Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

My review of Karyn Lai’s Chinese Philosophy textbook is now available at NDPR, here. It’s not that much longer than the portion I posted on the blog. More interesting to me is one of the other new reviews, this one by Hui-chieh Loy of Bryan Van Norden‘s new translation of the Mencius. Interesting review–interesting criticisms. Comment if you see something interesting in it.


March 25, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy | 4 Comments

Fingarette’s Confucius and Historical Contingency

I’m just going to post on Fingarette like I’m serving hors d’oeuvres. So, here goes.

So, according to Fingarette’s Confucius, the value of the individual can’t transcend the particular set of ceremonies in which the individual is embedded. On Fingarette’s reading, Confucius is committed, then, to the value of individuals being tied specifically to the Zhou ritual ceremonies. I don’t think Confucius could say something more Rorty-like–namely, that though the particular tradition is dependent on historical contingency, with a bit of irony and reflection, we can embrace the historically contingent and imbue it with value that we recognize to be contingent, since there isn’t any non-contingent value to be had in any case. In other words, Confucius could not think of the Zhou rituals, in so many words, as being historically contingent; he thinks they are absolutely valuable. That doesn’t mean Fingarette’s Confucius is committed, in so many words, to universal values; it means he doesn’t really think in terms of universal versus historically (or culturally) contingent values. His commitment to the Zhou is naively universalist in its assumption of superiority to the norms and mores of “the barbarians.”

I might have caricatured Rorty, or Fingarette for that matter. Comments welcome, as always.

March 23, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius | 4 Comments

Fingarette, Confucius, and the Vessel

Continuing Fingarette-palooza, begun on Chris’s, Peony’s, and Sam’s blogs:

Herbert Fingarette, in Confucius–the Secular as Sacred, chapter 5, discusses something about the relationship between ceremony and the individual’s place within it that is far more radical than either of the alternatives that currently presents itself as the “correct” reading of the moral individual within Confucius’s thought (to the extent that we can reasonably reconstruct it). Fingarette argues, or suggests really, that for Confucius the ethical value of the individual can only be a “function” (p. 75) of the value of ritual ceremony. The idea, as Fingarette construes it, is analogous to the value that a ceremonial vessel has in the context of ritual ceremony: the ceremonial vessel’s value is merely a function of the value of the ceremony, which does not depend at all on the utility of the vessel outside of that context, but on its ritual significance within the ritual. So, the analogous value of the individual human being would be a mere function of the value that human ceremony (li 禮) has. And what kind of value does that have? That’s less clear. According to Fingarette:

The shapes of human relationships are not imposed on man, not physically inevitable, not an instinct or reflex. They are rites learned and voluntarily participated in. The rite is self-justifying. The beings, the gestures, the words are not subordinate to rite, nor is rite subordinate to them…. Although the individual must cultivate himself, just as the temple vessel must be carved and chiseled and polished, this self-cultivation is no more central to man’s dignity, in Confucius’s views, than the preparation of the vessel is central. Preparation and training are essential, but it is the ceremony that is central, and all the elements and relationships and actions in it are sacred though each has its special characteristics. (78)

What could this mean? I’ll say this. It does not mean that the cultivation of the virtues in humans is somehow valuable as a function of human good–the Aristotelian picture, broadly construed, of the virtues contributing to human flourishing, which flourishing is based on human nature–or, as Fingarette puts it, “imposed on man” or “physically inevitable.” On Fingarette’s view, that would put Confucius really at odds with a more Mencian view on which, if the rituals had any value whatsoever, it would be because of their role in expressing what was indeed “imposed on man” through his nature (xing 性) by Heaven.

On the other hand, Fingarette’s reading also implies that “role-based” value of humans does not quite get Confucius’s point narrowly enough. A role has to be indexed to some role-context. Most role-based readings of Confucius, I think, read that context as that of the family and, by extension, of the state through a broadening of the family relationship types to include state relationships. But I don’t think Fingarette’s Confucius thinks this way. If Fingarette is right, Confucius isn’t concerned as much with “the family” or “the state” generically construed, but with a particular ceremonialized version of those things. It is the role, very narrowly, that a person can play within the family or state, as ritualized through the Zhou dynastic rituals, that confers upon the individual (as a “vessel” within that ceremony) the kind of value that Confucius champions.

To that extent Fingarette’s reading, I think, actually makes Confucius less relevant for contemporary concerns than he might wish to admit. Or perhaps he likes to think that we can return to the values of Zhou ritual…

Comments welcome, as always.

March 19, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius | 7 Comments

Book Review of Lai Textbook

I know that at least Chris was interested in Karyn Lai‘s Chinese philosophy textbook (2008). I thought I would share part of my review of it, written for NDPR, here with you. At the very least, you’ll have some sense of one of the things that kept me busy during the past week. Comments, of course — including your own impressions if you have looked at the book yourself — are welcome. I’ll post a link to the full review when it is posted on NDPR’s site.


Lai, Karyn L. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2008, 307pp., $34.99 (bpk), ISBN 9780521608923.

by Manyul Im, Fairfield University

It is noteworthy that the two most recent textbooks that bear this title, the current one by Karyn Lai, and one by JeeLoo Liu (2006, Blackwell; also reviewed on NDPR)), limit themselves to introducing the reader to early Chinese philosophy (Warring States period through the Han—roughly 5th century BCE through 3rd century CE) and the early schools of Chinese Buddhism (from ca. 1st through 6th centuries CE). This means that the title is quite misleading for both volumes since there are also significant periods of Chinese philosophy in the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and up to the post-dynastic present; so, roughly 1400 years of the 2500-year tradition are not represented. The similarity and temporal proximity of the two textbooks invite comparison, but for the purposes of this review, I will leave that exercise to others.

Lai’s volume is interesting and bold, as introductory textbooks go. There are aspects to her approach that those who are concerned with issues of historiography will find controversial. Those who care more about comparative philosophy should be pleased to find that Lai’s presentation of Chinese philosophy provides a very useful update to the collection of textbooks that are available. Lai’s discussion provides an excellent sense of the most current interpretations and uses of early Chinese thought by philosophers working in the specialization of Chinese and comparative philosophy, among whom Lai herself numbers.

The penchant to treat early Chinese thought as of primary importance—and to some, the only really interesting philosophical material from the tradition—runs deep through the professional field of Chinese and comparative philosophy in the English speaking world. Some people still refer to Chinese philosophy and simply mean the early material, without apology. That is slowly changing. However, it may very well be that this predilection tracks an affinity, or at least the widespread perception of affinity, that the concerns of early Chinese thought have with those of contemporary ethical theorizing, as broadly construed in western philosophy. On the other hand, the more metaphysical, spiritual, and soteriological concerns of medieval Neo-Confucianism may suffer in comparison in the eyes of contemporary professional philosophers. Those are not Lai’s overt reasons, however, for omitting discussion of the entirety of medieval Neo-Confucian philosophy, not to mention the entirety of modern Chinese “New,” or “Third-Wave,” Confucianism. Rather, she offers this apology:

[I]n order to keep the volume to a manageable size, it has not been possible to include a discussion of Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism was a development of Confucian doctrines and was a prominent philosophical movement from the tenth century [and onward]…. Many of the discussions by Neo-Confucian thinkers focus on metaphysical and meta-philosophical issues and it is unfortunate that these cannot be included…. Hopefully, the discussions in this volume will provide readers with a good understanding of the fundamental conceptual frameworks and concerns of Chinese philosophy and thereby equip readers to understand later developments in Chinese philosophy. (p. 2)

I’m not sure I am convinced by this rationale for this particular editorial choice. Surely it would have been possible to include at least cursory discussion, in at least one chapter of an introductory text, of the main outlines of Neo-Confucianism. To complicate matters in a necessary way, it is worth pointing out that interpretations of early Chinese texts by the Neo-Confucian movement through its commentarial tradition were, and continue to be, very influential in shaping contemporary interpretations and translations of them. From an intellectual history perspective, it is slightly inadequate to think of the tradition as having established “fundamental conceptual frameworks and concerns” early on and then simply having been built upon those as time progressed. Instead, many of the “orthodox” scholarly options available for understanding the early frameworks and concerns have been the product of the ways they were constructed and then retroactively fitted onto the early period by later figures and movements. But a reader who is receiving an introduction to the tradition may not fully appreciate this without seeing at least portions of the larger picture. Some part of that picture, of course, is present in Lai’s inter-textual juxtapositions, according to theme, of Han and pre-Han early Chinese sources, among themselves. By means of that, she hopes “to capture a sense of intellectual debt and cross-influences between the traditions” (p. 2), by which she means, between what are more traditionally called the “schools” of pre-Qin and Han dynastic Chinese thought (Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, Legalism, School of Names, and Buddhism). Though she states this to be a “secondary objective” (ibid.) of the volume, in actuality it would be very difficult to do anything aside from this in order to understand what the individual, compiled sets of teachings were trying to convey, argue, or establish philosophically—at least with regard to the clearly contemporaneous schools.
Lai has a keen sense of the currents running through recent philosophical secondary literature that concerns itself largely with the early figures of Chinese philosophy. Much of it that is interesting to the western philosophical audience buoys, or at least attempts to buoy, the early texts to contemporary philosophical relevance through contemporary understandings or renderings of the issues, all the while maintaining a healthy concern for historical plausibility. Lai’s discussion of each prominent figure and school of thought is peppered throughout with her presentation and assessment of the views, which are sometimes in disagreement with each other, of major English-writing interpreters of the texts. As a textbook of Chinese philosophy, this is highly unusual but in a good way. Chapters 2-8 read in many respects like a literature survey of contemporary scholarship on early Chinese Confucianism, Daoism, and Mohism rather than the usual presentation of readings of the associated texts as if those readings were uncontestable. The effect, it seems to me, is exactly the sort of thing for which an introduction to this type of literature should aim. These chapters of Lai’s book, at least, give an appropriate sense of the differing interpretive possibilities for the ancient texts.

In particular, two chapters worth singling out for praise are the ones on early Mohism (ch. 4) and later Mohism (ch. 7). Neither of these movements is ordinarily treated with the level of scholarly evenhandedness and care that Lai provides. This reflects Lai’s awareness of the traditional, very strong bias against Mohism that has existed in Chinese philosophy because of the largely Confucian identity of the scholars who have created and transmitted orthodoxies about early Chinese figures.
Lai’s understanding of the later Mohists is filtered largely through A.C. Graham and Chad Hansen’s emendations and reconstructions of the “drastically compromised” (p. 124) bamboo strip copies that form the basis for the received text. There have been notable scholarly criticisms of those reconstructions. In that respect, Lai is perhaps treading on thin ice. Nonetheless, it is clear that the later Mohist writings, which seem to aim for a kind of near mathematical precision of definition and explanation, represent an important departure from the stylized, literary writing of much of the rest of early Chinese philosophy. Given the nature of the text, it may be risky to draw too many conclusions about what the later Mohists were “onto”—for example, with respect to their understanding of propositions—but it is the sort of risk that makes Lai’s volume not only bolder, but more thought provoking than the usual textbook.

By comparison, Lai’s discussion in chapters 9-11 of Legalism, Han dynasty Confucianism, and Chinese schools of Buddhism seemed somewhat rote to me. This perhaps reflects Lai’s own intellectual background and interests. Though rote, these chapters provide an adequate accounting of those movements. To point this out is less a criticism of their adequacy as it is a compliment to Lai’s much more interesting treatment in the former chapters.

March 9, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Pedagogy | 1 Comment

On de 德 and se 色

I’m going to piggyback on some discussion to which I was party at Peony’s and Sam’s because I wanted to see what might come up further from this blog’s clientale (patrons? target audience?). My apologies to both of the other bloggers for cloning their concerns over here, but I offer them admiration as propitiation.

The issue concerns how to understand Analects 9.18 and 15.13. In both places Confucius is quoted saying: “吾未見好德如好色者也,” widely translated as something like “I have never met one who likes virtue as much as he likes sex.” A slight variation in that is to translate se 色 as “beauty” or “the beauty of women.” I’ve never really liked this way of understanding Confucius’s point. So, here is a proposal for how to understand the sentiment in 9.18 and 15.13. (Some of this is cut and pasted from various comments I made on the other blogs):

I think se 色 really can’t mean something as narrow as sex or lust; its meaning is much broader, expressing a broader more central concern in the Analects. The “sex” translation seems flat out wrong for the following reasons. There really isn’t any independent evidence that sexual license was a temptation Confucius worried over. Nor does it seem that concubinage was an option for anyone other than the emperor or possibly a very powerful warlord (any ancient Chinese concubinage experts should correct or corroborate me on this). This line of translating seems to be a projection of much later genres of moralizing texts onto the Analects. But those issues about sexual desire and practice don’t really determine the issue as much as consideration of a more central concern for Confucius. In Analects 2.8 Confucius uses se in a context that I think is much more helpful in setting our understanding of se in the right direction:


“Zixia asked about filial piety. The Master said: ‘[Mere] appearances (se) are the difficulty. With matters to be tended, younger brothers or sons offer their service; with drink and food one partakes in order of birth. Can this really be filial piety?'”

I think this is representative of a concern that Confucius has throughout the Analects with contrasting mere, or rote, behavior that mimics real filial piety (or righteousness, benevolence, ritual, etc) and genuine possession of those characteristics. It’s his concern that the “form” of such activity be filled out with deeper content or correct context. I think that transfers also to distractions that form a category of “surface” pleasure. Appreciation of beauty, in particular, is not a mere surface pleasure for Confucius. So translation of se as ‘love of beauty’ also makes a mistake–the real trouble for Confucius is not appreciating beauty; instead it is enjoying “cheap” delights that merely mimic appreciation of beauty.

The sensibility that Confucius expresses does not concern one arena or type of activity as opposed to a wholly other type–for example, in antiquity, between ritualized life and licentious free-for-all, or something of the sort. I think the sensibility tracks the difference between more closely related activities, namely the “real” or “deep” enjoyment/practice/performance of ritual, filial piety, music, beauty of women, and so forth, and the disingenuous or shallow enjoyment/practice/performance of that same range of things. Confucius’s concerns are focused on a declining empire, but not like the Roman decline as represented in “Caligula.” The decline lies in the loss or threatened loss of coherence, or perhaps integrity, of what he considered to be high culture (in the moral/social/aesthetic mashed-up sense). In effect, it is a type of snobbery but perhaps with less pejorative connotation. It’s like bemoaning the loss of integrity that, say, the ascendence of Kenny G represented for the true jazz aficionado. Kenny G’s performances lack “soul” or something like that, so they are se.

So, if I had to give a translation of the quote from Confucius, it would be something like: “I have never met one who prefers the deeply powerful activity as much as the easy semblance of it.”

As always, comments welcome.

February 11, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, History | 22 Comments

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

Acupuncture Interlude

I don’t know, maybe someone will find something philosophical to say about this:

(from a yahoo news link)


WEDNESDAY, Jan. 28 (HealthDay News) — When used to treat pain, acupuncture offers only limited relief that may not be clinically relevant.

So say Danish researchers who examined data from 13 acupuncture pain studies that included more than 3,000 patients.

The studies compared real acupuncture, placebo acupuncture and no acupuncture for a wide range of painful conditions such as knee osteoarthritis, migraine, low back pain and postoperative pain.

Compared to placebo acupuncture, real acupuncture offered only a small amount of relief (about 4 millimeters on a 100-mm pain scoring scale), according to the review authors. A 10-mm change on this scale is classified as “minimal” or “little change,” which means the apparent relief offered by acupuncture seems to be below clinically relevant improvement.

The findings, published online Jan. 28 in the British Medical Journal, support a number of previous reviews that found no clear evidence that acupuncture offers effective pain relief.

Future studies should focus on reducing bias and trying to separate the physiological effect of using a needle and the psychological impact of the treatment ritual, said the researchers at the Nordic Cochrane Center in Copenhagen.

The overall effect of acupuncture in relation to usual care may not be large, but it may be clinically relevant for musculoskeletal conditions due to the limited treatment options and acupuncture’s safety record and patient preference, Dr. Adrian White and Dr. Mike Cummings of the British Medical Acupuncture Society wrote in an accompanying editorial.

Future research should focus on a comparison of acupuncture with the best existing treatments for different conditions, they suggested.

More information

The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has more about acupuncture.


It’s true, I’m too busy at the moment to generate my own material…

January 28, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy | , | 1 Comment

Happy 牛 Year!


(Photo from Xinhua News)

January 26, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy | 1 Comment

Argument and Meta-Discourse

Over on Facebook, Stephen Walker and Robert Hymes got me thinking about meta-discourse in early China. Stephen imagined someone in China asking, or perhaps demanding, “Where are the arguments?” Robert suggested that it is perhaps impossible in classical Chinese to say “arguments” in the intended sense, so that someone might know what is being asked or demanded of him. (My thanks to them for stimulating the rest of this post. Maybe they will join in the discussion.)

I had a few initial responses to this, but I wanted to open up the discussion to others as well. Here are my thoughts:

(A) It is hard to know what term from the classical Chinese meta-discourse about language and rhetoric could do all and only the work that “the argument” in contemporary discourse does.

(B) Of course, one wouldn’t have to use meta-discourse simply to ask for a reason, some pattern of reasoning, or some other thing that might answer to “Why do you say that?” in English. One equivalent of “Why do you say that?” is he yan 何言, or simply 何.

There is another locution, an 安, which introduces more ambiguity–generality?–that is used for example in this Zhuangzi passage about the “Happiness of Fish” (魚之樂):


Zhuangzi and Huizi wandered to a bridge over the Hao River. Zhuangzi said, “See how the small fish meander to and fro. This is the happiness of the fish.” Huizi replied “You are not a fish; how do you know the happiness of the fish?” “You are not I,” retorted Zhuangzi, “How do you know my not knowing the happiness of the fish?” “I am not you,” conceded Huizi, “so I certainly do not know what you know. But you are certainly not a fish, so your not knowing the happiness of the fish is settled.” “Let’s return to the original question” suggested Zhuangzi. “You asked me whence I know the happiness of the fish. That shows that you already knew what I knew when you asked me. I know it from my vantage over the Hao.”

This is an interesting passage because Zhuangzi is depicted, I think, as being aware of the ambiguity of an 安; his answer at the end turns on interpreting Huizi’s question, not as “how do you know?”, which is what Huizi seems to intend, but as “from where do you know?”, (安 being one way to ask for the location of something in classical Chinese). That makes me also think:

(C) One could be aware of the different sorts of things someone is asking for with he 何, an 安, and other similar lexical items, without having an explicit/precise/unambiguous meta-discourse term for those sorts of things. Maybe one of those sorts of things Zhuangzi and others were aware of was “argument.”


January 15, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics | 10 Comments

Per Annum

Has it really been one year for the blog? Is it too narcissistic to note, or to celebrate, this? Okay, I’ll be brief. 42,678 hits later (from the US to the Ukraine), here are a few observations, numbers, and comments. Feel free to comment as well (be gentle).

Just a couple of personal favorites:

Discussions generated by these posts:

Gentlemen Prefer Bronze
Little Fish, Little Fish, Swimming in the Water

I liked these discussions the most because I think I learned the most from them. They seem like great models for academic blogging—tight, but with lots of freedom to try interpretations, offer proposals, and get quick and multifarious feedback from casually cordial colleagues (alliteration unintended), in a nice long string of conversation(s) over time. By the way, there is a resurfacing of the Little Fish discussion just up, over at Tang Dynasty Times (Peony’s blog), with some comments about Daodejing 60 from well-published translator, Red Pine (aka Bill Porter).

I want to spread the love around, but one participant deserves special mention, Bill Haines (surprise!), for reasons that should be apparent to anyone who has followed the blog. You can thank the adoring crowd, Bill, and all your handlers, but only until the music starts…

Just a few numbers from the WordPress stat compiler:

These were the top ten posts in numbers of hits:

Summer Project: Chinese Philosophy M.A. 1,658
Little Fish, Little Fish, Swimming in th 920
Question Board 828
APA Newsletter on the State of the Field 670
Shameless Self-Promotion (no longer up) 595
Value of Family in Confucianism 561
Analogical Reasoning — not just ordinar 559
Confucius and Aristotle – book review 536
Shamelessly Brief Book Reviews (no longer up) 504
Wuwei (無為) – What does it mean? 465

I’m not sure what these numbers suggest. The one thing I’m pretty confident of is that some of the “profession” related posts have a lot of hits via Brian Leiter’s Leiterreports blog, which is the mother of all philosophy blogs (Get something linked on that and you’re instantly in the top 10 of WordPress’s “Growing Blogs” list for that day; seriously, it happened twice for this blog). I guess the other thing this tells me is that I should really finish setting up the graduate study information page that I’ve been putting off for the past half year (It’s on my list of New Year resolutions). Also, for those who haven’t been hep to the blog, the two “Shameless…” pages were decommissioned recently for lack of content activity–people just liked to click on them I think because they had catchy page names.

Well, enough belly-button staring for me now; I’ll have a new substantive post up soon. My humble thanks to you all for lurking about and joining in now and then!

January 12, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy | Comments Off on Per Annum