Soochow/Academia Sinica Conference Report

The three-day conference and book symposium “Virtue and Luck: Virtue Theory and Chinese Philosophy” has now concluded, and I thought I might offer a summary and some thoughts. The idea that linked together the three quite distinct days’ activities was “virtue,” East and West, in ethics and in epistemology, pro and con.

This theme was approached through three different formats. On Day 1, at Soochow University in Taipei–which I should say is home to one of the most lively and diverse philosophy departments in Taiwan, under the able leadership of Michael Chien-kuo Mi–the format was designed to allow considerable time for discussion. Morning and afternoon sessions each featured four or five papers, delivered in 20 minutes each. After all the session’s papers were delivered there was a brief coffee break and then two distinct sessions of discussion, one that was limited to the paper presenters and other invited participants (the “secondary circle”) and one including everyone in the room (the “tertiary circle”).

As one can tell from looking at the program (linked above), there were two kinds of comparison undertaken: virtue ethics vs. virtue epistemology, and Chinese traditions vs. Western traditions. These were not really addressed separately, but were unavoidable mixed together (since a given approach to virtue epistemology, for example, always turned out to be based on one tradition or the other, even if it also drew on aspects of the other). In light of this level of ambition, I would say that the resulting dialogue was successful in that it managed to communicate across these various divides. To give an example: David Sosa’s focus was on a kind of incoherence that he finds in the notion of virtue, especially as it applies to epistemology but also more generally. He argued that the inner quality of an agent (exemplified by Kant’s notion of the good will, or an archer’s skill) was importantly distinct from external success; that distinct kinds of normative status could and should apply to each; and that “virtue” conflates these two categories. This argument drew criticism from various circles; one argument was that virtuous agency includes the responsibility to work to minimize the problematic effect of luck, thus bringing together the two aspects that Sosa was trying to keep apart. On the other hand, Sosa’s approach was welcomed by those (e.g., Fung Yiu-ming) who are skeptical about the importance of virtue in relation to Confucianism. Prof. Fung argued in his own paper that <i>ren</i> is a “theoretical construct” rather than a virtue, which he found to be similar to the upshot of both Sosa’s and Graham’s papers. And there were a variety of other examples of what felt like fruitful cross-tradition dialogue.

The venue for Day 2 shifted to the Institute for Chinese Culture and Philosophy at Academia Sinica, and was hosted by Fabian Heubel, a German philosopher based at the Institute who has published mostly in Chinese since coming to Taiwan. Fabien’s interests are in continental European philosophy and modern and contemporary Confucianism, among other things (I should also include Zhuangzi). The day was organized around critical discussion of my book <i>Sagehood</i>; after an introductory lecture by me (focusing on what seemed to me to be distinctive to my approach in the book), nine papers were presented that examined the book’s claims from many perspectives.

Let me highlight two or three particularly interesting themes that emerged in the discussion. One concerned the degree to which the view I articulate in the book is an ideal type of Neo-Confucianism, rather than the specific view of any one thinker. That is, I do my best to follow the trains of thought of my subjects and think my way into their concepts, and then to use these concepts to articulate the strongest version of Neo-Confucian philosophy. That means not necessarily being beholden to every statement of (e.g.) Zhu Xi, although if my version of Neo-Confucian philosophy gets very far from Zhu, Wang Yangming, or other central figures of the tradition, then it cannot be a success in the terms I have set for it. It was pointed out by Shen Hsiang-min and others that this “ideal type” approach risked internal contradiction since it draws on philosophers who themselves contradict one another, but as far as I can tell this is only a risk and not an actual defect of the view I articulate (that is, I don’t think I actually embrace contradictory aspects).

Another fascinating theme was, on the one hand, an agreement by many with my claim that particularistic moral perception was important to Neo-Confucianism, and on the other hand the suggestion that Neo-Confucian moral vision was in a certain important sense narrower than that of Murdoch or Aristotle or Nussbaum: Zhu Xi and his contemporaries were not interested in the nitty-gritty, potentially ambiguous details of life; they preferred poems to novels; and thus they were attracted to a kind “ethical inwardness” that led Mou Zongsan to connect Neo-Confucianism to Kantian free will. These ideas were much discussed and I, at least, left with the feeling that an important theme for future research and discussion had emerged.

Day 3 saw us back on the campus of Soochow University and a more conventional format. We began with a Keynote lecture by Prof. Lau Sze-kuang that sketched the distinctive changing historical contexts in which Western and Chinese ideas related to virtue had developed. Then followed three panels’ worth of papers that covered the broad territory marked out by the overall conference’s title. For me, highlights were German scholar Martin Doesch’s detailed examination of the ways that “virtue” does, and does not, fit with the early Neo-Confucian Shao Yong’s typology of rulers; Taiwanese philosopher Tsai Chia-ho’s spirited examination of the relations among Mencius, Zhu Xi, and Wang Chuanshan (including the insistence, somewhat rare for Taiwanese scholars, that there is a fundamental difference between Mencius and his later Neo-Confucian interpreters); and German (but long-time Taiwan resident) philosopher Kai Marchal’s exploration of Zhu Xi’s ideas of situation and perception. Warp, Weft, and Way contributor David Elstein also offered an excellent examination of New Confucian “virtue politics,” arguing that Xu Fuguan’s approach is a promising model that deserves to be taken seriously today; and blog contributor Huang Yong showed that neither “knowledge how” nor “knowledge that” is sufficient for understanding the Neo-Confucian idea of “true knowledge,” arguing instead that it must be a single mental state combining belief and desire, which some contemporary Western philosophers have begun to discuss in terms of “besire.”

I apologize for leaving out many interesting papers and comments! On behalf of all the participants, let me once more thank Michael Mi and his coleagues, Fabian Heubel and the Academia Sinica, and all the students who labored to make the conference run smoothly!

2 replies on “Soochow/Academia Sinica Conference Report”

  1. Thank you, Steve. Your summary is very detailed and very attractive. That leaves me in some deep thought and makes me wonder if we should do it again next year. In case if we do, would you come back again?


  2. Hi Steve,

    thanks a lot for your detailed conference report! As I was involved in organizing this event, let me also share some thoughts on this conference at Soochow University.

    Looking back, I have the feeling that our conference on Virtue Theory in East and West (comprising both Virtue Epistemology, a relatively new field, and the more traditional field of Virtue Ethics) revealed both the promises and the challenges of comparative/intercultural philosophy. Considering the extremely different background of most of the participants (American philosophers like Ernest Sosa or Peter Graham with no background in Chinese philosophy; European philosophers like Andreas Trampota with a background in Kant and Murdoch, but no experience in Asia; philosophers with a strong commitment to the Confucian tradition like Stephen Angle or Fabian Heubel; and Taiwanese philosophers like Michael Mi interested mostly in Analytical philosophy), I agree with Steve’s observation that the conference was an overall success. Dialogue happened and in particular the exchange on Day 1 demonstrated amply that Chinese philosophy and Western philosophy indeed share certain characteristics and can be brought into fruitful exchange. On a more personal level, I rather doubt whether the “Confucians”, in the near future, will be able to provide us with a full-fledged philosophical theory that will convince “pure” philosophers (f.ex. interested in virtue epistemology); but I think that our discussions were on the right track and will stimulate more critical exchanges in the near future.

    More specifically, I want to point out the following issues related to Steve’s book (“Sagehood”, OUP 2009) in particular and the dialogue between Chinese and Western virtue ethics in general:

    First, as became clear in one of David Sosa’s questions during Day 2, there may be a certain skepticism in analytical circles about the claim that Confucian notions like “awe” or “reverence” might help us to understand or clarify the moral experience we all share as moral agents in modern contexts. I think this is a challenge that we (as philosophers engaged with Chinese texts) do face on a quite regular basis; and in fact I do think that there are ways of defending a “Chinese” position (by defending, at the same time, a “less precise”, but richer and more contextual understanding of philosophy and the philosophical life than it is accepted in analytical circles). However, I think that we should indeed be careful not to link Neo-Confucian claims about moral life or moral experience too closely to empirical or biological accounts of the virtues. Neo-Confucianism is not about “ordinary life”, but about a high vision of moral perfection (certainly involving the virtues)…

    Second, the question why we should try to become sages in the first place (as Steve’s book asks us to do) came up a couple of times and, although the Confucian tradition has many meaningful reasons to offer, I am not sure whether they sound entirely convincing to a “purely” Western philosopher. Maybe there is a need to explain on a more basic level what the Confucian tradition exactly represents…

    Third, one question raised by a Taiwanese professor seemed to imply a certain skepticism about whether Western scholars can make a genuine contribution to Chinese discourses per se. I think Steve’s book is the best answer to this kind of doubt, but I also believe that Chinese or Taiwanese scholars are still not used to the idea that we can reformulate the Neo-Confucian tradition in creative terms today. More dialogue between East and West is necessary.

    Fourth, Steve has already pointed out that his views on the issue of moral perception stimulated a series of heated exchanges. As I have been trying to advance in my paper on Zhu Xi, the Neo-Confucian idea of moral perception should not be understood entirely in analogy to perceptive models of moral knowledge, since according to Zhu the moral agent does not perceive raw sense-data or the muddled empirical world, but the different li 理 embodied in the qi-constituted world (patterns, coherence, etc.). The goal of the perceptive process is the realization of a moral vision imagined by the moral agent; in other words, moral perception is not about seeing correctly the real world, but about seeing the world in terms of “ethical inwardness” (a term I found in Kierkegaard): as being part of an inner moral vision.

    Fifth, I think that our conference made sufficiently clear that both the Kantian and the virtue-ethicist approach to Neo-Confucian texts are viable and very much alive (interestingly, in his paper on Wang Yangming even Huang Yong used a Kantian argument). On a more personal level, I had the feeling that this kind of open dialogue between Western and Chinese/Taiwanese scholars is the best way to explore new scholarly vistas; the conference was an example of intercultural/comparative philosophy in a nutshell, and although there are risks, I am ultimately convinced that there is much to gain from this kind of inter-cultural engagement! Thanks to all the participants, in particular to Steve, for their great work and the “inspired” debates at Soochow…

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