Aeon Essay: We are interwoven beings Posted on November 29, 2022 by Aris Dashiell Aeon has recently published an essay titled “We are interwoven beings” by Mercedes Valmisa, author of Adapting: A Chinese Philosophy of Action. Click here to read the essay.
I might read it. Kind of wrapped in other work right now, but the reference to the Aeon piece draped my mind in a tapestry. Interwoven beings? I suppose so. Weavings are composed of layers, somewhat like onions and tree bark. Another term used to be popular: social fabric. Not sure this is seen so much anymore or if it is, maybe I just don’t read the same kinds of literature—study the same subjects as I once did. Or, perhaps, I have only tuned out tired rhetoric in favor of different sorts of cloth? Philosophy is changing it’s raiment. The Emperor’s new clothes fit differently. Maybe just another fashion.
Just my beginner opinion:
I have mixed feelings when I read about the supposed extreme flexibility of Confucius. While may be technically correct to say “What’s right for Confucius necessarily changes along with situations, contexts, actors, and their tendencies”, it seems like you are really hiding important information if you don’t also say that there are scripted behaviors that specific actors in specific situations MUST perform. And while his answers about what is Ren change depending on the student, when he discusses the color of clothing (10.6), when you should bow, or about shortening the three-year mourning he doesn’t seem to think in terms of “adapting”.
So, can we assert that “Confucius stands out among aspiring sages precisely due to his inconstancy”? Does he inflexibly lack constancy? Or his flexibility is supposed to be applied in specific situations (teaching students or replacing silk for hemp) but not in other situations (never use a purple material, if you bow in presence of a ruler or how to mourn your parents)?
You raise an important issue that Valmisa deals in a bit more detail in her book. For example, she concedes that “there are situations that might require the agent to conform to the prescriptions of a calendar” (83) and that such conformity can be “adaptive”:
“[P]rescriptive and adaptive approaches to military action are not mutually exclusive as long as abidance by ritual prescriptions is a conscious response to the exigencies of the situation rather than the result of principled conformity.” (88f.)
The idea is that, if a situation requires you to act in accordance with ritual, then your action is adaptive only if you act in accordance with ritual BECAUSE it is what the situation requires (rather than because you dogmatically adhere to the norm “always act in accordance with ritual”). Sometimes, a situation requires you to do X, and following the norm “always act in accordance with ritual” might lead you to do X, but your action is not adaptive if you do X by following the norm. Your action is adaptive only if you do X because it is what the situation requires.
That is presumably the idea behind Mengzi’s characterization of Confucius: “When one should take office, he would take office; when one should stop, he would stop; when one should take a long time, he would take a long time; when one should hurry, he would hurry. This was Kongzi.” (2A2; see also 5B1)
Thank you Waldermar for answering! That is a subtler position.
I still have a lot of questions about how the adaptative interpretation can explain Confucius rejection of the rituals of his time because they don’t conform the Zhou standard (bowing after ascending the hall, using 8 rows of dancers, etc.). I don’t think you can extrapolate passages that talk about taking a job (like the Mencius quote or Confucius “無可無不可”) to state rituals.
But the premise of the book seems interesting enough to make me want to read it. Cant raise question without doing my homework first.
I think the point is that, if you have a specific goal, you can reach that goal adaptively or non-adaptively. If Confucius’ goal was, say, correcting ritual standards, then given his goal and the specific details of his situation, some actions will be effective in achieving his goal and some others will not. But a commitment to adaptively performing actions does not provide you with concrete goals:
“In the adaptive meta-model of agency, it is always the situation in conjunction with the agent’s larger goals which dictates the best course of action.” (58)
So you already need to have a specific ‘larger goal’ before you can perform adaptive actions. It is unclear what exactly those larger goals amount to, and whether goal-formation is itself something that can be evaluated in terms of adaptivity, but I hope that this is enough to be helpful for thinking about the issue you have raised.
I also recommend Susan Blake’s review of Valmisa’s book in Mind ( https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzac051 ). It’s the best and most balanced review I have read so far.
(I post the following comment in the FB group of Sinologists. and I think it might be valuable for discussion here as well.)
The essay is written beautifully, and full of conceptual power! However, still, my view towards “adaptivity” is the same as I expressed partially in the AAR panel. Although the Ru tradition as a whole values “adaptivity” as a fundamental framework of conceptualizing human co-action with non-human agents and things, Ruism is among the strongest traditions in ancient China to systematically think about what remains “constant (常)” both for adaptive human individuals and an adaptive human civilization. If ‘relation’ and ‘process’ are what “cosmic and human changes” are all about, then, we will overlook the “solitary” and “ontological” dimensions of ancient Chinese thought. Daoist texts in general indeed are weak on “independent moral/normative solitariness (獨)” and ontology, but this does not mean that this deemphasis is what “Chinese thought” is all about. I think it is good to highlight the processual and relational metaphysics in ancient China when compared to identified problematics in Western thought (even though “individualism” positively inclines us to demand each powerful individual to be accountable in unjust institutions), but it is not quite appropriate to accordingly conceal those parts of Chinese thought which share even a subtler relationship with Western thought. I also vaguely feel this type of interpreting ancient Chinese thought is along the same lineage of ‘correlative thinking’ pioneered by sinologists such as Mr. A.C Graham, Mr. Ames, and others. This lineage of interpretation has its immense values, but also remains controversial among contemporary comparative philosophers. (Surely, Thanks for the writing of the essay, and I enjoy reading it!)
Thanks for sharing.
I have to add that the author the essay graciously responded to my comments both in the Denver AAR book panel of hers, and in the FB group. I thank the author for this!
I’ve been accepted to the FB group, thanks for pointing it.
Dr. Valmisa clearly states that “I also feel that I can make points that I find relevant and exciting more freely and lively when I’m not overly obsessed with fair and objective historical representation (i.e. doing justice to every single aspect and nuance of something, which is kind of an impossible mission anyway)”, which obviously answers all my doubts.