NDPR Review of Amy Olbering's Moral Exemplars in the Analects

NDRP has just published a very nice, charitable-and-yet-challenging review of Amy Olberding’s recent book, Moral Exemplars in the Analects: The Good Person is That. Myeong-seok Kim lauds the subtle insight that Olberding is able to extract from her attention to the Analects‘s “narrative depictions of Confucius in diverse circumstances,” while raising questions about her framework of “exemplarism.” Highly recommended!

6 replies on “NDPR Review of Amy Olbering's Moral Exemplars in the Analects”

  1. The “exemplarism” and direct reference model is entirely beholden to Zagzebski’s work so I think any attempt to address some of the concerns raised in the review will require a careful reading of her argument in Divine Motivation Theory (2004), which of course is made in the context of Christian theism. I think Zagzebski herself begins to address some of the issues raised even if they are not tackled in Olberding’s book (which I’ve yet to read). Moreover, I think some support for the theory in general may be forthcoming from other quarters, like Daniel Hutto’s work on folk psychological narratives, developmental moral socialization and individuation.

    • Hi Patrick! I don’t know if you are aware, but Olberding and Zagzebski are colleagues at Oklahoma in the philosophy department. So, your first quick association is pitch perfect.

    • Manyul,

      I once wrote Linda about the possible relevance of her direct reference theory and exemplarism for Confucianism and she replied that Olberding was working on that very thing! I don’t recall her being mentioned as a colleague, but she might have told me that as well. I thought she sent me a draft of a paper too but I can’t seem to find it. (I’m feeling very much like an old fart after writing this.)

  2. I haven’t yet seen the book, so I hesitate to wade in here (I’m hoping Amy will!); but I want to say a couple of things.

    First, the reviewer seems to take for granted that the fact that Confucius and any actual human will have noticeable flaws is an objection to Amy’s argument. But from what Amy said in the thread on “Goldin’s Confucianism” I gather that Confucius’ having noticeable flaws is quite integral to her conception of how he can function effectively as an exemplar.

    Second, to Patrick, I gather that exemplarism is not far from the general and (I hope) fairly uncontroversial idea that we have a pretheoretical ability to recognize some goodness and badness (and indeed that this ability has got to be the starting-point for theory). So even if Amy agrees in detail with Linda Zagzebski, I’m inclined to doubt offhand that Amy’s exemplarism is “beholden” to Zagzebski’s specific work or specific book in any sense in which this implies that one has to read LZ’s book in order to understand AO’s position.

  3. Bill, I rather think the starting point is “direct reference theory,”* but Amy herself wrote (in an early paper I found at last that Linda sent me). “Before describing an exemplarist rendering of the Analects, a brief account of Zagzebski’s framework is necessary,” the discussion proceeding to introduce the notion of direct reference: “pointing to what we mean as it features in our experience,” (i.e., it is ‘like THAT’). Of course those not put off by “folk psychology” and believing that one has to have some intuition or grasp (Plato’s prior acquaintance with the Good) of a particular virtue to recognize its embodiment or instantiation can perfectly well understand the meaning of “exemplarism.” Incidentally (or not), one thing I like about this approach is that it may better capture the reason or reasons why teachers like Socrates, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus (one’s parents for that matter) did not write things down, preferring the myriad moral, psychological, pedagogical and other virtues of oral instruction and tangible (more or less) example. (None of this should be taken as somehow denigrating the analytical study of ethics and ethical living).

    * “The advantages of direct reference generally—whether it is employed in the domain of ethics or elsewhere—rest on its obviation of the need for precise definition or elaborate conceptual schemata before the work of understanding can begin. With direct reference, that is, ‘competent speakers of the language can use terms to refer successfully to the right things without going through a descriptive meaning.'”

  4. Hi, All. I have a busy day so I’m afraid I can’t say much or respond to the review itself, but let me just quickly say a couple of things.

    Yes, Linda and I are colleagues and I do adapt her exemplarism to suit what I think the Analects is doing, most basically by beginning with pre-theoretical responses to exemplars and analogy to direct reference theory to get moral theory off the ground. The originality of my work (hoping there is some!) is not in the theory of exemplarism but in a rendering of the Analects along exemplarist lines. The latter of course entails deviating from what Linda proposes, but to be sure, I’m indebted to her for the basic theoretical framework.

    Thanks, Bill, for the comment about perfection. You’re right that my view includes imperfection of exemplars not just as acceptable but as rather integral. So worries about exemplars being imperfect are not my worries. The chapter on Confucius, qua exemplar, outlines just why I think imperfection can be understood to work to the favor of admiration and emulation. There’s a chapter focused on Zilu that also bears on this.

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