Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Book Review – brief but not shamelessly so

Here is some of the draft of my review of Van Norden’s Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy for Journal of Asian Studies. The word-limit for the review was very low (800 words!); I didn’t really meet it, but it did make me focus, largely on methodology. Keep in mind that this wasn’t so much written for philosophers but for the broader JAS readership. Other reviews, longer and written for philosophers, are sure to give better due to details of Van Norden’s book. Nonetheless, I welcome any comments and edifying criticism.


Two aspects of Van Norden’s interpretation that mark it as distinctively philosophical are (a) the presentation of early Chinese texts as sets of philosophically systematic “views,” and (b) the presentation of such views as in some sense “defensible,” though not perfectly so. The stated underpinning for both is Van Norden’s rendering of Paul Ricoeur’s “hermeneutics of restoration”—as opposed to the “hermeneutics of suspicion”—using principles of interpretation derived from the “meaning holism” views of 20th century American philosophers W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson. There are two: the principle of charity and that of humanity. By the principle of charity, one interprets the utterances of others in such a way that they are not attributed beliefs “we regard as not just false, but absurdly so” (6) on a systematic scale. On the other hand, by the principle of humanity, one attributes false beliefs to others “if an understanding of their larger linguistic and social context explains how humans who are substantially like us could have held those beliefs in that context” (7-8). However, these are minimally constrictive principles at best and they cannot really distinguish the hermeneutics of restoration from that of suspicion for Van Norden. As he should be aware, the principles of charity and humanity are meant primarily to provide theoretical explanation for how linguistic interpretation is possible at all, either interpersonal or intercultural, given the apparently vicious circle of meaning holism: “words have meaning because of the roles they play in sentences, and sentences have meaning because of the words that make them up” (7). More strongly, they seem to be “transcendental” principles in an important sense: they do much more to explain how linguistic communication is possible than to provide useful tools of actual translation and interpretation in the usual case. If meaning holism a la Quine and Davidson is right then we must be governed by interpretive charity and humanity—they are not optional virtues of interpretation. So, even the hermeneutics of suspicion must rely on these principles to make bare sense of the meanings of texts. More important to “suspicion” is maintaining critical distance from such first-order meanings in order to gain traction on the meanings of those meanings, according to some theory of their political, social, or psychological genealogy. Van Norden cites Ricoeur’s labeling of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as “masters of suspicion,” also adding Foucault to the list (4); consideration of these figures should make the point about critical distance and second-order meaning obvious. There is, therefore, a false dichotomy under which Van Norden is working. One need not approach the text either from an angle of critical suspicion or from that of interested engagement. There is at least a third option: one might approach, as many Sinologists are wont to do, from the point of view of historical restoration without interested concern for philosophical engagement with the resulting, interpreted set of views.

Hermeneutic principles aside, what justifies a reading of early Chinese texts that engages their meanings on the first-order level and regards them seriously as being engaged in something that is relevant to contemporary discourse on ethics? Why not regard them as texts that reflect concerns, motives, and worldviews bound—and limited—by cogency to a specific time and place, and that address others who are so situated? I think there are two answers, expressed somewhat more persuasively in Van Norden’s actual interpretations than in his ardent apologia for them.

First, there seem in fact to be undeniable aspects of “virtue ethics” in the views of Kongzi and Mengzi. (Van Norden provides a lengthy argument for attributing sayings in portions of the Lunyu 論語 to Kongzi (65-96); a much briefer one, following consensus, for Mengzi and the Mengzi 孟子 (211-13).) This is partly due to the origin of contemporary interest in virtue ethics—and coining of that term—in disenchantment among some prominent philosophers in the past thirty years with the impersonal, principle-based core of modern ethical theory. Many adherents of this backlash movement have looked to pre-modern ethical views, particularly those of Aristotle, for a model of ethical reflection more harmonious with human beings as concerned with situated personal goals and aspirations rather than as locations of rational-choice in an abstract moral universe. Though one may argue with details, Van Norden makes a compelling case for reformulating the pre-modern concerns expressed in the Lunyu and Mengzi through the constellation of concerns he identifies as “components of a virtue ethics” (37-59): flourishing, virtues, ethical cultivation, and a philosophical anthropology. Likewise, Van Norden’s portrayal of the Mozi and his followers as consequentialists engaged in a dialectic against the Ruist followers of Kongzi is nuanced and complex, read as it is through a similar dialectic found between contemporary consequentialists and proponents of virtue ethics.

Second, the ultimate justification for Van Norden’s hermeneutic of engagement must be found, I think, in disciplinary direction and temperament. He is, by profession, a philosopher. Philosophers are interested in the relationship between ethics and truth—and sometimes also in discovering ethical truths. It is the latter that motivates Van Norden’s interest in the historical material in the first place; so engagement with the first-order meanings found in the text is, in his eyes, important to that task. As he puts it, citing one of his mentors,

…it would be nothing more than necrophilia to reproduce without alteration some historical position. …Generally speaking, if we wish to engage in the “historical retrieval” of earlier philosophical views, our goals should be to produce a position that is, in Lee Yearley’s formulation, “credible” and “appropriate.” Our interpretation should be “credible” in the sense that it is plausible for us today. …But at the same time historical retrieval should result in a position that is “appropriate” in the sense that it is faithful to the philosophy that inspires it. (323)

This attitude also underlies perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, a chapter on “Pluralistic Ruism” in which Van Norden lays the groundwork for a continuation of the Ruist ethical tradition, modified in important ways to accommodate aspects of the modern condition, especially a commitment to pluralism of values and the corresponding visions of flourishing that can justify those values within a virtue ethics approach.

June 13, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics, History | 11 comments