1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology recently published two essays on Chinese philosophy:
In addition, this project is specifically looking for more very brief introductions to philosophical traditions that are new to many readers. The Call for Papers is here.
Pacific Philosophical Quarterly periodically publishes essays in Chinese or comparative philosophy; in the latest issue, Richard Kim has an essay called “Human Nature and Moral Sprouts: Mencius on the Pollyanna Problem.” Check it out!
Bryan Van Norden has a lovely essay about Mencius at Aeon, intended for a general audience. Check it out!
The Dao Companion to Classical Chinese Philosophy has been published (Amazon link). Read on for more information. Continue reading “New Dao Companion Volume Published”
This clip (below) from Louis CK’s most recent interview on Conan made a splash on social networks. The whole thing is pretty funny, but the first minute or so reminded me of Mencius 1A7.
Part of what prevents the king in 1A7 from becoming a genuine king in that passage is his disconnect from his subjects. He feels the suffering of the ox and this tugs at his sprout of compassion. By contrast, he doesn’t see the suffering of his subjects, so he feels no sympathy for them and fails to treat them benevolently.
Louis CK raises the same general issue for children today and cellphone use. Continue reading “Louis CK and Mengzi”
Passage 3B10 in the Mengzi stood out during my last read through the text. In 3B10 Mengzi tells the story of Chen Zhongzi, who in seeking purity (lian 廉) refused to eat his mother’s food or live in his brother’s house (believing that his brother had not rightly [buyi 不義] attained his salary and home). Mengzi’s critique of Chen Zhongzi is that “only an earthworm could fill out [the values] he holds to” 蚓而後充其操, which I take to mean that living in the human world (i.e., a world of complex relationships) entails living a life where one cannot live to such a degree of purity and at the same time realize other (often more important) values. Mengzi seems to have similar sentiments about figures such as Bo Yi in passage 5B1. While he praises Bo Yi (and Chen Zhongzi in 3B10), being too lian 廉 or qing 清 is problematic for Mengzi. Continue reading “Is it Possible to be Too Yi 義?”
The following article in this week’s New Yorker by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has been circulating in social networks:
The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy
Despite what many of us on this blog might initially wonder, the title of the paper does not refer to Mencius’s famous thought experiment. (Instead, it refers to the famous case of an actual child in a well that led to a worldwide media circus in the 1980s.) Nonetheless, the article may be of interest to those of us working in Confucian ethics and moral psychology.
Continue reading “Against Empathy”
I’d like to use this as an opportunity to think about depictions of sages in early Confucian texts (Mengzi in particular). I’ve thought, for better or worse, that the authors of these texts used the figures of the sages as representations of fully cultivated people. Yet I’ve noticed that these sages are sometimes described as falling short of perfection, and this gives rise to a question–in what ways can one be deficient, and yet still be considered a sage? Continue reading “The Shortcomings of the Sages”
A cross-posting of Eric Schwitzgebel’s post on his Splintered Mind blog. Please address all comments directly to Eric; he’ll be checking in here periodically to reply.
Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, Stanley Milgram, and King Xuan of Qi
Perhaps my favorite Mencius passage is 1A7. At its core is a story of a king’s mercy on an ox.
While the king was sitting up in his hall, an ox was led past below. The king saw it and said, “Where is the ox going?” Hu He replied, “We are about to ritually anoint a bell with its blood.” The king said, “Spare it. I cannot bear its frightened appearance, like an innocent going to the execution ground.” Hu He replied, “So should we dispense with the anointing of the bell?” The king said, “How can that be dispensed with? Exchange it for a sheep.” (Van Norden, trans.)
Mencius asks the king (King Xuan of Qi):
If Your Majesty was pained at its being innocent and going to the execution ground, then was is there to choose between an ox and a sheep?… You saw the ox but had not seen the sheep. Gentlemen cannot bear to see animals die if they have seen them living. If they hear the cries of their suffering, they cannot bear to eat their flesh. Hence, gentlemen keep their distance from the kitchen.
(Note that Mencius does not conclude that gentlemen should become vegetarians. Interesting possibilities for reflection arise regarding butchers, executioners, soldiers, etc., but let’s not dally.) Continue reading “Eichmann, Arendt, Milgram and Mencius”
Section 2A/6 of the Mencius tells us that the heart of deference (辭讓) is the starting point of ritual. I’ll try to convince you that this is a puzzling claim, and then suggest a solution to the puzzle.
The puzzle is that ritual obviously mobilises motives other than deference, and calls for behaviour that is not simply deferential. Think of the way that grief takes on ritualised shape in funerals: this is not just an extension of deference. So, why did it make sense to the author or authors of Mencius 2A/6 to say that deference is the starting-point of ritual?
Continue reading “The Heart of Deference”
Section 5B/4 of the Mencius is a very interesting text. It’s one of the points at which the Mencius gets defensive about Mencius’s personal virtue. The issue here is Mencius’s willingness to accept gifts from rulers who acquired them by taking from their people. Why accept those gifts, given that you wouldn’t accept gifts from a more everyday sort of bandit?
This passage interests me in part because I’m interested in Mencian defensiveness (on which see also the earlier thread about Shun and his awful family). But that’s not the issue I want to take up here. What I’m wondering about is how (if at all) Mencius’s argument is supposed to work. Continue reading “Kings and Thieves”
This post sketches part of the argument in my paper “The Warring States Concept of Xing,” which is just out in Dao 10.1 (Spring 2011). “Xing” is commonly translated as “nature,” though “spontaneous character” would be better.
There’s this idea that (in Warring States terms) it can be your xing 性 to do something even though you have no tendency to actually do it. This idea is badly wrong. And no one would take it seriously if they weren’t misreading the Mencius.
The big problem is that the Mencius seems to say that it is our xing to be good, and that people who study the Mencius are mostly trained to think that that claim somehow stands for or summarises everything else the collection has to say about human nature. And trying to interpret the claim so that it does stand for all that leads to some major interpretive troubles. Continue reading “Your Xing and What You Do”
I’m interested in hearing what, if anything, people think the crazy stories about the sage king Shun and his awful family are doing in the Mencius. I’m thinking especially about sections 5A/2 and 5A/3, which tell us how Shun responded to his family’s attempts to murder him, but 5A/1, 4A/26, and 7A/35 are also on-topic, and maybe 4A/28 and 5A/4 (and others?) as well.
One reason I bring this up is that I know that Manyul, Steve, and I have very different ideas about this, and maybe others do too. So it should be fun to talk about. Continue reading “What Is Shun's Awful Family Doing in the Mencius?”
This is part of an argument I’ve been developing for an embarrassingly long time. I gave it most recently at the APA in Boston last week. I’m focusing here on a point in my talk that Steve Angle took issue with in his comments.
Section 2A/6 of the Mencius famously tells us that anyone, or at any rate any person, would feel alarm and compassion at the sight of an infant about to fall into a well, and that this reaction amounts to a heart of compassion that we can “expand and fill out,” thereby becoming benevolent. One way to read this is as a call for self-cultivation: it’s saying, more or less, that each person can become benevolent by cultivating his or her heart of compassion so that gradually, over time, it develops into full benevolence. You may recognise this sort of reading, since it’s ubiquitous in the English-language Mencius scholarship. It’s also wrong.
Continue reading “Ability and cultivation in Mencius 2A/6”