Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Inner Chapters Passage, continued

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    Manyul Im

    [At Bill Haines’s request, I am posting continuation of discussion about authorship from the previous post. Please address replies to Bill.]

    Continued (with slight overlap) from the end of the previous discussion, which ran out of space:

    Inner Chapters Passage Not Written by Zhuangzi?


    What do Foucault and Nehamas say or suggest against any of this?

    Their primary focus is on the interpretation of literary texts, e.g. novels and written plays. In very crude brevity I’ll say: fiction.

    Martin writes,

    To me, the issue really is the following: when we talk about philosophical “authors,” wouldn’t we hope to take into account the very extensive discussion of that very topic …?

    I don’t think these two papers focus on, or demonstrate that there is extensive or any significant discussion on, the specific topic of philosophical “authors” in a special sense of “author”. (I gather Derrida wrote a lot about philosophical texts as such.)

    Staying crude: It seems to me pretty obvious that the difference between fiction and nonfiction (the latter including most philosophy good and bad) makes a radical difference to how sensible it can be to infer what the writer thinks from the text she has written: how bad a mistake it can be to think that we can do this or should try. (I haven’t just now said that e.g. the remarks in the Analects are “nonfiction.”)

    (A) On the whole the interpretive appreciation of works of fiction should not aim mainly or even in large part at describing the writer’s views or sentiments.

    (A) seems to me true. (I gather from attacks, but I do not otherwise know, that there have been times when academic critics mistakenly thought criticism should have this main aim.)

    We should distinguish truth (A) from something I take to be a cheap transparent falsehood on a very different matter:

    (B) One can never reasonably infer a person’s views or sentiments on any topic from what she has said or written.

    (B) is a kind of general skepticism, a kind of view for which it is easy to construct simple nice-looking abstract arguments that are perhaps hard to refute by other simple abstract arguments. That’s a prima facie authority for (B) that could lead one to feel justified in looking down on its opponents. Also, adages resembling (B) can in some cases be helpful correctives.

    (A) has a different kind of prima facie authority that could lead one to feel justified in looking down on its opponents: (A) is currently generally accepted among academics who have to do with the interpretation of literature. I don’t know to whether or to what extent literary academics’ acceptance of (A) is based on accepting (B). I think (B) is the kind of thing not many philosophers would accept (except those few who think beliefs don’t exist).

    The error of associating (A) with (B)—eliding the two or thinking that (B) is the adequate basis for (A)—would seem to argue for an expanded (A++), expanded in two directions: first, as now speaking of all texts, not just fiction; and second, as now saying that interpretation should never in any part aim at ascertaining the views of the writer.

    I don’t know if academics whose primary focus is literature currently generally agree on (A++). If they do, I submit that for the rest of us, the signs of such a consensus would not be prima facie authority for (A++). For, first, the topic of the expanded increment is quite peripheral to their field; second, (A++) is not the consensus view (though its rejection may be) among those who deal more centrally with nonliterary texts; and third, the winds of fashionable excess in what academics of literature call “theory” are notorious. The signals of understanding and obeisance are not always reliable signs.

    Martin suggests that if (A) is true, a similar point may apply even more to philosophy texts:

    Interestingly, literary texts, if anything, are prone to express more, not fewer, “personal” sentiments, if compared to philosophical writings?

    But I would say that philosophical interpretation (like the interpretation of novels) standardly does not look for the writer’s personal sentiments, or the writer’s momentary anything, though information in and out of the text about the writer’s enduring or even ephemeral sentiments may help us understand the philosopher’s views, questions, and arguments—mainly in cases where the sentiments are supposed to be representative of good judgment, accurate sensibility, and are in that sense not “personal” sentiments. (I think interpretation of lyric poetry should sometimes address the question what sort of sentiment or even passing sentiment is represented in the work, and I imagine it’s hard to write good lyric poetry without momentarily having, at least vicariously, any sentiments therein represented. Conceivably biographical information about the writer could be relevant to interpretation, e.g. by revealing what kumquats meant to her, or because it is understood between writer and expected readers that the readers know something about the writer. Of course I assume Martin is not here saying he thinks the interpretation of a novel should aim to describe the writer’s personal sentiments, or the writer’s momentary anything.

    Regarding actual consensus on something more modest than (A++): the pieces by Foucault and Nehamas are evidence that there has been a consensus on (A) or a somehow expanded (A+), because they rely on it in arguing; though I’m not sure they otherwise give grounds for the view. I wonder if that evidence is the consideration Martin meant to offer by suggesting these papers.


    So, is there a relevant radical difference between fiction and nonfiction, that would limit or block the expansion of (A) to apply to nonfiction? (I mean “nonfiction” to include bad philosophical speculation or argument, the mistaken screeds of conspiracy theorists, and lies.)

    I think there is a stark and obvious (and obviously relevant) difference. That starkness doesn’t necessarily mean the difference is easy to articulate well, though I think it’s not too hard to come close in this case. In brief, nonfiction (with a single writer) standardly purports in each part to be the writer telling, asking, and recommending; while fiction does no such thing. It’s easier to have the genre distinction if one has definite sentences. Where a sentence in the text (understood in context) directly states, asks, or recommends, that’s the writer (or the responsible institution or whatever) stating, asking, or recommending. Sure, a passage of nonfiction may be ill-formulated, even unintelligible; it may accidentally say brilliant things the writer hasn’t noticed; the writer may not have imagined readers like us; the writer may be lying or bullshitting; etc.; but the idea is that in general the writer and the passages are saying the same thing.

    In fiction, any such expectation is normally quite absent, hardly even on the horizon. Fiction does no such thing even if there is a preface in which the writer correctly says the novel is her successful effort to express her outlook; because that claim doesn’t mean she believes the things asserted by the narrator about who did or said what (except in the fictional world; and even about that the narrator may not speak for her).

    Of course there are all kinds of practices intermediate between fiction and nonfiction (perhaps especially in early China). Lyrical poetry can occupy a middle ground. History books are often written with some of the characteristic aims of a novelist, and so presumably the kind of interpretation one applies especially to novels would have some point also regarding those history books. And then there are Plato’s dialogues.

    Regarding fiction there can be interpretive questions for which the distinction between fiction and nonfiction hardly matters. What sort of thing was the “raft” that Huck and Jim rode? What did Clemens have in mind, what did he mean the reader to understand? There might be a real interpretive question here insofar as the novel is rooted in conditions of life unfamiliar to current readers; one can even imagine important features of the action etc. to hang on such a question. But the distinction between writer and narrator, or even between writer and character-speaker, is unlikely to matter for this question.

    Some functions of nonfiction can be served in the absence of all information about how the text came to be. A text that communicates concepts or arguments (without needing much interpretive work) can communicate them all by itself, though often it’s our views about the source of a text that give us reason to read it, or read it with respectful attention. A text can’t all by itself constitute reason to accept its factual claims; but a few minimal reasonable surmises about the source—that it came from a certain kind of community in a certain century—can go a long way, at least in a field in which evidence is sparse and weak across the board.

    And of course some nonfiction texts may especially frustrate the very idea of “the writer”—as when a narrator adds some context to the report of a master quoting an old saying.

    Confucius’ remarks in the Analects are not exactly nonfiction. They’re spoken remarks (quasi-imperatives, rhetorical questions, etc.) not obviously addressing any kind of general audience. If he eventually came to assume that his pithy remarks or sayings would be remembered or even recorded, and function as some kind of model, still that could make them something more like poems or ritual displays than like nonfiction—depending on the case. Still they would be evidence as to his outlook. My sense of Youzi’s statements at least in Analects 1, based largely on their construction, is that they were originally written statements, or at least carefully composed in the expectation of exact repetition, and intended for some kind of general audience rather than for a particular person or context. Indeed, like Kant, Youzi seems to have thought it morally important that one’s sayings stand repeating in different circumstances (1.13); contrast Confucius at 11.22. So I think Youzi’s statements at least in Analects 1 are pretty much nonfiction, though they may exaggerate for simplicity.


    There are lots of good reasons to think hard or well about the significance of literary texts. But in the general institution that is Departments of Literature I suppose there is no standard institutional view of the main purpose of interpreting literary texts, the leading reason for doing it? Are departments of literature the institutional equivalent of the person I mentioned earlier, employed to obey one written instruction? I wouldn’t know. Well at least there’s the shared ulterior aim of training people to interpret literary texts, and each interpreter can have her own other reasons.

    Philosophy is different. When philosophy faculty—at least Anglophone philosophy faculty—interpret texts as part of their professional work, i.e. in teaching and publications, there’s one main usual ulterior reason (among other professionally relevant reasons). The main reason, I think, is to serve the primary or defining purpose of the department, which is to do philosophy, to work toward answering philosophical questions. Philosophy faculty interpret old texts for the same reason that in any field one reads and tries to understand current books and papers in that field. One seeks good ideas and arguments (in other fields, arguments more centrally involve concrete evidence than they do in philosophy) to help one address unanswered questions in the field. (And one needs to know what one’s audience has read.)

    In philosophy, more than in other fields, even really old work can remain worthy of that kind of interpretive attention, for a couple of reasons. One is that the basics of the field are still profoundly unsettled. (When the basics in some area get settled, they get their own Department and are booted out of “philosophy.”) There is no presumption that ancient work is obsolete (although there is some presumption that work tends to be obsolete insofar as, say, it depends on assuming the existence of gods or the desirability of feudalism). Another is that philosophical work strains language. Philosophy argues about how to order basic conceptual space, so it always strains language (and memory). Lifelong colleagues with adjoining offices struggle daily to understand each other; and reading current books and papers always challenges our interpretive skills. What are they trying to say? How can I get her to see my idea? What is my idea? And it remains possible that we have been badly blind to what some familiar ancient writer or speaker was trying to say.

    In philosophy, a common experience is that one feels one has an elegant and powerful vision in some area, one that could settle things properly if it caught on; and one struggles to articulate it for others. One wants others to be engaged in trying to figure out what one has in mind. Commonly one has worked up this vision by long hard work over decades. Surprisingly, this doesn’t mean one is prepared to articulate it adequately for quick communication to similarly trained colleagues.

    Of course we understand that until a vision can be articulated for reliable communication, its claim to be a definite vision at all is doubtful. One works on interpreting one’s own views, and that’s a reason to value hard conversations with others.

    In short, the typical Anglophone philosopher spends her days with these two ideas:

    (a) Philosophers such as herself, her colleagues, and Aristotle have important ideas that some of us understand well enough, but that are hard for others to get, so that interpretive effort by those others is called for.
    (b) Philosophers such as herself, her colleagues, and probably Aristotle have important idiosyncratic ideas or visions that the bearers have not adequately articulated for themselves, so that interpretive effort by everybody is called for.

    The distinction is fuzzy. What counts as adequate articulation depends on the needs of communication, to narrow or more general audiences.

    That’s what philosophers are mainly after, in interpreting texts. And it points to several differences between what philosophers are after and some things some people might mean by “author” beyond “writer.”

    First, in looking for Smith’s views and thoughts, philosophers don’t mean the thoughts Smith originated, nor the thoughts Smith owns as their intellectual proprietor. It doesn’t really matter how original the thoughts are, and nobody imagines that any thoughts are perfectly original; what matters is what thoughts Smith had (because we want to know what the thoughts were).

    Second, interpretation of philosophical works tends to focus on clarifying specific claims and arguments explicitly made by the text, including identifying unstated premises, choosing among senses of ambiguous words, and parsing ambiguously structured sentences . I think this isn’t the kind of issue interpreters of novels tend to focus on. Insofar as we ask global questions about the meaning of philosophy texts, they are mostly the same kinds of question. Philosophy texts make proposals and arguments that are combinations of smaller proposals and arguments.

    There are other kinds of global commentary that might be offered, such as describing and criticizing someone’s practice, what she thinks she’s doing in doing philosophy even if she hasn’t thought about that—but that’s almost necessarily not the main current of philosophers’ interpretive river, and it tends to be less focused on any one text or writer, and it can be about the writer in general, or what she’s doing in that text, or what that text is doing. Anyway I’m not aware that philosophers have anything against it.

    Another kind of thing philosophers do is point out how the argument of a text or philosopher might be improved by some minor or major adjustment. There’s a fuzzy line between that and a charitable hypothesis about what the writer had in mind. But philosophers like to try to respect some such distinction, as I think one should do out of basic intellectual probity.

    Why not just talk about what’s the best argument, getting some ideas from the text? One might similarly ask why philosophers should pay attention to other people’s texts at all. Some hardly do. (Most think that non-philosophical reading should get a significant fraction of any philosopher’s attention.) In fact most of the professional interpretive attention goes to a very few old texts, and in those cases we can reasonably hope to get interesting ideas by focusing on figuring out what the author meant, that we wouldn’t get by using the text in some other way or neglecting it. And good interpreting is a collaborative, conversational activity, so we need to be clear to each other about what we’re claiming.

    Third, for philosophers, a concern for the text as a special kind of object (a Monograph, a Journal Article, etc.) is usually not central. Aristotle’s texts are aggregates of notes. Even a shopping list would be worth considering if it were somehow evidence about an important thinker’s philosophical views. Still, of course interpreters distinguish among different kinds of text, to know whether and how to bother with them.

    And that isn’t to say that philosophers are necessarily closed to the idea that we could have a brilliant text from an entirely anonymous writer, or a philosophically worthy text that came together in any way you like. Because the interest in Smith’s ideas is itself instrumental to an interest in the ideas. (A friend of mine has a very deep and longstanding interest in a completely anonymous medieval neo-Platonic text; still I gather there is reason to think it is the proximate work of one person.)

    But there’s a difficulty about texts with unknown collective origins. With them we lack some of the main tools of interpretation and reasons to try. For example, with a one-writer text, even an anonymous one, the brilliance of one passage is grounds for applying a strong version of the principle of charity to the rest of the text, including to a pair of prima facie conflicting statements that we find in different parts of the text. The brilliance of one passage adds reason to expect good results from that approach to the whole. With a text agglomerated by unknown processes, that’s not the case, or not so fast. (We might indeed have other reason, as Tao Jiang suggests in his recent paper, and as I address in Section 3 of this Comment on his paper, and elsewhere in that thread.)

    Now, if Peter Singer’s shopping lists featured pork, that would show that he didn’t really believe his professional line. ( This is a slightly different kind of case.) Then there’s an 1820 letter in which Jefferson discussed slaves (though Jefferson is not a contender for philosophers’ interpretive attention). This sort of thing gives an interpreter reason to distinguish between a writer’s views and her practice, or between the writer’s philosophical line and her personal beliefs—in which case her philosophical work is sort of lying. Or the interpreter may infer that in some sense the writer had not made up her mind. Such problems can weigh against the plausibility of the writer’s philosophical claims. But the possibility of hypocrisy and lies doesn’t imply that we should give no trust or make no judgments . And a distinction between a writer’s actual beliefs and what she meant to say in a text needn’t bock an interest in either.

    Incidentally, in my interpretive arguments about some of Confucius’ remarks I distinguish between what he meant to suggest by them (to his interlocutor) and what we should infer that he thought (e.g. at 2.21). Biographical information is relevant here, as well as stylistic information about remarks by the same person on other occasions.

    Regarding early Chinese or other philosophical texts, why might it make sense to be concerned with a notional “author,” a theoretical fiction such as Nehamas describes (the person who intentionally did everything an interpreter would describe), rather than with the actual writer so far as can be reasonably surmised?

    As I’ve mentioned, I don’t quite follow Nehamas’ reason for concern with such an “author” in the case of novels. So I’m not sure where else his reason would be good. But if his reason is good for novels, presumably it applies to the fictional paragraphs we find in the Zhuangzi, considered as separate works.


    I think the general view among Anglophone philosophers is that philosophers should read widely outside of philosophy. Different things depending on the philosophical specialty. Philosophers of language should study linguistics, literary theory, languages. Philosophers of science should study science. People who write about ethics or politics should read novels, newspapers, history, and all the human sciences.

    Now, any text is going to reflect a culture. And cultures, I suppose, implicitly make philosophical claims, or embody families of such claims, especially in ethics, aesthetics, and politics—what philosophy departments sometimes lump together as the “values” area, a decidedly minor fraction of publication and of the upper curriculum (cutting across the distinction between philosophy courses and history-of-philosophy courses, the latter also a decidedly minor fraction of publication and curriculum so that “interpretation of old books on values” is a very small pie to divide. Cultures involve ways of ordering conceptual space for inquiry and deliberation. One might engage in “the interpretation of cultures” or novels, toward greater philosophical understanding. And one does.

    I think it has been suggested (not by anyone here) that academic philosophy should attend to the great range of different cultures to mine their wisdom, as its main project or one of its main curricular and publication projects, and that therefore e.g. American academic philosophy should give much more attention to Chinese philosophy than it does. Maybe it should get more direct professional attention in philosophy. But I submit that such a conception of the task of philosophy departments may demand a sharp decrease in the attention currently given to Chinese philosophical materials, especially the oldest ones, in favor of other materials not currently covered at all in the philosophy curriculum or journals, such as The Corrections and Islam Observed and “補天”. Besides, one would want to look at various cultural approaches to conditions mainly in proportion as those conditions resemble those we face and can expect.

    The great bulk of what I and many others think of as “philosophy,” or at least academic philosophy, has been the effort to work out academically solid agreed foundations for academic progress in fields that currently lack that, such as ethics. We usually look for something like that enterprise in the old books we choose for extended attention: we look for theories and concepts directly described and brilliantly defended in explicit detail. Cultures and novels are not like that. But we can make allowances for people with world-historical reputations such as Confucius, interpreting him on speculation as it were.

    • This topic was modified 1 week, 5 days ago by  Manyul Im.
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