Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Review of Denecke

Here are a few excerpts from a short book review (about 2000 words) I just wrote for China Review International, of Wiebke Denecke‘s The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han Feizi. My review mostly touches on method, not so much on substance, of her analysis. However, if you thought you might be interested in reading the book, here is some indication of its contents.


Wiebke Denecke. The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han Feizi. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. xii, 370 pp. Hardcover $39.95, ISBN 978-0-674-05609-1.

Some academic philosophers and historians claim to study or “do” Chinese philosophy. Denecke takes aim in this book at understanding “first what modern proponents of a ‘Chinese philosophy’ have gained from creating a Chinese equivalent of philosophy for their time and concerns, and second what we may gain from framing our inquiry into this text corpus through the lens of other disciplines, questions, and concerns for our time” (3). So, the project is constructive and invites readers to seek gains from the inquiry. Ultimately, Denecke conceives of her project as friendly to the task of including Chinese thought in contemporary philosophical conversation, so long as the project of understanding those texts is itself seen as an important part of the learning process: “’Chinese philosophy’ should not be a toolbox of concepts and values that could give Western philosophy a fix. Instead, it is the translation process … both on the level of words and on the level of disciplines, that has the greatest potential to become productive in the future” (344-5). Continue reading “Review of Denecke”

July 29, 2011 Posted by | Book Review, Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics, History | 2 comments

2011 Is A Year of Interpretation!

It looks like 2011 will be remembered as a year of interpretation. As far as I know, there will be three international conferences on this very theme in June (so June will be the month of interpretation!):

1. There is the annual ISCWP Beijing Roundtable on Contemporary Philosophy, “Classical Texts and Philosophical Interpretation: In View of Studies of Chinese Philosophy and Development of Contemporary Philosophy” at Capital Normal University, Beijing, 3 June, 2011.


2. There is the international conference co-organized by Shandong University and SUNY Buffalo: “Interpretation East and West: An International Conference” at Shandong University, Jinan, Shandong, 2-6 June, 2011.Here is the program of the conference:


3. Finally, there is the international symposium “Reading Matters: Chinese and Western Traditions of Interpreting the Classics” at Leiden University, the Netherlands, 10-11 June, 2011.


It is my impression that the organizers of these conferences have come up with the theme independently. I think there is something in the air!

I’ve always been interested in the fundamental question about interpretation, which is “How should we interpret and read texts today?.” Some might try to offer a general theory of interpretation as an answer to the question. Others might try to offer a radical “anti-theory” view, which is that one cannot (and should not) try to come up with any general theory of interpretation that is applicable to any text and any reader. Continue reading “2011 Is A Year of Interpretation!”

May 29, 2011 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics | 6 comments

Is Chinese Philosophical Thought "Alternative" For Us?

I’ve heard a number of times over the years, from various sources both within and outside of the world of Chinese philosophy, that Chinese philosophical thought represents an “alternative” philosophical tradition, very different from “our own”, and that we are conceptually barred from coming to a full understanding of this tradition, that we will always be looking through the misconceptions, in some sense or another, of the western tradition.  Roger Ames and David Hall endorsed something like this view, on the basis of cultural difference (while admittedly still maintaining that understanding the Chinese tradition at some level is possible).  At the extreme there is Alasdair MacIntyre’s problem of incommensurability that threatens to undermine the possibility of understanding alternative traditions at all.   What all of these views seem to assume, however, is that western scholars are in the position of having to translate Chinese philosophical concepts into concepts we more readily understand, concepts from western thinkers. Continue reading “Is Chinese Philosophical Thought "Alternative" For Us?”

February 2, 2011 Posted by | China, Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics | 20 comments

Argument and Meta-Discourse

Over on Facebook, Stephen Walker and Robert Hymes got me thinking about meta-discourse in early China. Stephen imagined someone in China asking, or perhaps demanding, “Where are the arguments?” Robert suggested that it is perhaps impossible in classical Chinese to say “arguments” in the intended sense, so that someone might know what is being asked or demanded of him. (My thanks to them for stimulating the rest of this post. Maybe they will join in the discussion.)

I had a few initial responses to this, but I wanted to open up the discussion to others as well. Here are my thoughts:

(A) It is hard to know what term from the classical Chinese meta-discourse about language and rhetoric could do all and only the work that “the argument” in contemporary discourse does.

(B) Of course, one wouldn’t have to use meta-discourse simply to ask for a reason, some pattern of reasoning, or some other thing that might answer to “Why do you say that?” in English. One equivalent of “Why do you say that?” is he yan 何言, or simply 何.

There is another locution, an 安, which introduces more ambiguity–generality?–that is used for example in this Zhuangzi passage about the “Happiness of Fish” (魚之樂):


Zhuangzi and Huizi wandered to a bridge over the Hao River. Zhuangzi said, “See how the small fish meander to and fro. This is the happiness of the fish.” Huizi replied “You are not a fish; how do you know the happiness of the fish?” “You are not I,” retorted Zhuangzi, “How do you know my not knowing the happiness of the fish?” “I am not you,” conceded Huizi, “so I certainly do not know what you know. But you are certainly not a fish, so your not knowing the happiness of the fish is settled.” “Let’s return to the original question” suggested Zhuangzi. “You asked me whence I know the happiness of the fish. That shows that you already knew what I knew when you asked me. I know it from my vantage over the Hao.”

This is an interesting passage because Zhuangzi is depicted, I think, as being aware of the ambiguity of an 安; his answer at the end turns on interpreting Huizi’s question, not as “how do you know?”, which is what Huizi seems to intend, but as “from where do you know?”, (安 being one way to ask for the location of something in classical Chinese). That makes me also think:

(C) One could be aware of the different sorts of things someone is asking for with he 何, an 安, and other similar lexical items, without having an explicit/precise/unambiguous meta-discourse term for those sorts of things. Maybe one of those sorts of things Zhuangzi and others were aware of was “argument.”


January 15, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics | 10 comments

Time, Timeliness (shi 時), & Passing (shi 逝)

Here are some comparative philosophy theses we could discuss, from Sarah Allan’s (1997) book, The Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue:

“There is no Classical Chinese word equivalent in meaning to the English word time. In the Analects (IX.17), we are told that Confucius, standing by a river, said, ‘What passes is perhaps like this: day and night it never lets up.’ In this passage, the imagery of the river suggests time passing, just as it did for his contemporary Heraclitus when he said that you cannot step into the same river twice. However, a specific term for ‘what passes’ or ‘passes by’–what we call time–is noticeably absent. Nevertheless, a Chinese word, sometimes translated as ‘time,’ shi 時, is a key term in early Chinese philosophy. The original meaning of shi is “season.” By extension, it also means seasonality or timeliness and refers to doing something at the appropriate time, the time or season at which an action can succeed. Shi is meaningful in the context of a natural order to which people, as other living things including plants, must correspond in their actions if they are to flourish and achieve success in life. However, it is not equivalent to our idea of ‘time’ and it cannot be used to discuss the phenomenon of time passing for which Confucius used the metaphor of a river.” (p. 11-12)

Following up on the Analects IX.17 passage, in which the idea of time “passing” is expressed with the (different) character shi 逝, Allan makes the following analysis:

“…in the absence of a word that specifically means time passing, Confucius simply compares the passing stream with ‘passing away.’ What ‘passes’ is both that which we call time and life itself. In another passage from the Analects, shi 逝 is used explicitly with reference to the passage of time: ‘The days and months pass by (shi 逝), but the harvest is not given to me’ (XVII.1). In Classical Chinese, days and months were also literally ‘suns’ and ‘moons’ and so they could also be said to pass by in a literal sense. In later texts, shi 逝 is used as a conventional euphemism for death or dying, just as we speak of someone ‘passing away.’ … Shi 逝 is not, however, ‘passing on’ which carries the implication of another world where one goes after death.” (p. 37)

Allan makes two suggestions based on this. First, that this is reflective of a way of thinking in which individual human lives, though “bounded by birth and death” (p. 12), are also regarded as links within the continuum of the ancestral heritage. Second, that it is reflective of a trend in the “metaphoric structures” through which the early Chinese think, according to which radical distinctions between things are not nearly as much the norm but that continuity among them is. So, an example of that is the significant use of the classification wu 物 “things,” in which humans, animals and plants are all classified together–not trivially, but for important purposes. Based on these sorts of considerations and examinations of textual passages, Allan argues in the book for a set of “root metaphors” that inform the early Chinese conceptual scheme in certain ways.

There are lots of interesting things in this book, including Allan’s discussion of the water and plant metaphors, but I’d be interested in what you think about her observations about early Chinese ways to talk about time: timeliness and passing (away). I’m not as sure as Allan is that large conceptual differences arise from this.

August 16, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics | 9 comments

Abstract Theorizing and Language – Hall and Ames (and a bit of Hansen)

I’m working on a couple of papers related to language and ethics in early China. One of the issues that keeps coming up are the arguments, from two distinct directions, that the language of early China points to a tendency to avoid abstract thought, including abstract ethical thought. One argument comes from Chad Hansen’s lengthy mass-noun, stuff-ontology, mereology thesis. The other comes from Roger Ames and David Hall’s somewhat quick argument about the relatively “infrequent resort” to counterfactual conditionals in Chinese philosophy.

In this post, I’ll just say a quick thing about Hansen. In terms of “abstract” theorizing, Hansen’s view seems to have two (related) conclusions based on his argument that early Chinese think of the world in terms of intermixed “stuff” rather than individuals and their properties:

  • (H1) universals, or properties, and things are not components of early Chinese thinking; and
  • (H2) the mind (or in this case, the xin 心, “heart-mind”) is not conceived of as engaged in representations of the world (in a “mentalese language of thought”), but rather in acts of discrimination regarding the parts and (mass) wholes among which humans navigate.

In those pretty specific senses, Hansen thinks there is no abstract theorizing in early China. At least that’s my quick summary (read both of Hansen’s books,  Language and Logic in Ancient China and A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, to check).

Ames and Hall’s view is less systematic and perhaps based on (someone else’s) bad linguistic research, but there may be arguments for their view that transcend that research. I’ll try to summarize their position, from Thinking Through Confucius, and make a call for some examples that might be interesting to discuss as prima facie counterexamples.

Ames and Hall argue that the Confucian sensibility–and more broadly, all of Classical Chinese thought–is shaped by a lack of “consideration of the differential consequences of alternative possibilities” which “underlies the dominant modes of ethical and scientific thinking” (265). The argument is based in part on Alfred Bloom’s 1981 study, The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study in the Impact of Language and Thinking in China and the West. By way of “cheating,” I’ll paste the opening page of Wu Kuang-ming’s Philosophy East and West (37:1) book review as summary of Bloom’s research and to indicate the direction of argument that Wu takes against Bloom’s thesis:

“In this provocative book, Alfred Bloom claims that the Chinese language does
not have a counterfactual formulation, and therefore Chinese people have
difficulty understanding counterfactual expressions. He said this is because
counterfactuals depend on the ability to turn properties and actions into nouns,
lift them up (abstract them) from actuality, and fit them into a new theoretical
framework of universals. Thus in denying counterfactuals in Chinese language,
Bloom also denies universals in Chinese language. Since language allegedly
shapes thinking, the double denial of counterfactuality and universals amounts
to denying both in Chinese thinking. Since argumentation needs both counter-
factuals and universals, Chinese people are either poor arguers or incapable of
argumentation. This is a serious thesis indeed.

To prove the Chinese lack of counterfactuals, Bloom produced (1) a lack of
counterfactuals in contemporary Chinese writings and conversation, and (2)
poor scores on the tests on counterfactuals taken by Chinese people. To prove
the Chinese lack of theoretical abstraction and “entification,” Bloom produced
(3) poor scores on the tests on abstract thinking taken by Chinese people, and
(4) evidence of the difficulty of translating a single complex English sentence
into a single Chinese sentence. And to clinch the whole matter, Bloom reported
that (5) Chinese people themselves confessed to him that they have difficulty
grasping counterfactuals and universals, saying in effect that Chinese language
has neither.

This review claims that perhaps the situation is more complex than Bloom
would have us believe. Both counterfactuals and universals are needed in think-
ing. What is peculiar about both English and Chinese languages is that they have
their own peculiar ways of expressing these concepts. In other words, counter-
factual thinking must be distinguished from counterfactual formulations in a
specific language; similarly, universals must be distinguished from theoretical
abstract terms, which are a peculiar linguistic form. A lack in the linguistic
formulations of counterfactuals and theoreticals does not necessarily show the
lack of counterfactual thinking and thinking on universals.

The Chinese language has no tense forms, but the Chinese people are one of
the most history-conscious races in the world. The Chinese language has no
gender forms, yet some gender distinction is clearly embedded throughout in
names, adjectives, expressions, and so on, as in English. The fact that Chinese
language lacks linguistic devices for plurality did not prevent the Chinese people
from being good businessmen or engineers….”

In addition to Wu, there have been others critical of Bloom’s thesis (for example, Christoph Harbsmeier in Language and Logic, no. VII:1 in Science and Civilization in China, 116-18).

Ames and Hall admit that though Bloom’s thesis that there is no counterfactual locution in the Chinese language, including Classical Chinese, might be overstated, the “infrequent resort to such locutions in Chinese philosophic argument” (364, note 29) is what matters to their conclusions. So what are the relevant conclusions here? A good and fair summary, I think, lies in this quote:

“If ethics is to be considered always in the light of reflection, deliberation, and conscious judgment among alternatives, then one may certainly assent to the view that such ethical interests are not in any important way represented in classical Chinese philosophy.” (266)

So, two issues:

  • How valid is the reasoning from the relative lack of counterfactual locutions to this conclusion?
  • Regardless of counterfactuals, does the conclusion ring true? Why or why not?

We could start, I suppose, by discussing the nature and role of an apparent counterexemple: Mencius’s use of the “child in the well” example (from 2A:6, text and Legge’s translation–from Donald Sturgeon’s site):


“When I say that all men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: even now-a-days, if men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress. They will feel so, not as a ground on which they may gain the favour of the child’s parents, nor as a ground on which they may seek the praise of their neighbours and friends, nor from a dislike to the reputation of having been unmoved by such a thing. From this case we may perceive that the feeling of commiseration is essential to man, that the feeling of shame and dislike is essential to man, that the feeling of modesty and complaisance is essential to man, and that the feeling of approving and disapproving is essential to man.”

Does this really count as a counterexample–is it really counterfactual thinking and/or does it engage “reflection, deliberation, and conscious judgment among alternatives”? Are there other, better textual examples to discuss here?

July 12, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Hermeneutics | 12 comments

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

Hall and Ames–"Postmodern"?

A comment on Van Norden’s uses of the term postmodern in Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy:

Van Norden often refers to the approach that Roger Ames and David Hall take toward Chinese texts as “postmodern.” Based on Van Norden’s own depiction of postmodernism, there’s something puzzling in this tendency. Here is Van Norden on postmodernism:

“The term has been in use since the early twentieth century and is used by different thinkers in different ways in different intellectual disciplines. However, one of the most influential characterizations was given by Jean-Francois Lyotard, who described it as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’ I take him to mean the following. A narrative is any account or story, such as evolutionary theory. A metanarrative is a story about why a particular narrative is justified, or why we ought to believe it. …However, postmodernism’s ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ means not believing that any metanarrative is justified. In other words, one does not regard as objectively warranted any claims to truth.” (VECECP, 3)

Here are a couple of central snippets (can snippets be central?) from Ames’ and Hall’s “Apologia” for their approach in Thinking Through Confucius:

“We have openly resorted to a method which we shall term (before our critics, with less constructive intent, have a chance to do so) ‘cross-cultural anachronism.’ That is to say, we have sought to understand the thinking of Confucius by recourse to issues originating within contemporary Western philosophic culture, issues which Confucius may well have not explicitly entertained. Although this method has required frequent resort to anachronistic references, our ultimate aim has been to provide the grounds for arriving at a more accurate picture of Confucius’ thinking independent of such reference.” (TTC, 7; emphasis added)

“We wish to challenge the understanding of Confucius’ Analects as a mere repository of culture-bound ethical norms relevant to the origin and development of classical Chinese culture, and to promote the relevance of his vision as a potential participant in present philosophic conversations.” (TTC, 6; emphasis added)

It doesn’t seem very clear that Ames and Hall are postmodern in the sense Van Norden identifies as influential. If anything, the two desiderata of historical accuracy and relevance expressed by them seem to make their project very much like Van Norden’s, at least in aim. But maybe there are aspects of Ames and Hall that are postmodern in some other sense than Lyotard’s. Van Norden hints at another sense in this comment:

“…the post modernists [such as Ames and Hall] are right that any faithful interpretation of Ruism will not attribute to it any sort of Cartesianism. Ruists are not metaphysical dualists, nor are they epistemological foundationalists. …It is certainly true that Ruism is not ‘modernist,’ but this does not entail that it is ‘postmodernist.’ Readings of the original texts that make it seem that Ruists advocate creativity unconstrained by human nature, Heaven, and tradition seem very forced to me. Furthermore, precisely because the postmodern interpretation of Ruism renders it so similar to Rortian pragmatism, it offers nothing inspiringly new to contemporary debates. Finally, if our choices are between modernism, postmodernism, and a hermeneutic approach, I find the third the most promising.” (VECECP, 324-5)

I have two thoughts here. First, it seems like Van Norden is being unhelpfully loose, terminologically. He doesn’t mean that Ames and Hall are themselves postmodern in their approach (maybe he thinks this, but that doesn’t seem to be his point here). He means that they attribute to the early Chinese views that are characterizable as postmodernist–Ames and Hall’s interpretation “renders” Ruism “so similar to Rortian pragmatism.” But then, second, it seems like Van Norden should distinguish Rortian pragmatism from Lyotard’s postmodernism. Unless I’m mistaken, Rorty’s view is not that we should be incredulous toward any metanarrative, but that we should be incredulous toward thinking of the metanarrative as somehow providing non-contingent, “externally objective” grounding, grounding that could serve us in some (modernist) foundationalist sense. Nonetheless, a metanarrative can serve us with the right sense of our own historical contingency and its relationship to the metanarrative. In that sense, Rorty’s view is postmodern–in rejecting foundationalism; but I don’t think in that sense Rorty’s view is any different from what Van Norden glosses in the following footnote as the “hermeneutic” approach to philosophy that he favors:

“By ‘hermeneutics’ here I mean not just the position of H-G. Gadamer…but rather the broad range of positions that agree with postmodernism in rejecting Cartesian foundationalism but seek to retain the ideal of philosophical progress through dialogue and constructive argumentation.” (VECECP, 325 fn.4)

That doesn’t seem very different from Rortian pragmatism but maybe someone who knows Rorty’s views better can correct me.

In any case, on the Ames and Hall approach, the pragmatism template is self-consciously applied to early Chinese texts because they think it helps to make the text, particularly certain terms, more coherent in an overall reading of the text. I’m not sure why it is cogent criticism of the approach that it doesn’t provide anything “inspiringly new to contemporary debates.” That makes it seem like if you can’t make an ancient text seem inspiringly interesting to contemporary debates, then your interpretation is no good.

Comments welcome!

June 8, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics | one comment

The Lexical Fallacy

I’m working on a review of Bryan Van Norden’s book, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy. There is a very interesting discussion in his Introduction about what he calls “the lexical fallacy,” a fallacy that he notes was first pointed out to him by Kwong-loi Shun, in conversation.

Van Norden quotes Henry Rosemont (from “Against Relativism” (1988 ) in Larson and Deutsch’s Interpreting Across Boundaries), who actually formulates and uses the lexical principle that Bryan asserts to be fallacious. Let’s call it ‘L’:

(L) “…the only way it can be maintained that a particular concept was held by an author is to find a term expressing that concept in his text. Thus we cannot say so-and-so had a ‘theory of X,’ or that he ‘espoused X principles,’ if there is no X in the lexicon of the language in which the author wrote.” (Rosemont p. 41, footnote 11).

Maybe there is something fallacious about the principle. But Van Norden’s argument for its fallaciousness seems to rely solely on apparent counterexamples. Here they are (all from Van Norden p. 22)–I’ll number them so we can refer to them in discussion:

(C1) “…it seems clear that Anaximander and Anaximenes were doing philosophy, had views about philosophy, and (in some sense) had the concept of philosophy, even though both lived before the Greek term for philosophy, ‘philosophia,’ was coined by the Pythagoreans.”

(C2) “…Aristotle claims that there are ‘unnamed virtues,’ by which he means virtues that he has a concept for but which do not have names in Greek.”

(C3) “…outside of crossword puzzle fans and those in the shoelace industry, almost no English speakers know the word ‘aglet.’ However, I submit that almost all English speakers have the concept of ‘the plastic or metal tip on the end of a shoelace.’

The principle is fallacious, Van Norden further clarifies, because it requires one-to-one lexical correspondence (pp. 22-23): “A slightly different kind of case that illustrates why the lexical fallacy is a fallacy is that of someone who has no one word for a concept because she has several words for one concept.” Bryan asks:

(Q1) “Do we speakers of English not have the concept that corresponds to the contemporary Chinese ‘wo 我’ because we use two different words that translate it in different contexts: ‘I’ and ‘me’?”

(Q2) “Do speakers of contemporary Chinese not have the concept of ‘million’ because they have to use a phrase to express it rather than one lexical item (‘bai wan 百萬,’ literally ‘hundred ten-thousands’)?

I have a few questions that I hope we can discuss here.

First, what do we think of these counterexamples? Are they obvious?

Second, what would be the reason, or argument, that explains why L is fallacious and therefore why C1-C3 are counterexamples to L?

Third, is L something of a “straw man”? Is there some more plausible lexical principle that Rosemont should be after, for his purpose (which I assume is to invite a skeptical attitude toward projects like Bryan’s that take there to be in China theories of virtue or of human rights or whatever despite, let’s suppose, there being no clear “one-to-one” translatable Chinese term). Maybe there is some lexical principle like L that does not require one-to-one lexical correspondence but instead some other lexical correspondence?

Lot’s of questions. Please feel free to comment in any sort of way…

June 5, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics | 21 comments

Naturalism & Metaphysics in Early China, part I

I’d like to sneak up on an interpretive issue about early Chinese philosophy from a couple of directions–call them “tentative pincers.” This post will be part I of a two-parter; it will deal with one of the pincers.

The interpretive issue is this: what can we attribute by way of ontology to the early Chinese? (So, as you can see, this is a really minor topic…ha ha.) Chad Hansen has argued at length about this in A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought (passim). He argues that the whole package of abstract objects (ideas, minds, meanings, etc.) that comes from an Indo-European linguistic base for philosophical speculation, should be left out of a proper understanding of the early Chinese thinkers. The latter have at base a much more pragmatically oriented conception and/or use for language. So, the early Chinese see language primarily as a guidance system. That should color the views we attribute to them–ontological commitments do not venture beyond what is necessary for “getting about” in the world, with the result, for example, that we should understand concern with dao 道 “naturalistically” to be concern with ways of doing, rather than metaphysically to be concerned with some “supernatural,” perhaps abstract, thing to be revered. That’s of course a very cursory summary of Hansen, but we could talk more detail as it comes up. What I wanted to do was to take one step back from Hansen’s approach and discuss a couple of topics that strike me as necessary to clarify prior to Hansen’s argument: naturalism, on the one hand, and “the metaphysical,” on the other. So in this part, we’ll discuss naturalism.


How should we construe “naturalism” in the early Chinese context? I feel like I have some handle on naturalism, but only as a set of commitments of philosophers after the rise of empiricism in its various forms. How do we construe a pre-empiricist philosopher, either in the East or the West, as holding to naturalism? That might seem simple at first: any philosopher who explicitly or implicitly holds to a set of commitments identical to those of naturalism after empiricism is a naturalist. The problem, it seems to me, is that the going understanding of philosophical naturalisms requires someone who is a naturalist to constrain either their method or ontology through some form of reflective equilibrium with empirical science. Here’s why.

There are different ways to characterize views that are regarded philosophically as naturalistic. In recent analyses, at least two large categories of naturalism have been distinguished: methodological and substantive. Alvin Goldman (“A Priori Warrant and Naturalistic Epistemology” Philosophical Perspectives 13) characterizes the two kinds of naturalism, using “metaphysical” in place of “substantive”:

Some forms of naturalism involve metaphysical theses—for example, the thesis that everything in the world either is physical or supervenes on the physical—and some forms of naturalism involve methodological doctrines—for example the doctrine that proper methodology is purely empirical. (p. 2)

Substantive naturalism holds less interest for many contemporary philosophers because of its dogmatic, or potentially question-begging, flavor. Brian Leiter (“Naturalism in Legal Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2002/entries/lawphil-naturalism/>.) provides a useful expanded discussion of methodological naturalism, which holds more appeal and has a more complicated relationship with the empirical:

Naturalism in philosophy is most often a methodological view to the effect that philosophical theorizing should be continuous with empirical inquiry in the sciences. Such a view need not presuppose a solution to the so-called “demarcation problem”—i.e., the problem of what demarcates genuine science from pseudo-science—as long as there remain clear, paradigmatic cases of successful sciences. Some M-naturalists [i.e. methodological naturalists] want “continuity with” only the hard or physical sciences (Hard M-naturalists); others seek “continuity with” any successful science, natural or social (Soft M-naturalists). Soft M-naturalism is probably the dominant strand in philosophy today.

Assuming then that use of empirical inquiry can be demarcated, so that genuine sciences can be identified, methodological naturalism involves preservation of continuity, or coherence, of one’s own inquiries with a larger class of inquiries. “Continuity with” successful science, however, can be further spelled out by what Leiter refers to as “Results Continuity” and “Methods Continuity.” The former

…requires that the substantive claims of philosophical theories be supported or justified by the results of the sciences…. Moral philosophers like Gibbard and Railton, despite profound substantive disagreements, both think that a satisfactory account of morality’s nature and function must be supported by the results of evolutionary biology, our best going theory for how we got to be the way we are…. A philosophical account of morality that explains its nature and function in ways that would be impossible according to evolutionary theory would not, by naturalistic scruples, be an acceptable philosophical theory.

By contrast, Methods Continuity

…demands only that philosophical theories emulate the “methods” of inquiry of successful sciences. “Methods” should be construed broadly here to encompass not only, say, the experimental method, but also the styles of explanation (e.g., via appeal to causes that determine, ceteris paribus, their effects) employed in the sciences.

Understanding naturalism in these ways, it seems to me like naturalism of any sort has to privilege modern, contemporary science. For example, to be a “naturalist” about ethics, broadly speaking, is to think that the concepts and justifications in ethical theories ought to be constrained by what the available science deems likely to be true of the world, whether it is the kinds of properties and causes that exist generally for various kinds of events and objects, or the psychological explanations that exist for the actions and attitudes of humans and other animals. Alternatively, we could think of naturalism to involve not so much a direct constraint from available science, but at least a hearty commitment to reflective equilibrium that takes seriously into account the picture of the world that the empirical sciences portray.

So, here are some questions I’m mulling: Can empirical science, or empiricism more generally, be attributed to the early Chinese context? On the other hand, does it even seem necessary to connect naturalism to empiricism? Can “naturalism” or “naturalistic” be applied usefully to the early Chinese thinkers without attributing empiricism? Am I being too narrow in construing philosophical naturalism in the ways cited above?

May 4, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Hermeneutics, History, Taoism | 9 comments

Confucius and Aristotle – book review

With much thanks to Patrick for the heads up, here is the link to Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews‘ review of Jiyuan Yu’s The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, a book that is on our Shamelessly Brief Book Review list.

While I’m thinking of it, here’s something that occurred to me while I was at the APA meetings last week, listening to Stephen Angle and Michael Slote talking about Bryan van Norden’s book, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy (also reviewed on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews here). I wondered how things would look if instead of trying to read Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Xunzi, or other Chinese philosophers as virtue ethicists, Aristotelians, Humeans, Kantians, or consequentialists someone did a close comparative exegesis from the other direction: try to read Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Mill, Hursthouse, Slote, or some other Western philosopher as a Confucian, a ritualist, a Mohist, or Daoist. That’s probably a bit of the crank in me being tired of the philosophical taxonomy game that seems only concerned with assimilating Chinese philosophy into Western ethical theory.

On the other hand, I’m on record (comment #23) saying that “philosophy” is really a Western concept. So, maybe it’s really that I’m tired of the taxonomy game in either direction when it’s not clear what that gets us. So what if Mencius is more like Aristotle than Hume, or vice versa? Why not just try to understand Mencius as Mencian and just leave it at that? Am I just being cranky or missing something of value in the taxonomy enterprise?

By the way, this shouldn’t be construed as being about Jiyuan Yu’s book; I haven’t read it (nor have I formed any opinions about it yet!). Comments about Yu’s book or the review of it are, of course, welcome as well.

March 26, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics | 39 comments

Accuracy in Historical Interpretation

Just to introduce as a post, continuation of the great discussion in the Footnotes to Confucius… string of comments:

It sounds like there’s a consensus so far on something like this:

Accuracy, as an ideal of interpreting the ancient Chinese texts, either has independent value (Boram’s view) or has value precisely in helping to achieve various aims that we might have in looking to them (enhancing or filling in gaps in ethical understanding; providing training in suspicion; softening the incredulity of our stares toward David Lewis; etc.).

What I want to know is, to the extent that an interpretation of ancient Chinese texts helps to achieve exactly those kinds of aims, does it really matter whether the interpretation is accurate, beyond a certain minimal threshold? So, take a Whiteheadian, process philosophy interpretation of the later Mohists–not that I know of any, but it’s probably on the horizon; *so what* if someone can point out ways that the accuracy of the reading might be suspect? So long as taking that reading gets someone what he or she wants out of engagement with the ancient Chinese texts, why the hand-wringing about accuracy? Or, is there some primary duty of philosophers to aim for textual accuracy–a geekier cousin of the lover of truth ideal? Alternatively, is there a prima facie assumption by people offering interpretations that they themselves actually *are* engaged in the accuracy game (not having taken Nietzsche and Zhuangzi, among others, to heart)?

Do the accuracy police have any general legitimacy, independent of *particular* hermeneutic aims that might (or might not) be served by accuracy?

From a slightly different angle: if assessment of accuracy is likely to be an elusive thing in any case with a particular text–for example, the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching)–who cares whether the interpretation is accurate or not? (Leave my German Enlightenment interpretation of it alone, man!)

March 1, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Hermeneutics, History | 28 comments