Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Dao 12:3 TOC

Volume 12, Issue 3, September 2013

ISSN: 1540-3009 (Print) 1569-7274 (Online)

In this issue (15 articles)

August 21st, 2013 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Journal Related, Tables of Contents | 4 comments

4 Responses to Dao 12:3 TOC

  1. Bill Haines says:

    Bryan’s review in this issue of Ethics in Early China is a very fine model for what an anthology review should do: it gives a maximally clear and detailed report of the contents of each paper, and a critical evaluation of its plausibility and importance.

    The review is also the only place that anyone has mentioned in print any publication of mine, so I’d like to respond.

    My paper in the book is “Confucianism and Moral Intuition.” Here’s the paper’s opening:


    Much modern moral philosophy has sought theories that explain and correct our “moral intuitions” — as though feelings without apparent grounds can amount to prima facie knowledge of what to do or what is moral. The better we understand the possible mechanisms of intuitive knowledge, in general and about morality, the better we can evaluate or pursue this project.

    Looking mainly at the Analects, the Lǐjì, and the Mencius, I shall argue that early Confucianism has much to show us about such mechanisms. …

    Early Confucianism includes lots of devices that vividly display how actual moral intuition, nonverbal perception of goodness and badness as such, works, and hence how it is possible. The paper aims to use Confucian practices as examples to help explain moral intuition, nonverbal moral cognition, moral sensibility.

    Bryan says about the paper:

    In “Confucianism and Moral Intuition,” William Haines argues that “much early Confucian self-cultivation is intelligible as the application of procedures to extend the range of our affective sensibility, especially in the direction of what is morally important” (225). Borrowing C.S. Peirce’s categorization of signs into “icon,” “indices,” and “symbols,” Haines argues that Confucian rituals are primarily icons; for example, “standing beneath someone displays subordination” because such acts “resemble their objects to the mind’s eye” (220). Such displays of feeling in ritual are contagious: “One person’s sensibility piggybacks on another’s” (224).

    Haines’ general conclusion will be familiar to (and accepted by) most scholars of Chinese thought. Functionalists like A.R. Radcliffe-Brown have long argued for the importance of Confucian rituals in expressing and reinforcing socially-important emotions (see his “Religion and Society” in Structure and Function in Primitive Society, reprint, New York: The Free Press, 1965). In addition, there has been extensive discussion of how Confucians aim to cultivate human emotions (see, for example, the essays by Eric Hutton and David Wong in LIU Xiusheng and Philip Ivanhoe, eds., Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002). However, Haines arrives at similar conclusions by a novel route.

    Here, quoting from the fifth of six sections in the paper, where I don’t claim to give the paper’s conclusion, Bryan says the paper’s conclusion is that “much early Confucian self-cultivation is intelligible as the application of procedures to extend the range of our affective sensibility, especially in the direction of what is morally important.”

    Out of context, that suggests getting us to apply our tastes or feelings to further things, e.g. from oxen to people. For outside the context of my paper, it is possible to take “sensibility” to mean simply someone’s emotional repertoire, the ways she feels about different things, her tastes. That’s different from her noverbal cognitive powers.

    Granted: (A) For someone who has a settled “sensibility” in that sense, her feelings at any one time—how this wine tastes to her now—can function also as perceptions of certain of her actual or potential feelings at other times: how the same vintage will taste to her tomorrow, how it would have tasted yesterday. (B) For people who have the same settled sensibility, their feelings at any one time—how this wine tastes to Smith now—can function also as perceptions of certain actual or potential feelings of others in the group at any time: how this vintage will taste to Jones tomorrow or would have tasted yesterday. (C) If everyone, or every sufficiently healthy person or whatever, has the same settled sensibility, then one such person’s feelings at any time can function as perceptions of certain actual or potential feelings of any other such person at any time, and we can properly speak of how that vintage tastes, or how it tastes to connoisseurs.

    Because I have strong feelings about (C) as a model of the perception of moral reality, I haven’t done all the re-reading I should. That was, in truth, wrong of me.

    But the paper isn’t about that; it isn’t about developing stable common emotional repertoires. The goodness and badness of human action isn’t like the goodness or badness of a wine: the implications of a choice of which wine to sip do not extend much beyond whether it is immediately enjoyable to the agent, so the possibility of objectively correct choice doesn’t come to much more than whether people do, or can, have stable common immediate reactions to their own sipping choices. A model of moral perception focusing mainly on that one dimension of moral action as an object of perception would overlook too much. (Suppose, for example, a wine that tastes great can be made only from peasants’ feet. The importance of actions is mostly indirect like that, not located in the immediate feelings of the agent. We have sympathy: but is my sympathy for Amelie’s potential pain a perception of badness? Why, or how? Because Heaven gave us a list?)

    To show that the putative conclusion is uncontroversial, Bryan reports that other people have said that Confucian practices succeed in “expressing and reinforcing socially important emotions” and aim at “cultivating human emotions.” I should hope those points are uncontroversial! But my paper is about extending our nonverbal moral perceptive power, not about proliferating certain emotions. So that’s one difference.

    A second difference is that the aim of my paper is not to argue that Confucian ritual extends moral perceptiveness; the aim centers on explaining how, including showing how such a thing is even possible. It’s important not to confuse arguing (perhaps in a new way) that some perhaps uncontroversial fact obtains, with proposing a mechanism to explain how it works.

    Peirce’s terms come in because they are helpful in showing how goodness and badness are among the kinds of thing that could in fact be perceived as such, nonverbally; and helpful in describing what a mechanism of such perception of importance would look like.

    Aside from the “conclusion,” Bryan mentions just two other claims he says are in the paper.

    The first claim is that as among icon, index, and symbol, “Haines argues that Confucian rituals are primarily icons.” Granted, at one point I assert that the rituals are “full of icons.” (I’m full of blood vessels, but I’m not primarily blood vessels.) Much earlier I had explained that an icon that is not also an index (or a symbol) is empty. In Peircean terms, my examples of icons in ritual are also, (almost?) all of them, saliently, indices. The argument relies on that throughout, in detail. (Example: the taste of a sip of wine is similar to other actual and potential tastes of sips, and that’s half of how perceiving tomorrow’s experience through today’s works; but similarity between the experiences (iconicity) isn’t enough. It’s also essential that today’s experience be connected (by causation or contiguity) with the sipping of the wine. It has to be an index of sipping, and of that vintage—etc.

    The second claim attributed to me is that “such displays of feeling in ritual are contagious: ‘One person’s sensibility piggybacks on another’s’.” This report is confusing, because (a) the antecedent example Bryan gives is clearly not an example of a display of feeling, and (b) for a display to be contagious would be for someone seeing it to then produce the same display. Probably the point Bryan wants to articulate is that feelings generated by displays are contagious: if I’m around you when you get a feeling, I’ll get it too. That would just be the propagation of a feeling, not the piggybacking of sensibility.

    * * *

    (My original aim in the conference paper was to attack some of Chad Hansen’s work, especially regarding “intuition” and Cartesian dualism. (I was also concerned about recent discussions of “intuition” by some epistemologists in my circles at the time, who identified it simply with groundless belief.) But the publisher required that the papers not focus on him: so I had to adjust mine.)

  2. Bill Haines says:

    I have a worry about Michael Slote’s paper “Updating Yin and Yang.” In general I’m a big fan of his. Here’s his abstract:

    Ethicists haven’t paid much attention recently to the Chinese complementarity of yin and yang. That complementarity can be updated to take into account and also form the basis for some of our contemporary ethical thinking. In my From Enlightenment to Receptivity, I argue that Western thought has overemphasized rational control/autonomy at the expense of the countervailing virtue of receptivity, and it turns out that the yin/yang complementarity can be profitably viewed as anticipating and clarifying a complementarity between receptivity and rational control that recent developments in Western philosophical thought point us toward. But just as Western philosophy has overemphasized rational autonomy, Chinese thinking hasn’t sufficiently appreciated its importance. Both Chinese and Western thought need to seek a more even balance between autonomy/control and receptivity, but the idea of such balance comes more from yin and yang than from anything in previous Western philosophy.

    Slote’s article presumably says much less about how he understands the terms ‘rational control’ and ‘receptivity’ than does his new book, which I haven’t seen. The book index seems to support my impression that by ‘rational control’ Slote means control of one’s own life by standards of reason.

    Traditionally, I think, yin/yang is about the complementarity, alternation, and blending of what are commonly regarded as simple, fundamental opposites: light/dark, dry/wet, male/female, and I think active/passive; though I’m not familiar with the relevant old texts.

    Here’s my worry. I like to think receptivity is at the heart of what reason is all about. Reason is about doing our best to ensure that our views and values be shaped (as Aristotle might put it) by what’s really out there. Observe. Listen. Weigh. Respect people, and try to appreciate how things look and feel from other’s points of view. Be open-minded. Check your own assumptions and desires in light of all that; be self-critical. That’s reason. “Receptivity” is a pretty good name for the main point and procedure of reason.

    I worry that casting “reason/rationality” as the radical opposite of “receptivity” could obscure that point, obscure reason. It seems to me the opposite of receptivity is simply pushiness, or control.

    That’s a worry, not a flat-out objection. When I have to define ‘reason’ I say it’s good thinking, or the norms for good thinking. And there’s an essentially fuzzy border: what sorts of policy about when not to think count as parts of good thinking? Another fuzzy border: often in Western thought the word is understood as being located in a dichotomy between reason and experience/observation; to what extend does observing, or the decision to observe, or our policies of observing, count as part of thinking?

    I think Slote is perhaps thinking of “reason” in a narrow sense that is informed by the dichotomy between reason and experience/observation. But then what becomes especially puzzling is his claim at the end of the abstract: that “the idea of such a balance [viz. “between autonomy/control and receptivity”] comes more from yin and yang than from anything in previous Western philosophy.”

    If there’s a substantive, not merely terminological, point on which I disagree with Slote’s largely terminological paper, it’s this last point.

    • Bill Haines says:

      As Michael Slote has gently pointed out to me just now, it’s misleading of me to say that his paper contrasts casts receptivity as an opposite of “reason” simply, me leaving out the part about self-control.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *