Abstract Theorizing and Language – Hall and Ames (and a bit of Hansen)

I’m working on a couple of papers related to language and ethics in early China. One of the issues that keeps coming up are the arguments, from two distinct directions, that the language of early China points to a tendency to avoid abstract thought, including abstract ethical thought. One argument comes from Chad Hansen’s lengthy mass-noun, stuff-ontology, mereology thesis. The other comes from Roger Ames and David Hall’s somewhat quick argument about the relatively “infrequent resort” to counterfactual conditionals in Chinese philosophy.

In this post, I’ll just say a quick thing about Hansen. In terms of “abstract” theorizing, Hansen’s view seems to have two (related) conclusions based on his argument that early Chinese think of the world in terms of intermixed “stuff” rather than individuals and their properties:

  • (H1) universals, or properties, and things are not components of early Chinese thinking; and
  • (H2) the mind (or in this case, the xin 心, “heart-mind”) is not conceived of as engaged in representations of the world (in a “mentalese language of thought”), but rather in acts of discrimination regarding the parts and (mass) wholes among which humans navigate.

In those pretty specific senses, Hansen thinks there is no abstract theorizing in early China. At least that’s my quick summary (read both of Hansen’s books,  Language and Logic in Ancient China and A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, to check).

Ames and Hall’s view is less systematic and perhaps based on (someone else’s) bad linguistic research, but there may be arguments for their view that transcend that research. I’ll try to summarize their position, from Thinking Through Confucius, and make a call for some examples that might be interesting to discuss as prima facie counterexamples.

Ames and Hall argue that the Confucian sensibility–and more broadly, all of Classical Chinese thought–is shaped by a lack of “consideration of the differential consequences of alternative possibilities” which “underlies the dominant modes of ethical and scientific thinking” (265). The argument is based in part on Alfred Bloom’s 1981 study, The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study in the Impact of Language and Thinking in China and the West. By way of “cheating,” I’ll paste the opening page of Wu Kuang-ming’s Philosophy East and West (37:1) book review as summary of Bloom’s research and to indicate the direction of argument that Wu takes against Bloom’s thesis:

“In this provocative book, Alfred Bloom claims that the Chinese language does
not have a counterfactual formulation, and therefore Chinese people have
difficulty understanding counterfactual expressions. He said this is because
counterfactuals depend on the ability to turn properties and actions into nouns,
lift them up (abstract them) from actuality, and fit them into a new theoretical
framework of universals. Thus in denying counterfactuals in Chinese language,
Bloom also denies universals in Chinese language. Since language allegedly
shapes thinking, the double denial of counterfactuality and universals amounts
to denying both in Chinese thinking. Since argumentation needs both counter-
factuals and universals, Chinese people are either poor arguers or incapable of
argumentation. This is a serious thesis indeed.

To prove the Chinese lack of counterfactuals, Bloom produced (1) a lack of
counterfactuals in contemporary Chinese writings and conversation, and (2)
poor scores on the tests on counterfactuals taken by Chinese people. To prove
the Chinese lack of theoretical abstraction and “entification,” Bloom produced
(3) poor scores on the tests on abstract thinking taken by Chinese people, and
(4) evidence of the difficulty of translating a single complex English sentence
into a single Chinese sentence. And to clinch the whole matter, Bloom reported
that (5) Chinese people themselves confessed to him that they have difficulty
grasping counterfactuals and universals, saying in effect that Chinese language
has neither.

This review claims that perhaps the situation is more complex than Bloom
would have us believe. Both counterfactuals and universals are needed in think-
ing. What is peculiar about both English and Chinese languages is that they have
their own peculiar ways of expressing these concepts. In other words, counter-
factual thinking must be distinguished from counterfactual formulations in a
specific language; similarly, universals must be distinguished from theoretical
abstract terms, which are a peculiar linguistic form. A lack in the linguistic
formulations of counterfactuals and theoreticals does not necessarily show the
lack of counterfactual thinking and thinking on universals.

The Chinese language has no tense forms, but the Chinese people are one of
the most history-conscious races in the world. The Chinese language has no
gender forms, yet some gender distinction is clearly embedded throughout in
names, adjectives, expressions, and so on, as in English. The fact that Chinese
language lacks linguistic devices for plurality did not prevent the Chinese people
from being good businessmen or engineers….”

In addition to Wu, there have been others critical of Bloom’s thesis (for example, Christoph Harbsmeier in Language and Logic, no. VII:1 in Science and Civilization in China, 116-18).

Ames and Hall admit that though Bloom’s thesis that there is no counterfactual locution in the Chinese language, including Classical Chinese, might be overstated, the “infrequent resort to such locutions in Chinese philosophic argument” (364, note 29) is what matters to their conclusions. So what are the relevant conclusions here? A good and fair summary, I think, lies in this quote:

“If ethics is to be considered always in the light of reflection, deliberation, and conscious judgment among alternatives, then one may certainly assent to the view that such ethical interests are not in any important way represented in classical Chinese philosophy.” (266)

So, two issues:

  • How valid is the reasoning from the relative lack of counterfactual locutions to this conclusion?
  • Regardless of counterfactuals, does the conclusion ring true? Why or why not?

We could start, I suppose, by discussing the nature and role of an apparent counterexemple: Mencius’s use of the “child in the well” example (from 2A:6, text and Legge’s translation–from Donald Sturgeon’s site):


“When I say that all men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: even now-a-days, if men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress. They will feel so, not as a ground on which they may gain the favour of the child’s parents, nor as a ground on which they may seek the praise of their neighbours and friends, nor from a dislike to the reputation of having been unmoved by such a thing. From this case we may perceive that the feeling of commiseration is essential to man, that the feeling of shame and dislike is essential to man, that the feeling of modesty and complaisance is essential to man, and that the feeling of approving and disapproving is essential to man.”

Does this really count as a counterexample–is it really counterfactual thinking and/or does it engage “reflection, deliberation, and conscious judgment among alternatives”? Are there other, better textual examples to discuss here?

12 replies on “Abstract Theorizing and Language – Hall and Ames (and a bit of Hansen)”

  1. Analects 17.23 strikes me as another passage that might be plausibly read as offering a counterfactual (along the same lines as Mencius 2A6). There was a good discussion on this a little while back on my blog and Chris Panza’s.
    Here’s the key part of the passage that might be taken as a counterfactual:

    “The junzi who is brave but lacks yi (rightness/righteousness) will be disorderly.”

    I suggested on my post that the right way to read this is as a claim that it is possible for one to be a junzi and not yi, but that one should not be this way, because this will make one disordered. If we think that the view of the Analects is that yi is a necessary condition for being a junzi, however (which Bill Haines and Chris argued for), we can either take ‘junzi’ as being used in different senses in different places (even within 17.23), or we can read the above quote as a counterfactual–something like “if it were the case that a junzi had every quality (including bravery) which makes him a junzi EXCEPT yi, then he’d be disordered (and likely have other faults as well).”

    If we read this bit of 17.23 this way, it allows us to avoid proliferating senses of the term ‘junzi’, which I think is a good thing in general, in interpreting the Analects and elsewhere. Of course, this methodological point doesn’t constitute an argument that the counterfactual reading is the right reading of 17.23, but considered along with the larger purpose of the passage and similar passages to it, the counterfactual reading begins to look a lot more plausible.

    On a different note, I’m skeptical of arguments to the effect that the Chinese didn’t have some concept or think in such-and-such ways due to certain features of the Chinese language. It seems to me that there are plenty of better ways to explain why early Chinese thinkers in general tended to avoid abstract thought in some sense (which I think is true) without arguing that they simply didn’t have the linguistic apparatus with which to formulate such thought. They didn’t in general find such thought useful for solving ethical difficulties (which is what they seemed mainly interested in). Indeed, even we in the contemporary west seem to be slowly moving in this direction in ethics (the feminist and “care ethics” critiques come to mind here). The question then becomes why did the early Chinese (and why increasingly do we) find such ways of thinking ineffectual for solving ethical problems? I suspect it has something to do with the problem of moral motivation being more central to the Chinese than it historically has been in the west (perhaps this is Plato’s fault?).

  2. I’ve recently come across a book arguing for some broad generalizations about Asian v. Western cognitive psychology: The Geography of Thought (Richard Nisbett, Free Press, 2004). I haven’t read it, but probably will in the next month or two; I’m curious to know if anyone has an opinion about it.

    It does seem that different languages are structured very differently, and I would not be surprised to find that such differences make big differences to patterns of thinking, possibly magnified by differences in other cultural forms and media. As for claims that the early Chinese largely lacked something Westerners normally take to be a basic element of thought, I think such claims have an enormous burden of proof, and are normally worth considering only in connection with the corollary proposal that those Westerners are profoundly mistaken about the wrong about the role of the thing in their own thought.

    I think salient apparent differences between others’ thought and my own can help me see my own thinking differently, thus eventually reducing the appearance of difference. Along such lines, Chad Hansen’s paper “Chinese Language, Chinese Philosophy, and Truth” (The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3 (May, 1985), pp. 491-519) has led me to be much more skeptical about the concept of *beliefs* in general. I’ve long been surprised and puzzled by the difficulty of getting nonmajors in intro courses to use the word ‘belief’ the way I do, and Hansen’s paper helps me see how the very idea is problematic.

    In the mid-1980s there were two popular paperbacks on Russia, one by Robert Kaiser and one by Hedrick Smith (NYTimes and WPost reporters stationed in Moscow for a few years, though I don’t remember which was which). Each reported a certain conversation with someone on the street, maybe the same conversation, though the reports differ. What’s common to the two reports is that the Russian person drew diagrams to contrast Western with Russian images of law, as follows. Western law is like (W) a flat pan with a little ball in it. The ball can roll freely anywhere in the pan, but can’t move beyond the vertical sides. Russians see law as – and here the diagrams in the two reports differed – either (Ra) like a sort of steep wok, so that the ball normally stays in the center, or (Rb) like a simple picture of a volcano, so that the ball normally stays in the center but if it moves just a little off-center it will quickly roll down and away, representing potential chaos.

    I suspect that anglophone philosophers tend to operate with their own folk-image of concepts and meanings that fits diagram (W), standing for the idea that words normally have meaning mainly by way of picking out classes, such that the word applies fully to everything within the class and not at all to anything outside it. I think image (W) of meaning is a highly misleading image. I suspect that early Chinese would have found image (Ra) more congenial if it had been proposed to them.

    One example of a word that doesn’t look like fittng (W) is ‘big’. To know what is meant by applying “big” to something, one has to know the word’s context, perhaps very subtle things about the context. That’s not only because a big mouse is a small animal. Big news isn’t about size at all. Big changes in decor are sorta kinda about size. Whether a bedsheet is a “big” one or not usually depends only on two dimensions, not on its volume. Etc. I don’t think it’s right to conclude that ‘big’ has a large number of different “senses.” I think the same thing is true of ‘good’, for similar reasons, and hence true also of other evaluative terms like ‘junzi’.

    Alexus, that’s a very nice point about 17.23 and counterfactuals. Another reading though is that 17.23 simply says “…people who are like junzis except that they lack yi are disorderly” – with no counterfactual.

    In the West, I gather, and for Plato in particular, the effort toward “abstract thought” was powerfully stimulated by the example of mathematics. I think what made that example work was the fact that mathematical ideas could be represented in a medium (language, images) whose surface grammar was a reliable enough guide to meaning. Or something like that. So one could get somewhere just by thinking, by manipulating symbols. Mohist logic seems to have despaired of the value of surface grammar, and so failed to find the key to formal logic. But I don’t understand why mathematical ideas weren’t powerful and valuable enough to sweep away such obstacles.

  3. Part of what I was getting at with the Plato bit at the end there was Plato’s view that if humans somehow had knowledge of the Good, we would be motivated to act rightly. Of course, given his robust metaphysics behind the Form of the Good and how we come to know it (all that weird stuff about the sun, line, and the cave from Republic Book VI), it takes nothing less than a truly heroic and grueling training (which will probably take a lifetime, given what he thinks about how long the ideal rulers should be trained) to understand the Good in the first place–so it’s not like knowing the Good is something like our colloquial “knowing right from wrong.”
    Still–the only way to become good was for him to know the Good, and this required hefty abstract thought. Knowledge of any type (if we’re thinking of either episteme or noesis as similar to 知) may be plausibly seen as requiring at least some such thought. But the Confucian works tend to downplay the role of 知 as central to the ethical project in anything like Plato’s sense (the Analects more than the later work, of course). I’m still not sure what to make of what the Mencius has to say on this topic.

  4. Alexus, point taken about Plato. Maybe one way to put your suggestion about early Chinese philosophy is that it’s not concerned to say what is right, so much as it is concerned to say how one can be brought to do it. That seems to me most plausible as a claim about the Mencius (Dan Robins has in these pages urged at least the negative claim that the Mencius isn’t especially concerned to offer or defend views about what’s right). I think Confucius in the Analects makes lots of claims about what’s right though, e.g. in his comparisons between the junzi and the xiao ren, or his claims about what counts as filial piety.

    Many of Confucius’ claims strike me as being abstract. For example: 4.2 “Only the ren person can [properly?] love or hate.” 4.16 “The junzi thinks in terms of what is right; the small person thinks in terms of benefits.” 4.25 “Virtue is never alone. It is bound to have neighbors.” 7. 30 “Is ren really far away? As soon as I desire it, it is here.”

    I think Confucius is interested in the development of knowledge about what one should and shouldn’t do. He makes methodological claims about that (e.g. 2.18). And he stresses the importance of study (though arguably he’s thinking of acquiring knowledge that isn’t general enough to count as philosophical).

    I think the motivational effect of abstract thought for Plato came as much from its style as from its content. I think he thought that e.g. mathematics trains us to think impersonally and objectively. I think he thought the right kind of music can have similar effects, on a beginner’s level.

    Maybe what you have in mind is one abstraction in particular; maybe you are saying that unlike Confucius, Plato and other Westerners are concerned to focus on goodness in pure abstraction from all “factual” or “non-evaluative” stuff. That seems like a plausible claim offhand. Chris Panza has a recent post that seems to be looking in that direction, here:

  5. Bill,

    Nesbitt’s book, “Geography of Thought,”is well worth the read. I read it about a year ago on the recommendation of my wife (who is a social psychologist herself, as is Nesbitt). It’s a fast read and very straightforward. I’m pretty sure that he deals with this specific issue, but I can’t say for sure since I didn’t bring the book with me to CT (I almost did, actually, to be able to reference the situationalism discussion, but then I noticed the Wesleyan library had it).

  6. Interesting discussion! (I’ve been spending exhausting “quality” summer time with the kids (5 and 2!) and my equally exhausted wife.) I’m not sure exactly where to jump in here, so maybe I’ll try to say more about why I think there’s some plausible version of Ames and Hall’s thesis, vaguely responding to some of the comments.

    I’m sure differences in language can have an effect on *typical patterns* of thought; but I agree with everyone that they can’t set any plausible *limits* on it. Grammar–and thought–is too flexible to be so limited. But an apparent pattern of thought in a body of text might be explained through much more than aspects of syntax and grammar. In the tiniest defense of Bloom: he doesn’t just rely on dead, written text; he uses data involving contemporary writings and conversation in Chinese; his conclusions about *contemporary* Chinese are based on analysis of modern, spoken and written Chinese, not Classical. But as I was saying, there are surely other explanations for patterns of argument that are expressed in texts–such as genre conventions, contextual demands, and so forth that Stephen (comment 1) mentions.

    What Ames and Hall really want to argue are, I think, two separate theses about “abstract thought” in Chinese ethical writings, which they seem to conflate. One thesis is

    (AH1) There is a notable lack of interest in what we might call “dilemma reflection,” which in modern ethical theory is expressed by the hypothetical beginning point that asks, “What shall I do?” or “What is the right thing to do?” in a given situation, faced with alternatives of action.

    Ames and Hall’s discussion of the similarities between their thesis and Fingarette’s seems to be about AH1. It’s not clear to me why dilemma reflection should be regarded as particularly “abstract.”

    On the other hand, their lumping of their questions with the oft-repeated question about why scientific thinking does not arise in China seems to belie their interest in defending a rather different thesis about Chinese ethical thought:

    (AH2) There is a notable lack of interest in building an axiomatic, deductive theory to guide or to justify decisions about what to do or how to live.

    AH2 seems more clearly to be about lack of “abstract thought” since we’re dealing with abstract principles which are then to be applied to concrete situations as they arise. But AH2 seems false if we include the Mohists as Chinese (my dry irony here) and we think of them as having had widespread influence in the pre-Qin period…

    The Bloom-ish argument was supposed to explain AH1 and AH2, I think. There are two problems, at least. AH1 seems true but to have other explanations (what might those be, more specifically than “contextual demands”?). AH2 seems false, though maybe it could be described as “by and large true, with the Mohists as the exception.” In any case, between those two thesis, there seems to be *something* true that Ames and Hall are noticing about early Chinese ethical thought, but I wonder if it has more to do with the peculiar character of modern ethical theory than with any peculiarities with early Chinese thinking…

  7. I suppose an awful lot of the “dilemmas” in our anglophone ethics literature are questions of social policy more than of individual ethics. Many others are attempts to test proposed ambitious principles and theories against moral intuition, not parts of discussions specially focused on how to reason in dilemmatic situations generally. The proposed principles and theories being tested usually aim to be quite general and clear, so that the intuition-tests can have some bite. I guess that’s one way dilemmas connect with abstractness. If the generality includes counterfactual generality, that makes imaginary dilemmas more prima facie relevant.

    The focus on principles or rules rather than virtues makes dilemmas a more apt kind of test. Nobody expects virtues to have such sharp borders.

    On my reading, Youzi is concerned with potential conflicts between narrow and broad virtues: e.g. filiality v. ren, trustworthiness v. yi, and respectfulness (gong) v. ritual propriety. But he argues more for general solutions to the conflicts rather than for deliberation procedures.

    Western ethics teachers tend to value provoking discussion, and that’s a reason to focus on hard cases. We try to set an example of openness and humility. Sometimes we even pretend to lack confident opinions about matters our students are discussing. I think of early Chinese masters as having been concerned to preserve their authority by avoiding the appearance of ignorance about basics. This interest could have led Chinese teachers to avoid discussions of really hard cases.

    In the line Stephen (in #1) quoted from Mencius (1B15) — “君請擇於斯二者” — I think Mencius’ point may have been “As for which you should do here, so far as I can see it’s a toss-up” — hence in a way not a morally significant choice.

  8. Hi Manyul and everyone,

    A few quick comments.

    Manyul, you’re right about Chad on “abstraction.” He was talking about the absence of Platonism and Lockean conceptualism in Chinese thought, not whether they ever use or talk about abstract concepts. Of course, they have abstract concepts, such as 有/presence and 無/absence, among many, many examples.

    Early Chinese philosophers do engage in counterfactual reasoning. The Mohists do it frequently. The locutions they use to introduce counterfactuals are 今有人於此 “Suppose there were a man here who…” and 使 “Suppose….” As a broader generalization, a culture in which people were unable or incompetent at counterfactual reasoning would be one in which people were unable to lie, play make believe, or tell fairy tales. I doubt that any community of homo sapiens would lack these abilities.

    The later Mohists and Xunzi both discuss moral deliberation and practical reasoning in some detail. So the generalization that these topics have no role in classical Chinese ethics is false.

    There is, however, a genuine feature of early Chinese ethics that indirectly motivates this generalization, which we can think of a confused response to it. That feature is that early Chinese thinkers do not conceive of agency as generally or necessarily involving conscious choice or deliberation, let alone running through the steps of an argument in one’s head. They conceive of it as the performance of dao. Truly masterful performance of dao is immediate and appears to involve no deliberation or choice. Xunzi’s descriptions of the highest levels of moral cultivation are one example. Cook Ding’s response to “the hard parts” is an example of how a masterful agent copes with exigent situations. He’s making choices, but doing so by well-honed, spontaneous intuition rather than conscious reasoning.

    Bill, Nisbett’s book is strongly recommended by some people who do “empirical ethics” (for instance, Steve Stich). I read it and thought that intellectually it was on a par with “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” by John Gray. I was shocked to find it full of simplistic, hasty generalizations about cultures and patterns of reasoning grounded in what to my eye seemed interesting, but inconclusive research. I would cite it as a leading example of the silly things professors sometimes say when they wander out of their field of expertise. To me, it is truly an awful book.

  9. Thanks Chris! I’ve read, or rather had read to me, a paragraph from John Gray’s book. My impression from that paragraph was that Gray is full of things that are obviously false; while you seem to suggest only that Nisbett is full of things that are obviously unproved and implausibly extreme, though perhaps interesting.

    There’s a locution used to introduce hypotheticals in the Mencius similar to the first you give: 1B1: “今王鼓樂…” “Suppose you were having a musical performance…” (Lao).

    Chris, you write, “early Chinese thinkers do not conceive of agency as generally or necessarily involving conscious choice or deliberation …. They conceive of it as the performance of dao. Truly masterful performance of dao is immediate and appears to involve no deliberation or choice.” I’d like to offer two small thoughts toward partially explaining (away??) that phenomenon.

    Early Chinese thinkers did talk about choosing what maxims or policies to follow. That looks like deliberation or choice to me, only coming long enough before the action so that one might distinguish between deciding and acting on the decision. Perhaps the assumption was that ideally a well-developed person won’t very often face unexpected types of circumstance?

    Another assumption they might have made was that deliberation is distinct from individual agency since the choice of maxims and policies is commonly and properly not a solitary activity.

    Analects 5.20: 季文子三思而後行。子聞之,曰:“再,斯可矣。” Ji Wen thought thrice, and then acted. When the Master was informed of it, he said, “Twice may do.” (Legge).

  10. About the linguistic side of this:
    The experiments that Bloom refers to are basically debunked in the linguistic literature. Generally, linguists think all languages have the same capacity for logical expression (or rather, that no decent evidence has ever been put forward that languages differ in this respect). There’s a controversy rumbling right now among Amazonian linguists – a language has been found that might be genuinely more primitive than all the others. But Chinese is not thought to be.
    However, it may be important to note that this refers to spoken languages. If classical Chinese texts are not a true record of the spoken language, then the texts may not have the same expressive power.

    As to whether language affects thought – a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – it’s pretty much impossible to say. Language and culture are so bound up with each other that the factors can’t be teased out.

  11. Bill,

    I’m interested in your reply to Chris Fraser:

    “Early Chinese thinkers did talk about choosing what maxims or policies to follow. That looks like deliberation or choice to me, only coming long enough before the action so that one might distinguish between deciding and acting on the decision. Perhaps the assumption was that ideally a well-developed person won’t very often face unexpected types of circumstance?”

    I’m not sure I understand your last suggestion–why would the development of the person affect the chances or type of circumstances one might encounter?

    But I had a similar thought to yours regarding Chris F’s point: “Truly masterful performance of dao is immediate and appears to involve no deliberation or choice. Xunzi’s descriptions of the highest levels of moral cultivation are one example. Cook Ding’s response to “the hard parts” is an example of how a masterful agent copes with exigent situations. He’s making choices, but doing so by well-honed, spontaneous intuition rather than conscious reasoning.”

    Chris F (and Bill), the Cook Ding example is interesting because it suggests to me, as Bill suggests in #14, that you can distinguish between something like “preparation-deliberation” and “immediate-deliberation.” Preparation-deliberation would amount to training oneself for various *types* of exigency so that when particular cases of those types arise one doesn’t have to think much or at all to deal with them. Cook Ding has “well-honed, spontaneous intuition”–what could count as honing if not something like preparation *for* responding to types of cases? A sports analogy for preparation-deliberation (after all, we’re talking about performance–of ox cutting!) might be the runthroughs and drills that you practice so that when some defensive scheme is thrown up against you, you can respond spontaneously with the right sort of offensive adjustment. But surely there is some deliberation or reasoning involved in coming up with the right preparation (you have to understand the defensive schemes after all and deliberate about what kinds of adjustments to practice in the drills). Isn’t that assumed in both the Cook Ding case and in Xunzi’s idea of cultivating one’s responses through music and the rituals?

    As for “immediate-deliberation,” it may be that even in Western philosophical literature, the idea of deliberation and reasoning as some kind of twiddling of thumbs and fretting over principles and/or potential outcomes is regarded as the exception rather than the rule in rational action. Either that, or it is a kind of analytic fiction or heuristic for discussing what in “real-life” phenomenology seems more spontaneous. The models of deliberation often seem to me like rationalizing, taking a third-person theoretical point of view rather than something people in the usual case undertake from the first-person point of view. The idea that principles and/or outcomes are considered, evaluated, and then accepted or rejected in deciding something may be the usual case in actual policy-making or in difficult cases where the stakes seem very high, but isn’t it a caricature to think that Western philosophical views of action regard such cumbersome, heady, and unspontaneous deliberation to be involved in normal action?

  12. Hi Manyul, beautifully put!

    You ask: “I’m not sure I understand your last suggestion [i.e. ‘Perhaps the assumption was that ideally a well-developed person won’t very often face unexpected types of circumstance’]–why would the development of the person affect the chances or type of circumstances one might encounter?”

    Sorry, I just meant maybe the assumption was that the well-developed person would have learned what to expect, and would have prepared for it. Unlike an undeveloped or unprepared person, she’ll have anticipated the main kinds of case she might encounter. There might be an assumption that one can prepare in advance for pretty much any kind of case, or at least the absence of the idea that cases are fundamentally infinite in variety. By contrast, in the West, after centuries of technological change and centuries of philosophy that takes such change as a fact of life, we build the idea of novel kinds of circumstance into our idea of what the practical mind is for.

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