Isabel Archer, American Sinology, and a certain Confucian Vagueness

During the last weeks, I have been thinking about how to write my first entry in this blog. Too much work and some kind of reticence held me back for many days. However, after having discovered Alexus McLeod’s thoughts on Proust and Confucius (on his Unpolished Jade Blog), I finally sat down and decided that it would be most appropriate to begin my first entry with a deep (ironical) bow to Henry James’ Isabel Archer…

Why Isabel Archer? Because she gives a wonderful example of the moral and cultural sensitivity we all need of when writing about Chinese philosophy. Also, because her case stands for a certain paradigm of (American/Western) modernity which still influences our thoughts and which, I guess, also motivates us to search for a constructive dialogue with the “Chinese mind”. And, finally, there is Isabel’s intriguing “fear”: her being frightened by Warburton’s offer, of Caspar Goodwood’s persistence, of Gilbert Osmond’s anger, her fear of cultural alienation, her fear of herself – somehow, I believe, this fear inhabits us all, being embedded in a Western cultural/philosophical framework, but being convinced at the same time of the necessity of “opening up”, engaging “the other”. In one word, Isabel Archer could remind us of the deeper tensions and darker forces which are at work today between the different cultural worlds. Certainly, she wouldn’t want us to buy too easily into a narrative of global harmony…

However, writing these lines, the major feeling I want to communicate isn’t fear, but the strong sense of excitement for having been invited to this blog (thanks to the three editors!!). As a German who has been teaching Chinese philosophy at a Taiwanese university for the last three years, my perspective on Chinese thought may be a little different from other contributors; thus, I hope to contribute with some peculiar views from Taiwan and on the Taiwanese philosophy scene. But first and foremost, I am really looking forward to learning from you all!

As you may know, there are a couple of German scholars living here in Taiwan (Fabian Heubel, Mathias Obert, Hans-Rudolf Kantor, Stephan Schmidt, et al.). On the one hand, this fact may reflect the serious obstacles which younger scholars working on Chinese philosophy still encounter in the European academic world; on the other hand, it may also reflect a certain “elective affinity” (Goethe) between German thought (in particular, German Idealism) and Chinese philosophy. There are many ways of translating Confucian sources into modern philosophical languages, but – to many 20th century Chinese thinkers – philosophical idealism à la Kant and Hegel has been the favorite one. Somehow, we Germans seem to be trying to come to grips with this peculiar fact of 20th century reception history. It may also just be another example of the famous Teutonic spirit…

As you all know, European China studies are often (too often) heavily relying on historical criticism and contextual interpretations. American sinologists par contre seem to be exceptionally endowed with the „liberty of action, of choice, of appreciation, of contact“ (to use another Jamesian phrase for Isabel Archer). Maybe due to my particular situation (being embedded in a Chinese context, belonging to a German background, but often responding to the views and languages of American scholars), I have quite contradictory feelings concerning the question of “cultural embeddedness”: on the one hand, I accept the point of view of scholars like Hegel, Gadamer, or Taylor, who all insist on the inescapable contextualness and necessary finitude of any kind of philosophical activity; on the other hand, I feel attracted to stronger modes of systematic/analytical philosophizing (say f.ex. Steve Angle in his new book on sagehood, or say Bernard Williams). Of course, the tension between universalism and particularism/contextualism is a – perhaps the – pivotal problem for comparative studies. But while we are all rightly interested in decontextualizing Chinese philosophy, shouldn’t we be afraid of ending up doing it “just du bout des doigts” like Madame Merle playing Schubert (The Portrait of a Lady, Chapter XVIII)?!

But instead of continuing these random thoughts, I would like to bring up a more technical question: having been working and writing on Zhu Xi 朱熹 for some time, I have to admit the theoretical power of the Kantian framework proposed by Mou Zongsan 牟宗三 (in particular in his major work Xinti yu xingti 心體與性體 which, unfortunately, does not seem to be widely studied in the West). At the same time, however, I am more and more convinced that an Aristotelian framework would do a better job: in particular, I think, the Kantian approach easily leads us to misunderstand the relationship between Neo-Confucianism and Chinese Modernity. Now, take f.ex. a passage like the famous Analects 17.19 (the dialogue between Confucius and Zai Wo 宰我 about the three-year morning period) and read (as I did with my students last week) as additional material an article by Li Minghui 李明輝 in which he defends his Kantian framework (〈《論語》「宰我問三年之喪」章中的倫理學問題〉《傳承與創新:中央研究院中國文哲研究十周年紀念文集》。鍾彩鈞編。1999。頁521-542). It is quite clear that, at least for Zhu Xi, this passage is about the question whether Zai Wo is able to discover its innate liangxin 良心. Thus, I partially agree with Li Minghui: Confucius’ argument (his point about “to be calm” an 安) indeed relies on a certain notion of internality which Zhu Xi has articulated especially well. But I have strong doubts about whether this implies something similar to the Kantian paradigm of subjectivity/practical rationality being free of any particular social/historical content (at this point, the absence of any trace of procedural thought in Confucianism seems to be crucial). In other words: I tend to relate the question of whether Zai Wo’s inner self is “calm” back to the question of his virtuous character (whether he possesses “goodness” ren 仁, which is also what Confucius criticizes him for in the second part of this passage!).

However, I would also argue that  this passage is a particularly good example for why the Neo-Confucian moral self is not easily described/reconstructed in Aristotelian (Virtue Ethics) language either: in the latter account, we have a very technical, clear description of virtue (arete), where the Socratic definition of virtue as techne (expertise) is always implied (any techne must fulfill the conditions of teachability, explicability, coherence, rationality, etc.). However, for Zhu Xi, virtues are much more like states of consciousness, more about the “inner life”, than action-related, and nowhere are virtues described in terms of technai. So, we do not find in his writings a very clear account of f.ex. the relation between the virtues and action, the process of deliberation, or the goals of an action. And the inner life is per definitionem not observable… Which easily leads us to a very vague picture of the virtues, resp. – even worse – an extremely subjectivist account of the Confucian tradition, for which the commitment to this tradition could be more important than the description and analysis of ordinary human life… How can we than “rescue the Confucian ideal from vagueness and baselessness” (May Sim, Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius, p. 130)?!…

This said, I am still very much in favor of the Virtue Ethicist approach to Neo-Confucianism. But somehow I think we have to begin our philosophical work at a very basic level, “very deep down” at the very foundations of Western modernity itself (and, at this point, Kant is indeed inescapable)… This may sound exaggerated, but maybe this final thought could encourage some of you to post your ideas…

8 replies on “Isabel Archer, American Sinology, and a certain Confucian Vagueness”

  1. Great to hear from you, Kai! As is already clear from this post, your perspectives are going to bring a lot to the conversations I hope will continue to develop — both here on the blog, and more broadly. As your post is very rich, let me choose two points to respond to for the time being.

    First, I agree with your suggestion that a lot of good could come from a more thorough engagement with Mou Zongsan. Scholars from the US, Germany, Taiwan, China, and so on all bring different backgrounds to questions about the contemporary significance of the Confucian tradition. (I say “questions” on purpose: there are many different perspectives from which one can view, and question, both the tradition and its contemporary significance.) One of the biggest differences among these various starting points is the role of Mou. Many –primarily in Europe and Nth America — know virtually nothing about him, and yet also often dismiss him as deeply misguided and irrelevant to the way(s) that they think we should think about Confucianism. (Or Daoism, Buddhism, or Kantianism.) Many others — primarily in East Asia — know a lot about him, and are either strongly drawn to his views, or strongly repelled. Of course his writings are voluminous and his views complex, so one might be attracted by one aspect and reject another aspect, but this kind of position is (in my experience) more rare.

    The problem with this situation is not just that there are such disparate evaluations of Mou, but that the dramatically differing views of him are manifestations of a way in which different communities of scholars are still quite sealed off from one another. I don’t believe that we should be striving for a unified or homogenous scholarly world — that sounds both worrisome and boring — but dramatic gulfs between groups ostensibly interested in the same or similar traditions, and the same or similar projects (e.g., “philosophy”), signal to me a problem, a failure to take advantage of opportunities for stimulus and learning.

    There are some hopeful signs. The “Kant and Chinese Philosophy” conference last spring in HK includuded some US Kant scholars attempting to overcome the lack of translated materials and discuss what some of them saw as the real constructive potential in Mou’s way of approaching the question of the “highest good.” There have been a small number of good recent engagements with Mou by comparative philosophers (e.g., Bunnin and Tan). A scholar in Australia is completing an impressive, quite comprehensive dissertation on Mou. Still, there is a long way to go.

    Since I’ve gone on too long already, I’ll make the second point very quick. For all I’ve just said, I still agree with your sense, Kai, that a virtue ethicist development of Confucianism is more promising than a Kantian one. My main response to the good points raised in your penultimate paragraph is to urge that we think of virtue ethics more broadly than Aristotle — or even than Aristotelianism. Quite a bit of the interesting recent work in virtue ethics explicitly parts company with Aristotle, even in cases where he remains one source of inspiration among others. Whether our goal is understanding Zhu Xi, or developing Confucian ideas/values/vision in our present context, I think a broad-minded approach to virtue ethics is likely to be most fruitful. Your questions should thus stimulate further virtue-ethical thinking, rather than be seen as objections to a role for virtue ethics.

    • Hi Steve, thanks for your reply! I agree with your remark about the different communities of scholars, their being “sealed off” from one another. The current situation in Taiwan (and/or in China) still seems to be that scholars are writing for very different audiences when they write either in English or in Chinese (or let’s say in German). And the fact that these different audiences express themselves in different languages often implies different agendas, too. And, as MacIntyre certainly would add, different practices and social and institutional realities. My point was just that I wanted to express the hope that we will be able to integrate our understanding of the necessary finitude of our (any) horizon into our positive account of Chinese philosophy…

      I agree, Mou is a very political thinker who writes in a highly hermetical, even monological way and stirrs up very strong emotions in his readers. Which explains why, at least in the Taiwanese academic world, his disciples are relatively isolated from other discourses/communities. What I wanted to say, was that nevertheless we find in Mou’s Xinti yu xingti the most detailled account of Zhu Xi’s moral vocabulary (think of his reading of f.ex. the beautiful passage 明明德 in the Daxue!). What I would recommand is, exactly as you describe it, a kind of middle position, where we learn from his very dense textual exegesis without necessarily accepting his broader theoretical framework.

      And, yes, my questions were not thought as objections to a Virtue Ethicist approach, not at all. But still, the problem remains that Zhu is not particularly interested in providing us with a detailed description/analysis of a particular action, the goals of a particular action, the direct relation between means and end. Of course, he has other very strong points. What I wanted to ask is how can we integrate than this relatively vague view into a contemporary Neo-Confucian vision of the virtuous actor which is still able to address these key-issues of Western Virtue Ethics ?!

    • Kai, you write, “somehow I think we have to begin our philosophical work at a very basic level, “very deep down” at the very foundations of Western modernity itself (and, at this point, Kant is indeed inescapable)… This may sound exaggerated, but maybe this final thought could encourage some of you to post your ideas…”

      Kai, I don’t know about Zhu Xi or Neoconfucianism, but could it be that one of the contributions Chinese philosophy can make to Western ethics is to challenge the idea that all those questions about particular actions are important questions, by challenging the importance of the very idea of particular actions? If I understand him, Chris Fraser has been arguing in that direction, e.g. in “Action and Agency in Early Chinese Thought” (Journal of Chinese Philosophy and Culture 5 (2009): 217–39, and available on his web site). There Chris uses ‘action’ mainly as an uncountable noun.

      (I think Chris is not advocating a focus on style or virtues. To digress further toward the movie string: the model of life as a discrete set of menus presented to us for choice might naturally lead to a false conception of the term “big moment ethics” as referring to any ethics whose primary focus is the most momentous menus presented to us, so that “big moment ethics” would seem to have special application to the choices of powerful people.)

    • Bill, this is a very helpful hint, thanks a lot! I have to read Chris’ paper, indeed, and the idea to treat the character for action (xing 行) as an uncountable noun is very convincing. I share you critical view about “big moment ethics”, thus I am very sympathetic to this kind of interpretation. What I am curious about is (1) would you go as far as claiming that a Neo-Confucian virtue Ethicist does not need any strong concept of choice at all? and (2) how would you relate your view to the broader narrative of modernity (Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre…) which we (either in thought or action) all are somehow part of, celebrating the spontaneity of the moral self, self-assertion, and freedom? I admit, I am quite confused about the relation between Chinese philosophy and modernity…

    • Thanks, Kai.

      (I didn’t mean to criticize “big moment ethics” here or in the movie string, though I disagree with it; and I was talking about Chris’s own use of the word ‘action’.)

      Back in 1990/1, a prominent Chinese academic was moving to the US and changing fields, and applied to several American grad schools. Several responded positively. As we discussed the options, this person said to me, “Bill, it has just occurred to me: I’ve never had to make a decision before.” In a free society that reshuffles groups, we have to make momentous choices with little information or help. In an individualistic society the possibility of changing one’s habits by sheer will-power is likely to be a constant concern. In a large-scale society there is a constant danger that people will not be adequately respected. In a changing society the epistemological advantages of freedom are indispensable. But not knowing even how to spell Neo-Confucianism, I don’t know what ideas the Neo-Confucians might have to express or outflank the various importances of choice.

      The first paragraph of my above comment to you got there by accident. I mean the paragraph quoting your final thought on whether we should “begin our philosophical work [of interpreting and/or mining Neo-Confucianism]” with e.g. Kant. That paragraph of mine was supposed to be the start of a different comment, on beginning at one’s fingertips. I take it that the import of your point about beginning is that in order to engage best with NCism we Westerners have to put a great deal of Western philosophy out of our minds, thus returning somewhat closer to the fingertips. I’m with you that far. But why keep Kant? I mean, if we want to figure out the relevance of X for Y, we can’t be ignorant of Y, but shouldn’t we also try to approach X more or less on its own terms?

  2. I think that you may be imposing more of a division between the internal and external process of virtue in Confucianism than is actually there. While Yangming’s bridge between the internal and external was a radical formulation there are plenty of other instances that give us reason to believe that thought and action should not be separated in Chinese thought the way they are in Western thought.

    Xunzi’s aesthetic morality would be another example of this same conception. In order for virtue to be beautiful and vice to be deformed, we need to be able to explicitly see them both. That is also why you have all those discussions on thieves of virtue. Shanzhai morality that looks close enough to the real thing that a careless observer might confuse them.

    • Thanks a lot, I see what you mean, and I agree that there is a close relationship between thought and action in Zhu. My idea was to point out what I see as a major difficulty in writing about the contemporary meaning of Zhu’s virtue thought: we are used to accept modern psychology, the world-view of science, which makes that all these categories like xing 性, benti 本體 , ticha 體察, or nijue 逆覺 appear as rather vague… I admire Zhu Xi’s phenomenological language of “inner life” very much, but this aspect has always seemed unclear to me. When my students talk about benti 本體, I always want to ask them: WHAT precisely is a benti?!

      Maybe this is Zhu’s (and Mou’s) fundamental anti-modernism, their religious dimension (I am certainly the last to criticize them for this: but where is the philosophical theory which can integrate this world-view into the modern/Western one?!)…

    • I just want to say how fantastic this little blogosphere is. Whenever I start to think I know what I’m talking about, you folks manage to say something that so utterly stops me in my tracks that it takes me months to recover. Keep up the good work, you fine folks!

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