3) Community, in Confucian conceptions, is not in principle different from broad notions of civil society in the West
Well, these are meandering thoughts of a tired traveler, but I wonder what you think of the initial formulations…
I’m officially back in Fearless Leader mode. I’d like to thank Dan Robins very much for guest blogging. We’ll have Dan back in the future, I’m sure (not that he’s going away; I’m sure he’ll be very active in commenting). I’ll be starting some posts composed by my Phil. 245 (‘Confucianism’) students in the next few days. Meanwhile, I thought it would be fun to discuss “portable tradition,” a phrase Robert Neville uses to describe “Boston Confucianism.” The idea of Boston Confucianism was used initially tongue-in-cheek by Neville to refer to the New Confucian movement, in which he included Tu Wei-ming and himself, both of whom teach in Boston–one north of the Charles River (at Harvard) and one south (at BU).
The portability of Confucian tradition is based on the idea that there is nothing necessarily parochial, geographically speaking, about Confucianism–one need not be culturally Chinese or Sino-centered for the tradition to have some intellectual hold or appeal. You don’t have to be Greek, likewise, to be a Platonist. At this level of generality, it all sounds fine, if not innocuous. There is, however, the lingering question of portability not so much across geography (narrowly construed), but across time: is Confucianism portable into modernity and post-modernity?
At least one indirect criticism of portable Confucianism was provided by Bryan van Norden in his 2003 review (PEW 53:3) of Neville’s book, Boston Confucianism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000). I’m going to cut and paste (an image of) van Norden’s most critical comments, because I think he’s actually on to something, despite seeming only to be snarky (sorry about png quality–I’m too lazy to type all this out):
I have to admit, when I read *non-exegetical* pieces by Tu, there is something bland about his discussions–actually, they tend to strike me alternatively as bland or pragmatically undecipherable (What am I supposed to do with the fact of the dependency of human relations on larger patterns of connections to the cosmos as a whole? Study astronomy? Then what?) Is there something striking or captivating about what either Neville or Tu promote in their versions of Confucianism? Admittedly, I haven’t read enough of their works to be an expert; so let me know.
(Did I mention I was fearless?)