Warp, Weft, and Way

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

A Way without a Mental State

Picking up on Dan Robins’ comment in the previous post:

“On a more substantive point, I tend to accept Chad Hansen’s thesis that early Chinese philosophers (as well presumably as lots of other people) did not work with belief/desire folk psychology because (in effect) they did not think of human thought as propositional. So I wouldn’t agree that belief/desire folk psychology is universal.”

That gives me a chance to post about both Hansen and Fingarette, two of my favorites. On this topic, Hansen gives an interesting and very different defense of Herbert Fingarette’s thesis in “A Way without a Crossroads” (ch. 2 of Confucius: the Secular as Sacred).

Fingarette famously argues there that in the Analects, the language of an “inner life” with respect to choices and responsibilities is conspicuously absent. That isn’t to say that the notions of choice and responsibility are lacking, but that they are, significantly, not spelled out in terms of what we might call inner “mental states” (not Fingarette’s terminology–he refers variously to “inner shape and dynamics” of choice, “looking inward,” “inner life,” and “inner crisis”). Instead of the “choice-responsibility-guilt” complex that implies an inner life, Fingarette argues that for Confucius, the idea of acquiring the Way is of an edification process that provides a correcting and civilizing influence on a person through the rituals, study of poetry, history and so forth. As I understand it, that means that in Fingarette’s view, if there is an idea of moral agency in Confucius, it is not at all concerned with the agent as rational chooser, but the agent as performer, or perhaps “traveler,” of the Way.

In A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought Hansen takes up something very much like Fingarette’s point. Hansen’s argument for it, though, is grander and more far-reaching. Here, I’m going to try to summarize quickly what his argument is in pp. 75 – 78. Because of the pictographic nature of Chinese written language, Confucius and others of the era thought of language as conventional and public. They did not see the need for a private “language of thought”–or “mentalese”–which Western philosophers have thought necessary for making sense of meaning and translation (they need to suppose each of us has a private language of thought into which any conventional language must be translated in order for us to understand it; this would be a pure language of concepts along with logical apparatus of rationality, or something like that). That provides a plausible explanation, Hansen argues, for why Confucius “offers neither psychological nor other explanations” (77) for the meaning and significance of ritual gestures. And the conventionalism, as opposed to language-of-thought-ism, about language and meaning is why Confucius and those like him would not have been engaged in, because they did not require, the folk-psychology of beliefs and desires to explain the meaning or value of people’s behavior, or the guides (daos) for it.

I realize that might gloss over details a bit from either Fingarette’s or Hansen’s views. But, what’s a blog for anyway, if we don’t do that sort of thing?

I have some worries about whether either of their arguments have anything to do with the folk-psychology of belief and desire, however. First a confession: I’m not really very well trained in philosophy of mind/language issues, so I’ll probably need some rectifying at your hands. I thought belief and desire folk-psychology was something fairly basic and theoretically “thin” that we could attribute to anyone who attributes thoughts and desires to others or to themselves. That’s part of its status as folk-psychology–average Dude doesn’t care about mentalese, language-of-thought, propositional content, or translation; Dude just attributes thoughts and desires to people using language like: “She wants…” “She thinks…” “I guess…” “I’m afraid that…” etc. But that just is the use of belief-desire folk-psychology, isn’t it? If so, isn’t it clear that Confucius and everyone else we’re concerned with engages in it? Attributing a desire and a belief doesn’t have to be so elaborate. Maybe the folk-psychology isn’t in the foreground of explaining the meaning or value of people’s behavior, but that might just have to do with pedagogy. How do you teach people to do right or value the right things? You have to change their beliefs and desires, but how do you do that? You might put at the center some kind of nearly rote behavior which is key to coming to a realization of the value of the activity. Then you wouldn’t say much about changing their beliefs and desires because that just goes without saying.

I could say more, I suppose, but let me see what you think.

February 11th, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Confucius | 31 comments

31 Responses to A Way without a Mental State

  1. Dan Robins says:

    Manyul, I’m pretty rushed right now so I’ll be brief. The main thing that I think is missing from your discussion is Hansen’s claim that when the various masters thought about language and cognition, they thought in terms of the application of terms and phrases to things, and not (for example) in terms of the acceptance of propositions. E.g., it’s not that you believe that snow is white, it’s that you apply the term “white” to snow, or you take snow to be white.

    So it ends up being very significant on Hansen’s account that the classical Chinese construction corresponding to “thinks that” or “believes that,” namely “吾以…為…,” does not take a propositional complement. Maybe at the level of folk psychology this doesn’t make much of a difference, but when it gets taken up into explicit accounts of language and thought, you can expect it to matter.

    I’ll try to come back to this when things settle down a bit.

  2. Dan Robins says:

    I should have mentioned that the issues I was talking about come out a lot clearer in Hansen’s paper “Chinese Language, Chinese Philosophy, and ‘Truth'” (JAS 44.3) than they do in the section of A Daoist Theory that you mention.

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I’m much worse off than you Manyul, as I have no formal training whatsoever in “philosophy of mind/language issues” (no degrees in philosophy for that matter, despite my ardent avocational interest in the subject).

    Fingarette (who I had the good fortune many years ago to be a teaching assistant for, in fact, the first TA in the Philosophy Dept. from outside that department) has subsequently cleared up what he intended to say (or said, and was misunderstood) in his seminal book on Confucius. I think he would grant that we find in Confucius something like a thin “folk psychology” as a default presumption as it were. Fingarette was concerned not to attribute a “rich” theory of “inner psychic life” to Confucius, one more or less of the sort we find after Freud. What is more, and perhaps not unrelated to this, I think he was attempting to preclude a kind of New Age pop-psychological interpretation the self in Confucius (a straw man?). A fuller explanation of his views is found in his paper, “The Problem of the Self in the Analects,” Philosophy East and West 29, No. 2 (April 1979), and reprinted in Kim-chong Chong, Sor-hoon Tan, and C.L Ten, eds., The Moral Circle and the Self: Chinese and Western Approaches (2003). In that paper, Fingarette states that with Confucius there is “no reification of the will, no inner machinery or equilibrium of psychic forces, no inner theater in which an inner drama takes place, no inner community with ruler and ruled.” This is close to, if not identical with, a Wittgensteinian approach to philsophy of mind, which is “externalist” (i.e., not representationalist) and “contextualist” in epistemological terms. Such an approach can concede our use of a folk-psychological terminology, it simply does not take on board a particular construal of the mind that is internalist and representationalist, let alone cognitivist, in character. The cognitivist approach to philosophy of mind that is quite fashionable these days is a far cry from Fingarette’s portrait of Confucius.

    A nice paper related to this dicussion and also in The Moral Circle… volume is by Yuet Keung Lo, “Finding the Self in the Analects: A Philological Approach.” I think it’s excellent background material to our topic.

    In short Manyul, it seems I agree with you.

  4. Nice post, Manyul!

    I agree that it’s pretty implausible to deny that Confucius and others ascribed beliefs and desires in some thin sense. He talks about what people understand, what people have their hearts set upon (10.26), etc. It’s overly narrow to think that our cognitive and conative lives have to be characterized specifically by terms cleanly translatable as “belief” and “desire” for the folk psychology of belief and desire to be operative in some sense. After all, even in English the most common way of attributing beliefs, by saying what someone “thinks” employs a term not cleanly synonymous with “belief”!

  5. Dan Robins says:

    Eric, three quick points.

    First, you seem to be assuming that understanding something can be spelled out in terms of belief; is that really the intended point? I’d say it’s pretty implausible.

    Second, “think” may differ from “believe” in other ways, but (unlike “以…為…”) it does take a propositional complement, which was the main point.

    Finally, if ordinary thought and talk about beliefs and desires isn’t theoretically loaded, then it’s safe for us to describe what the various masters were doing in those terms. But we should still be sensitive to the possibility that they described what they were doing in terms that, though no more theoretically-loaded than our own, differ from ours in potentially illuminating ways (and thus perhaps get taken up theoretically in unfamiliar ways).

  6. Chris Fraser says:

    Hi Manyul (et al.),

    You might recall that I tried to flesh out some Hansenesque ideas in my paper at that conference in Taipei in 2005. I think Fingarette was on to something but had difficulty articulating precisely what it was, and that Chad has taken important steps to help us see what’s going on. My own inspiration has been partly from Chad, partly from Wittgenstein, and partly from Sellars. The idea is basically that folk psychology involves a set of concepts that are not self-evidently given to us just by being conscious. If early Chinese thinkers used a different network of concepts, then they might have a different conception of folk psychology.

    I believe they did use an interestingly different network of concepts. They understand what we call reasoning and judgment as processes of bian4 辯 (drawing distinctions) between the referents of action-guiding terms (usually 名, sometimes 辭). This leads them to what I call a discrimination-and-response model of action. They think of action as guided by bian4 (the discrimination part), resulting in an yi3 wei2 以為 attitude that some object or situation is “of the kind” denoted by some term. This attitude triggers a response appropriate to the sort of thing denoted by that term. Some responses might be innate (such as pursuing what’s desirable), others are acquired through social practices. Even desire itself is conceptualized as a particular kind of distinction-drawing attitude (yu4 vs wu4). (All this is part of various works in progress that for various reasons it is taking me an incredibly long time to finish.)

    So the point is not that early Chinese thinkers have no folk psychology, but that they have a folk psychology with a different structure. Given their theory, how do you get people to do right? You train them to distinguish and respond to things differently. How do you convince them to cooperate with the training? By appealing to certain discrimination-and-response dispositions they already have (the equivalent of appealing to values they already endorse).

  7. Bill Haines says:

    Dan, do you think it is not true that “以…爲…” takes a subject-predicate propositional complement (distributed between elipses)? Granted, not every proposition could be jammed into that mold, of course. Early Western philosophy (Aristotle and Kant, say) seems to have taken the subject-predicate form as the paradigmatic form of propositions.

  8. Dan Robins says:

    Bill, I’d agree that “以…爲…” generally gets filled in in a way that corresponds to a subject-predicate sentence, but that sentence isn’t (at least on the surface) a constituent of the sentence.

    We could approach the issue this way. If I 以 x 爲 y, what am I taking up an attitude towards? Is it the proposition that x is y? Or am I taking up an attitude towards x (deeming it y)? I’m not sure folk usage would be committed to either of these in particular, but you can see why the second would be appealing to anyone who was thinking theoretically about issues in the neighbourhood (maybe especially given other uses of the “以…爲…” structure, for example “use… to make…”).

    By the way, there actually are at least some cases where the sentence corresponding to an “以…爲…” structure is not subject-predicate. From MZ “Clarify Ghosts”: 武王必以鬼神為有 “King Wu must have taken ghosts and spirits to exist.” (Existence as a predicate!) And even more striking, from the same book: 莫聞莫見,則必以為無 “If no one hears them and no one sees them, then we must take them to be nonexistent.” (Too bad the Later Mohists never got around to the problem of reference to nonexistents!)

  9. Manyul Im says:

    Chris (Fraser),

    I’m basically in agreement with you; the important point must be that use of desire-belief folk psychology has to be granted, but after that, there is a substantive difference in the sort of *philosophical* psychology that is used to express the relationship between beliefs, desires, and action. Distinction drawing seems exactly the kind of thing that has to be expressed further in terms of either belief or desire formation; otherwise, it is impossible to understand the “direction of fit” that the distinction drawing is responsive to. Do we make and/or correct distinctions–e.g. whether something is “natural” (xing 性)–in order to correct our beliefs about whether something *really* falls under that category? or do we make and/or correct distinctions in order to to satisfy some pragmatic goal of distinction-making, say, widespread agreement or marginalization of others’ doctrines? I think, appropos of Dan and Bill’s discussion of “以…爲…”, that the early Chinese are ambiguous, unclear, or they conflate that distinction. To “take A to be B” is a pretty ambiguous formula, it seems to me, with respect to the two differing rationales for distinction making.

  10. Bill Haines says:

    Dan, Thanks! So “yi … wei …” is quite different from “yiwei …”. It is as though in English we were largely confined to “I make that a buffalo. How about you?” “I don’t know what to make (of) it. I can’t quite make it out.” The formulation is not conducive to an ontology of propositions, supposed or putative facts, or even facts, nor to an epistemology concerned with truth or the difference between belief and knowledge.

    It’s interesting that in English we can know how something is and know what something is, but we can’t believe how something is or believe what something is. In other words, while ‘know’ can slide by degrees toward what Russell called acquaintance, ‘believe’ can’t go in that direction.

    Manyul, I don’t follow your argument. Maybe a somewhat satisfactory answer to the question “Why debate about how to make A out? Why distinguish F from G?” is: in order to make A out rightly or wisely, or to 是 the 是 and 非 the 非–to make white snow white and yellow snow yellow. I suppose casting a question in terms of “direction of fit” would be done only by people who are thinking about things that are representations.

    I agree with your final point about ambiguity. We want, usually, to distinguish between using pragmatic considerations to decide what to believe, and using pragmatic considerations to decide how to define our terms (or rectify names); and we want, usually, to oppose the former and favor the former. But the distinction between deciding what terms/concepts to have and what beliefs to accept is not itself perfectly sharp or clear.

  11. Bill Haines says:

    ERRATUM: In my last paragraph I meant “and favor the latter.”

  12. Chris Fraser says:

    Manyul, I’m not sure I follow either. (I agree about the ambiguity; I’m not sure any early Chinese thinker explicitly recognizes the different rationales for distinguishing things. Doing so requires an explicit fact/value distinction, I think, which they do not make.)

    We might explain how someone distinguishes (bian4) things in terms of belief or desire formation, but early Chinese thinkers don’t, not even implicitly, I think. I see them as having an alternative theoretical framework for psychology, from the ground up. So I wouldn’t grant that they’re using a belief-desire psychology implicitly, if that’s what you mean.

    I see the framework this way: all thought and action is a matter of following some dao 道. You follow a dao by distinguishing and responding to things according to regular patterns (some of them normative). The propositional attitudes that we call beliefs and desires are not part of the picture. Their explanatory role is filled by patterns or habits of discrimination-and-response. It does not take a belief plus a desire to motivate or explain action; simply deeming something shi4 是 is enough. Deeming something shi4 does not map directly onto believing, desiring, valuing, or feeling good about it, but covers all of these (and in that respect is ambiguous, by our lights).

    Obviously, early texts do talk about desire (yu4 欲) and treat it as a potentially motivating attitude. What I’m proposing is that desire/dislike is one of several varieties of action-guiding distinctions, rather than in some sense the central or fundamental one. I take it that this view is expressed fairly clearly in Xunzi, who takes the heart’s 可/不可 approve/disapprove attitude to be more fundamental.

    Of course, looking at the details of our action, if we desire X, then upon distinguishing something as X, we respond by trying to get that thing. This structure resembles a distinction-drawing analogue of desire-plus-belief produces action. But we needn’t, and I think early Chinese theorists don’t, understand it that way. It can be: Desiring X sets you off on a certain dao/path or programs you in a certain way, and following that path lies in trying to get things you distinguish as X.

  13. Chris Fraser says:

    I should add, apropos the title of this thread, that the account I’ve described does not imply that early Chinese thinkers see people as following “a way without a mental state.” Nor is it a form of behaviorism. It’s just a different description of the structure of psychological states.

  14. Bill Haines says:

    Chris, at one point above you use ‘discriminate’ instead of ‘distinguish’. I wonder if your idea would be better expressed by using ‘discriminate’ throughout. Distinguishing sounds like an abstract operation, improving the mental toolkit, arriving at the conclusion that A is not B or that Fness is not Gness.

  15. Manyul Im says:

    Bill and Chris (Fraser),

    I appreciate your feedback. Maybe my bringing in “direction of fit” doesn’t help. Let me put it this way. Xunzi, in the zhengming chapter, identifies something like the evidence of the senses, as at least one criterion for determining if someone has used a term correctly–and I take correct term usage to be part of this complex of distinction-making and dao-following for the non-Zhuangzis of the Warring States. If the term-usage matches what our senses tell us, that indicates correct distinction-making. On the other hand you have Mencius who seems to think (in 6A1) that whether ren xing 人性 should be regarded as shan 善 or not is partly justified by the practical effects of regarding it so. There, he seems to be following one of Mozi’s “gnomons” for testing yan 言.

    So it seems like there are two types of criteria that we can call “evidential” on the one hand, and “pragmatic” on the other. (This of course recalls my shallow knowledge of the “ethics of belief” literature.) I think there are stances that some of the WS thinkers take on this–Xunzi, for one, seems to be an evidentialist to me. Mencius, I think, doesn’t take a stance and uses one or the other type of criteria without much thought. The (early?) Mohists seem to take an explicitly dual stance on this–they uphold the value of both types of criteria; I’m thinking again of the three gnomons for testing yan. I’ve really just begun thinking (and supposedly writing) about this, so I don’t yet have strong opinions about other WS figures.

    So, is this clearer or more of the same muddled distinction I was attempting with the direction of fit business? (By the way, anyone should feel free to help me out; a gentleman always welcomes correction from his moral superiors.)

  16. Bill Haines says:


    I shall then try to help but not correct.

    If I now understand you right, now, you were originally talking about the direction of fit of names or sayings, as these might have been chosen or developed by WS thinkers. And you were making something like these four points:

    1. “Distinction drawing seems exactly the kind of thing that has to be expressed further in terms of either belief or desire formation;” that is, to think well about our distinction-drawing (developing names or other expressions), we have to distinguish between whether we are developing goals or developing opinions.

    2. Therefore one has to have the concept of goals and/or the concept of opinions if one is going to be doing any kind of sophisticated meta-distinguishing, i.e. distinguishing about one’s distinction-drawing.

    3. Further, some WS people did distinguish between kinds of methods, and two main kinds they distinguished seem precisely appropriate for opinions and for goals, respectively. Goals, for example, should be chosen for the consequences of having them as goals.

    4. But I wonder whether (in this thinker or that) there is a sophisticated and interesting philosophical psychology, or mainly just a muddle, perhaps because of the absence of a philosophical ontology that recognized beliefs and distinguished them from imperatives.

    Is that it?

  17. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks; that’s a pretty good summation and I think adding, as you have, the idea of “having the concepts” of opinions vs goals might point my question in a particular direction–viz whether the WS thinkers had those concepts clearly at their disposal. Here are two things I would say:

    1. On the one hand, if they do have those concepts and consequently can distinguish what I’ve called the “evidential” and the “pragmatic” types of consideration for distinction making, then perhaps we can say some are evidentialists (say, Xunzi) but most are pragmatists–either because they think the principal considerations for distinction making should be pragmatic or because they think, sort of like William James (and Feyerabend?), that either type of consideration is rationally acceptable for distinction making (they don’t, as a matter of principle, elevate one type over the other).

    2. On the other hand, if they do not have clearly distinguished concepts of opinions and goals, then either

    (a) they are in fact muddled and could have used some better analysis among themselves, or

    (b) they have instead some interesting third concept–something Chad Hansen and Chris Fraser seem interested in–which is neither opinion nor goal but something like “responsiveness” to the world (see Chris’s comment (#12) above).

    My inclination here is to think that the (a) and (b) disjunct is inclusive, so that even if Hansen and Fraser are right, the “responsiveness” concept can and should itself be parsed into different types: evidential/opinion responsiveness and pragmatic/goal responsiveness. Why? Mostly, I have this inclination because I think there is a real or natural division between how humans, whether now or in Warring States China, respond on the one hand to evidence and changes in evidence and on the other hand to means instrumental to goals and changes to such means. Call it theoretical rationality as opposed to practical rationality, or whatever better captures that distinction, but it seems like a real one to me. I’m generally friendly to “false dichotomy” arguments about early China–and I take it Hansen and Fraser (and you, perhaps?) would make one against what I’m saying here, I’m not sure–but I need more convincing I guess that the theoretical-practical rationality dichotomy is a false one.

  18. Manyul Im says:

    I should add what I think the division is between how people respond to evidence/change in evidence versus responses to the world that affect goals. I think here, the best way is to talk is in terms of directions of fit. When people have evidence for something or the evidence for something changes, the primary response is to change their attitudes about the world to “fit” the evidence. This expresses a belief-type attitude and (this I think amounts to the same thing) expresses the attitude that is constitutive of having and using the concept of evidence. When people are aware of something about the world, some fact or change in fact, that affects their goals the primary response is to change the world, when feasible, to “fit” their goals. This expresses a desire-type attitude. I may be begging the question here–I’m not sure–against Hansen’s argument about belief-desire folk psychology, but I can’t really see how we could make sense of the early Chinese, or anyone, without assuming that they respond to the world in these two fundamentally different ways.

    But maybe I’m being unreasonably stubborn here; it does feel a bit dogmatic even to myself.

  19. Dan Robins says:

    Why don’t we look at a bit of ancient Chinese action theory? I’m thinking of the string of glosses near the beginning of Xunzi 22, “Correct Names.” There, I think, we find a three-way distinction between affect, knowledge (including artifice), and ability (I’m following Chen Daqi on this). If we interpret this in the light of Xunzi’s distinction between desire and approval (which I think is reasonable), then knowledge pretty much has to incorporate both classification (distinction-drawing) and the adoption of goals. So at least at this level of abstraction, he’s not distinguishing between the two. (It’s also interesting that he does distinguish ability from both affect and knowledge.)

  20. Manyul Im says:


    A couple of quick requests for clarification:

    1) I’m not sure how incorporating distinction-drawing and adoption of goals in knowledge amounts to “not distinguishing between the two.” Could you say more?

    2) Distinguishing ability from affect and knowledge does seem interesting, but do you mean that it is interesting for the question I have about whether Xunzi distinguishes between belief-type attitudes and desire-type ones? or for other reasons?


  21. Dan Robins says:


    I’ll try to answer your questions, and then I’ll say something in defense of what Chris has been saying.

    On (1), Xunzi (or whoever) does not distinguish them in that passage, and I was taking this to mean that he didn’t think they needed to be distinguished at the level of abstraction he was working at. In other words, the distinction between them, if he recognised it at all, did not seem sufficiently fundamental to be worth mentioning here.

    On (2), it’s interesting more generally, though it’s also a reason for thinking that Xunzi did not see a belief/desire contrast as fundamental to human psychology.

    Maybe it would help this discussion to work with a particular example. I get hungry, and I experience a desire for food. I then take it as a goal to relieve the hunger, and settle on a particular way of doing that.

    Your argument, I think, would be that settling on the goal changes the relevance of (say) the food/not-food distinction: I draw the same distinction whether I am hungry or not, but I respond differently in the two cases. Thus, drawing the distinction cannot by itself imply a goal, so we must be dealing with two different kinds of attitude. (Please correct me if I’m wrongly anticipating your argument.)

    This argument assumes that you’re drawing the same distinction in the two cases. Is that so clear? Suppose I have not taken eating as a goal, and there is food present; I do not decide to eat it, but instead to put it away. How am I classifying the food? Not, perhaps, as something to eat, but as something to put away so it is available for future eating. Note that the two classifications are not extensionally equivalent: some food does not keep, so even though I would eat it now if I were hungry, I do not put it away for future eating. And if I left out some ingredients that I used to prepare the food, they might not count as something to eat, but they do count as something to put away for future eating. (I usually end up treating leftover food and extra ingredients in about the same way, and, I’m afraid, at about the same time.)

    What I’m suggesting is that the way we draw distinctions also shifts when we take up a new goal, and that the distinctions we draw are inherently action-guiding. Or, at least, I do not think this view is obviously confused, or overlooks any important distinctions.

  22. Bill Haines says:

    I’m fairly new to ancient Chinese materials. The idea that the WS people didn’t tend to think about thinking in terms of beliefs, with all that goes with that, is brand new to me, and plausible enough to get me excited. I want at least to give it a run. I think I agree with Chris F’s point that they don’t see human action in terms of any dichotomy that gives desire 50% of the action.

    The distinction between desires and beliefs is, I think, as clear and valuable as any we use in philosophy, but I’m not sure that’s saying very much.

    “Desire” is too simple a conception for the partner of belief. There are goals, which are conceptions of something to bring about (ten pounds off by April), and rules of various genres and auspices (personal maxims, promises, social mores, laws, divine commandments, tricks of the potter’s trade, methodological principles, inference rules), and beliefs about what is morally required or what is the ultimate good or what is the ritual about kumquats.

    Of course none of that is news to anybody here; that’s why ‘direction of fit’ has been attractive name to use in this discussion. But if we think in the very abstract way that that term is for – that we have some entities, the Representations, and there are other entities, the World, and sometimes we adjust R to fit W and sometimes vice versa – then is it so unnatural to think that the right approach involves lots of jiggling and adjusting of the two of them to find the best overall fit, rather than trying to divide our adjustments and our thinking-about-adjustments into two opposite oversimplifications?

    As regards desires, one might think that all that is needed is a noun, not a sentence. One wants X. (Does the ambiguity of you 有 make it easier to overlook the distinction between wanting to have X and wanting that X be?) And Manyul’s point, then, might be that one ought to be clear-headed about whether in thinking “X” one is wanting/pursuing it or observing/recording it.

    But that point is especially apt for the use of ‘X’ on a single occasion. As an enduring linguistic object, ‘X’ is likely to be used in all directions of fit. So perhaps ‘X’ should pass various kinds of test. ‘X’ has to be fit for various uses. Even for purely epistemic uses, our technical terms should pass pragmatic tests.

    And there are various ways in which consequential tests seem inappropriate for practical expressions. We might think our rules should instead be tested against other rules. And one of the apparent blunders of Mohism is to argue for the principle “Do what brings about X” on the grounds that following that principle brings about X. Kant’s proposed universalization test for maxims, radically unclear as I think it is, at least claims to be a test for 言 that is neither evidential nor pragmatic. He tells us to make sure, in adopting a 言, that it is fit for other uses than our own use of it.

    I imagine Manyul would reply, “My main point is not about consequential tests in particular, nor even so much about the desire side of the desire/belief dichotomy. My main concern is about the distinction between evidential tests and other kinds of test. I bring up pragmatic tests because that’s a kind of non-evidential test that we definitely find in the WS texts. My main concern is that a philosophy that has no clear conception of the basic distinction between evidential and other tests is missing a basic mooring.”

    He might continue as follows: “There is a standard and natural way to “divide our adjustments and our thinking-about-adjustments into two opposite oversimplifications.” We do it at the level of the sentence. A sentence is inherently marked as descriptive or prescriptive. At least, that’s how we do it, and it seems to work. How else could we bring good order to our jiggling and adjusting?”

    That strikes me as a powerful question.

    Another indispensable tool for order, though one that has a hard time in a world of permanent cultural and technological change, is to maintain a repertoire of conceptions like ‘knife’. A knife is something that has a particular kind of use, which determine what counts as a “good knife.” Philippa Foot (I think) says somewhere that if Martians had objects made in just the same way but never meant as cutting tools, those wouldn’t be knives. To have the conception of “knife” is to be disposed not to use those things to open paint cans or to clean the wax out of one’s ears. Thus in Mencius 1B15, 太王 says he will give up his land to the enemy because “I have heard that a junzi doesn’t use what supports people to hurt people.”

    Maybe that’s what Dan is saying in the latter part of comment 21.

  23. Bill Haines says:

    Oh – Manyul wasn’t talking about the direction of fit of representations. He was talking about the direction of fit of attitudes (propositional attitudes: beliefs or desires), which involve representations. And then the direction would be part of the intrinsic nature of the attitude.

    But maybe the WS people were talking more about expressions.

    Does that matter?

  24. Dan Robins says:

    Bill, I’m curious where you see the Mohists defending a principle “Do what brings about X” on the grounds that following it will bring about X.

  25. Bill Haines says:

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for calling me on that! I’m embarrassed to have been so careless, and it’s hardly a defense to say I didn’t mean to insist that they actually said this. My thought, first acquired from dilettante reading some years ago, was that (a)兼愛 is at bottom acting from nothing but an equal concern for the welfare of all, i.e. trying to maximize aggregate welfare, and that (b) one of the Mohist defenses of this practice is that it will benefit people, i.e. increase the general welfare. Here is some text that could seem to support that view.

    But as I look at the text now, my above characterizations of 兼愛 and of the particular argument for it both seem inadequately justified. The text is never so clear about the content of 兼愛, and it’s possible that the defense of the practice is wholly dialectical: arguing that the putative aims of rival practices, such as at least avoiding disaster, and the practitioner’s own welfare, are better served by adopting 兼愛 and encouraging it in others, than by adopting and encouraging any other practice.

  26. Dan Robins says:

    Bill, I see a couple of points worth making here.

    First, inclusive care is an attitude, not a way of acting, so it involves recognising that your actions help promote the benefit of all, and not just acting in a way that, possibly unbeknownst to you, actually does promote the benefit of all. So at minimum the doctrine implies that the Mohists thought people should recognise the ultimate justification for their behaviour.

    Second, though inclusive care does (I think) involve promoting the benefit of all, it does this only with the cooperation of other people. The Mohists are very clear (which is not to say that anybody pays attention) that caring inclusively is compatible with worrying more about your own family than for strangers (you just have to be able to assume that other people will take care of their own families—so you don’t have to). So if you care inclusively, you do not aim directly for the benefit of all, rather you do your part according to a social dao that promotes everybody’s well-being.

  27. Bill Haines says:

    Dan, these are helpful distinctions. I’m not sure I should get into a textual discussion before having read more than a few lines of the Mozi in Chinese. I’ll read soon, and I’ll look for what is said there to distinguish attitudes from practices, and maybe I’ll report back. But I’ll try to avoid textual questions now, and try to avoid stepping too far into the territory of someone I know who is writing on Mozi and has discussed some relevant ideas with me. I don’t entirely succeed in the latter effort here, I think.

    By “the principle ‘Do what brings about X’” I meant the practical principle, a principle to act from, not a principle for evaluating actions after their results have played out.

    I have the casual impression that one finds here and there moral traditions, which I shall cagily not name, advocating spiritual practices of universal “love” that do not involve leaving one’s room (even electronically). That kind of love doesn’t have to be fake if one reasonably thinks one can’t help other people. Mill argued that other people are taking care of themselves (and, I guess, their families) better than I could by meddling, and that indeed if I really want to benefit strangers I should support a rule or mutual guarantee of non-meddling so that they don’t have to worry about what I might try. If it is consciously on the basis of the act-utilitarian principle (or attitude or concern) that I adopt and/or maintain a general maxim (policy) of non-meddling, then that’s an example of what I would call the practice of acting from the utilitarian principle. “Meddling” is purposely vague here; I don’t mean complete social inaction.

    (I might be a bit out of the mainstream, myself, in thinking that a results-centered account of goodness can support rules without having to build a reference to rules into a fundamental practical principle as rule utilitarianism, or dao(way) consequentialism, does or anyway can seem to do.)

    So maybe my “practices” and/or “principles” can also be your “attitudes”?

  28. Dan Robins says:

    Bill, that could be right, but if it is there’s still a gap between, on the one hand, thinking the correct social dao4 is the one that promotes X, and, on the other, thinking that the correct social dao4 requires people to adopt it as a practical principle that they should promote X. (Maybe X would be best promoted if most of us didn’t recognise its value.)

  29. Bill Haines says:

    Oh – I’ve found a potentially misleading phrase in my earlier post: “the practice of acting from nothing but an equal concern …”.

    By ‘nothing but’ I meant to rule out concerns that might weigh against the equal concern, not to rule out concerns that could be held on the basis of the equal concern, such as a concern for non-meddling or for (having) pizza now.

  30. Bill Haines says:

    Dan, to your #28: I think you’re right that there’s at least a conceptual gap of that kind.

  31. Bill Haines says:

    Hmm … On the other hand, there is something someone might conceivably mean by the phrase “social dao” (I recognize that this is an English phrase and I’m not making any claims about what WS people meant by anything) that would shrink or remove even the conceptual gap.

    Aristotle’s distinction between the “what” and the “why” in ethics is a shifty distinction. The “what” could be an action, and the “why” could be the virtue it expresses. Or the “what” could be a virtue, and the “why” could be that it helps realize happiness (or whyever).

    Insofar as we think of a “dao” as involving only the “what”, the gap you described can be big. But one might, I imagine, have a conception of what it is to be a “dao” such that a “dao” includes the whole why of its whats. (This sort of dao would be autonomous in a sense.) And then maybe there wouldn’t be so much of a gap.

    I wonder whether there’s anything touching on this sort of question in WS texts.

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