Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Pre-Qin Love (愛)

[Moving up to front, to restart discussion on this topic — see new comments]

Because it’s now come up twice, in separate places (here and here), I can’t stop thinking about this question: What does ai 愛, broadly translatable as “love,” connote? If I had the time, I would do some actual research into this. But since the antecedent of that conditional is false, I’m going to allow myself just to post the question and my initial thoughts, and see what others think. Let me paste here a version of the comment I made at Tang Dynasty Times, attempting to understand the early Chinese concept through some early Greek ones, and see what kinds of responses I get:

My sense of ai in early Chinese literature is that it is actually more like agape–along with philia–than eros. Lian 戀, along with perhaps se 色, captures the sense of eros much better. Ai seems very much reserved in Classical Chinese for these two senses:

1) kindly attachment and affection (sort of like philia and agape); benevolence, if the direction of hierarchy in the relationship is right


2) fondness; or in the verbal sense, to fancy (sort of like hao 好, in the Classical sense)

I can’t call to mind any instances of ai that I’ve come across that connote the type of longing and lustfully urgent desire that eros suggests.

Or maybe that’s too narrow a rendering of eros? Maybe. Still, I think the broad outlines of what I’m saying are right at least.

Afterthought: The meaning of agape isn’t determined by its use in Christianity. So, I don’t think that’s a factor here.

I might sound confident, but I’m happy, as always, to be set straight.


February 1, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Mohism | 13 Comments

Mohism and Maximizing

In thinking about Mohism lately, I’ve wondered to myself if the fact that maximizing benefit (li 利) is not explicitly a part of Mozi’s doctrines makes a difference. Though it is clear that benefit is supposed to be the primary consideration in deciding what to do or what policies to adopt, there isn’t some explicit accompanying doctrine of producing the overall best state of affairs construed in terms benefit, as there is in classcial utilitarianism for example. This could divide into at least two questions: (A) Can it simply be assumed that if someone thinks beneficial consequences should be the primary motive for acting, or rationale for policy, that she also thinks maximizing such consequences should be the primary motive? (B) If maximizing consequences weren’t part of the Mohist view, would it still count as a form of consequentialism?

Obviously, in part I’m interested (in question B) because it makes a difference for how to categorize Mohism in the spectrum of types of ethical theory. But I’m also interested (via an answer to A) in whether there might plausibly be a systematic, primary role for consequence-reasoning that isn’t committed to some kind of maximizing rationality.

Any thoughts?

November 19, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Mohism | | 36 Comments

Guidance through Principles vs. Concepts/Terms–What’s the Difference?

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…

July 20, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, Taoism | , , , | 13 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

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

China’s First Philosophers?

I’m interested in the question of whether the Mohists were China’s first philosophers—both in what the question means, and in the answers that it might invite.

There’s a good case to be made that in at least one important sense, they were the first.

It’s widely agreed that the Mohists were the first to engage in sustained philosophical argument, and (this may be more controversial) the first to attempt to articulate the normative foundations of their dào.

There’s also good reason to think that it was the Mohists who first provoked other early Chinese thinkers to provide their dào with philosophical justifications. With few exceptions, non-Mohist texts that include such justifications are clearly responding to a philosophical context, often with named opponents. But no such context is apparent in most of the writings of the early Mohists, particularly in those texts that seem earliest (such as the shàng books on war and inclusive care): these texts either do not mention ideological rivals at all, or identify them quite generally as the rulers or gentlemen of the world—not as other philosophers. The implication: philosophical argumentation was original only with the Mohists.

So if we conceive of philosophy in such a way that it essentially involves philosophical argumentation, then it is likely not only that the Mohists were China’s first philosophers, but also that it was precisely their arguments that provoked other early Chinese thinkers to take up philosophy: the Mohists were not only the first in chronological terms, they also provoked the rest.

Is this conclusion correct? How significant is it? What other ways of conceiving of philosophy would lead to different conclusions? Does the possibility of conceiving of philosophy in other ways mean that it is a mistake to wonder who did it first?

March 2, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, History, Mohism | 45 Comments