May Sim Lecture: Comparing Aristotle and the Early Confucians

The Center for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics would like to invite everyone to the following lecture:

Professor May Sim, College of the Holy Cross
“Identity, Difference & Metaphysics: Comparing Aristotle and the Early Confucians”

Date: Friday 8 December 2023, 3:00PM EST/8:00PM GMT

Topic: CASEP Research Fellow Lecture
Time: Dec 8, 2023 03:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

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Meeting ID: 925 8171 5369
Passcode: 961174


Identity, Difference & Metaphysics: Comparing Aristotle and the Early Confucians

May Sim (College of the Holy Cross)

In “Incommensurability, Truth, and the Conversation between Confucians and Aristotelians about the Virtues,” Alasdair MacIntyre maintains that there are some agreements between the Aristotelians and Confucians about the virtues.[1]  However, he says that these traditions are incommensurable because each “has its own standard and measures of interpretation, explanation and justification internal to itself” (109).  As a result, MacIntyre claims that they are so different that they don’t even have the words to express each other’s concepts, which meanings are always bound up with the contexts and practices within which they’ve developed for him.  Thus, he holds that moral shortcomings in one system must be “invisible” to the other, which doesn’t even have the words to translate the other’s concepts, let alone grasp its moral failures.

MacIntyre offers that an Aristotelian would necessarily fail to understand a violation of ritual propriety (li 禮) for the Confucians, which in turn would prevent someone from achieving the highest virtue of humaneness (ren 仁).  By the same token, a Confucian would necessarily fail to comprehend Aristotle’s concepts of ‘psychê’ and ‘polis’, as she lacks the context within which these words are used, as well as the norms of each.  Hence, any failure to reach the perfections of each of these concepts would necessarily escape a Confucian’s notice.

Focusing on what Aristotle and early Confucians, such as Confucius and Mencius, regard as identity, e.g., the identity of a human being, and how human beings are alike and different (say, in their cultivation of virtues, and what constitutes the highest virtue for each tradition), I show that Aristotelians and these early Confucians can converse with each other.  Not only are these two traditions of virtue ethics commensurable, but we can trace their standards and measures of what’s good to their respective metaphysics, and uncover the sources of their similarities and differences.  I’ll argue that it’s the kinship of their metaphysics that makes possible their commensurability and ultimately, the lessons that each can learn from the other.


[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Incommensurability, Truth, and the Conversation between Confucians and Aristotelians about the Virtues,” in Culture and Modernity: East–West Philosophic Perspectives, ed., Eliot Deutsch (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991), 104–22.  For a different response to this problem, see chapter two, “Categories and Commensurability in Confucius and Aristotle: A Response to MacIntyre,” in my Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius (Cambridge University Press, 2007).  This former response was limited to a comparison of Aristotle and Confucius, and focused on Aristotle’s Categories.

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