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.

11 replies on “Book Review – brief but not shamelessly so”

  1. Hi Manyul! Nice review. Here’s my main worry.

    You write: “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 … 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.”

    Of course interpretation is possible and even easy without them; good or successful interpretation (i.e. communication) isn’t possible without at least a minimal charity and humanity. Perhaps your thought is that the only charity&humanity that is significantly helpful is that which people apply automatically. But it seems to me good interpretation of difficult texts (such as a minority of the remarks one encounters in conversation) requires more charity and humanity than that. As an undergraduate I was taught “the principle of charity” (by which my teacher meant the principle that we should try very hard not to attribute something stupid to a respectable text) as a useful norm for interpretation of hard good old texts, long before I encountered the idea that our charity and humanity are necessary conditions of all communication. Strongish principles of those kinds are for me such important tools that I think I’d be wholly at a loss without them when it comes to early Chinese texts. Are you saying I’m wrong there? Or are you just saying that Van Norden stretches the meanings of the names of the principles? If he does that, I think he does so in a conventional and reasonable direction.

  2. Bill; you’re right that there is definitely a tendency to refer to what I would call a “loose version” of the principle of charity in philosophical inquiry (I think the principle of humanity–derived and coined by Richard Grandy?–appears “straight up” in the same contexts, to temper the loose version of charity). The loose version is something like this: try not to attribute obviously defective reasoning or obviously false beliefs. This may be applied to one’s philosophical interlocutors, say at a conference or in conversation, or to what someone has written. That applies naturally then to interpreting ancient texts that we think are philosophically astute. But there is usually a nontrivial issue in such cases of determining what would be an “obviously” defective move or belief, depending on the various assumptions we can make about genre, development of logical sophistication, and so on in the time and place of the text; so here the principle of humanity tempers the loose version of charity. I agree with you in this sense that the loose version of charity (tempered by humanity) is important for understanding what a difficult text says.

    I should say two sorts of things about the loose version of the principle of charity:

    First, it really is *very loosely* related to the version we can attribute to Quine and Davidson, which is what Van Norden invokes (Chad Hansen also invokes this, much earlier, in *A Daoist Theory…* and in articles). The “original” principle of charity is necessary to overcome the apparent problems of radical translation, where (hypothetically) we’re starting from scratch, without prior knowledge of any of a speaker’s propositional attitudes. How, in such a circumstance would interpretation of the speaker’s utterances get off the ground? Principle of charity dictates that I do not attribute *systematically* false or incoherent attitudes; in short, it dictates that we interpret the speaker as rational in a minimal sense. But in that sense, it is transcendental in the sense I try to state in the review and we “use” charity largely, as you say, “automatically.” (e.g. I assume fairly automatically that you’ve misspoken if I hear you utter something flatly contradictory to what you’ve just said before–careless insertion of a “not” or something like that… there’s lots of examples here)

    Second, neither the loose nor the original version of the principle helps to distinguish the “restorative” project Van Norden is ostensibly interested in from the hermeneutics of suspicion. That’s because what Van Norden is interested in is not exclusively restoration–even Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and Foucault have to be interested in restoration to make their further critical interpretations credible. If Marx did not really understand or at least have some “restorative” interpretation of *what* religion teaches, he would probably not have cared enough about it to analyze its further meaning in the dialectic of class and power. Whereas the suspicion masters are interested in ‘restoration + critical distance + analysis,’ Van Norden is interested in ‘restoration + philosophical engagement.’

  3. Hmm. My direct encounter with Q & D on these matters is in the foggy past, so I’ll just aprioritize, guided or misguided by charity, which I apply to the distant in order to attack the near, as Rousseau somewhere said people do.

    I want to distinguish three things. Maybe I’m giving them the wrong names.

    (1) Luck: Making intepretations that happen to make minimally rational sense.
    (2) Charity: Holding one’s interpretations to the constraint that they must make minimally rational sense.
    (3) Principle of Charity: Doing 2 by way of a norm one is aware of applying in one’s interpretation.

    It seems to me what’s necessary for interpretation has to be (1), not (2) or (3). What (2) and sometimes (3) are necessary for is good interpretation or reasonable interpretation (i.e., at the very least, interpretation constrained in some prima facie legitimate way by the data). So I’m charitably inclined to suppose that Davidson’s principle of (minimal) charity is a principle for (minimally) good or reasonable interpretation.

    Dropping the parenthetical qualifications doesn’t seem to me like changing the subject. But it gives us the claim that a stronger (and I think more widely familiar) principle of charity, which I’ll call (4), is a principle for good and reasonable interpretation. So I see (2/3) as being related intimately, not very loosely, to (4). The distinction is a matter of degree, and no degree was ever even specified for (2/3).

    I’m not sure why you see them as only very loosely related. Maybe your thought is this: (4) is to be applied only in case we have independent reason to think the text in question is astute, or more astute than might appear at first. But is there no analogous requirement associated with Davidson’s (2/3)? I mean, it seems to me (2/3) is sometimes unreasonable and inappropriate: as when the object of interpretation is tea leaves, cracks in shoulder bones, ripples in the sea, etc. — i.e., most things.

    I can see why one might call “transcendental” the principle that we ought to approach everything by way of (2/3), not just things we have independent reason to suspect are minimally rational. And that would indeed be only loosely related to (4).

    I’m inclined to think that if Van Norden’s practice is doesn’t fit the names he cites to justify it, that’s a problem with his citing them, but not a significant worry about his practice. But maybe that’s just because I’m so sympathetic with the effort to engage with pre-Qin thinkers.

  4. Or … maybe I’ve been off-target because maybe what you’re saying is that what Van Norden is doing is not what’s commonly (if loosely) called “charitable interpretation,” but rather trying to address some such question as this: “If the pre-Qin thinkers were sat down and told about our ‘virtue theory’ and ‘consequentialism,’ what would they be ready to say on one or the other of those topics, so far as we can reasonably speculate from the texts we have?” It would certainly be quite a stretch to support such a project directly on the basis of ideas from Quine and Davidson on radical interpretation. One would also have to show either that (a) our virtue theory or consequentialism is obviously a key topic in ethics for anyone, or that (b) there is substantial textual reason to think the thinkers are in fact more or less addressing one or the other of those topics.

    But is (b) so hard to show? Do you think Van Norden fails to show it?

  5. Or … maybe what I should have said in #3 after (1)(2)(3) is that the charitable interpretation of Davidson is that his “principle of charity” is slightly misnamed because it is in fact only (1); so that you are right to say there’s an abyss between Davidson’s so-called “principle” and the principle Van Norden uses.

  6. Hi Bill,

    Sorry for the lag time. I’ve been pretty busy learning about post-Soviet central Asia the past three days in intense seminars. Take your #2 to be a broad statement of Davidson’s Principle. I think your #3 is one way to construe #2, and by that construal, there isn’t really any difference between them. But I think #3 is a misconstrual. In the context of Davidson’s concerns, interpreting someone else within the constraints of relatively widespread agreement with one’s own beliefs and relatively systematic inferential coherence among the other’s beliefs, is not something that is a goal to adopt or opt out of, either self-consciously or unself-consciously. It’s instead a “stance” that constitutes the presumption of another being as rational. That’s what makes communication possible, according to Davidson. So, in approaching any text as in principle interpretable–i.e. as expressing rational thought–which is redundant in this minimal sense of rationality, one has already adopted that stance.

    The further principle, which is to interpret prima facie stupid, contradictory, incoherent, or otherwise puzzling statements as expressive of something more rationally translatable (e.g. as misstatements, textual corruptions, genre-related apophases, or whatever) is what I’ve been calling the “loose” principle of charity. It’s clearly optional; but I could only be “uncharitable” if charity *were* an option. With Davidsonian charity, it’s not an option unless I’m opting out of communication altogether (because I’m not regarding the other as a rational being) or, in the case of (apparent) text, not regarding it as an interpretable batch of scribble–say, my two-year-old’s text-like scribbles or typings. So the two principles seem to me to be different *in kind*.

    I don’t know, is that any clearer?

  7. Hi Manyul,

    Why central Asia? Thanks for your patience with my ignorant digressions, and your speedy and thoughtful reply! What you say is very helpful. Here’s why it doesn’t change my mind:

    When you write, “With Davidsonian charity, it’s not an option unless I’m opting out of communication altogether …” you could seem to be saying that Davidson sees charity and (some level of) communication as all-or-nothing deals, like being pregnant. That is, I can’t receive any communication unless I have the whole of Davidsonian charity toward my interlocutor. Philosophical readers’ charity is different because it is extra; what it’s necessary (non-optional) for is only receiving tricky communication. In that way the issue of “optionality” would suggest a prima facie difference in kind between Davidson’s charity and the principle for reading philosophers.

    But I think that suggestion would be unfair: partly because it would depend on arbitrarily choosing (or imagining that one might choose) a level of communication to call “communication”, and partly because (I imagine) Davidsonian charity is not an all-or-nothing deal.

    Here’s my charitable argument for that latter point of interpretation of Davidson: (a) So far as I recall, I’ve never heard ‘charity’ described in terms that didn’t wear on their sleeve the point that they are matters of smooth degree. And (b) it seems often to happen that one person bears to another a degree of charity that allows for some simple factual communication but not for normal decent human communication. Therefore (c) it seems to me I have to suppose Davidson is not saying that “charity” is something one either wholly has or wholly lacks. Rather, I imagine he thinks one can have a little bit of charity toward someone and thus be capable of receiving very simple communication from her, or more charity and thus be capable of receiving somewhat trickier communication, etc. And what I don’t see is how the principle for reading philosophers doesn’t fall on that continuum, in content and in rationale.

    One could (and for all I know Davidson might) radically overestimate the degree to which people are normally charitable in what we’re calling sense (2), by confusing (2) with what I’ve been calling (1) “Luck”. Smith is not very charitable, and she often fails to understand Jones, who comes from the other side of the hill. But she usually understands Smythe: not because of any stance, but because they luckily share the same community, friends, interests, television shows, and hence beliefs and inferential leaps. Smith would need charity to receive communication from Jones, because communication from Jones is tricky communication.

    Maybe I shouldn’t use the term “luck” for Smith’s situtation vis-a-vis Smythe, since the fact that people commonly share many things with their interlocutors is well grounded in basic regularities. But it’s not a stance or a practice either. It might be a (1.5), but it’s not (2).

    Here’s a possible way to defend a difference in kind.

    The SEP article on Davidson by Jeff Malpas gives various paraphrases of Davidson’s “principle of charity” – here’s one: “In Davidson’s work this principle, which admits of various formulations and cannot be rendered in any completely precise form, often appears in terms of the injunction to optimise agreement between ourselves and those we interpret, that is, it counsels us to interpret speakers as holding true beliefs (true by our lights at least) wherever it is plausible to do (see ‘Radical Interpretation’ [1973]).”

    If we understand the PoC in terms of optimizing, then it doesn’t seem as though we can interpret the “looser” principle as a higher degree of the same sort of thing, because there would be no higher degree.

    But there are such severe difficulties with such a picture of what’s necessary for communication that I wonder whether reading Davidsonian charity that way is too uncharitable.

  8. (Above I wrote “(a) So far as I recall, I’ve never heard ‘charity’ described in terms that didn’t wear on their sleeve the point that they are matters of smooth degree.” But later in the same comment I quoted Jeff Malpas describing charity as a kind of extreme. I wrote the first bit before reading the Malpas.)

  9. Suppose Davidsonian charity is unequivocally a kind of extreme practice: an optimizing or maximizing of something. Offhand then it would seem that one has to say the following things as well:

    Full charity is “necessary for communication” only in an ambitiously extreme sense of the term ‘communication’. Something short of perfect charity is normal, and can be a workably reliable guide to meaning in many (most) cases. Full charity might conceivably be automatic for some people toward some other people or texts, but presumably full charity across the board (especially in challenging cases) can be achieved only by effort, by attending to some sort of norm. For example, in order fully to receive the communication that hard philosophical texts attempt, it is necessary that we apply full Davidsonian charity to those texts, but in order to apply full Davidsonian charity to those texts it is necessary that we attend to a norm such as the Loose Principle. The connection between Davidsonian charity and the Loose Principle would thus be roughly this: the Loose Principle says “don’t forget to apply Davidsonian charity to the odd bits of respectable texts”.

    How about that?

    Separately: You write in #6 that the Loose Principle is “to interpret prima facie stupid, contradictory, incoherent, or otherwise puzzling statements as expressive of something more rationally translatable (e.g. as misstatements, textual corruptions, genre-related apophases, or whatever)….” I wonder whether you mean to be suggesting that a key difference between the Loose Principle and Davidsonian Charity is that the former often or normally leads toward the disqualification of things as proper objects of interpretation, while the latter does not or cannot. ?

  10. Interesting suggestion, Bill, about reading Davidson more charitably. Let me try even further to clarify. I think for Davidson, the principle of charity is to “prevent” (not literally–see next sentence) an interpretation of a collection of utterances or writings by an author or authors that features what he would call “massive disagreement” both at the level of formal, logical aspects of grammar and at levels of knowledge and belief about the presumptively shared empirical world. Indeed, as I’ve tried to say, the result of that would not be an interpretation, in the strong sense of something that can be understood. Beyond that, I think Davidson is sensitive to broadly anthropological concerns about there being interesting differences between the beliefs of another culture and “our” culture–i.e. the culture that is doing the interpreting. What that suggests to me is that the principle of charity is one that is useful for getting to a threshold point of understanding and shared belief, beyond which lies the territory of difference. So, when we see something in a set of utterances or text that seems to stray into interesting difference (i.e. beyond a threshold of massive agreement), then it may be that charity–which aims at agreement via interpretation–may actually be inappropriate. So, putting aside the questions we’ve been asking about whether there is a serious gap between Davidsonian charity and general philosophical charity, we might say that Davidsonian charity, at least, is less “imperious” in striving for agreement than a more widespread endeavor to establish agreement with our own beliefs. I don’t know if that addresses any of your thoughts, but I think it might. I am interested in your further responses, of course.

  11. I agree with what you say in your review about the limits of the principles as Van Norden states them. In fact I think your review beautifully brings out that he has not only what seems to me too weak a conception of Davidsonian charity, but also maybe too strong a conception of “loose” charity. I think from the outset I was failing to see how weak are his statements of the principles of charity and humanity – maybe because I tend to take it as understood among conversants that no good precise principle of charity has been developed. One normally abbreviates and waves hands. But VN doesn’t seem to have been doing that.

    I agree that if “reading more charitably” means “assuming that the author agrees with me more,” then there’s such a thing as too much charity, in philosophy and anthropology.

    There’s something in your last comment I don’t understand. You say “an interpretation … that features … ‘massive disagreement’ … [e.g.] at the level of formal, logical aspects of grammar … would not be an interpretation, in the strong sense of something that can be understood. … What that suggests to me is that the principle of charity is one that is useful for getting to a threshold point of understanding and shared belief, beyond which lies the territory of difference.”

    An implication would seem to be that I can replace all Davidson’s confusing charity stuff by something easier to apply: a simple understandability test of my candidate interpretations.

    Are you saying that Davidsonian charity helps me understand the easy parts of Plato but not the hard parts? I think the rule that we should avoid reading Plato as saying something that “we regard as absurdly false” is a rule people don’t automatically apply, and it’s a helpful rule—at least if what counts as “absurd” is judged on the basis of the information presumably available to Plato.

    I’m not sure we disagree about anything else, but I’m going to blather on for a while anyway, on the question of radical discontinuity between Davidson’s issues and the proper concerns of philosophical interpreters. This isn’t the sort of stuff a blogger has any responsibility to answer.

    The “principle of charity” is sometimes (e.g. by Davidson) stated as though “charity” encompasses “humanity,” and sometimes (e.g. by Davidson) as though “charity” is only about agreement with beliefs. I tend not to take the latter sort of statement of the PoC very seriously. I imagine there are four main conditions under which it appears: (a) the speaker is casually (and wrongly) supposing that inference rules are a kind of belief; (b) the speaker is taking it as understood that the PoC is vague and indeterminate, and simply abbreviating; (c) the speaker is trying to draw attention to the fact that “humanity” is needed; or (z) the speaker is just following other people’s accounts of the principle. My sense is that the appeal of reason (c) tends to be based on an overestimation of how clear we can be about any of this stuff.

    There’s (1) agreement in belief and (2) shared ways of arriving at belief, but also (3) degree of intelligence. Concern (3) pertains to a broad range of specific questions that seem to me similar in kind: whether the natives are fully human, whether the two-year-old can spell, and whether an author is smart enough to merit my deference.

    Here’s an argument: “Some version of Davidson’s PoC is the same thing as regarding persons as persons. Now, if I’m struggling over a hard passage in Plato, I’m not in danger of thinking he’s not a person. So for reading hard bits of Plato, Davidson’s principle is beside the point.” —I’ll grant the implausible First Premise for the sake of discussion, and attack the rest of the argument. The First Premise isn’t about believing that Smith is a person; it’s about regarding her as a person. I might conceivably believe a scientist who tells me that my coffee cup is a person, but I still wouldn’t know how to regard it as a person (i.e. in detail). The First Premise clearly implies that if I’m slightly or momentarily uncharitable to you, I’m slightly or momentarily not regarding you as a person. Now, regarding someone as a person presumably involves trying to take into account her degree of intelligence (etc) in interpreting her signals. So in casually attributing something stupid to Plato I may in some small way be failing to regard him as a person.

    Here’s an impression I have. Maybe it’s way off. I’ll put it in quotes. “Davidson defends the necessity of his principle primarily for an imaginary and radically unrealistic case: the case that the interpreter fully appreciates the skeptical problems about interpretation, and arrives at no conclusions that aren’t supported by a self-conscious methodology. The idea of not applying a principle of charity but nevertheless interpreting someone as though one were applying it (e.g. by the accident that one *simply* doesn’t even think of interpretations that would violate it), doesn’t arise in this imaginary case.”

    In that imaginary case, the principle would be necessary for interpretation, but only because the interpreter does something people usually don’t, which is to think of the sorts of candidate interpretations that the principle of charity is “necessary” to “prevent”.

    I think that a necessary condition of interpretation (everyday or philosophical) is that we not proceed in reality as does the charitable interpreter in the imaginary case. But I think the imaginary case can be illuminating, especially for those hard interpretive problems that drive us to be relatively explicit about method.

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