I have been having a series of discussions about Confucianism with a colleague here at Tsinghua. For the most part, these discussions have focused on the role of the virtues in Confucianism. This conversation gets complicated quickly, as one might suggest. Here I’d like to focus just on the main question underlying the discussion. I’m curious if anyone has any opinions on this.
Archive for April, 2009
Being in Beijing the last three months has been an education in cross-cultural differences. Some are not surprising, some especially so. Yesterday, however, I came across the one certain cross-cultural constant: opinions about philosophy. I was walking out of Parker’s “you er yuan” (kindergarten) yesterday with another parent (all Chinese, I’m certain Parker is the only laowai [foreign] kid in this school) and the lady asked me (in broken English): “what do you teach at Tsinghua?” I said “culture and philosophy.” Her face grimaced. “Oh, philosophy,” she said, looking as if someone had knocked the wind out of her, “I took a philosophy course once. It was hard. I couldn’t really understand it. I think my brain just doesn’t work that way.”
I smiled and suggested that philosophy was a strange subject, for sure. All I kept thinking was that this is exactly the response I get from anyone in America when I say that I teach philosophy. To the letter, and in the same order. First comes the grimace and pained “oh”. Then comes the claim that philosophy is hard, and then the suggestion that the person’s cortex isn’t wired in the way it needs to be to understand the subject.
Much as things change, they remain the same!
One issue I’ve been thinking about lately is moral effect in Confucianism. Moral effect on a simple level is straightforward. People who are particularly virtuous have a sort of “force” or “power” that affects those around them for the better. Once you get past this level, of course, things get complicated quickly. There are a number of questions here: one asks what moral effect specifically does. What are the effects here? The second is to ask how the causal power works. These are big questions, so I’ll confine my post to some musings about the first of these questions below.
No, I’m not talking about a type of marijuana popular during the Warring States period.
In Analects 12.19 Confucian disciple and eugenics-proponent Ji Kangzi makes a startling claim about governing. He asks Confucius: “If I were to execute those who lacked the way, in order to advance those who possessed the way, how would that be?” Confucius, not being oriented towards such social policy, responds, “In your governing, Sir, what need is there for executions? If you desire goodness, then the common people will be good. The Virtue of the gentleman is like the wind, and the Virtue of the petty person is like the grass — when the wind moves over the grass, the grass is sure to bend.”
Ji Kangzi’s suggestion is certainly odd. But Confucius’ reply is puzzling in its own way.
I was reading an article today that dealt with cross-cultural psychology, in particular on how Koreans seem to have a more vivid foreground understanding of their own need to “fit in” with the group and how this recognition produces a very real awareness of the differences (in a particular situation) between “one’s own” opinions and the opinions of others (because they are very aware of when they conflict, and very aware of the drive to suppress their “own” opinions to suit others). The author then discussed Tocqueville, who apparently thought that Americans were specifically vulnerable to “tyranny of the majority” because they were (not in his words) not Korean in this psychological respect. Specifically: Tocqueville thought that Americans were not aware of their own drive to “fit in” and so they frequently confused their drive to conform with their “own thoughts.”
It’s an interesting point, one I’ve never considered. It has some interesting consequences for thinking about how a conception of oneself as having an “interdependent” (Eastern) self may actually be more instrumentally useful if one’s goal is individual autonomy than it would be to have an “independent” (Western) self.
From Mencius 4a28:
He (Shun) considered that if one could not get the hearts of his parents he could not be considered a man, and that if he could not get to an entire accord with his parents, he could not be considered a son. By Shun’s completely fulfilling everything by which a parent could be served, Gu Sou was brought to find delight in what was good. When Gu Sou was brought to find that delight, the whole kingdom was transformed. When Gu Sou was brought to find that delight, all fathers and sons in the kingdom were established in their respective duties…This is called great filial piety”
So is Shun (or Mencius) serious? Is a son not a son if he fails to transform his father/mother? Are the virtues that embody “being a son” incomplete if they are not mirrored by the virtues involved in being a dad? (I presume this holds in the reverse direction for sons, too).”
An interesting story came out today about Jackie Chan, the famous martial artist turned film star. Apparently Chan has suggested that China doesn’t really need Western freedom. To quote Chan, “we Chinese need to be controlled.” In fact, he thinks Western freedoms would be bad for China (it would make China chaotic), and he claims that to argue that China must take on Western-style freedom is racist. A predictable backlash against Chan has already started.
Is Chan right?
I love this picture. Christie took it while we were visiting the Lama (Buddhist) Temple the other day (it’s in northwest Beijing). For a weekday, I was surprised by the number of visitors, especially the number who were giving homage. We made it over to the Confucian temple right afterwards, and it was pretty empty. I guess Confucians don’t spend their time in temples. To see more shots, check out my wife’s post here.
Analects 4.25 reads: “Virtue is never alone — it must have neighbors.” I’ve always read this in the past, perhaps uncritically, as a claim about the unity of the virtues. For one virtue to exist in a person, the others must exist too (or at least the ones linked in just the right way with the first).
I’ve been thinking that perhaps this is not what it means after all. Another reading might take the passage in another direction: could it mean that for a person to display virtue requires (in some sense) that it be reciprocated in a social/relational encounter? Must one person’s virtue be “recognized” by another person’s virtue in order for the first virtue to exist at all?
My original thought was that the “neighbors” all existed within a single person: but perhaps the neighbors exist in a relational/social context instead?
In my Chinese Philosophy course we just started Mencius (we’re finished with Confucius and Mozi). One passage we discussed today was 6a10. I’ve always found this to be an interesting (and for me perplexing) passage that deals with the question of the value of dignity. My students came up with some interpretations, but one of them stuck out to me as particularly interesting. See below the fold.
An interesting study I came across in Yahoo news (study published in the journal Psychological Science) suggests that self-control is not natural — that when we try to deny ourselves for too long, our desires find a way to burst through eventually. We get worn out. No onder continence is so tiring! It’s interesting to ask whether any of these studies have any relevance for virtue theory.
I’ve been thinking a bit about the virtues and their relationship to the concept of the good, particularly as it plays out in Confucius. Specifically, I’ve been thinking of this in terms of the “is Confucius a virtue ethicist?” question. I’m less certain that he is a virtue ethicist than I was before, though you never know — next week I might be back to thinking that he certainly is one. Click below for some quick half-baked thoughts.