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

Flourishing, the Non-moral Good, & Virtue Ethics

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…

June 28, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Mencius, Mohism | | 9 Comments

Analogical Reasoning — not just ordinary inference?

Some commentators seem to regard “analogical reasoning” to be a distinct form of reasoning in the early Chinese philosophical context, attributable mostly to the later Mohists and to Mencius. So far as I’ve been able to understand it, the distinctiveness of such reasoning seems suspect; but I’m not 100 percent sure I’ve understood it correctly.

Part of the issue seems to be that we get an account of the method or technique of reasoning in the later Mohist canons, but we get what some people consider the most explicit, or at least self-conscious, use (or misuse) of the method in the Mencius. “Argument” in Mencius, according to most commentators, seems primarily to work on a model of analogy.

There is the statement from 3B9 of the Mencius that Mencius sees himself as engaged in bian 辯, “disputation,” in response to the Mohists. There are technical discussions in the later Mohist writings about the various modes of bian. Among them is the technique called tui 推, “to push” or “to extend.” As A. C. Graham translates the definition of the technique (A. C. Graham, Later Mohist Logic, Ethics and Science, 483), to tui is “…using what is the same in that which he refuses to accept and that which he does accept in order to propose the former” (tui ye zhe yi qi suo bu qu zhi tong yu qi suo qu zhe yu zhi ye 推也者以其所不取之同於其所取者予之也). So, as the later Mohists understand it, in this technique, one “pushes” the opponent’s judgment from a case he already accepts to another case, using something that both cases have in common. Hence this has often been called the method of “analogical inference.”

But now, consider the following reconstruction of so-called “analogical inference,” using the example from Mencius 1A7 that both Graham and Nivison examine as an example of such inference. The example is Xuan’s compassionate response to the ox being taken away to slaughter and the analogous case of his people, the people of Qi, who also seem to require compassionate response. Graham, Nivison, and most others think there’s an inference, then, that Mencius encourages Xuan to make.

Here’s what it seems to me to take, to go from the one case to the other:
1. Xuan ought to feel compassion for O, because O possesses F.
2. Q also possesses F.
3. Therefore, Xuan ought also to feel compassion for Q.

But it seems like we can further analyze 1 as relying on a suppressed premise, one which says something more general about feeling compassion for objects possessing F. If we push the analysis further, the entire inference involved in the case of this “analogical” inference seems most plausibly to be the following:
A. Xuan ought to feel compassion for objects that possess F.
B. O possesses F.
C. Xuan ought to feel compassion for O. (from A, B)
D. Q (also) possesses F.
E. Xuan (also) ought to feel compassion for Q. (from A, D)
A-E seems to spell out more explicitly how the Mohist principle of extending, which is the principle of applying rational pressure to treat similar cases similarly, would actually apply the rational pressure of maintaining consistency among one’s judgments. But then the technique of tui 推 is not so distinct or different from regular, boring inference. This raises two questions for me:

Q1) Have I misunderstood or misconstrued the technique?

Q2) Was I looking for something unreasonable in looking for something distinct or different in a reasoning technique in the first place? In other words, should we think, “Of course it turns out that analogical reasoning is just a familiar form of reasoning!”?

April 27, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Mencius, Mohism | 90 Comments

Xunzi and Mencius Meld

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):

  1. “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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

April 21, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Mencius, Xunzi | 22 Comments

The Good: Good For, Good At (shan 善), and Benefit (li 利)

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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.”
  3. “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?

April 6, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Mencius, Mohism, Xunzi | 42 Comments

Normative Theory in the Mencius

Let’s say a normative theory is a theory intended to set out whatever it is that grounds correct norms.

The Mohists had a normative theory that grounded norms on what they called benefit ( 利). (Or they had a normative theory that based norms on the will of tiān 天, if you read them that way; but you shouldn’t.) As Chris Fraser said a couple of threads back (in this comment), this may actually have been the world’s first explicit normative theory.

It’s often implied that Mencius also had a normative theory, one that grounded norms in facts about human nature, and that’s the issue I want to raise. My view is that the Mencius never argues from claims about human nature to normative conclusions, so there’s no reason to think that its author or authors would have endorsed such a normative theory.

What we find in what may be the most famous invocations of inner goodness in the Mencius is a concern with ability. The discussion of the child by the well is about how people are capable of rén 仁 (the announced topic is the ability of rulers to be rén, but the passage invites generalisation). The discussion about King Xuān and the ox tries to show that the king has what it takes to be a virtuous king. Both passages take their normative claims for granted; there is no hint of a normative theory in either.

Elsewhere in the Mencius, we do find normative arguments, such as in the extended argument against the followers of Shén Nóng, the God of Agriculture, but there’s rarely if ever any attempt to set out a general basis for these arguments, and none of the arguments appeal to human nature.

The one tricky passage is the argument against the Mohist Yí Zhī about funerals and inclusive care. It’s often read as saying that our natural love for our parents rules out inclusive care and demands lavish funerals. But when this passage objects that Mohists are two-rooted, it means that the Mohists embraced both particularist and universalist attitudes, both love and inclusive care. (The Mohists didn’t write about love, but they did place a great deal of emphasis on, for example, filial piety.) This is best read as a complaint about Mohist psychology, which does not treat universalist attitudes (which the Mencius also advocates) as extensions of particularist ones, a point on which the Mencius follows Yǒuzǐ (hi, Bill); this is not a normative argument. And the passage does not even pretend to make a case against moderation in funerals—the funerals it describes approvingly are far more moderate than anything the Mohists advocated.

As far as I can tell, the closest the Mencius comes to embracing a normative theory is in Book 1, in which benevolent government may get grounded in the well-being of the people and in the figure of the virtuous king; and the only connection to human nature here is in the assumption that the people will respond with approval to a king who ensures their well-being.

Well, that’s how I see it, anyway. Thoughts?

March 7, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Mencius | 46 Comments

Qi (氣), Moral Psychology, Humours, and Phlogiston

I’ve been thinking about some qi-related things, but only around the periphery, so maybe you all (as usual) can help me get more into it:

  1. To what extent does “accepting” or defending Mencius’ moral psychology require acceptance of qi-cosmology or qi-physiology?
  2. Same question as 1, but with respect to Neo-Confucian moral psychology in Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi).
  3. Is reverting to qi-based cosmology, physiology, medicine, psychology, etc. as problematic as it would be to revert to “humours” medical theory or phlogiston physical theory? Or is any of that problematic–my instinct is to say yes to all three but that might just be knee-jerk scientism.

My interest in this is, of course, about contemporary relevance of either Warring States or Song-Ming Dynasty Confucianism.

February 9, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Mencius | 19 Comments

The Value(?) of Philosophical Mindset

Just to pick up on–and to pick on a little bit–some comments in the previous thread:

Don’t there seem to be clear rejections of the value of the philosophical mindset in the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, assuming we can identify the mindset more or less clearly? It also seems like Confucius and Mencius rejected the inherent value of philosophical questioning and argument. Confucius’ love of “learning” (xue 學) is really about ritual, literary, musical, and moral-historical learning. Mencius only seems interested in philosophical thought to the extent that he feels the need to quell interest in Mohism and other movements that he finds calamitous. Maybe with the Neo-Confucians the “investigation of things” implies putting on a philosophical point of view–but even there I’m not so sure it isn’t just more of the type of learning that Confucius loved.

In short, aren’t the Daoist and Confucian traditions actually hostile to the kind of philosophical mindset that challenges and questions, analyzes and clarifies, and so forth? I suppose we could still be interested in Daoism and Confucianism from such a point of view–just like the analytic philosophical interest in the later Wittgenstein–but it all seems a bit perverse, no?

February 7, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Daoism, Mencius, Taoism | 12 Comments

Gentlemen Prefer Bronze

I thought I would post this string of comments that ended up under the “100 ways” post, since it is really a different topic–namely, how to translate “junzi” (often translated “gentleman”). It’s a topic that might be useful/interesting for others to join in on (the “ubermensch” references owe to a quip I made about Nietzsche, to which Chris replied, and which set this whole string of comments in motion):

The Tao has many turns and twists. What about “higher man” [instead of “superman”] for ubermensch? I find “gentleman” distracting for junzi as well. I can only think of someone wearing a suit from the nineteenth century; maybe that *is* the right association?

Comment by Manyul Im | February 3, 2008 <!– @ 11:53 am –>

I think “higher man” would run up against the bunch of actual folks in Zarathustra (the folks in part four) who are “higher men” but not “ubermenchen.” I’m actually partial to “overman”, simply because, in a sense, that’s really what it is — the ability to transcend man’s present state. But it is a bit odd as a term, I think.“Gentleman” is problematic, I think, for exactly the reason you say. I think it gives off too much of the impression — one that Confucius himself sees — of thinking that the “gentleman” is a cultured person. Not that they aren’t, but you shouldn’t associated a person of ‘high culture’ with the term, and that’s clearly the impression the translation gives off. Very 19th century, as you note.Not to mention the fact that it’s gender biased, and my women students don’t care much for that (well, me either) and I can’t blame them. Should a translation seek to wash out patriarchical elements that are, clearly, present in the historical and cultural context of the work? It’s a tough question. In part, a “yes” answer might be helped along by the work of those trying to show that Confucianism is not anti-woman as a philosophy (Chenyang Li’s work and others some to mind).I guess the same concern could be raised for Aristotle too.

Comment by Chris | February 3, 2008 <!– @ 12:36 pm –>

I just want to say that that’s a pretty cool way to stumble across the Bureau of Public Secrets. Well, that and, does anybody know of a translation of “junzi” that gets the social status about right, doesn’t imply culturedness, and that neither directly implies nor makes ridiculous the Confucian moralisation of that term? “Gentlemen” maybe fails on all three counts, but I haven’t been able to come up with anything better.

Comment by Dan Robins | February 3, 2008 <!– @ 3:01 pm –>

Let’s see; I think actually–and I meant to imply that above–that in some of the Analects passages, the association with culturedness and meticulous manners *is* the right association to have. I’m of two minds here; I think that’s because the concept is itself trading on two emphases. I agree with the part of Robert Eno’s assessment in *The Confucian Creation of Heaven*, that there must have been something slightly ridiculous about the ritual mavens who embodied significant aspects of what Confucius probably thought of as junzi-qualities (think of Analects Book 10). On the other hand, the concept seems ripe throughout the Analects for transcending that to something like “the morally noble.” That translation might capture the ambiguity just right, but it sounds clumsy, not to mention the problematic insertion of “moral” into the picture. Maybe just “a noble person,” or a “noble man” if we want to preserve the highly likely sexism of the period?Back to the Ubermensch for a second: I have seen some people use “the superior person” or “the superior man” for junzi. But that sounds more like the Ubermensch to me.

Comment by Manyul Im | February 3, 2008 <!– @ 4:58 pm –>

On the junzi, on the three counts Dan mentions, and to avoid the worry of sexism that Chris raises, I second Manyul’s “noble person”. Irene Bloom, for instance, prefers to use it for junzi.A very minor flaw is that “noble person” does not flow as trippingly off the tongue as “gentleman” (but then I’m not a native speaker of English, so I can’t be sure on this point). I don’t think the “gentleman” rendition is all that bad either. It has certain associations that junzi doesn’t convey, but when I immerse myself in the text I find that the English rendition picks up the Confucian associations, and blocks out the Western ones.

Comment by Boram Lee | February 3, 2008 <!– @ 5:20 pm –>

“Noble” might work on its own, I suppose. Remember: it’s not just the Confucian usage we want to capture, the Mohists also talked about junzi, and they mostly didn’t like them. (One possible disadvantage of “gentlemen” is that it might make the Mohists’ references to the junzi of the world sound ironic, when they probably weren’t; “noble” may be better on this point.)Manyul, wouldn’t culturedness and meticulous manners be specifically Confucian associations of the term? Then we want a translation that allows for that as a reinterpretation, without suggesting the associations too directly, I think.

Comment by Dan Robins | February 3, 2008 <!– @ 5:41 pm –>

I completely certainly agree that culture-mindedness is an important part of the Confucian ideal. I meant that you don’t want a term that gives off the impression that one could capture the “ideal” while being cultured without “native substance” as Confucius says. “Gentleman” to me fails in that sense. My issue with “noble” is what it implies in English. For me, it gives off an impression of economic strata, just as much as “gentleman” might (though in the latter case not as strongly). I understand that the etymology of “jen” traces it back to “noble” in the sense that Nietzsche implies “good” meant “noble” in ancient times (where it at least requires being part of a certain social class or strata). As far as I understand it, Confucius “hijacked” the term to give it more of a moral/ethical feel, making it more dependent upon character, and in doing extended the term to anyone, not just people of a certain class.Why not just “exemplary person” as A/R translate it? “Exemplary” to me can capture what “noble” is trying to get at in the sense of culture without sounding strata-specific, and it can also grab onto the moral/ethical elements (also avoids the sexism).

Comment by Chris | February 3, 2008 <!– @ 6:04 pm –>

Dan and Chris, I think we want something that straddles that line between the older meaning of junzi, which is probably more strata-specific (”a lordly one” or “one of noble stock”), and the emerging meaning (”one of noble character”), which is more like a strata-independent category. “Noble person” strikes me as having just that quality of ambiguity, though I suppose the further we move away from the late Middle Ages the less strata-specific it will seem.And it’s not just Confucius (i.e. he of the parts of the Analects that are oldest) who clings to the older meaning, I think. A few generations down the line, when Mencius is portrayed saying that the junzi stays away from the kitchen, in 1A7, there still seems to be at least a hint of apologetics on behalf of class: only the lower sort would be around while someone is butchering animals, but junzis have a reason not to be in there anyway (they don’t want to feel compassion for livestock; that presumably would interfere with ritual/ceremonial slaughter and consumption of animals).

For Dan: I don’t really see why we ever need to attribute non-ironic use to the Mohists; the junzi isn’t admired in the least by them.

For Chris: I don’t think “exemplary” captures any of the older meaning so to that extent I don’t like it all that much.

Comment by Manyul Im | February 3, 2008

Feel free to join in with comments!

February 3, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Mencius | 24 Comments