The Good: Good For, Good At (shan 善), and Benefit (li 利)

Let’s see; I’m trying to figure out how to think about the ancient Chinese term shan 善, roughly “good,” in relation to the various senses of “good” that we as philosophers try to distinguish these days. This has a bearing on, among other things, what to make of the pre-Qin positions on human-nature-is-good (ren xing shan ye), bad (e 惡), neither, or both. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that shan means something more like “good at” (“competent”?), but I can’t recall exactly where–Graham? Nivison? Anyway, here are some senses of good that I’m used to hearing philosophers distinguish from among:

  1. “Good for” – this seems to be the primary “non-moral” sense of “good” that is used in discussing goods that can be indexed to individuals, groups, or things. X can be good for Y in the sense that X is of value to some end or interest of Y. We often speak of something good in this sense as a good or as goods. Such goods seem always quantifiable in this way.
  2. “Good at” – this seems to be a sense of “good” that tracks something like the Greek term for “excellence,” arete (αρετη–sorry for leaving out diacriticals; can’t seem to do them right now). X is good in this sense if X is capable or competent at doing or being something. Example: “As a golfer, Woods is really good.”
  3. “Morally or aesthetically good” – this seems to be a sense of “good” that has something to do with worth that “has no price” (to use a Kantian expression). X is good in this sense if it/he/she is praiseworthy for its/his/her own sake, not for its/his/her value to something else or at doing or being some particular thing. Examples: “That painting is good.” “She wasn’t good but she had good intentions.”

I’m pretty sure these are significantly distinct, non-overlapping senses of “good,” although something, or someone, might be good in all three senses. So, let me say or ask a few things.

First, are there more senses of “good” than this that are significantly different from any of them?

Second, it seems to me like we need to figure out which sense or senses of “good” shan overlaps with or else say what other sense it has; otherwise, obviously, we don’t have a handle on what the ren xing debate is about.

Third, it seems to me like li, “benefit,” is closely allied to the first sense, “good for.”

Some initial thoughts that I have: Shan never struck me as meaning “good at” mainly because I haven’t really seen uniformly in the contexts of its use that there is an indication of what something is “shan at.” If so, then it seems like we have to settle on either 1 (good for), 3 (morally/aesthetically good), or some overlap between them. But “good for” suffers from the same contextual problem as “good at”–e.g. it isn’t uniformly clear that there is something a shan thing is “shan for.” Could shan mean something more like morally or aesthetically good? Here is a reason not to go that way too quickly, though we might end up there eventually:

It seems to me like Xunzi, in his discussion of ren xing could be understood as investigating whether it is good at producing order and harmony (which seem themselves on the other had to be li 利, goods in the good for (humans) sense); Xunzi finds that ren xing is not at all good at producing them. However, that moves Xunzi to conclude that ren xing is e 惡, which seems pretty clearly to mean that it is unseemly or ugly. But that suggests either (a) that shan overlaps in meaning between “good at” and “morally/aesthetically good” and Xunzi is equivocating between his criticism of Mencius and his conclusion about ren xing; or (b) Xunzi’s criticism isn’t really about the incompetence of innate disposition to produce order and harmony. I think I prefer (a), but could it really be that shan is so much like the contemporary English term “good” that it has that much similarity in equivocation potential? My instinct here is to be suspicious about that. Any suggestions, comments, critical remarks, interlocutory agreement?

42 thoughts on “The Good: Good For, Good At (shan 善), and Benefit (li 利)

  1. 1. Good morning, Manyul. To #1:

    2. I feel good today. (Here, feel.)
    3. Good for you!
    4. Don’t worry, he’s good for the money /good for one ride.
    5. A good scraping
    6. by a good knife
    7. would be good for my sailboat.
    8. This isn’t a good day to quit smoking.
    9. It’s good that you have those purple spots; it means your body is fighting back.
    10. Fido was good all morning.
    11. Oh good, our team is winning.

    12. Are these not good examples?

    1, 2, 11, and 10 might fall under your moral&aesthetic heading. I’m not sure.

    Your questions about Chinese are extremely interesting to me, but I’m not competent to begin to address them. I’m hoping someone else will.

  2. By “#1” at the beginning I meant the question you identified as “First”, Manyul.

    I don’t happen to think the English word has different senses. I think that when we say X is “good with anchovies” or “good with children,” the prepositional phrases hypothesize the generic scenarios they suggest, so that we’re saying that X’s playing the suggested role in that generic scenario (as opposed to the obvious alternatives’ doing so) is good. I think that in phrases like ‘good knife’, the noun plays a similar adverbial role, like the adverbial prepositional phrase ‘qua knife’. But I don’t know how those points, if correct, can help us with the Chinese words.

    In “Goodness and Utilitarianism,” Judith Thomson says that to be good is always only to be good-in-a-way, and she catalogues the ways under two broad heads.

    First, when we say someone is a good person we mean (if we are making any sense) roughly that she has some particular virtue or other.

    Second, ways of being good can be specified by prepositional phrases. Here is her whole list of those:

    good at doing mental arithmetic, dancing, swimming
    good to go camping with, eat, look at
    good with small children, the deaf
    good to use for holding down a pile of papers, hammering nails
    good to use in a collage of tools, making pizza
    good for England, Smith, the tree in Jones’ backyard
    good as an actor, Hamlet

  3. Just a quick note, and hopefully I’ll have time later to share a few more thoughts. Shan as ‘good at’ is not uncommon. Even the much discussed Mencius 1A7 uses it (although in the larger context it may overlap with ‘good’ in the moral sense–perhaps being ‘good at’ certain activities is a moral skill).

    The way in which the ancients came greatly to surpass other men, was no other but this – simply that they knew well how to carry out, so as to affect others, what they themselves did.

  4. Hi Manyul,

    Xunzi actually tells us what he means by “shan” in the context of the xing stuff:

    In general, both in the past and now, what the world calls “shan” is correct patterns and order.

    I wouldn’t say he’s taking it as good-at there.

    Here’s a tangential thought. When there’s a sentence of the form “X之性φ” (where “φ” is some predicate) it’s usually best to take the subject of “φ” to be “X,” and not “X之性” (so this is usually a topic/comment structure, with the subject implied). I suggest the translation: “It is the xing of X to φ.” For example:

    Now it is the xing of water to be clear.

    My tangential thought is that maybe we should parse “人之性善” and “人之性惡” the same way: “It is people’s xing to be good” and “It is people’s xing to be bad.” Not that that solves any problems about “shan.”

  5. Oh, and I should have said, I’ve been really hoping to take up the post on Velleman and Zhuangzi, but work and everything have taken over and it may be a while before I find the time that’d need.

  6. Great question. Here are a few thoughts, expressed by way of agreeing with some of things that have been said so far.

    1. Agui is certainly right that shan often means “good at,” in the sense of being an expert at something. But I think Manyul is right that the moral sense of the term does much more work than this.

    2. The old texts do not use shan simply to describe a state of affairs, as utilitarians do when they say “the good” is happiness or desire-satisfaction. I’m fairly confident about this, but maybe someone who’s more familiar the Mohists would set me straight (calling Chris Fraser!).

    3. When shan modifies a noun like “person” (人) or “scholar” (士), its meaning is logically dependent on the thing it modifies. So it’s more like the word “old” than the word “green.” “Green” means the same thing whether applied to a gerbil or tortoise, but “old” does not. (I admit that this isn’t a hard and fast distinction.) This does make it look a bit more like the Greek word for excellence. It also gets us part way to the account that Bill gives of “good,” although Bill doubts that “good” has different senses, and it seems pretty clear that shan does.

  7. Very quickly for the moment: I certainly agree with everyone that shan is used in something like the “good at” sense. I wonder two things. What to make of less clearly “good at” uses such as (reaching for the nearest example):

    子謂韶,“盡美矣,又盡善也。”謂武,“盡美矣,未盡善也” – The master said of the Succession Dance, “Exceedingly beautifu! Also exeedingly good!” He said of the Martial Dance, “Exceedingly beautiful! But not exceedingly good.” (Analects 3.25)

    I think there are Mencius passages where shan also seems hard to read as “good at” but I’ll have to produce those later as right now I’m in a rush.

    Second, shan as “good at” seems on initial thought to be a lot like arete, in that one couldn’t really be “shan at” something base–quite unlike the English “good at” by which it doesn’t sound at all strange to say “He was really good at grovelling.”

    More later!

  8. Manyul, a counterexample to your closing suggestion. Xunzi 13.1 describes “sham ministers,” and says of them that “such is their ingenuity, sharpness, and eloquent persuasive powers that they are expert (shan) at currying favors with their superiors (巧敏佞說,善取寵乎上)” (Knoblock’s numbering and translation).

  9. Night has fallen in the US, and my coffin creaks open.

    Often something counts as being “good” because it is better than the alternatives or as good as the ordinary (a good nail). That doesn’t seem true of shan 善, offhand. It seems to me that aside from any other limitations on how shan 善 fits ‘good’, shan 善 differs from ‘good’ in degree. That is, aside from any other limitations, ‘shan’ should be translated as ‘excellent’ rather than ‘good’. If that’s right, then overlooking it might mislead us about why replacing ‘good’ with ‘shan’ in some translingual sentence would be wrong.

    (I suppose one can say there are degrees of moral worth without implying that they’re comparable in goodness to minutes of music.)

    There’s a continuity between ‘good-at-A’ where ‘S’ is an activity and the formula ‘good K’ where ‘K’ is a noun. Think of ‘good Aer’. A good K is a K that is good at doing what a K does, so to speak. I think if ‘shan’ is at home in both kinds of phrase, that doesn’t imply that it has two different senses – unless by “has two senses” we just mean “is best translated (as distinct from: analyzed) by two different English terms or phrases.

    On that point, an interesting text for shan 善 is Daodejing 8, where we get seven examples in a row:

    居善地 ju shan di
    心善淵 xin shan yuan
    與善仁 yu shan ren
    言善信 yan shan xin
    政善治 zheng shan zhi
    事善能 shi shan neng
    動善時 dong shan shi

    These phrases X 善 Y might best be rendered “(An) X is (an) excellent X on account of being characterized by Y”.

    (A big mouse is smaller than a small elephant. But a noun after ‘big’ modifies it not just by specifying a comparison class. Consider: big numbers, big changes in decor, big news. Are there different senses of ‘big’ here? Or should we say instead that ‘big’, like most terms, has a certain elasticity in the direction of metaphor?)

  10. Justin’s point 2 in comment #6 is interesting and worth closer attention, I think (especially in connection with especially with the first and fifth examples on the list from DDJ 8). Justin writes, “The old texts do not use shan simply to describe a state of affairs, as utilitarians do when they say ‘the good’ is happiness or desire-satisfaction.”

    So far as I know, Justin’s point is right. Not that I would know. I think it’s an interesting point that may help explain the rest. And it has application to virtue theory (at least Aristotle’s kind), not just consequentialism. Aristotle uses ‘good’ to describe something like a state of affairs when he says eudaimonia is the human good. He doesn’t mean that eudaimonia is good at something.

    Unlike a particular person or a particular thing, a particular state of affairs doesn’t have the potential to pop up in a wide range of different circumstances. But when we say that someone is good at something, we are generalizing in a way about what she might do in various circumstances, and when we say something is a good knife, we are generalizing about how it will perform in various circumstances.

    (Suppose we are racing turtles, and mine is slow as it rounds the post. Here I have commented only on the particular case, not about my turtle in general. But if I say she is “a slow turtle,” I am not talking about the present case at all. (She might be moving fast just now without proving me wrong.) Rather I’m generalizing about what she tends to do or can do, over a wide range of hypothetical circumstances. Perhaps I’m averaging over these.)

    So there’s something that ‘good K’ (where ‘K’ names a kind) and ‘good at A’ (where ‘A’ names an activity) have in common that they don’t have in common with ‘good state of affairs’.

  11. It seems that part of the issue is whether shan necessarily has moral import. #8 seems rather clear that at least sometimes it doesn’t. Here’s an interesting occurance that I’d appreciate any thoughts on–parts of strips 4 & 5 of the “Xingzimingchu”:


    On a note that may or may not be related to this line, how do you understand 好 when compared with 善?

  12. Hi Agui,

    Yikes, I’m no expert on the Xingzimingchu, but isn’t 好 being used as “like” or “desire”? (That is, isn’t it the fourth-tone hào as opposed to the third-tone hǎo?) If so, I’m not quite sure how it would be related to shàn 善.

  13. Agui, I think I’d agree with Justin. I don’t think hao 好 is ever used this early like third-tone hao of modern Chinese. That’s not to say that there isn’t something interesting in the contrast in this particular bit of text. I haven’t spent any time looking directly at the Xingzimingchu, but I would guess based on what I’ve read about it that there is some contrast here between likes/dislikes 好惡 being generated from within nature 性 and judgments of good and not-good 善不善 being generated from some kind of “affective potential” 情 (?). So that a like/dislike phenomenon is projected outward and is relatively fixed, whereas good/not-good phenomenon is reactive and subject to “situational potency” 勢 (?). I’m kind of flying by the seat of my pants here–with very thin fabric probably, but if something like that is afoot in the passage, there is at least some important parallel, at some level, being assumed between hao 好 and shan 善. So, I think you might be tracking something interesting in your question.

  14. Dan, interesting example (in #8). Is it really a counter-example? I’m not sure. I’m just wondering this might be an ironic use of shan. Maybe if there were lots of other examples of people “shan at” things they all things considered shouldn’t be doing, it would feel more significant to me.

  15. Here’s another interesting passage, from Daodejing 49, with Legge’s translation (which I am not endorsing!):

    The sage has no invariable mind of his own; he makes the mind of the people his mind.
    To those who are good (to me), I am good; and to those who are not good (to me), I am also good; – and thus (all) get to be good. To those who are sincere (with me), I am sincere; and to those who are not sincere (with me), I am also sincere; – and thus (all) get to be sincere.

    (Cf. Analects 14.34.)

  16. Manyul, on whether “shan necessarily has moral import,” several of the examples in #9 seem like counterexamples to me.

  17. Apropos Justin’s point in #6 item 3 and Bill’s thoughts on DDJ 8 in #9, it seems to me like you are each pointing out a conceptual feature of shan which is roughly like this: shan can be a two-place predicate that relates something to some other thing. So it looks like ‘x shan y’ and means “x is good/excellent in a y-way.” So, Justin’s analogy to ‘old’ (as opposed to ‘green’) can be explained by the fact that ‘old’ is a similar relational predicate: “That’s an old turtle” has the structure ‘That is old in a turtle-way’ (more commonly, ‘That creature is old for a turtle.’). And the DDJ 8 list would read something like: “A dwelling is good on account of its place; the heartmind is good on account of its stillness…” or, in the awkward, more formal way “A dwelling is good in a place-way; the heartmind is good in a stillness-way…” and so forth. That seems to capture something about shan that is more general and useful than simply glossing it as “good at” (which suggests a narrower, two-place relation) as I have been doing. I think that’s helpful.

    (I don’t know, am I screwing up the “two-place predicate” talk by making one of the places a modality? I don’t know enough logic to say.)

    The remainder to all this would still be what to make of the instances of shan that don’t seem obviously to admit of such an analysis–i.e. that don’t seem to be two-place predications (to the extent that I haven’t fouled up the logic talk).

  18. Manyul, if I understand your suggestion I think it isn’t right. Compare:

    Stuart is big in a mouse way
    Dumbo is big in a mouse way
    Mice are big in a mouse way

    The second can be true, I suppose. But what does the third mean?
    We can take it three ways:

    1. All mice are big mice.
    2. When we say a mouse is “big”, we mean it is big in the mouse way.
    3. When mice are big, they are big in the mouse way.

    The difference between the second and the third is that the third supposes that there is a nonrelational sense of ‘big’, which we encounter at least in the first appearance of that word in 3.

    Now, when the Daodejing says ju shan di 居善地, is it saying that dwellings in general are well located? I don’t think so; I think it’s saying something like either 2 or 3 above. But if it’s just saying something like 2, it’s making a fairly uninteresting point about language. So I think it’s saying something like 3.

    And to understand 3 as I’ve phrased it, we don’t have to read its second instance of ‘big’ in a relational way. Instead we can take ‘in a mouse way’ as a qualifier.

    How about that?

  19. Manyul, is there a difference of the sort you were describing between these two?:

    X is good qua knife
    X is good at cutting

  20. Manyul, I see now that I misunderstood your #18. I dumbly thought you were trying to distinguish “good K” cases from skill cases. I now think what you were doing is distinguishing both of those from the moral (or whatever) cases, to propose that shan has two senses, roughly a moral sense and a skill (or functional) sense.

    And then, roughly speaking, I agree with you. To support the division of shan into these two, here’s another case like the case Dan offered in #8. This one is from Mencius 4A14.

    Those skilled in war should suffer the most severe punishment. (Lau)

    On the other hand, arguably Mencius is here sort of quoting people who think that warfare can be admirable. For he says in 7B4:

    There are people who say, “I am expert at military formations, I am expert at waging war.” This is a grave crime. (Lau)

    I have used Donald Sturgeon’s search engine to troll the Mencius for shan 善, and in every case the term seems to me to mean (roughly) either skilled or morally good, and more often the latter.

    For example, when Yanzi says at Mencius 1B4, “善哉問也 – Good question!”, what he means is that it is a morally good question, not that it is difficult or smart or otherwise valuable. (The question was how to make a ducal Progress through one’s territory.)

    Sometimes in the Mencius the connection with morality or virtue can seem tenuous, as in this claim in 3A2:

    For regulating the lands, there is no better system than that of mutual aid, and none which is not better than that of taxing. (Legge)

    But the Mencius never uses shan 善 to praise inanimate objects such as knives. The things it calls shan 善are always people or things that can be construed as actions or activities of people.

    I tried briefly to find shan 善 applied to an inanimate object in any ancient text. I’m not sure what are the best objects to try. Two phrases that never appear are shan dao 善刀 and shan che 善車 ! Shan qi 善器 appears in just one passage, which I don’t fully understand, from the Han Dynasty, here:

    I don’t think any of the items on the list in Daodejing 8 (comment #9 above) is a counterexample to the rule that shan 善 applies only to people and their actions or activities.

    But the DDJ list is a problem for the idea that shan has two basic senses. The list doesn’t seem to acknowledge a distinction between a moral sense and a skill sense. Most lines on the list can take a moral reading, but “居善地 ju shan di” and “事善能 shi shan neng” don’t invite a moral reading. “居善地 ju shan di” doesn’t exactly invite a skill reading either.

    So here’s a proposed unified account of shan 善:

    To be shan 善 is to display an admirable human quality.

    Thus shan 善 simpliciter is moral, but the term can be qualified by reference to a particular area such as chess or warmaking, in which case it refers to skill.

    If this is right, Xunzi would seem to be wrong in comment #4 above. Here’s what he said:

    In general, both in the past and now, what the world calls “shan” is correct patterns and order.

    His account would seem to imply that a healthy duck is a shan duck, which I suspect it is not. Also his account may have some trouble with “ju shan di 居善地.” (As they say, “di di di 地地地.”) For good location doesn’t seem to involve a large degree of order. Rather, it seems to involve the goodness of any order involved. This case brings out a possible ambiguity in Xunzi’s account (and in the zheng 正 within it). When something is more shan, is that because it is *more* orderly, or because its order is *better*?

  21. Hi Bill; good examples! The “good at warring” examples are especially interesting to me–they seem clearly to be further counterexamples to my speculation in #7.

    (Sorry, between my classes today and my kids, I’ll have to be as brief as this throughout the day. I hope others will pick up the slack.)

  22. Search engines are wonderful.

    Here are four examples that on their face do not fit the idea that shan is all about morality, skill, or displaying admirable human qualities.

    Shijing – 小雅 -北山之什 -甫田 – 3

    The grain is well cultivated, all the acres over;
    Good will it be and abundant. (Legge)

    Analects 9.13

    Should I seek for a good [shan] price and sell it? (Legge)

    Mozi 5 七患:

    People are gentle and kind when the year is good [shan]. (Mei)

    Mozi 28 天志下:

    Whoever practises this is a sage, magnanimous, gracious, and righteous, loyal, affectionate, and filial, and all such good [shan] names in the world will be gathered and attributed to him. (Mei)

    Since such cases are not terribly common, maybe the right approach is simply to explain them away. For example, shan names might be names that “display” admirable human qualities. A shan year might be a kind one. (Sometimes the times are not kind to us.) But I don’t know an easy way to explain away a shan price or shan grain.

    Here is another example of skill at something bad – this time from the Shijing.

    Shijing 大雅 – 蕩之什 – 桑柔 – 16

    Hypocritical, they say “These men will not do;”
    But when their backs are turned, they show their skill in reviling [the good].

  23. Perhaps I should have elaborated a little more, but I’m sure much like the rest of us, we write when we have a minute here and a minute there.

    好惡 in the XZMC is clearly meant here in the sense of like/dislike or fondness/repulsion (and generally speaking carries this meaning in most occurrences of the term in this period). A literal translation of the line would be: Likes and dislikes are natural endowments. [While] that which is liked and disliked are things. Good [and not good are affective responses]. [While] that which is good and not good is the contour of situations.

    The reason I raise the issue of shan and hao is that hao does seem to have some relation or at least share some affinities with shan (despite the fact that both can be translated as ‘good’ in contemporary Chinese, although this raises the question as to why this is so). At the very least both terms are often contrasted with wu/e. Within the XZMC, hao/wu seems to be the natural proclivities of the xing, while qing is the response of the xing and can be shan or not shan. It would seem that one way to understand shan in this context is that shan means to become ‘good at’ responding to the natural proclivities of the xing–when it is ‘fond of’ something and ‘repulsed by’ something. The question here is the relation between ‘good at’ and ‘fond of’.

    In the larger context, hao does seem to have some of its ‘third tone’ sense in passages of the shijing (which I don’t have time to look for at the moment), but certain figures are described as 好. An interesting occurrence is the opening passage:


    Here hao can be understood as ‘fond of’ (“The Junzi is fond of pairing up”), or ‘good’ (“The Junzi is a good match”). Most commentators have taken the latter route. Also, 好 is glossed as 美 in the shuowen (which is interesting when read in light of Analects 3.25). The larger issue is how much semantic overlap hao and shan had and how they come to (possibly) share more.

  24. Huh, that really is an interesting juxtaposition of passages, Agui. My first guess would have been that hǎo (good) evolved from some sort of putative usage of hào (desire, fond of, like). So (somehow) “like” became “regard as likable,” which became “likable” or “worth liking.” This makes a few semantic leaps, but the Shijing is known for doing just that (a classical version of “poetic license,” I suppose). But all of this is a very uninformed hunch.

    But your evidence might suggest that the evolution went the other direction. “Likable” or “desirable” might have become “regard as likable,” which in turn became “like” (in verb form) and “a liking” (in noun-form).

    Just a quick thought on the Xingzimingchu: to keep the parallelism between 好惡,性也。所好所惡,物也 and 善[不善,情]也。所善所不善,勢也, it might be better to translate 所善所不善,勢也 as an externalization of the goodness of the 情, as Manyul suggests. So perhaps “that which one judges as good or not good is the contour of situations.” That’s very dashed off but I might have more time to motivate this translation later.

    Gotta run.

  25. Agui, thanks for pointing out the Shuowen gloss of hao 好 as mei 美. Interestingly, the Shuowen gloss of shan is ji 吉:


    But it seems here to equate the meaning of shan further with that of yi 義 and mei 美 (which seems to go against the distinction made in actual usage in Analects 3.25). So the semantic link between hao and shan, though indirect, seems available through mei 美, at least in the Shuowen understandings of them.

    How much should we care about the Shuowen glosses? Particularly, what should we make of its equating shan with mei and yi (about which we’ve had a rather lengthy separate discussion already, here)?

    An aside: While I’m here, I should point out that there are transitive verbal uses of shan to think about also, e.g. in Xunzi ch.3: 君子絜其身而同焉者合矣,善其言而類焉者應矣。I imagine this might just be considered the usual case of verbalizing a stative verb in classical Chinese, but maybe it introduces a complication; I haven’t thought about it yet. (And since I don’t get to think much until summer break, aside from blog-thinking with you all as the seminar inside my head, maybe some thoughts will appear later when I check in again.)

  26. I think that in trying to analyze any term it’s a good idea to try hard to find a unified account. Simplicity is a virtue in a theory.

    From the evidence we’ve accumulated so far, it looks as though a unified account of shan 善 should meet these standards:

    (a) When shan is applied without qualification to people or to their actions, policies, or sayings, it can be replaced by “morally good” (if we mean “morally” loosely).
    (b) When shan is followed by a character that can be read as applying a qualification of the form “qua Φ-er” or “at Φ-ing,” shan can be replaced by “excellent.”
    (c) Cases (a) and (b) mostly exhaust the field. (善士 could be filed under either.)
    (d) Shan resists application to ducks, dogs, pigs, knives, or rivers, but can be applied to horses and ritual vessels and grain and prices. (A search for shan ma 善馬 yields a number of hits, but there don’t seem to be any shan dogs or pigs or rivers. The grain of Hou Ji was shan.)
    (e) It makes sense to say “ju shan di 居善地.”
    (f) When shan can be replaced by “highly skilled” but the conversants take the activity to be a bad one, the usage has a bit of an ironic feel.
    (g) Though being shan is a matter of degree, something has to be much more shan than the ordinary case in order to count as shan.
    (h) It isn’t crazy to think that shan means “(having) good order.”
    (i) It isn’t crazy to think that shan is a thin term that is the opposite of e 惡 or roughly the same as 美 and/or 義.

    Here’s a proposal, basically affirming Justin’s comment #6 and Manyul’s #7: Shan means “very good” or “excellent.” I think this proposal passes all the tests. There is such a thing as a very good knife, but we don’t hear about that in the ancient texts because they’re not concerned to evaluate tools or other artifacts. We do hear about a shan year.

    I’m not sure test (f) is right, but I don’t see that the examples we’ve had argue significantly against it (the examples are in comments #8, #22, and #24 above).

    I think a hard case for this analysis is Analects 3.25, which Manyul mentions in #7.

    Incidentally: Maybe 求善賈 in Analects 9.13 should be read “qiu shan gu – seek a good merchant.” That would seem to fit a saying quoted by Han Feizi: 鄙諺曰: “長袖善舞,多錢善賈.” (My translation: “A low saying has it: ‘Sleeves make the dancer and money makes the merchant.’”)

  27. This comment discusses a slightly different unified account from the one I proposed in #28 just above. I think this new one doesn’t work as well, but it’s interesting.

    Here is a class of accounts of what it is to be “good” (they’re arguably circular, but I’m not going to worry about that here):

    Worthy of being liked
    Worthy of being desired
    Worthy of being chosen
    Worthy of being aimed at
    Worthy of being admired

    In a Warring States context maybe the following ideas are in play:

    Worthy of being copied
    Worthy of being imitated

    The difference I have in mind between these last two is that I can copy your essay or your axe-handle, but I can’t imitate them. To imitate something is to copy it in the medium of oneself. Anyway that’s what I mean by ‘imitate’ here. (Maybe ‘emulate’ is the word I want.)

    Can either of these last two accounts work as an account of shan? Here are some initial thoughts.

    If to be shan is to be imitationworthy, then shan will be applicable mainly to people (saying that they’re moral or that they’re excellent at something).

    We find shan also applied to questions, sayings, and policies. These could be called “imitationworthy” in an extended sense perhaps, insofar as they are regarded as concretizing actions of people.

    A worry is that craft products too may seem to concretize actions of people, but we don’t much see these called “shan.”

    Here are some replies to that worry:

    1. We don’t have enough relevant data yet, at least not here in the blog.
    2. Craft products are maybe a little more distant from actions than sayings and policies are.
    3. Sayings and policies are like the character traits of collectivities, and imitationworthy by collectivities.
    4. If we amend the account to “VERY imitationworthy” then our account can do a better job of explaining why words and policies can be shan but craft objects normally are not called shan. And if we add the ‘VERY’ then maybe that gives us the focus on people, so that we can loosen ‘imitationworthy’ to ‘copyworthy.’

    But there are other problems.

    Do horses count as imitationworthy by courtesy, insofar as they’re regarded as having quasi-human virtues? Or do horses and grain can count as imitationworthy or copyworthy because they are generated by reproduction (and their raisers are indeed concerned to reproduce only the good kinds)?

    Imitating or copying someone’s dwelling in respect of its location: does this mean living near her?

    The fact that a year can be shan (in Mozi 5) strikes me as a big problem for any imitationworthiness or copyworthiness account. Here’s the fuller context of the instance of shan I quoted in #25 above:

  28. Excellent couple of comments, Bill. I wonder if “exemplary” is the same as “imitationworthy” and more eloquent. The extended sense of shan to non-persons and non-objects is an interesting problem. I’m not so sure that a year being “copyworthy” is so bizarre: think of something like Nietzsche’s Stoics-based idea of eternal recurrence.

    You ask: “Imitating or copying someone’s dwelling in respect of its location: does this mean living near her?” This reminded me of Analects 4.1 in which a neighborhood, or village (li 里), is described as ren 仁:

    子曰:“里仁為美。擇不處仁,焉得知?” – The master said “The ren of a village makes it beautiful. If you choose not to dwell in ren, whence will you attain wisdom?” (taking 里仁 as elliptical for 里之仁)

    You could interpret li 里 verbally here as “to be in” or “to live in,” I suppose: The master said, “To be in ren is beautiful…” but that doesn’t sidestep the problem unless the spatial reference is taken as metaphor. For some reason that reading has never grabbed me. I’ve wondered before (i.e. before the blog, before this year, some while ago!) whether this is an extended-sense use of ren (the people of village are ren, hence the village is ren) or whether one might consider the *place itself* as ren: somehow the layout, architecture, upkeep, planning, etc. of the place exhibits ren. This doesn’t answer your question, Bill, but maybe it provides more fodder for rumination.

  29. I thought about ‘exemplary’. But I take ‘exemplary’ to mean “copyworthy” rather than “imitationworthy” (as defined above), and I was thinking mostly about imitationworthiness. Also I wanted to divide the idea into (a) worthiness and (b) an attitude or action, in order to bring out connections with anglophone discussions of goodness in the past century or so.

    When I think of the “eternal return,” a year’s copyworthiness does seem less bizarre – by comparison!

    Somehow it seems to me that if the line in Daodejing 8 means something like Analects 4.1, the line in Daodejing 8 is strangely phrased. The character di (place, earth) suggests that a dwelling-place could be shan even if one were the first person there.

    In 4.1, I guess li 里 has to mean village, because otherwise the switch to chu處 would be odd. Unless there’s something else li 里 can mean.

    That reading fits Confucius’ often-expressed view that the character of our associates is terribly important — e.g. 5.3, 15.10, and cf. 6.26. (I think maybe “yan de zhi 焉得知” at the end of the passage should be read, “Where’s the wisdom in that?” – by analogy with “yan de ren 焉得仁” in 5.19.)

    On the other hand, one wonders what sort of gated community Confucius might have had in mind. He doesn’t seem to engage with townies (10.1), and he doesn’t have very nice things to say about the little people. Maybe the least-nice things are in late books, such as 17.13’s apparent claim that the “village worthy is the thief of virtue.”

    Your and Alexus’s idea that ren 仁 can sometimes be a property of a community offers a potential escape from the problem.

    We’d want to distinguish, I imagine, three things one might conceivably mean by calling a community ren 仁.

    (A) One might mean simply that the people in it are, by and large, ren 仁 as individuals.
    (B) One might mean something about the character of the community considered as something like an agent, perhaps that the community has a quality analogous to an individual’s being ren 仁.
    (C) One might mean something about other aspects of the community, such as its physical layout.

    I don’t see the attraction of (C). Maybe the idea would be that a certain layout would either cause or reflect the character trait, so that the layout can be ren 仁 the way a food or a complexion can be healthy (by causing or reflecting health)? I’ll set (C) aside for now and talk about (B) versus the individualistic reading of ren 仁.

    It seems clear that the term ren 仁 originally applied to individuals, and usually in the Analects it clearly refers to a quality of an individual. There are a few passages in which one could imagine that ren 仁 is being used in sense (B). These include 8.2, 13.12, and 19.16. But aside from 4.1, I have found only two where a (B) reading arguably makes *more* sense than an individualistic reading of ren 仁: 1.2 and 12.1. For in each case there is a puzzle about the individualistic reading.

    In 1.2 the puzzle is that Youzi seems to say that obedience is the basis and model of excellence (and especially of excellence in public life). But a (B) reading of ren 仁 would allow us to take the whole passage as talking about the development of healthy modes of interaction, not the virtue of an individual. In the concluding lines, Youzi’s “孝弟也者,其爲人之本乎?” could be read as “His being filial and fraternal – is not that the basis of his building ren 仁 (sc. in his community)?”

    In 12.1 the puzzle is that Confucius can seem to be making an absurd and overtly self-contradictory argument: “Your being ren 仁 depends on you alone, for if you can become ren 仁 everyone else will become ren 仁 too.” But a (B) rather than an (A) reading of the community’s being ren 仁 changes the overt self-contradiction into a mere non-sequitur: “Your being ren 仁 depends on you alone, for if you can become ren 仁 then the community as a whole will have the analogous quality.”

    I think the problems with the individualistic readings of ren 仁 in these two passages can be solved in other ways than by (B) readings. But this comment is getting too long. As for the “gated community” problem with the individualistic reading of ren 仁 4.1, I don’t know what to do about it.

  30. If the Confucian self is relational, why couldn’t a community be ren? By that metric, wouldn’t a community be the only thing capable of being ren? Both Confucius and the Daxue seem to suggest that if one person with ren can be found in any given area, it is demanded that others who embody ren are present.

    The only other way a place could be shan is if a feng shui master had his way with it, and I don’t think Confucius had the time machine available to make that sort of comment . . .

  31. Hi Justsomeguy,

    I think you’re right about Confucius and (if I remember) the Daxue, and that’s an interesting point in the current connection. Though I think the precise point in the Daxue is just that if one person is ren, then everyone else will follow (which might be a hyperbolic way of saying that everyone else will tend to follow).

    From the loving example of one family a whole state becomes loving, and from its courtesies the whole state becomes courteous while, from the ambition and perverseness of the One man, the whole state may be led to rebellious disorder;–such is the nature of the influence. This verifies the saying, “Affairs may be ruined by a single sentence; a kingdom may be settled by its One man.” Yao and Shun led on the kingdom with benevolence and the people followed them. (Legge 11)

    On its face the following argument looks valid:

    1. If Confucius thinks the self is relational, then he thinks a community is the only thing that can be ren.
    2. Confucius clearly doesn’t think a community is the only thing that can be ren.
    3. Confucius doesn’t think the self is relational.

    I suppose different people mean different things by “the self is relational.” I’m not up on the differences.

    A minor quibble I have is with the use of ‘self’ as a free-floating noun, like ‘person’ or ‘chair’ or ‘soul’. I think the only use of ‘self’ outside of arcane theory is as a reflexive prefix or suffix: “He shot himself in the foot,” “We don’t have one of those self-cleaning ovens.” This particle doesn’t imply the existence of a special entity. A self-cleaning oven is just an oven that cleans the oven, not an oven that cleans or is cleaned by the self of the oven. If the term “the self” has a meaning, the meaning comes from an agreed technical definition or from being used plenty to say clear things in technical discourse. I have to plead ignorance on whether either of these two conditions are met!

    Still, maybe persons are relational. Still I’m not comfortable that I understand what that might mean.

    There’s a rumor abroad that there’s a common Western conception on which persons are entirely unchanged by any relations they enter into. In fact I’ve recently heard this rumor voiced with perfect clarity by at least one leading anglophone scholar of Confucianism, who told me he had assumed that I held the conception because I had said I don’t think persons are unreal. But I think the rumor is mistaken and the conception is absurd.

    In my youth I read a 1970 book called “Up the Organization,” by Robert Townsend, “a top executive at Avis, Hertz, and American Express.” The book is still available from Amazon. This popular manual for business management, stylistically mimicking the Yippies, said something that made a big permanent impression on me. It alleged (whether truly I don’t know) that the maxim “You can’t think alone” was familiar among businesspeople. I think Mill spells out a similar idea in “On Liberty.”

    If the premise “All persons are in fact not individuals but communities” implies that there are no individuals, then I guess it implies “only communities, not individuals, are ren,” for the same reason that it implies that only communities, not individuals, are bipeds.

    But I don’t see how the premise “All persons are relational” would imply or suggest “only communities, not individuals, are ren.”

    Also the premise “If there is one person in a location with ren, then there are others in the same location with ren” doesn’t imply, I think, that it is inconceivable that there be a person with ren. Compare: “If one person is a neighbor, then at least one other person is a neighbor. Therefore no individual can be a neighbor. Only a pair of individuals can be a neighbor.” What the premise does imply is that no individual can be a neighbor unless two individuals are neighbors.

    I don’t think anyone doubts that a community can be “ren” in the sense that lots of its people are “ren” (conception (A) in my comment 31. But maybe I phrased (A) misleadingly. By saying that people are “ren as individuals” I didn’t mean to say anything about whether their being ren was or was not dependent on other people’s being ren.

    I have the feeling I’m being too picky about logic. But I also just don’t see anything very relational about Confucius’ comments on ren, on the whole.

  32. I’m not so sure that just one person can be ren, though. On multiple occasions, Confucius insists that virtue doesn’t travel alone, and in the Daxue if one person attains ren, then it is demanded that those around them have ren, otherwise that person couldn’t be said to be ren. That is precisely why one person can rule an empire, because if that one person is ren their de will demand that those around them will also be ren. That’s why all someone who embodies ren has to do is sit facing south. Their li having been rectified by ren will be sufficient, as with those around them so the state will effectively run itself. So Confucius talks about individuals striving for ren, but ren can never just be achieved by one individual. Granted, this view is admittedly informed by things like the Donglin Academy, which doesn’t necessarily reflect earlier Confucianism.

    As for the neighbor, we can talk about one person being a neighbor, but we can’t talk about neighbor-ness without having at least two people. Since we are talking about ren, I think it should be understood in the same context as neighbor-ness.

  33. Hmm. If there’s one neighbor there has to be another (but there doesn’t have to be a third). That’s not a fact about social psychology or human nature; it’s just a fact about the concept or the meaning of the word – yes? One doesn’t need any experience of life to know that it’s true.

    If I understand you (and I’m not sure I do), you’re suggesting that according to Confucius, ren is like that. Other terms that are like that are ‘business associate’, ‘colleague’, ‘Senator’, ‘spouse’, and maybe ‘friend’. I think it’s not so clear with ‘friend’. It’s certainly not true of ‘enemy’. (Even ‘spouse’ I’m not sure of; is a widower a spouse?)

    That’s different from the way the flu is contagious, right? Even the most contagious disease can, in principle, be had by just one person.

    Interestingly, to become a neighbor you don’t have to look for someone who is already a neighbor. And to becoem a spouse you don’t have to look for someone who is already a spouse. To become a Senator you don’t need to focus on the other Senators; you just focus on the election. And the first Senators didn’t need to find other people who were already Senators.

    But to catch a contagious disease (or a contagious kind of health, if there were any of those) one has to seek out someone who already has it.

    12.1 and the passage from the Daxue look to me more like contagion than like finding partners.

    My guess is that Confucius did not accept the “neighbor” conception of ren. Here’s one piece of evidence – what do you think?

    6.7 子曰:“回也,其心三月不違仁,其餘則日月至焉而已矣。”
    The Master said, In his heart for three months at a time Hui does not lapse from benevolence [ren]. The others attain benevolence [ren] merely by fits and starts. (Lau)

    My guess is that he thought ren people tended to cluster, for two reasons. First, ren is mildly contagious. Second, ren people want help in staying ren, and they know that ren is mildly contagious, so they seek out other ren people.

    Maybe that’s what you meant?

  34. I made a mistake above: It’s not true that the *only* way to catch a contagious disease is to get it from somebody else. After all, new contagious diseases evolve all the time!

  35. Or maybe your thought was that being ren is like “exerting (and being subject to) gravitational attraction.” That too is something that can’t be done by just one thing, but but it’s not clear whether we should say that’s a matter of fact or definition.

    It’s interesting that “exerting (and being subject to) gravitational attraction” – I’ll call it “gravitating” for short – is subject to a couple of different interpretations.

    (1) On one interpretation, when the earth and I gravitate with regard to each other, we do it in equal degree. My pull upon the earth depends on my mass and the earth’s mass, and the earth’s pull on me is determined the same way. The two pulls are equal.

    (2) On another interpretation, we should distinguish my small contribution from the earth’s greater contribution to the pull. We can call this my small mass and the earth’s large mass, or my weak gravitational field and the earth’s strong field. I exert less pull than the earth does.

    Fact (2), the individualistic fact, is about potentials: how things would tend to move if they came near me. Fact (1), the collective fact, is about actual currrent attraction. (I’m not sure how to state the distinction in proper terms of physics!)

    If ren is like gravitation (1), then the question “How ren is Yan Yuan?” is a bad question. For Yan Yuan might be very ren toward Smith and hardly ren at all toward Jones. But Confucius never talks this way (I think), so it looks like (1) is a bad model for what Confucius means by ‘ren’.

    There are two basic ways, I suppose, in which ren might tend (or be sure) to have neighbors.

    (A) Smith’s being ren will tend to make the people around her ren.
    (AA-i) Smith’s being ren will certainly make some people around her ren.
    (AA-ii) Smith’s being ren will certainly make some people around her and everyone around her ren.
    (AA-iii) If anyone is around Smith, her being ren will certainly make them all ren.

    (B) Smith’s being ren will tend to get other ren people to come around, or tend to get Smith to go find other ren people.
    (BB) Smith’s being ren makes it certain that other ren people are nearby (they came because Smith is ren, or Smith went to them because they are ren).

    One reason why I prefer (A) and (B) over the other formulations as interpretations of Confucius is that it seems to me that even though Confucius thinks ren exerts some attractive force, I think he also must think there are also countervailing forces.

    Do you like any of the other formulas?

  36. Maybe more to the interpretive point is that what the Daxue says about virtue it also says about vice, at least in the passage quoted above (in #33). The idea seems to be not that if anyone is ren everyone will be, but rather that whatever character the rulers have will be reflected in the whole community. Hence the Daxue seems to be talking about the power of rulership and the ruling class more than the power of virtue and vice. Either that or it is being a little careless about the difference between (a) virtue tends to be copied, and (b) rulers tend to be copied.

  37. Actually, gravity is a good metaphor. We can simplify gravity on earth as 9.8m/s/s because we assume the earth. If we don’t assume that, we are left with G(m1*m2)/r^2. Right? If we wanna get reach technical about it, we have to calculate the earth moving *up* to meet the object that is falling as well as the object falling towards the earth . . . we just generally don’t do that because the earth is so massive and the object in question is so small. Despite t Confucius may have thought in a moment-or-two of hyperbole, Hui isn’t weightier than Mt. Tai.

  38. I don’t think the Mandate of Heaven makes any sense if it doesn’t work that way. I can’t be sure if it is Confucius’ view, but I do think it is pretty close to Mencius’ point of view. And from where we are sitting in history, the distinction between those two is pretty much moot.

  39. I’m guessing that your thought is that everyone’s silent partner in ren is heaven and/or great numbers of other people each of whom is a little bit ren.

    I’m curious to know what you think ren is (we haven’t talked about that!) and how your ideas about ren are necessary for the mandate of heaven idea to work. How does it all work?

    One of my worries has been that your ideas about the non-individual character of ren (according to Confucius, or now I should say C&M) might imply directly that everyone in the world would suddenly become perfectly ren and stay that way (in one grand moral-gravitational collapse).

    We’ve been talking about certain very abstract logical or structural features of ren – things it might have in common with gravitating – rather than what ren is. My questions in #37 were to help me understand what you were saying about the structural features, which I still don’t understand.

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