Chenyang Li's Review of Van Norden

Thanks to Patrick for the heads up. Here is a review of Bryan van Norden’s book, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy on the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews site: Maybe that will prompt some of us to read the book, finally–or do reviews have the opposite effect?

“Read it? I haven’t even taught it yet!”

Comments are welcome here on the book or Li’s review.

8 replies on “Chenyang Li's Review of Van Norden”

  1. I haven’t yet read the book, or Li’s review, but I will say that given that Chenyang was the very reason I got into Confucianism in the first place (he and I graduated from the same program, he gave a talk in my last year on Confucianism and hooked me on it), I’ll likely take what he says pretty seriously!

  2. I’ve so far only read as far as the chapter on the Analects. So far my main worry is that though he surveys passages that address the four themes he says make up a virtue ethic (accounts of flourishing, the virtues, human nature, and ethical cultivation), he doesn’t make the case that these themes are driving the philosophy of the various authors of the Analects. So I’m left unconvinced, by that chapter anyway.

    Recently I’ve been mulling the question of whether the value that the ru placed on learning can be cashed out in purely virtue-ethical terms. I’m inclined to say it can’t, and that to the extent it gets expressed in ideas of flourishing or virtue, those ideas might be secondary. Not sure about this, though.

  3. Dan,

    Re: “whether the value that the ru placed on learning can be cashed out in purely virtue-ethical terms.”

    I think that’s a good question and may to a large extent hinge on what we mean by (or where we find) “value” in the Analects. There is a tendency in contemporary philosophy, if I’m not mistaken, to treat the question of value largely in moral terms (which is certainly understandable, given that most of the interesting and provocative ‘systematic’ literature in this regard comes from moral theory and ethics), hence aesthetic value, ecological value, and what I (after such folks as Iris Murdoch, John Haldane and John Cottingham) would call (religious and non-religious: the latter exemplified in Hellenistic philosophies as understood by a Nussbaum or Hadot) *spiritual* value tend to be comparatively neglected (I’m not implying, however, that it’s meaningful to talk about, say, ecological value, in the Analects!). I think we’re inclined to cash out learning in virtue-ethical terms because we get our bearings, at lease initially, from Aristotle (and even, perhaps, the Plato of the Laws) and virtue-ethics traditions when making sense of the Analects (and yet even some of these traditions might, in the end, and from another perspective, subsume virtue ethics within spirituality in general). Joel Kupperman’s work as well, I think, also suggests reasons for us not seeing things purely in virtue-ethical terms. Indeed, I believe eudaimonism or human flourishing, as such, is not simply about living a “virtuous life” according the the strictures and standards, ideals and principles, of virtue ethics, even if it is a conspicuous part of such a life.

  4. I have found van Norden’s book extremely useful as a reference tool in my own work and teaching (so far I’ve mainly looked at the chapters on Ruism and Mohism). What I like about his work is that he discusses a lot of the secondary literature on each thinker or issue, and that his style is very much analytic but also accessible and interesting.

    Still, there are a few places I strongly take issue with his arguments. For instance, his main reason for rejecting Fung Yu-lan’s interpretation of Kongzi’s rectification of names is that Fung studied at Columbia, where he (apparently) became too influenced by Anglo-American philosophy (p. 92-93). This struck me as a pretty blatant failure to separate a person’s biography from his views. Also, in the Appendix he rejects a thought-experiment about impartiality from Derek Parfit simply because the situation it describes is unlikely to occur: “How often in the history of our species has a situation like this actually occurred?” (380) But this altogether misses the point of thought-experiment analysis, which is to test our moral intuitions by emphasizing certain features of a situation while holding others constant. “Frictionless planes” are also unlikely to occur in reality, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely helpful for physicists to talk about.

    These things aside, overall I have very much enjoyed looking at this book. It never fails to stimulate my thinking, and I wish there were many more books on Chinese philosophy like it.

  5. Patrick, I think it’s pretty clear that many ru values are not strictly moral (though the Mencius, or parts of it, does maintain a pretty tight focus on moral values). In fact one of the justifications one might give for thinking about ru philosophy in virtue-ethical terms is that it provides a way to think about their concerns in a not-narrowly-moral way. What I suspect is that this doesn’t go far enough. (I think we’re agree on this.)

    Tim, Van Norden’s argument against placing the rectification of names at the heart of Confucius’s philosophy is not confined to his discussion of Feng Youlan: he gives several reasons for thinking that the main rectification passage is a late addition, and fails to find evidence of an interest in rectification elsewhere in the Analects. I think it’s a pretty compelling argument. (Full disclosure: I start out thinking it would be mad to take any one passage to represent the philosophy of the Analects as a whole, given the likely nature and history of the text.)

  6. More and more of us are exploring the relations between various Confucian thinkers and virtue ethics. (Though there are some doubters; for a more radical doubt than Dan’s, see Eske Møllgaard’s rather remarkable “Is Tu Wei-ming a Confucian?” in the current issue of the journal Dao.) In this context I think it’s quite important for us to realize that in the last decade, virtue ethics in western philosophy has become a much more pluralistic business than just re-hashing Aristotle. To be sure, we already had Iris Murdoch writing wonderful stuff from a more Platonic vantage point in 1970, but nowadays the Stoics, Hume, and Nietzsche, just for starters, are very important sources. In a way Hume and other sentimentalists are the most important because for them flourishing is not a central concept. Which (finally) gets me to my main point. To say that the author(s) of the Analects are not centrally interested in “flourishing” as an organizing theoretical principle is not yet to say that they’re not promoting a virtue ethics. Also, there may well be more to a thinker’s project than an ethics, although another part of me wants to say that spiritual concerns, in the sense Patrick uses the term, likely are part-and-parcel of the ethics we see in the Analects.

  7. Steve, to what you say I’ll just add that Van Norden also doesn’t make the case that the Analects authors were centrally interested in virtue (or virtues) as an organising theoretical principle. Maybe he takes that to be obvious enough that it doesn’t need defending, but still it’s something I’d expect from what’s set up as an argument that it’s worth thinking about Analects philosophy in virtue-ethical terms. (And I really am curious whether the value that at least some Analects authors placed on learning, or tradition, can be spelled out in virtue-ethical terms—both because I doubt they can, and because it seems to me those do have an organising role, at least some of the time.)

  8. To follow up on Steve’s point about pluralism, one problem (if it really is a problem) is that the specific theoretical commitments of virtue ethics have become very hard to pin down. Virtue ethicists themselves don’t really have a clear idea of what unites all of the people who lay claim to the label, except that they work broadly on the issues of character that tended to get overlooked back in the “Kant vs. the utilitarians” days. If we construe the term broadly enough, it would be surprising if the Confucians didn’t turn out to be virtue ethicists. Of course, the more broadly we construe it, the more trivial that claim might turn out to be.

    That said, I assume Van Norden works with a narrower conception of virtue ethics. At the very least he considers it to be distinct from consequentialism, which already rules out some versions of v.e. that are arguably grounded in act or rule consequentialism.

    In any case, I’m certainly looking forward to reading the book. Now if only I could find some excuse to get it as a desk copy…

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