Category Archives: History

On de 德 and se 色

I’m going to piggyback on some discussion to which I was party at Peony’s and Sam’s because I wanted to see what might come up further from this blog’s clientale (patrons? target audience?). My apologies to both of the other bloggers for cloning their concerns over here, but I offer them admiration as propitiation.

The issue concerns how to understand Analects 9.18 and 15.13. In both places Confucius is quoted saying: “吾未見好德如好色者也,” widely translated as something like “I have never met one who likes virtue as much as he likes sex.” A slight variation in that is to translate se 色 as “beauty” or “the beauty of women.” I’ve never really liked this way of understanding Confucius’s point. So, here is a proposal for how to understand the sentiment in 9.18 and 15.13. (Some of this is cut and pasted from various comments I made on the other blogs):

I think se 色 really can’t mean something as narrow as sex or lust; its meaning is much broader, expressing a broader more central concern in the Analects. The “sex” translation seems flat out wrong for the following reasons. There really isn’t any independent evidence that sexual license was a temptation Confucius worried over. Nor does it seem that concubinage was an option for anyone other than the emperor or possibly a very powerful warlord (any ancient Chinese concubinage experts should correct or corroborate me on this). This line of translating seems to be a projection of much later genres of moralizing texts onto the Analects. But those issues about sexual desire and practice don’t really determine the issue as much as consideration of a more central concern for Confucius. In Analects 2.8 Confucius uses se in a context that I think is much more helpful in setting our understanding of se in the right direction:


“Zixia asked about filial piety. The Master said: ‘[Mere] appearances (se) are the difficulty. With matters to be tended, younger brothers or sons offer their service; with drink and food one partakes in order of birth. Can this really be filial piety?'”

I think this is representative of a concern that Confucius has throughout the Analects with contrasting mere, or rote, behavior that mimics real filial piety (or righteousness, benevolence, ritual, etc) and genuine possession of those characteristics. It’s his concern that the “form” of such activity be filled out with deeper content or correct context. I think that transfers also to distractions that form a category of “surface” pleasure. Appreciation of beauty, in particular, is not a mere surface pleasure for Confucius. So translation of se as ‘love of beauty’ also makes a mistake–the real trouble for Confucius is not appreciating beauty; instead it is enjoying “cheap” delights that merely mimic appreciation of beauty.

The sensibility that Confucius expresses does not concern one arena or type of activity as opposed to a wholly other type–for example, in antiquity, between ritualized life and licentious free-for-all, or something of the sort. I think the sensibility tracks the difference between more closely related activities, namely the “real” or “deep” enjoyment/practice/performance of ritual, filial piety, music, beauty of women, and so forth, and the disingenuous or shallow enjoyment/practice/performance of that same range of things. Confucius’s concerns are focused on a declining empire, but not like the Roman decline as represented in “Caligula.” The decline lies in the loss or threatened loss of coherence, or perhaps integrity, of what he considered to be high culture (in the moral/social/aesthetic mashed-up sense). In effect, it is a type of snobbery but perhaps with less pejorative connotation. It’s like bemoaning the loss of integrity that, say, the ascendence of Kenny G represented for the true jazz aficionado. Kenny G’s performances lack “soul” or something like that, so they are se.

So, if I had to give a translation of the quote from Confucius, it would be something like: “I have never met one who prefers the deeply powerful activity as much as the easy semblance of it.”

As always, comments welcome.

Open Access to Dissertation on Guodian Texts

…by Dirk Meyer, University of Leiden. (I’m passing this information on from Rodo Pfister, who posted it on the Warring States Project message board.)

For those who are interested, here is the link to the whole dissertation in separate pdf downloadable files.

Here are the particulars, including abstract:

Meyer, Dirk , 2008, Meaning-Construction in Warring States Philosophical Discourse: A Discussion of the Palaeographic Materials from Tomb Guōdiàn One.
Ph.D. Dissertation, Research School CNWS, Faculty of Arts, Leiden University. 504p.

Keywords: Archaeology, Early China, Early writing and reading, Excavated manuscripts, Guodian One, Manuscript culture, Manuscript production, Philology, Philosophy, Text and tomb, Textual communities, Warring States Period.

Abstract: This book analyzes a defined corpus of philosophic texts from the Warring States period. It treats texts as objects in their own right and, in a broad sense, discusses the relationship between material conditions of text and manuscript culture, writing, techniques of meaning-construction, and philosophy in Warring States period (ca. 481-222). By analyzing the formal structure of the philosophic texts from the Warring States, the present study distinguishes between two ideal types of texts, which I call “argument-based texts” and “authority-based texts”. Meaning-construction in the former type of texts is based in writing; in the latter ideal type of texts, meaning-construction requires reference to (oral) commentators. Hence, whereas argument-based texts facilitate philosophy that is exempt from needs of contextualization, authority-based texts, for their part, are mere modules of larger philosophic processes that remain outside the texts themselves.

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.

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 = <>.) 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?

China's First Philosophers?

I’m interested in the question of whether the Mohists were China’s first philosophers—both in what the question means, and in the answers that it might invite.

There’s a good case to be made that in at least one important sense, they were the first.

It’s widely agreed that the Mohists were the first to engage in sustained philosophical argument, and (this may be more controversial) the first to attempt to articulate the normative foundations of their dào.

There’s also good reason to think that it was the Mohists who first provoked other early Chinese thinkers to provide their dào with philosophical justifications. With few exceptions, non-Mohist texts that include such justifications are clearly responding to a philosophical context, often with named opponents. But no such context is apparent in most of the writings of the early Mohists, particularly in those texts that seem earliest (such as the shàng books on war and inclusive care): these texts either do not mention ideological rivals at all, or identify them quite generally as the rulers or gentlemen of the world—not as other philosophers. The implication: philosophical argumentation was original only with the Mohists.

So if we conceive of philosophy in such a way that it essentially involves philosophical argumentation, then it is likely not only that the Mohists were China’s first philosophers, but also that it was precisely their arguments that provoked other early Chinese thinkers to take up philosophy: the Mohists were not only the first in chronological terms, they also provoked the rest.

Is this conclusion correct? How significant is it? What other ways of conceiving of philosophy would lead to different conclusions? Does the possibility of conceiving of philosophy in other ways mean that it is a mistake to wonder who did it first?

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!)

A Series of Footnotes to Confucius, Laozi–or to Me!

Picking up on something very interesting that Justin Tiwald said in the Tu string:

“I don’t think the defenders of Yili learning explicitly embraced the slogan ‘the classics comment on me’ (經注我). Still, there are a number of neo-Confucians who made statements in the neighborhood of this slogan. Lu Xiangshan is known for the shocking assertion that the ‘Six Classics are my footnotes’ (六經皆我註腳).”

We’ve all heard that Whitehead thought western philosophy has been just a long series of footnotes to Plato. It’s easy enough to imagine someone echoing Lu Xiangshan, saying, “Plato’s writings are just a series of footnotes to me.” (Who would that be? I could imagine Russell saying that over a cocktail.)

(Totally unrelated aside: Whitehead also said, and this is my favorite Whitehead quote, “A traveller who has lost his way should not ask ‘Where am I?’ What he really wants to know is, where are the other places?”)

It occurs to me that Lu Xiangshan’s assertion is really just a more strident way of describing “constructive” engagement with Confucianism, where Confucius and others are merely inspirational starting points for some new views, with Confucius providing some quotes and footnotes. Maybe the sort of projects that New Confucians are engaged in would fit this mold; maybe Van Norden’s suggestion for a neo-Mencian virtue ethics; maybe much of the comparative philosophy work that is out there where the author is using the past and trying to make it relevant to the present.

I have to ask, because in most respects, it is what I do for a living (aside from corrupting the youth), is there any independent point or value to investigating history–or more pointedly, Confucius, Laozi, et. al.–as an end in itself? I’m not exactly sure I understand the dictum to “revere the past,” or to “understand the past accurately,” as a worthwhile end in itself (unless, of course, it is on the order of stamp collecting). I used to be qualm-less about that as an endeavor, but I’m starting to have doubts (maybe I’ll have a blog-induced  career crisis). Any thoughts?