Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Bootstrapping Problem in Mencius


There’s a very problematic passage–I’ve always thought–in Mencius 6A: 15:

Gongduzi asked: Though equally human, but some are great men (daren 大人) and some are petty men (xiaoren 小人). Why is this?

Mencius replied: Following their greater parts (dati 大體) makes them great men; following their lesser parts (xiaoti 小體) makes them petty men.

Gongduzi asked: But being equally human, how is it that some follow their greater parts and some follow their lesser parts?

Mencius replied: The organs of the ears and eyes do not think and are wrapped up in things (bi yu wu 蔽於物). When there is interaction among things, [those organs] are only led around. The organ of the heart thinks and because it thinks, it can attain (de ) things [i.e. control and/or transform things]; if something does not think, it cannot attain things. This is what is given to us by Heaven. First, take a stand (li hu qi da zhe 立乎其大者) on the greater; then the lesser is unable to take over. That is all there is to being a great man.

Mencius doesn’t really answer Gongduzi’s question to my satisfaction because it seems clear to me that Gongduzi can just repeat the question in this form: “But being equally human, how is it that some ‘take a stand’ on their greater parts while others do not?”

I call this a bootstrapping problem because it seems to require some kind of “super-agency” in which a person has to take a stand on the better part of herself without being able to rely on that part to guide her in taking that stand. Or so I’ve argued in “Wielding Virtue in the Mengzi” (in Conceptions of Virtue East and West, Kim-chong Chong (ed.), 2006).

Doesn’t this seem like a problem for Mencius? Is there a solution?

Author: Manyul Im

University of Bridgeport


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