A Series of Footnotes to Confucius, Laozi–or to Me!

Picking up on something very interesting that Justin Tiwald said in the Tu string:

“I don’t think the defenders of Yili learning explicitly embraced the slogan ‘the classics comment on me’ (經注我). Still, there are a number of neo-Confucians who made statements in the neighborhood of this slogan. Lu Xiangshan is known for the shocking assertion that the ‘Six Classics are my footnotes’ (六經皆我註腳).”

We’ve all heard that Whitehead thought western philosophy has been just a long series of footnotes to Plato. It’s easy enough to imagine someone echoing Lu Xiangshan, saying, “Plato’s writings are just a series of footnotes to me.” (Who would that be? I could imagine Russell saying that over a cocktail.)

(Totally unrelated aside: Whitehead also said, and this is my favorite Whitehead quote, “A traveller who has lost his way should not ask ‘Where am I?’ What he really wants to know is, where are the other places?”)

It occurs to me that Lu Xiangshan’s assertion is really just a more strident way of describing “constructive” engagement with Confucianism, where Confucius and others are merely inspirational starting points for some new views, with Confucius providing some quotes and footnotes. Maybe the sort of projects that New Confucians are engaged in would fit this mold; maybe Van Norden’s suggestion for a neo-Mencian virtue ethics; maybe much of the comparative philosophy work that is out there where the author is using the past and trying to make it relevant to the present.

I have to ask, because in most respects, it is what I do for a living (aside from corrupting the youth), is there any independent point or value to investigating history–or more pointedly, Confucius, Laozi, et. al.–as an end in itself? I’m not exactly sure I understand the dictum to “revere the past,” or to “understand the past accurately,” as a worthwhile end in itself (unless, of course, it is on the order of stamp collecting). I used to be qualm-less about that as an endeavor, but I’m starting to have doubts (maybe I’ll have a blog-induced  career crisis). Any thoughts?

11 replies on “A Series of Footnotes to Confucius, Laozi–or to Me!”

  1. I have to ask, because in most respects, it is what I do for a living (aside from corrupting the youth), is there any independent point or value to investigating history–or more pointedly, Confucius, Laozi, et. al.–as an end in itself? I’m not exactly sure I understand the dictum to “revere the past,” or to “understand the past accurately,” as a worthwhile end in itself (unless, of course, it is on the order of stamp collecting). I used to be qualm-less about that as an endeavor, but I’m starting to have doubts (maybe I’ll have a blog-induced career crisis). Any thoughts?

    Great question. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious but isn’t studying history and the classics something akin to ask your blog audience for opinions? (the former having greater intrinsic value than the latter, of course…) I mean, the end result of the rhetorical exercise is to find reference markers to form, reform or sustain your own opinion on a subject. Some call it “learning,” in the case of digesting all those classics; I prefer “molding” 🙂

    I’m almost certain your philosophical points of view and opinions, on any number of subjects, were not formed in a vacuum and from that is inferred that a look at what preceded you was taken and discerned. That includes every single book you’ve laid your eyes on.

    Without getting into a chicken-egg argument, I would venture to say that everyone needs instruction and even Plato drew water from a well that preceded him, but, resulting in the unique and unequivocally Plato we know and love (running to wash my mouth with Listerine…)

    Regardless of any efforts one can now put on the task, no one can erase what the environment has etched into our psyche. For scholars, digesting countless works, the “environment” is even more tangibly omnipresent than for the rest of mortals.


  2. I suspect much hinges here on how one conceives of and practices philosophy. I happen to think that there is no such thing as “philosophy for philosophy’s sake” (as there is no such thing as ‘art for art’s sake’) and that it is an ethical and social (or political) responsibility of philosophers as philosophers to do their best to ascertain what is living and what is dead in the work of any given philosopher (of course such a judgment may vary with time and place, but that renders the task no less urgent). This may often entail coming to “conclusions” or determinations that may seem hasty, premature, or not fully justified from the persepctive of the scholar who devotes her lifetime to grappling, say, with what Confucius said or meant. Life is too short, time is too precious and the nature of ethical demands too pressing to forever forestall the endeavor to make Confucius (or…) relevant to our time and place. Now the things philosophers do as part of their profession is rightly many and varied (how’s that for a vague generalization?), but I think philosophers should avow an “ethical” (used broadly or generously here) commitment to specific values such that their work is never wholly or purely academic or scholastic, such that they seriously entertain what it means to live lives of comparative affluence and privilege, with the luxury to think about matters that few have the time or desire to emulate (owing, in the latter case, to arbitrary or inexcusable socio-economic exigencies or adaptive preference formation). In short, I believe there is much truth to what a Noam Chomsky (with whom I have deep disagreements when it comes to ‘strictly’ philosophical issues in philosophy of mind) or a Jean-Paul Sartre (e.g., in his essay, ‘A Plea for Intellectuals’), or even Marx for that matter, have said about ‘intellectual responsibility,’ even though our philosophical work may not always have clearly ascertainable or direct social or political implications, consequences or ramifications. Hence, I subscribe to the following from John Dewey: “Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.” In my case, that means I’m committed to the necessity and value of what Nussbaum has termed, after the Hellenstic philosophers, a “therapy of desire,” that I’m committed to being explicit as to what I think constitutes the “good life” or eudaimonia (human flourishing). This means, in the end, that I read Confucius, or the Daodejing with such commitments and values in mind, indeed, that I think of philosophy as a “way of life” that is not circumscribed by what philosophers qua professional philosophers think and practice. As always, much more could be said although perhaps I’ve said too much and no doubt such thoughts come a bit easier (too easy?) to one on the margins of academic life.

  3. Patrick, there’s another way that one’s current ethical or political concerns can inform work on ancient texts, and it sometimes points in a rather different direction from what I think you’re advocating.

    One way, to which I think you’re sympathetic, is to try to recover from ancient texts points of view or values or whatever that can be used to address current concerns. This motivates a kind of optimism in interpretation: you draw out those things in the text that you find helpful, and set aside the rest.

    I prefer a more cynical approach. The texts we study are themselves the products of privilege, and to understand them in their own context requires us to work through the ways in which they address and fail to address that privilege. But this is likely to be exactly the sort of work that gets set aside with a more optimistic approach.

    Let me give an example. Ru philosophers based a great deal of what they said on moralistic idealisations of elite traditions and institutions. These include their idealisation of the gentleman, much discussed hereabouts not so long ago, and also of ritual (including musical) traditions, and even of war. I take these idealisations to imply an identification with privilege, and I think this identification was fundamental to the outlook of the ru. But we pretty much have to set it aside if we’re going to focus on, say, constructing variants of Mencian philosophy that embrace pluralism and gender equality. And I can’t see how ignoring it helps hone our (or our readers’) awareness of contemporary forms of privilege.

    A more specific example. When Mencius was in Qi, he let it be known that, in his view, an invasion of Yan would morally justified. This appears to have been used to legitimise Qi’s subsequent invasion. After the fact, Mencius appears to have condemned the invasion and occupation of Yan, saying that his earlier statements did not really justify it. (The Mencius is amusingly defensive about this sequence of events, which one reason to take it seriously as history.)

    Interpreting optimistically, we might say that, as he later claimed, Mencius was just putting forward a general account of the conditions under which invasion would be justified, but that since Qi’s actual invasion did not satisfy those conditions, Mencius was in no way at fault for what actually happened.

    More cynically, we might say that in context the primary function of any discussion of moral invasion, regardless of how abstractly it was carried out, was to legitimise Qi’s actions, and that Mencius’s after-the-fact condemnation of the invasion was too little and too late. More generally, we might say that the moralised idealisation of the exercise of military power that is built into the Mencian ideal of the (true) king could only serve to legitimate actual exercises of military power.

    Which of these approaches has more to say about contemporary American political realities?

  4. Maybe I should have made the intended point a bit more explicit: I don’t see any conflict between interpreting the texts in their actual historical context, on the one hand, and finding contemporary relevance, on the other; and I think the second aim is often best served by working on the first.

  5. Lu Xiangshan himself has a pretty interesting take on this issue. In the passage from which “my footnotes” was taken, he argues that the whole business of interpreting ancient texts can’t get off the ground without assuming that our hearts and minds share a common stock of intuitive judgments. We need this common stock in order to fill in the lacuna in the old texts. He takes Analects 1.1 as one of his examples: what is it that we’re supposed to “study and practice in a timely manner” in order get the “joy” of the gentleman? Philology can only take us so far toward an answer, and in any case we’ll never appreciate that joy for ourselves without the common heart and mind.

    It’s really a peculiar twist on the usual arguments for interpretive charity, where we’re supposed to assume not just that their statements are generally coherent and/or true, but that the wisdom of the ancients can be made to feel as intuitive to us as it did to them. Intuitiveness is necessary because the goal isn’t just to understand what the ancients said, but to integrate their insights into our own process of moral self-cultivation. And the kind of moral knowledge that counts for self-cultivation is the kind that you “get for yourself” (自得), which (among other things) is the kind you eventually understand intuitively.

    This view has got to be more out of fashion in academia now than it has ever been. But there’s a cool point about moral cultivation and education in there.

    Great Whitehead quotes, Manyul. And you’re right, “Plato’s writings are my footnotes” sounds like just the sort of thing that Russell would say!

  6. “The texts we study are themselves the products of privilege, and to understand them in their own context requires us to work through the ways in which they address and fail to address that privilege. But this is likely to be exactly the sort of work that gets set aside with a more optimistic approach.”


    I think Confucius is comparatively egalitarian (in the sense suggested by Nylan), all things considered, and I’m concerned about conflating the value of moral ideals with what you refer to as “the moral idealisation of elite traditions and institutions.” And I do believe that, historically speaking, Confucius’ worldview provides in several respects deep critiques of ethically troublesome characteristics of Chinese civilization up to that point. I don’t know enough about neo-Confucian philosophers to comment in their case but I think it may be too easy to assume that the “products of privilege” will, in turn, be about justifying or excusing or ignoring privilege. Consider, for instance, the work of “liberation theologians” like Gustvao Gutierrez, Clodovis and Leonardo Boff, among others: their formal educational training often represented the acme of privilege (education at some of the best schools in Europer) yet their work served to cultivate “organic intellectuals” in the Granscian sense and became integral to the socially transformative praxis of communidades de base throughout Central and South America. So I don’t want to make the presumption that products of privilege will necessarily, in turn, serve somehow to continue or cement that privilege. Now perhaps that is indeed the case with “Confucianism” as an ideology (which selectively appropriates or tendentiously emphasizes, this or that aspect or feature from the Confucian corpus) but I’m not sure I would want to hold Confucius accountable for that.

    What is more, I do think it’s well-nigh impossible to assess or judge these worldviews in toto, so one needs to refer (as you do above), to specific ideas and practices, some of which we rightly renounce and find no longer viable, and others that may speak to us in ways applicable to the relief of human suffering. Nussbaum’s book does this in an exemplary fashion, detailing what she thinks is still relevant within Hellenistic philosophies like Stoicism yet no less afraid to call them to task where they clearly (by our lights today) fall short: “It is one thing to recognize that even in conditions of slavery human beings retain an inalienable worth on account of which enslaving them is unjust and morally repugnant. It is quite another to claim that this dignity is the only thing of true importance to human flourishing, and that it is so rock hard that slavery doesn’t touch it–so that it really doesn’t matter to eudaimonia whether one is a slave or not.”

    Perhaps you hit the nail on the head with regard to what you term an “optimistic approach”: I’m not in favor of according pride of place to the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (I prefer, in the first instance, a hermeneutics of openness or presumptive innocence, which of course is fallible and defeasible, perhaps even naive) despite my admiration of and fondness for the likes of Marx and Freud. And I’m not sure we need choose between an “optimistic” and “cynical” approach in the sense that the former necessarily means we utterly ignore the latter, even if in the hands of some that has in fact been the case.

    Finally, I’m far from advocating the Confucian worldview for all that ails us, but I do think there is much within that worldview that still speaks to questions not adequately addressed in (if not missing from) contemporary practices and concerns. Again, Nussbaum’s book provides a nice example of how one might go about this interpretive endeavor. Like the Hellenistic philosophies she examines, I’m convinced that Confucianism and Daoism provide us with instances of “a practical and compassionate philosophy–a philosophy that exists for the sake of human beings, in order to address their deepest needs, confront their most urgent perplexities, and bring them from misery to some greater measure of flourishing….”

  7. Patrick, you’re right that I often tend to favour a hermeneutics of suspicion (actually I’m not sure why I avoided that expression; possibly I’m allergic to the word “hermeneutics”). And you could put the main point of my post this way: one of the things historical studies can provide is training in suspicion.

    Still, I wouldn’t (and didn’t) go so far as to say that the privileged inevitably end up legitimating privilege. The ru certainly were able to construct critical stances from their moralistic idealisations, at least some of the time. (There are some wonderful examples in Book 1 of the Mencius; my favourite is 1A/6.)

    I wonder to what extent our different approaches to this issue might be due to the fact (if it’s a fact) that you’re thinking more about ethics, while (right now anyway) I’m thinking more about politics.

  8. Plenty of fine comments here. Manyul asks:

    “…is there any independent point or value to investigating history–or more pointedly, Confucius, Laozi, et. al.–as an end in itself?”

    And Dan says, “one of the things historical studies can provide is training in suspicion.”

    Which reminds me of Nietzsche’s remark: “Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire….”

    I find my “peace of soul and pleasure” in Confucianism. So in that sense I’m liable to distorting its teachings to suit my fancy, as Manyul once accused me of doing. So, in that sense, I am glad there are people like Dan and the Brookses around. There is independent value in investigating history for its own sake.

  9. Dan,

    You are correct in stating that I’m “thinking more about ethics,” for in so doing we capture some of the spirit if not the letter of Confucius himself. In other words, from a (our) modern or secular perspective, Confucius represents or exemplifies the moralization of the political, he subsumes the political within the ethical, he refuses to have two standards, one political, the other moral, in other words, for Confucius, the problem of “dirty hands” cannot arise, for his conception of “good governance” does not permit the sacrifice of moral standards, there are no Machiavellian “necessities” of politics that demand the “transcendence” or violation of personal virtues. For Confucius, political reasons as we might call them, can never override moral considerations, the virtues required by political life and collective conduct are an extension of those found in the familial realm, in the intimate sphere of “private” life. Confucius cannot countenance the modern and Machiavellian notion that it is sometimes legitimate or justified for rulers to violate the moral code as it were that binds us all (i.e., rulers are not allowed a special ethical dispensation by virtue of the fact they must act in the greater arena of collective conduct). The Confucian ruler must not be prepared to foresake morality, indeed, he must exemplify it, model it for his subjects. Confucius provides us with a compelling contrast to the Hobbesian denial that morality and its associated virtues obligate us both in foro interno and in foro externo. For Confucius there are not two spheres of action or “two ways of life”: private morality and public morality.

  10. Here’s a different way to forestall blog-induced philosophical crises:

    One of my undergraduate advisors, who did early modern (European) philosophy, once said, “When some people talk about Aristotle, it’s like he’s there in the room with them. The question to ask about a historical figure is not how he would answer our questions, but why he was interested in _his_ questions and how such a smart person could say things that sound so dumb.”

    In other words, the (or, at least, one) point of studying historical figures is to understand how intelligent people could reach conclusions that we find shocking or obviously false. (Russell makes a similar point somewhere about understanding another’s metaphysical views.) The value in this is that it makes it easier to understand how (contemporary) others can disagree with us, and trains us to see things from different perspectives–a very important skill if ever there was one.

    In order to do this well, however, we need experts to guide us through the interpretation of a work–especially works as cryptic and foreign as ancient Chinese works often are.

    And just because I can’t resist: Plato’s writings _are_ footnotes to mine, literally–and to everyone else’s. If they weren’t, he’d only be as important as Anaximander.

  11. David, and everyone else:

    It sounds like there’s a consensus so far on something like this:

    Accuracy, as an ideal of interpreting the ancient Chinese texts, either has independent value (Boram’s view) or has value precisely in helping to achieve various aims that we might have in looking to them (enhancing or filling in gaps in ethical understanding; providing training in suspicion; softening the incredulity of our stares toward David Lewis; etc.).

    What I want to know is, to the extent that an interpretation of ancient Chinese texts helps to achieve exactly those kinds of aims, does it really matter whether the interpretation is accurate, beyond a certain minimal threshold? So, take a Whiteheadian, process philosophy interpretation of the later Mohists–not that I know of any, but it’s probably on the horizon; *so what* if someone can point out ways that the accuracy of the reading might be suspect? So long as taking that reading gets someone what he or she wants out of engagement with the ancient Chinese texts, why the hand-wringing about accuracy? Or, is there some primary duty of philosophers to aim for textual accuracy–a geekier cousin of the lover of truth ideal? Alternatively, is there a prima facie assumption by people offering interpretations that they themselves actually *are* engaged in the accuracy game (not having taken Nietzsche and Zhuangzi, among others, to heart)?

    Do the accuracy police have any general legitimacy, independent of *particular* hermeneutic aims that might (or might not) be served by accuracy?

    From a slightly different angle: if assessment of accuracy is likely to be an elusive thing in any case with a particular text–for example, the Daodejing–who cares whether the interpretation is accurate or not? (Leave my German Enlightenment interpretation of it alone, man!)

    (Actually, let’s continue this discussion in the new post, Accuracy in Historical Interpretation)

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