Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Ability and cultivation in Mencius 2A/6

This is part of an argument I’ve been developing for an embarrassingly long time. I gave it most recently at the APA in Boston last week. I’m focusing here on a point in my talk that Steve Angle took issue with in his comments.

Section 2A/6 of the Mencius famously tells us that anyone, or at any rate any person, would feel alarm and compassion at the sight of an infant about to fall into a well, and that this reaction amounts to a heart of compassion that we can “expand and fill out,” thereby becoming benevolent. One way to read this is as a call for self-cultivation: it’s saying, more or less, that each person can become benevolent by cultivating his or her heart of compassion so that gradually, over time, it develops into full benevolence. You may recognise this sort of reading, since it’s ubiquitous in the English-language Mencius scholarship. It’s also wrong.

The passage begins by telling us that we all have hearts that do not tolerate people suffering, that the former kings ruled using these hearts to practise government that does not tolerate people suffering, and that if we do so it will be easy to govern the whole world. And the passage concludes, in part, by saying that given our hearts of compassion–and our hearts of shame, deference, and judgment, which the passage also mentions–it is a form of abuse to say of anyone that he or she is unable.

Now, this is all about ability, and what it is saying is that we already have the ability because we already have the four hearts. The ability that’s at issue here is the ability to be virtuous, or, to be precise, the ability to rule virtuously over the whole world. But if we already have that ability, then what remains to be cultivated? Don’t we just have to exercise the ability?

That really is the key issue. Mencius 2A/6 is framed as an argument about the ability to be virtuous in government. It claims that we already have that ability. In fact it does not mention anything we need for virtue that it does not claim we already have. It therefore isn’t calling for any gradual process of moral cultivation. (The almost-parallel passage in Mencius 6A/6 actually goes further, saying that we already have the virtues within us.)

Admittedly, cultivationist readings have an easy time with the passage’s claims that the four hearts are the starting-points (duan) of the virtues and that we must expand them and fill them out: these are easily construed as expressions of a theory of moral self-cultivation. But let’s instead take seriously the way the passage’s arguments are framed, and try to make sense of the idea that the ability to be benevolent (say) is a starting-point of benevolence, and that exercising that ability (without developing it) is a way of expanding it and filling it out.

Here’s one way it could work. The passage describes the compassion we would feel at the sight of an infant about to fall into a well as the heart of compassion. But next it says that all of us have such a heart—when obviously we are not all feeling compassion at any given time. It’s as if we have compassion within us in some unfelt form at all times, and then it emerges on particular occasions, and that’s when we actually feel compassion. We are then benevolent to the extent to which our compassion emerges when appropriate.

Of course the problem with most of us is that we do not let this compassion emerge often enough. That’s why the compassion within us is just a starting point, and why we have to expand it and fill it out. But in doing so, we need not be changing the compassion within us, rather we are letting it out more. This is how we exercise our ability to be good, and why exercising this ability might reasonably be described as expanding and filling out our heart of compassion.

A great deal has been made of a purported plant analogy in this passage, for supposedly the word “duan” means sprout here. There’s really no reason to think this is true: “duan” doesn’t mean that anywhere else, there’s no other plant imagery in the passage, and the passage does not present the sorts of views that the Mencius elsewhere seems to associate with plant imagery.

But the analogies that the passage unquestionably contains are instructive. If we expand and fill out our hearts, we are told, it will be like a fire beginning to burn or a spring beginning to flow. In both cases we seem to have something that remains homogeneous as it expands: it itself is not improved or cultivated, what changes is where it goes. And where it goes is determined not by its own character, but by the local distribution of fuel or the shape of the local landscape. The passage, I think, is saying something similar about our four hearts. And I think that means the passage isn’t saying that we need to cultivate those hearts, we’ve just got to give them somewhere to go, and when we do that, they’ll just go there. This is what it means to exercise the ability to be good that our hearts give us.

January 6th, 2011 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Ethical Theory, Mencius | 44 comments

44 Responses to Ability and cultivation in Mencius 2A/6

  1. Chris Fraser says:

    Hi Dan,

    I largely agree with your interpretation, as I think Manyul will, since your take on 2A:6 complements the arguments in his 1999 paper on emotions and virtue in Mencius. I’ve always found that paper persuasive.

    A minor point of disagreement, which might actually bolster your case: You summarize one implication of 2A:6 by saying, “We are then benevolent to the extent to which our compassion emerges when appropriate.” To me, a striking aspect of the Mencian child-by-the-well scenario is that the compassionate, alarmed observer is not depicted as taking action to save the child. He merely feels alarmed, thus demonstrating that he has the “beginning” (duan 端) of ren 仁 (benevolence) in him.

    To be fully ren, the observer would need to take appropriate action, not just feel the appropriate emotion. Perhaps he could rush over to snatch the child away from the well, for instance.

    So merely having compassion emerge in appropriate situations isn’t sufficient to qualify a person as benevolent. The person needs to act appropriately as well. I suggest that it’s in this sense that compassion is the “beginning” of the virtue. That we have the emotion establishes that we have the psychological wherewithal to act virtuously, and thus the ability (能) to be virtuous. But to possess the full virtue, this “beginning” must be “filled out” through action.

    So we don’t need to develop the relevant motives (compassion, shame, etc.); the four beginnings are already present. But we do need to develop the habit of acting appropriately on these motivating attitudes. (And part of that development will involve allowing them to be triggered only in appropriate circumstances. A gentleman stays away from the kitchen.)

  2. Steve Angle says:

    Hi Dan (and Chris),

    One difficulty for me with the view you describe is that I don’t understand the view that you are trying to attribute to the text. Your view seems to be that we should “just do it”: “we’ve just got to give them somewhere to go, and when we do that, they’ll just go there.” At the APA panel you emphasized the role of an independent, pre-existing moral ideal. The idea, I think, is that this ideal (taken from Confucian tradition) is supposed to provide the guidance for when and where we should put our ability into practice. So all we need are two things: (1) the ability to feel compassion (etc.), which we have; and (2) cognitive guidance, in the form of the moral ideal. (At one point during the panel you said we need to “figure out the right occasions to put the heart into play.”) In your paper, as I recall, you say that this, too, is already taken for granted by Mencius (and by the King in 1A7). So there you have it: we have everything we need. We should be acting morally already, all the time.

    Of course, we don’t. Mencius says that we need to “expand and fill out” the beginnings. Chris suggests that this means we need to “develop the habit of acting appropriately on these motivating attitude,” which includes “allowing them to be triggered only in appropriate circumstance.” From the “stay away from the kitchen” reference, I gather this means avoiding situations in which it would be inapt for the motivating attitudes to be triggered, rather than changing one’s psychology so that they are only triggered when apt, no matter the circumstances. But this habit development cannot only be about habitually avoiding bad situations, can it? Or maybe that’s the view? If we can learn, and internalize, which situations trigger apt motives and which are problems, then we’re all set? A very strongly “situationist” view, but maybe that’s the idea?

    Dan’s own discussion seems to me to be more, um, cognitive and voluntarist: figure out the right occasion, and then put the ability into play. Is that right?

    At the APA panel, Stephen Walker presented a paper that, among other things, argued for a reading of 2A2 bearing on these matters. His idea is that 2A2 discusses the cultivation and growth of one’s qi, which he understands as a kind of emotional energy that supports morality. The story is strikingly reminiscent of the “spirited part” of Plato’s tripartite soul. Stephen further argued that one cultivated these energies at least in part by acting rightly: there is a feedback (which he briefly explored) between acting rightly and developing the strength to act rightly more regularly.

    So perhaps we now have a third possibility: on Stephen’s picture, are the duan too weak to move us to action on their own, and need to be allied to the energies? Building the energies, then, might be seen as a way to “expand and fill out” the weak moral motive?

    Any thoughts on these various possible ways of reading the “ability only” idea will help me understand it better, and then we can move on to discussing its plausibility, both as an interpretation and as a philosophical theory.

  3. Manyul Im says:

    I feel like I’ve re-entered a debate I had briefly with “Cultivationists” about ten years ago in response to my paper to which Chris alludes (“Emotional Control and Virtue in the Mencius” PEW 49:1). I had largely given up on trying to provide further arguments for the voluntarist/situationist reading of Mencius because no one seemed convinced — not that anyone gave textual reasons against the reading, as far as I’m aware. So, I like the fact that Dan has taken up the mantle. And, though I have yet to read his paper, I think I would find little to disagree with.

    Let me say just a few things that occur to me from reading Chris and Steve’s comments in response to Dan’s post.

    The “voluntarist” and “situationist” renderings of Dan’s and my position are compatible, in fact complementary in an interesting way, supposing that they mean roughly the following:

    Voluntarism in Mencius – The slogan for this is “just do it” (為之而已矣, 6B2). Exercise the abilities you have in the appropriate situations that (1) you already know to exist (e.g. the people of Qi suffering), (2) you discover either accidentally or through gathering information, and (3) you figure out based on analogies to more obvious cases.

    An aside: This sort of voluntarism is plausible if the type of evidence for your already possessing such abilities is convincing — evidence such as the child falling in well thought experiment, or your response to nonhuman suffering. I’m not saying whether those things ARE convincing, just that once Mencius thinks they are, the Voluntarist view described here would be coherent and natural for him to hold.

    Situationism in Mencius – The slogan for this is “stay out of the kitchen.” Try not to “trip” your abilities into an inappropriate response by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. An inappropriate response may occur because a situation bears enough surface resemblance to an appropriate one. Whether the two situation tokens or types are in fact analogous may require more careful reflection on principles or particulars.

    An aside: This sort of situationism is completely compatible with the voluntarism described above. Using one of Mencius’s analogies, our moral-control is like our limb-control: it is ordinarily voluntary but sometimes we react to things without thinking carefully enough or just out of a kind of reflex. So, the mild situationism here amounts to both Mencius’s recognition of such “hiccups” and also, as a bonus for him, as evidence of the existing strength of the moral abilities in question (recalling the 1A7 King Xuan conversation).

    I need to hear more about Stephen’s paper — actually, I may have a copy on my computer. In any case, I’ll try to respond to it later. That should do for now.

  4. Dan Robins says:

    Chris, I was actually thinking of the action as the compassion emerging further in some sense, as filling out the beginning, as you put it. So I think we agree.

    I did avoid using the word “habit,” and as Steve points out, my APA talk was fairly voluntarist. In part this was because I was also talking about 1A/7 (“pick up your heart from over here, and apply it over there”). I do think that the full picture is going to involve habit, but also that these texts are saying that to begin with we can and should just start acting in the way we already recognise as correct.

    Steve, I mostly think these texts assume you already know how you should be acting, but might not be sure you have what it takes to act that way. It was careless of me to say we need to figure out what to do; presumably that’s sometimes true, but neither 2A/6 nor 1A/7 makes anything of that fact. I’d rather just say that these texts assume we already have a moral outlook, and the four hearts give us the ability to act according to that outlook.

    My reading of these texts isn’t especially situationist. Apparently there are situations in which our compassion will cause us to behave inappropriately, and we should stay away from those situations. But I don’t think that’s the main way we’re supposed to become better people. Mostly I think we’re supposed to exercise our compassion (or shame, or deference, or judgment) in situations in which we do not already feel it.

    I actually kind of wish there were a suggestion somewhere in the Mencius that we can expand our compassion in part by getting ourselves into more situations that will trigger it. For example, we can imagine a text arguing that if the king goes on royal tours or establishes an effective system of reporting, then his people’s hardships will strike him more vividly, and trigger his compassion. (This would even cohere fairly well with the fact that perception seems essential to both the child by the well and the ox cases.) But we don’t actually get an argument like that.

    I’m not sure that’ll answer your questions, Steve. Could part of the problem be that, as I read them, these passages leave a lot of questions unanswered? Because I agree that they do, but don’t take that to be a weakness of my interpretation.

    I suspect I’ll have enough to say about Manyul’s paper that I’d better say it in a separate comment (and I likely won’t be able to get to it tonight). So I’ll stop here for now.

  5. Chris says:

    Dan –

    Interesting post – I’ve been thinking about very similar questions in Mencius lately, so this piqued my interest.

    I’m bypassing the commentary above to ask you a quick question, because something you say gets close to something I’ve been thinking about myself: how would you cash out your view that “we have compassion within us in some unfelt form at all times, and then it emerges on particular occasions, and that’s when we actually feel compassion”?

    I ge that this would be a non-phenomenal presence of duan, and I’m sympathetic to this reading, but to be honest I’ve been a bit unsure how to explain it. Is the claim that duan like compassion, if not phenomenally present, are still on some level functionally present (perhaps causing some changes in psychological states and/or behavior)? Or can a duan like compassion be present even if it plays no phenomenal or functional role?

    Any idea how to cash this out?

  6. Dan Robins says:


    A related question is whether when we exercise the heart of compassion we inevitably feel compassion. In both cases the question is whether the heart can affect how we act other than by giving rise to the feeling.

    I don’t think the Mencius really tries to answer these questions. (Its business is cajoling, not theory-construction.) But I I tend to think they wouldn’t have called it a heart of compassion if feeling weren’t central to the idea (but maybe “compassion” and “ceyin” are importantly different in ways that are relevant to this issue?).

    It could be significant that the heart we have in response to the sight of an infant about to fall into a well is a heart of alarm and compassion, but the heart that we all have is a heart of compassion. So if we imagine how we’d feel at the sight of an infant about to fall into a well, it’s not that whole feeling that, supposedly, is somehow in all of us all the time. And presumably we don’t have to feel that whole feeling in order to be benevolent in less immediately alarming situations.


  7. Bill Haines says:

    Terrific post and thread!

    The main candidates that come to my mind for the not-always-felt things are:

    Abilities to feel
    Dispositions to feel

    Is it hard to say clearly and compactly in Mengzi’s Chinese that someone has a disposition (without specifying the trigger conditions)? I forget, or never knew. If it is hard, then Mencius might just call them abilities, and/or might be very fuzzy on the distinction.

    Of the four little descriptions of hearts given in 2A6 and 6A6, only two look as though they could refer to feelings, and those two look as though they could just as well refer to attitudes, with the second character in the pair referring to the objects of the attitudes; compare 2A6’s 羞惡之心 to 2A9’s 惡惡之心 (the latter being a reason to think the second character in the former should be pronounced è). Or this kind of pairing could be one way to refer compactly to a disposition, giving its triggering condition. (Dan, does the Mencius ever speak of having a certain heart in response to something?)

    A priori, it would seem that attitudes rather than feelings are what is morally essential, while bouts of feeling can make attitudes especially observable to oneself and others. In moral importance, dispositions to feel seem to fall somewhere between feelings and attitudes. Or if we understand the feeling of e.g. compassion as not just a certain flavor of experience, but as a flavor (or whatever) in response to observing another’s suffering, then it would seem that a person can have the feeling only if she has the disposition, so that claiming that we all can have the feeling amounts to claiming that we all do have the disposition. Of course, so read, 2A6 (or rather 6A6) still has a problem if the disposition does not match the gentleman’s attitude.

    In 1A7, Mencius cites the gentleman’s dispositions (probably dispositions to feelings, since the context is about the king’s feelings) to explain why the gentleman should keep away from the kitchen. It would seem that the dispositions do not quite match the proper attitudes of the gentleman toward the suffering of animals. But consistent with that point, Mencius could still conceive the hearts of 2A6 as attitudes, which are naturally accompanied by somewhat cruder dispositions.

    Hmm. Does the kitchen remark show that the gentleman’s dispositions don’t match his attitudes? We might think so, if we think of virtuous attitudes as being attitudes toward circumstances agent-neutrally conceived. But that might not be what all virtuous attitudes are toward.

  8. Chris says:

    Dan –

    I agree that the Mencius surely isn’t trying to answer any of these questions (all of which I suspect would have sounded bizarre and off the point in the more immediate and practical sense). Still, while the text surely leaves some competing philosophical speculations open, it likely closes the door on others!

    Whether we (phenomenally) feel compassion when we exercise the heart is an interesting question (partly we’d have to clarify the level of robustness in “exercise”!).

    Prima facie, I would think “yes” though I suppose some room would need to be built in for phenomenal feels that (a) one is not necessarily self-conscious of (I merely respond to the felt experience of suffering in a child) as opposed to (b) those feels that one is more consciously and intentionally focused on as actual states of one’s experience. I don’t see why (b) would be necessary for the recognition of the intentional object (kid suffering) to enter into practical deliberation, but I can imagine that one might see (a) feels as central (though having this feeling may not be sufficient, as it might be nudged from practical deliberation by other defeaters).

    At times I am sympathetic to the view that it is not compassion as a feeling that is “cultivated” in Mencius (as if there is more of it afterward) or even that one needs to learn to have the feeling be present in more situations (extending its range) but rather that the feeling is always “fully” present in the sense of (a) above, but that when it is in the presence of intentional objects it takes as salient, the compassionate feeling can be nudged from practical deliberation by defeating feelings or attitudes. Cultivation seeks to more and more reduce the number of those situations.

    Sometimes I read Mencius’ attempts with King Xuan (across a number of passages) as a way to get the King to engage in (b) (“Look there! You do feel for your people! Check it out!”) as a way to weaken the defeating feelings/attitudes and allow (a) to enter back into practical deliberation as an effective force.

  9. Steve Angle says:


    Trying to make sense of all of this has just led me to re-read Manyul’s “Emotional Control” and “Wielding Virtue” papers. I think these are excellent papers, and–even though I think they are a bit misleading, on which see below–I think I understand and mostly agree with them. Does that help with the current discussion? Some observations.

    (1) I think it’s a mistake to put much weight on the fact that 2A6 does not clearly say one saves the child, and therefore that the key isn’t the compassionate reaction, but rather the (at least partly independent) action. In all the other cases that have been mentioned, or are mentioned in Manyul’s two papers, emotional reaction does lead to action. The key idea (which I find in Manyul’s papers, at least) is getting oneself to attend to a situation properly, such that one has the correct emotional response, such that one acts properly.

    (2) I think that the talk of “voluntarism” is much overdone. Statements like “just do it,” “feel compassion at will,” “the will bears the burden of moral character,” and so on turn out to be meant in highly technical senses (by Manyul, at least) and as a result are misleading. At most, the idea is that one thinks “I should feel compassion for X,” and knows how to get oneself to feel such compassion, by attending to certain features of X and/or X’s situation, and then attends to these things, and then feels compassion. (And then acts. If one doesn’t act, presumably it’s because one’s attention was defeated by attention to something else.)

    (2a) Dan may think that a stronger kind of voluntarism is there in the text. At this point, I don’t see it or understand it.

    (3) Moreover, I think that even the amount of voluntarism implied at the end of (2) is too much. The picture in Mencius is rather that one is taught/habituated/ritualized to attend to various things, whereupon (because one has the ability to feel compassion, yes!) one feels compassion and acts.

    (4) All this is consistent with the idea that we do not consciously work to perfect the strength of our emotions, and also consistent with Manyul’s reading of agricultural/growth metaphors in terms of natural growth. That is, it may turn out that if an adolescent is taught to attend to a situation properly, and does so (or does so accidentally), his or her compassion may not yet be strong enough. Right? Could be.

    (5) The normative question: WHY should we train our attention in the ways that Mencius and the rituals teach us? One possible answer is offered by Dan and Stephen: there simply is a pre-existing moral view taken for granted. We unthinkingly accept the Zhou tradition.

    (6) Another possibility, though, is something like this: only if we train ourselves to focus on things that will bring out our moral emotions, and tend to not make the physical desires’ reactions salient, can we realize the full potential of our humanity (or maybe relational co-humanity). I grant that this idea is not made fully explicit in the text, but I see it pretty close to the surface in 7B24, what’s at work in 7A1, lying behind the idea that those without the duan are “not human” in 2A6, related to the idea that it is moral action that strengthens our qi in 2A2, and part of what’s involved in “measuring the king’s heart” in 1A7.

  10. Stephen C. Walker says:

    I remain most interested in (5), but I do not agree with the formulation “We unthinkingly accept the Zhou tradition.” My last few presentations on Confucianism have indeed stressed the writers’ disinterest in questioning the authoritative status of their tradition, and I have explored systematic aspects of their teachings that render questioning that authority difficult or uninviting. More than once, interlocutors have characterized my interpretation as one that renders Confucians “unthinking”, but this has never been my intention. I assume that they did great amounts of thinking, much of it critical and independent – facile stereotypes about knee-jerk traditionalism do not explain the classical texts well. That thinking was, however, constrained by a complex set of factors that persistently foregrounded a set body of texts and traditions as the only respectable centerpiece for any regimen of moral improvement.

    Mengzi, for instance, appears to have introduced considerable new content to his tradition – but he would be the last to acknowledge this, as his habit is to project every normative or psychological insight back onto the ancient sages. I think Mengzi did believe that his training helps us realize our humanity, as (6) suggests; the question is how far that portrait of “humanity” can stand independent of the richly mythologized set of narratives and character-portraits in which Mengzi is so deeply invested. There is much that is insightful in his work, but it must be recognized that in separating these insights from Mengzi’s naive and parochial portrait of human history – a portrait that is intensely political and galvanizes very specific career ambitions – we are acting more like Mohists or Zhuangists than Confucians. Engaging in explicit moral theorizing, considering ritual-in-general as distinct from one specific ritual tradition, and proceeding with less than messianic self-confidence all place us in fellowship with the Confucians’ ancient rivals, who could likewise absorb and reflect on specific strengths of Confucian doctrine while pursuing their more systematic moral reflection on radically different assumptions.

    Perhaps this is the place to re-open discussion on 7b37.

  11. Dan Robins says:

    Steve, a few quick thoughts.

    First, where in the Mencius do you get the idea that the way we exercise our compassion is by attending to features of our situation, or the idea that what we need to do is train our attention? Surely not in 2A/6?

    Second, I want to press you on an issue related to something Stephen says. Suppose that Mencius (or whoever) thought that the Confucian virtues realise the full potential of our humanity. They might think this on the grounds that the Confucian virtues are the best, so acquiring them is the best way to use our potentials. That obviously doesn’t answer any normative questions. You presumably are thinking that their conception of our potentials as human beings is sufficiently independent of their normative views that it can justify those views. But what justifies this reading, as opposed to the first?

    Third, on the second reading, how much is the normative argument supposed to establish? If it’s supposed to provide a comprehensive defense of Confucian normative views, then I trust it’s obviously idiotic. You do hint at an alternative defense of ritual, suggesting that it helps train our attention so that we’ll we virtuous. But 2A/6 has ritual propriety among the virtues that it relates to our human potentials, so I’d have thought that it would get the same sort of defense as benevolence, just appealing to our natural deference rather than our natural compassion. Surely though no such argument can justify commitment to a particular ritual tradition, or even, for that matter, preferring a specifically Confucian conception of benevolence.

    And, for Stephen: do you agree that the question of how thoughtful the Confucian masters in fact were in relation to tradition is different from the question of how thoughtful they thought people should be?

    • Manyul Im says:

      Hey Dan,

      Let me just say something about your first question for Steve. The idea that compassion is exercised by attending to relevant features in target circumstances, I think, can be derived, loosely speaking, from Mencius 1A7. The “trigger” features for compassion in the ox incident — namely innocence and fear of harm — suggests to Mencius that the king (a) has compassion sufficient to doing right and (b) that he could turn that compassion toward the people of Qi if he sees, correctly, that the same features are present there — i.e. attends to those features. That’s maybe a more substantive reading of “take this here heart and extend it there” than actually in the text, but it’s not an implausible one. “Attending to” may sound less direct than “just do it” but actually, I’m not sure it is very different. Telling someone to try harder in some activity can often involve paying better attention to what one is doing.

      • Dan Robins says:

        1A/7 is pretty interesting at that point. On the one hand, Mencius says just to do it. But he also says to weigh things appropriately and to reapply one’s kindness–as if all three formulations were equivalent. (So just doing it *is* weighing right, which *is* reapplying the heart.) Maybe attention fits in there somewhere, though in 1A/7 itself, I think normative judgment is more clearly playing a role. (The weighing involves recognising that the king’s people are more important than animals.)

        Is it about paying attention to what you’re doing, or paying attention to features of the situation?

      • Manyul Im says:

        Yes; good points, Dan. I think paying attention to what you’re doing is filled out in different ways depending on what you’re doing. If I’m told to have more compassion — “Have some compassion, Manyul!” my wife says — and I take that exhortation seriously, I’m likely to do that by being more attendant to features of the person or people toward whom I’m being told to have more compassion: Is my 8 year old son really to blame for breaking my side-view mirror with his shoulder while attempting a stunt on his scooter? Does the cost of the mirror outweigh the pain of my son’s shoulder? Where are my priorities? All of these sorts of considerations come into play as appropriate responses to “have more compassion” (a “just do it” exhortation). And they call into play a variety of existing normative judgments.

        On the flip side, I’m too easily swayed by compassion sometimes. Like the time I picked up a drunk hitchhiker in New Mexico. “What were you thinking, Manyul?” my wife said to me after I dropped him off down the road. What was I thinking? I felt sorry for the guy; he looked forlorn (as drunks sometimes do). Maybe I should have looked the other way.

        I’m inclined to think of 1A7 in just these ways.

  12. Stephen C. Walker says:

    “Do you agree that the question of how thoughtful the Confucian masters in fact were in relation to tradition is different from the question of how thoughtful they thought people should be?”

    Could you explain this a little more? I’m not sure what you mean. Perhaps part of what you intend is the class issue: the vast majority of people should submit to the authority of approved Ru masters, who constitute part of the moral-political elite. Those vast numbers of people cannot attain any noteworthy authority themselves except through a kind of promotion process whereby they are accepted into the elite – a process requiring that others submit to them in turn, as students or political subjects.

    The “village worthies” came up in Boston, but not much debate took place on-scene. I’d like to get clear where we all stand on the stakes of this passage.

    7b37 begins by relating Kongzi’s opinions about the kinds of people who are suitable to receive instruction. Some, the “wild”, have grandiose ambitions and praise the ancients without being able to carry on their example. Others are preoccupied with remaining aloof and morally unsullied. When the topic shifts to the village worthies, these worthies are portrayed as criticizing the “wild” and aloof behavior of those Ru trainees, and as insisting that those born in an age should be “for that age”. “Be good, and that is all.” The worthies do more than mouth this slogan, winning widespread acclaim from their contemporaries.

    Mengzi despises these people – what precisely does he say is their crime? Pandering to the age in which they live, a sordid and polluted age. Mengzi seems perplexed over how to deal with these worthies: when he says they are hard or impossible to criticize, it is ambiguous whether he means it is simply hard to get anyone to agree to the criticisms, or instead that there really is nothing he can pinpoint in their behavior that is morally wrong. They seem to be virtuous, but Mengzi declares them unfit for instruction in the dao of the ancient sages.

    I think we need to take seriously the repeated concern with “this age” and the ancient sages. In 7b37, the contrast between adoration and emulation of the ancients and conformity to the present day is the clearest difference between those sympathetic to the Ru and those opposed to them. Mengzi’s unclarity on what, beyond this, is wrong with the village worthies suggests we should not assume there really is anything wrong with them – beyond their rejection of the Ru preoccupation with ancient traditions. Disinterest in Yao, Shun, the Odes, the Documents, and so on is a major problem for someone like Mengzi, but it would not be for anyone who believes moral reflection and training can proceed without that highly specific cultural basis.

  13. Dan Robins says:

    Stephen, it’s partly the class issue, though there are also points in both the MC and the XZ that get pretty defensive about having to engage in bian 辯.

    But I’m not sure how far to take that. The Mohists directly call for a society in which basic normative questions are settled, but I think they also want people to know and care about what justifies the institutions and practices of their society (I take this to be a consequence of the doctrine of inclusive care). It’s an odd mix of reflective and unquestioning acceptance of the Mohist dao.

    Maybe it would make sense to say something similar about the Confucians?

  14. Stephen C. Walker says:

    “The Mohists directly call for a society in which basic normative questions are settled, but I think they also want people to know and care about what justifies the institutions and practices of their society.”

    I think Mengzi’s preference is interestingly different. He likewise calls for a society in which basic normative questions are settled, but the understanding people bring to those normative questions – whether they are junzi or xiaoren – is less discursive and more emotional. Mengzi is less inclined to recognize any role for explicit theory or debate in moral education.

    One of the predominant images in Mengzi is of children loving and obeying their parents – this is the reaction a good monarch draws from the common people. As I read passages like 3a5 and 4a27, Mengzi wants to root our understanding of the dao in our experience of familial relationships. Political relations are modeled on these, and the transition from xiaoren to junzi is something like the transition from being (merely) a son to being (also) a father.

    For Mengzi, debating about right and wrong is not nearly as important as understanding what it means to be a parent, child, and sibling. It seems to me that, when he debates with rivals in “this sordid age”, Mengzi is acting like a parent concerned that his children grow up in a good environment. He needs to defeat his rivals because they delude weaker minds about the dao – and this is where his commitment to debate ends. Anything he actually learns from his opponents (like the importance of inclusive care) he will project onto the founders of his tradition, before acknowledging that anyone outside the tradition could contribute to it.

  15. Dan Robins says:

    Earlier I promised something in reaction to Manyul’s “Emotional Control” paper. To a large extent I agree with his conclusions in that paper, as well as in his “Wielding Virtue” paper, which Steve mentioned. So maybe there’s not much to say.

    One important difference: I’m saying that 2A/6 does not call for any development of our emotional capacities at all, whereas Manyul takes the Mencian view to be that our emotional capacities do have to develop, but will do so naturally if we give them adequate nourishment.

    Part of the issue here is methodological. Manyul talks for the most part about the Mencius as a whole, while I prefer to focus on one passage at a time. So it’s important to me that 2A/6 does not call for development even if another passage (say, 2A/2) does. In part this is a matter of temperament: I seem to prefer doing really close work with particular texts (see my papers on “Xing E” and “Xiaoqu” for extreme examples). But there’s also a principle. Most Mencius scholars accept a general presumption that different bits of the Mencius are express a single underlying view. I consider this presumption unmotivated and misleading, and try to do without it. Manyul hedges a bit, but it’s hard to talk in general terms about what Mencius thought or what the Mencius says without making this presumption, and Manyul certainly relies on the presumption when he treats different texts within the Mencius.

    2A/6, I think, just takes a lot for granted. I don’t mean that it’s telling us we should take those things for granted. For example, I don’t think it’s saying that we should unthinkingly accept the Zhou tradition. I just think it’s not trying to tell us what we should do or why we should do it. I also think it’s taking it for granted that it’s addressing a reasonably typical adult human being, for whom any necessary moral development has already taken place. This does probably rule out any involved process of directed cultivation, since it would be mad to think that a typical adult had gone through that, but it’s probably consistent with the natural development model that Manyul prefers. (If as is plausible Mencius 6A/8 sets out a natural development model, then it assumes that typical adults will have gone through as much development as they need to, and like 2A/6 it’s not calling for any further cultivation of our emotional capacities.)

    What 2A/6 doing is trying to get that person to go ahead and do what they already accept they should do. In doing this it does commit itself to certain theoretical views. (Er, I hope you will forgive me the awkward anthropomorphism here.) But those views are kind of sketchy, and they leave a lot out.

    (Aside: one thing they leave out is the role of the text itself. Mencius 2A/6 doesn’t tell us to feel pressured by Mencius 2A/6 to do the right thing, any more than Mencius in 1A/7 tells King Xuan to feel pressure from the guy currently cajoling him. But that sort of pressure (is it peer pressure?) is part of what’s going on, even though these texts aren’t saying it’s going on.)

    One really important point of agreement between Manyul and me is that we’re talking about a view according to which one’s character is determined by what we might call one’s emotional nature. We take the emotional nature to be relatively fixed, but to be compatible with a variety of ways of acting. Whatever training needs to take place, it therefore does not target our emotional nature. And in some situations, we’re expected to just do the right thing. I especially like Manyul’s metaphor of wielding virtue. It really does sound as if you’ve got certain emotional equipment and what matters is how you use it. (Okay, maybe “wield” is a bit weapon-centric for me. Though does anyone else see a hint of a military metaphor in the “ju 舉” of 1A/7?)

  16. Sam says:

    Please excuse me, I am new to these arguments (haven’t read Manyul’s paper…), but how might 6A14 figure here? Especially where it reads (Lau): “The parts of a person differ in value and importance. Never harm the parts of greater importance for the sake of those smaller importance, or the more valuable for the sake of the less valuable.”
    This could suggest that we have both good and bad (important and unimportant) inside us and we need to cultivate the good in order to overshadow the bad. I’m not saying I am a “cultivationist” but this passage would seem to push in that direction…

  17. Stephen C. Walker says:

    As I read it, 6a14 urges “nurturing” in the sense familiar from medical and self-preservation discourse: keep it alive and healthy. People who tried to stay alive and healthy, and therefore opposed moralism or political engagement, were a presence in Warring States intellectual culture. So Mengzi just reminds them that, at least in his opinion, not all their body-parts are equally important. The heart has the most dignity and should get the most nurturance – if they keep the heart healthy, they can become great men, which is not the case if they merely keep their stomach or fingers healthy.

    Of course some of M’s opponents will reject this cajoling, since they never intended to become “great men” to begin with.

  18. Sam says:

    And of M’s opponents, Zhuangzi seems to take on 6A14 directly in his chapter 2 when he speaks of the nine holes and six organs…

  19. Stephen C. Walker says:

    The “cultivationist reading” that Manyul and Dan seem to be opposing centers above all on the idea that the moral sentiments are analogous to slowly-growing plants that require active attendance. It might be worth exploring exactly what the “growing plant” metaphors do throughout the Mengzi text. My instinct has been that they do different work, depending on the rhetorical point of individual passages. The cultivationist reading could do better than to focus on 2a6, since the metaphors actually employed there are starkly different in their implications.

    One place to start would be 6a8. Here “the hearts of ren and yi” are directly analogized to plants that do indeed grow slowly and only in the right conditions. However, the point of the passage is not to focus on the slowness of that growth – for that, see 2a2 (where the plants are not the hearts of ren and yi) – but instead to contrast a fully-forested hill with an utterly barren one. To have a barren hill is to have “thrown away” your heart; if you do not throw it away, you have a fully-forested hill. In several passages like this one, the point is having vs. not having something – the sentiments, available for expression. Even if the sentiments have to “grow to maturity”, this is something they do quite spontaneously if not harmed, so active cultivation is certainly not required.

  20. Scott says:

    Just a few thoughts …
    Although not SELF-cultivation, one could say that people are cultivated by the guidance they receive from parents and teachers. Mencius himself could be said to be cultivating morality in the kings and others he taught. Mencius (3A4) says that without teaching, people degenerate into (or remain) beasts. As for Ren, Yi, Li and Zhi, Mencius (6A6) says the reason we don’t practice these spontaneously is because “It is simply that we do not reflect upon them” (弗思耳矣) and in 6A7 it is because (bad) things “ensnare our hearts” (陷溺其心). Recall also 2A2 where he suggests that like rice plants, we “should not assist the growth” (勿助長) of our moral nature but also that we cannot forget/neglect them either. It seems to me that this weeding is self-cultivation, directed by teachers (like Mencius and other Ru).

  21. Dan Robins says:

    Scott, I agree that that distinction is important. It can be pretty jarring to read a text called (in translation) “Self-Cultivation” and have it be all about how other people can improve you. (I’m talking about Book 2 of the Xunzi, “Xiu shen 修身.”) But the reading I’m defending of 2A/6, and I think also the reading Manyul has defended of the Mencius more generally, is not cultivationist at all—we’re not just saying the texts aren’t about self-directed cultivation.

    Stephen, that’s exactly right about 6A/8, I think. That passage fits Manyul’s reading particularly well, actually. For normal folks, whatever moral development is required has already taken place naturally, it’s only when that’s interfered with that people become beasts.

  22. Scott says:

    Hi Dan,

    Re: “For normal folks, whatever moral development is required has already taken place naturally, it’s only when that’s interfered with that people become beasts.”

    Hmmm. The passage regarding people degrading into beasts says nothing about interference being the cause of their moral degradation. It says that when people have everything they need and are not taught (無教), it is then that they degenerate, (meaning, the innate roots of goodness will be overrun with weeds).

    Mengzi 3A4

    “This is the Way of the common people: once they have a full belly and warm clothes on their back they degenerate to the level of animals if they are allowed to live idle lives, without education and discipline.” (Lau)

    “…With full bellies and warm clothes they rested in leisure, yet without further instruction, they consequently approximated wild beasts.” (Legge)

    Now, this doesn’t mean that people don’t already have the ability to be morally laudible of course, but it does say that people need instruction.

  23. Dan Robins says:

    Scott, I agree with you about 3A/4, but I was thinking about the line “people see that they are beasts 人見其禽獸也” from 6A/8.

  24. Scott says:

    Okay, yet I just looked that passage up and this caught my eye:

    “Others, seeing his resemblance to an animal, will be led to think that he never had any native endowment. But can that be what a man is genuinely like? Hence, given the right nourishment (養) there is nothing that will not grow, while depriving it of it there is nothing that will not wither away.” (Lau 251)

    It seems that nourishment (“cultivation”?) is required, no?

  25. Dan Robins says:

    But look at the nourishment it says is required: rest and air. In other words, you’re not cultivating. The most active thing you’ve got to do is refrain from interfering (you interfere by making a habit of doing bad things). There’s no cultivation here.

    (It’s really important for understanding 6A/8 that its metaphor is wild vegetation, not agriculture.)

    • Bill Haines says:

      Well, consistent with what he says there, it could be the case that self-cultivation (like eating, ritual practice, justice, etc.) is both something we just naturally do given proper rest and air, and a necessary condition for the development of full virtue. Yes?

      • Dan Robins says:

        For some value of “consistent,” sure. But it seems pretty forced to me.

        Doesn’t self-cultivation have to involve at least some attention to the direction of growth—either directions built into our spontaneous tendencies or directions imposed from outside (or both, as in 2A/2)? 6A/8 as far as I can tell doesn’t require you to do that at all.

  26. Manyul Im says:

    Scott, Bill, others:

    For Mencius self-cultivation, on my reading, is something people can and sometimes do; the question is whether that is actually necessary for having the strength of heart to do what’s right. Call having the necessary strength, ‘ethical ability.’ You can be ethically able, on Mencius’s view, despite not having engaged in self-cultivation — which is the interesting point of the 2A6 and 1A7 passages, according to my argument and Dan’s too, I think.

    That still might fall short of “full virtue,” but that’s a different point from the one Dan and I argue, with consequences of course for thinking about Mencius’s full view. [Note that the two occurrences of 脩身 in the Mencius (7A1 & 7A9) refer to fairly highly achieved gentlemen — but they’re different from “all men” (2A6) or King Xuan (1A7).]

    • Manyul Im says:

      Two more notes: (1) the difference between ethical ability and full virtue is a modified view of mine, modified since the 1999 paper; (2) maybe this has some bearing on how to understand Xunzi’s discussion of the difference between 可 and 能?

  27. Dan Robins says:

    I’ve just been rereading Van Norden’s treatment of 2A/6 in his book Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early China, and I’ve noticed to my surprise that he doesn’t defend a cultivationist reading of 2A/6 at all. (He seems to take it for granted based on his reading of other parts of the MC that 2A/6 will be cultivationist, and focuses on the claims about the duan.) I checked a couple of other places you might expect to find an argument (Nivison, Shun), and again there’s nothing. This makes me wonder: does anyone try to make a case for cultivationist readings specifically of 2A/6?

    • Manyul Im says:

      Not that I’ve seen, but I think that’s because it can’t by itself be offered as evidence for the more general cultivationist reading of Mencius. 2A6 can be read as cultivationist, but that’s underdetermined if you take the passage by itself: reading duan 端 as “sprout” doesn’t necessarily imply cultivation and it can also be read as “tip” — i.e. as evidence of the ability, neng 能 specifically in the passage. Likewise, chong 充 could be read as “cultivate,” but there’s as much reason to read it as “fill out,” as in “follow through” with the ability. So anyone who reads 2A6 as cultivationist has to be relying on defense of the reading as provided by other passages, I would think.

  28. Dan Robins says:

    That’s my impression, too.

    Jiao Xun, it turns out, glosses “端” as “耑,” which does seem to mean sprout. But he also gives non-agricultural glosses, and clearly doesn’t read anything into the one agricultural gloss.

  29. Hi Manyul,

    re: “For Mencius self-cultivation, on my reading, is something people can and sometimes do; the question is whether that is actually necessary for having the strength of heart to do what’s right. Call having the necessary strength, ‘ethical ability.’ You can be ethically able, on Mencius’s view, despite not having engaged in self-cultivation — which is the interesting point of the 2A6 and 1A7 passages, according to my argument and Dan’s too, I think.”

    “Strength of heart” makes me think of courage (Yong 勇) and Lunyu 2.24: 見義不為,無勇也。

    Then there’s Lunyu 14.4: 仁者必有勇,勇者不必有仁。. “One who is Ren is sure to be courageous, but one who is courageous is not sure to be Ren.” Connected to Mengzi, we could say courage is not something that needs cultivation.

  30. Another thought …

    You write “reading duan 端 as “sprout” doesn’t necessarily imply cultivation and it can also be read as “tip” — i.e. as evidence of the ability, neng 能 specifically in the passage.”

    I’m thinking that if Duan means “evidence of” the passage would read “the heart of compassion is evidence of Ren, the heart of shame is evidence of dutifulness, etc.” I’m thinking that’s backwards. I think “sprout” works well (and no, doesn’t necessarily imply that the sprout needs cultivation). But what if “cultivation” implies nothing more than weeding?

    (BTW, Xiu 脩 doesn’t really mean “cultivate” in any agricultural sense. It is mostly used in Warring States texts of repairing city walls, dikes, etc. “Keep in good repair” is how I like to word it with relation to one’s character or person.)

    • Manyul Im says:

      Hi Scott,

      Yes — “keeping in repair,” “maintaining,” and “weeding” are all excellent alternatives for “cultivation.” I was principally taking “cultivationism” to be the view that moral abilities require some form of practice and edification in order to attain sufficient strength for moral feeling and action. But that’s different from a maintenance view.

      Minor quibble with: if Duan means “evidence of” the passage would read “the heart of compassion is evidence of Ren, the heart of shame is evidence of dutifulness, etc.” I’m thinking that’s backwards. I’m not sure why that’s backwards. Wouldn’t it be more backward to suggest that having the virtue is evidence (“tip of the iceberg”–esque) of the underlying motivational sources? The fact that one has, or betrays the possession of, the appropriate motivations should be evidence for one’s unwitting possession of the virtue. As I read it, Mencius takes the displays of heart-mind motivations to be apparent, hence as providing the evidence for something (namely, the possession of the virtue). One just has to claim or own it, rather than “robbing oneself” of it (自賊). Ren xing 人性 is good precisely because it has those virtues inherent to it. (That’s implausible on an Aristotelian view, but as I tried to remind people in 1999, Mencius isn’t Aristotle.)

      • Dan Robins says:

        It’s actually a fun point that 6A/6, in the otherwise almost entirely parallel passage, doesn’t talk about duan at all—it just says that the virtues are there within us. For 2A/6 you need some sense in which that’s not right. Maybe it’s just what they’re calling a virtue—in 2A/6 the virtue requires action, whereas in 6A/6 it’s whatever we have within us that, when expanded, becomes action.

      • With regards to the Duan, I was thinking that Mengzi felt that the virtues of Ren, Yi, etc. grow from natural sentiments (with or without cultivation). Daoists argued that those virtues are mere veneers and the natural sentiments themselves are sufficient. So, a Daoist would have the “heart of compassion” just like any human, but that would not be evidence of Ren. Am I making sense or digging a bigger hole for myself? haha!

        • Manyul Im says:

          Scott, that’s interesting. I’ve always thought that Mencius, in this regard, has some affinity for Daoist style spontaneity and the value of that spontaneity — in certain more narrowly defined contexts. I’m not so sure what Mencius thinks is the difference between the heart of compassion and ren, except perhaps that the latter is the exercise of the former, the former being the ability 能 and the latter the practice 行 of the ability. Dan’s reminder above, that in 6A6, the two are just equated, is apt here.


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