Accuracy in Historical Interpretation

Just to introduce as a post, continuation of the great discussion in the Footnotes to Confucius… string of comments:

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 (Tao Te Ching)–who cares whether the interpretation is accurate or not? (Leave my German Enlightenment interpretation of it alone, man!)

28 thoughts on “Accuracy in Historical Interpretation

  1. I think a difference needs to be made in “expanding” the text vs. just plain making stuff up. Look at Ames and Hall, right? They take a strong Whiteheadian view and apply it to everything. They will *make* that square peg fit through a circular hole! Thankfully, because of the Yijing, this approach actually works quite well for Daoism and Confucianism. So they’ve taken modern philosophical developments and used them to expand on ancient texts and thereby deepen them. Let’s contrast that general approach (which I think is a useful line of study) with their work “Thinking Through Confucius”. In that book, they take a passage from the Analects that is very clearly a later addition and use it as their thesis around which the rest of the book is built. In my opinion, that is pretty bogus, given what the book is trying to accomplish.

    So it is all about perspective. Some Whiteheadians applying their world-view to other philosophical contexts and making it work is an enriching exercise for all concerned parties. However, people trying to get into the mind of an ancient thinker while throwing anything resembling good philology and history out the window. It’s the difference between hermeneutics and exegesis.

  2. Manyul, I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that accuracy doesn’t have independent value.

    (On the other hand, if you have in mind an interpretation of some Chinese philosopher that would make modal realism seem less incredible, I want to hear it, accurate or otherwise.)

  3. Dan and Justsomeguy:

    My post is meant to concede that there may be either independent value or instrumental value to accuracy. The further issue I’m trying to raise is, what exactly there is wrong or “bogus” about interpretation that pushes accuracy to the periphery in the pursuit of “enrichment” of some sort, philosophically speaking. One of the questions in this issue is whether it matters that someone thinks he or she is ignoring accuracy at some level–e.g. do Ames and Hall think Thinking Through Confucius actually is accurate, or do they not really care *and* does that matter for the value of the enterprise? Does “getting into Confucius’s head” mean we’re automatically in the accuracy game? One alternative is that we’re trying to build some sort of “Confuciameshallstein” (I didn’t even try to include Whitehead in that) with detached parts from Confucius. But the detachment is exactly where some questions of accuracy may not matter–like who really wrote the various parts of the Analects. The Analects itself seems like more like Confuciustein rather than Confucius, but what’s wrong with continuing that tradition of constructing the monster?

    “Should accuracy be some kind of overriding constraint?” could be rephrased as “Should exegesis be the queen of historical approach?” Why, or why not?

    (The David Lewis reference was really just to to acknowledge David Morrow’s comment about his former advisor’s advice. Offhand, I imagine some of the Buddhist cosmology would not so much make Lewis’s modal realism seem more plausible as to make Lewis seem kind of like a Buddhist about universes. But that’s just an aside.)

  4. Well, my feelings on the issue rest on two rather large assumptions: 1) The truth exists and 2) we can approach it. Given that, I think it is reasonable to think that people from the past had some grasp on the truth and that grasp may differ from our own. If we approach their understanding with sincerity, we can use it to more fully understand what is going on.

    Let’s use alchemy as a context and gunpowder as the example. I don’t think anyone would argue against the idea that when studying something like gunpowder, it makes sense to apply modern chemistry to ingredients that the ancient Chinese used. You know, “such-and-such is the sulfur source, this reduces that, and the following reaction is extremely exothermic.” I think that sort of thing expands on the texts and makes them clearer. However, I think it is a mistake to take it one step further, and use the alchemical justification to explain the chemical one and suggest that the ancient Chinese knew that all along when clearly they didn’t.

  5. Manyul, you’re still leaving out the possibility that some of these additional aims might only served by aiming for accuracy, or that they only have value as consequences of accuracy.

    When I’m planning a paper (or for that matter a lecture), I generally have a number of goals, including some that clearly do have to do with accuracy (being sensible about the history of the texts, for example) as well as some that clearly do not (saying something of philosophical interest, for example). Part of what I’m doing is trying to plan a paper in which these goals get achieved together, so that achieving any one of them helps me achieve the others (so I also have an overall goal of achieving a kind of thematic or literary unity).

    I like this question: “Alternatively, is there a prima facie assumption by people offering interpretations that they themselves actually *are* engaged in the accuracy game?”

    I think there is. Interpretations are normally put forward in the form of assertions about what the authors of particular texts thought, intended, and so on. The natural presumption is that if those assertions are false, then there’s something wrong with the interpretation. This presumption gets strengthened when interpreters cite the texts in order to defend their interpretations, or express disagreement with what other interpreters say about the texts.

    You could (and people sometimes do) approach things differently. For example, you could defend your interpretation in part on the grounds that it speaks to present philosophical or ethical concerns, and instead of arguing that alternative interpretations are wrong you could point out that they serve different ends. I’m pretty suspicious of this sort of approach, because I think it puts you in a situation where there really is conflict between the various goals you’re aiming for. In particular, I don’t know what to make of appeals to what the texts say in the context of such a project; so in the context of such a project, it would be necessary to come to grips with the questions you ask about accuracy. If someone can pull it off, the results might well be impressive. But as I said, I’m suspicious.

  6. Manyul said: “Should accuracy be some kind of overriding constraint?” could be rephrased as “Should exegesis be the queen of historical approach?” Why, or why not?

    Hmm, I’m closer to what Justsomeguy said above. I also think that approaching history without exegesis has a great risk of falling into uninformed revisionism…

  7. Manyul and Justsomeguy:

    Personally, I prefer the Hall-Ames approach, even though I don’t think they’re 100% correct (more like 70/30, the old Mao ratio). At least they give a rationale for their interpretations. The whole first section of “Thinking Thought Confucius” is a justification for their particular approach. In my opinion, other big names like Schwartz, Nivison, and Ivanhoe hardly give a moment’s notice to hermeneutical questions (unless I missed it somewhere; but I have to admit, when reading Nivison especially, I’m prone to doze off mid-sentence).

    Maybe these guys can ignore interpretive questions because they were born hard-wired for ancient Chinese philosophy – or, like Hansen, born the re-incarnations of ancient sages (Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, pp. x-xi). Who knows? It certainly seems to me that guys like nivison and Ivanhoe basically do Western analytic philosophy, moral theory, virtue ethics, etc.. But it’s authentically “Chinese” from them because… they do it? Where does Ivanhoe ever take the time to articulate or defend his general interpretational framework in the manner that Hall and Ames do?

    Oh, I forgot: Ivanhoe is hard-wired.

    At least Hall and Ames make their interpretational framework available and transparent, thereby allowing for criticism and discussion. I wish that everyone did that. As I see it, the Nivison’s and Ivanhoe’s are fast asleep inside of their paradigms, protected by those who throw the stones. “Whiteheadian” is a stone. Just throwing that over-simplified label at someone doesn’t constitute a refutation of anything. It’s name-calling; no better than a playground taunt.

    Where’s the intellectual responsibility in that?

  8. Carl, for what it’s worth, Bryan Van Norden does spend a fair bit of time explaining and justifying his approach, which agrees on many points with Nivison’s and Ivanhoe’s, in his fairly recent Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Thought. And of course there are others who spend a fair bit of time setting out and discussing their interpretive frameworks; Hansen, whom you mention, is one.

    Also, I can’t imagine that Manyul thought that in using the word “Whiteheadian” he was refuting anything.

  9. Dan Robins,

    I’ve heard of the Van Norden book, and I look forward to reading that. Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that the analytic, virtue-ethical approach is unjustifiable or unfruitful. There are parts of the Chinese tradition that respond quite readily to that approach (in a 70/30 kind of way).

    I’m saying instead that many prominent scholars writing in that vein don’t (or didn’t) themselves seem to recognize that they were wearing lenses, let alone did they ever put forward anything like the kind of justification put forward by Hall and Ames for the particular lenses they wore.

    I will be thrilled if Van Norden finally makes an actual ARGUMENT for interpreting Chinese philosophy through the western analytic lens. Like I said, I wish everyone would justify their interpretations like Hall and Ames justify their’s.

    Perhaps it’s too late for someone like Ivanhoe to justify his entire body of work by contemporary hermeneutic standards. At this point, Ivanhoe is confined to being last century.

    In mentioning Hansen, I did not mean to suggest that he provides no justification for his approach. Hansen’s methodological awareness is indeed very acute, and he provides the requisite “Introduction with Work to Do” in his book. So, along with Hall and Ames, I credit him for raising the bar of intellectual responsibility. I was instead making reference to the claim that he is the reincarnation of Zhuangzi. I am not even commenting on the truth of that claim. Having never strolled over the River Hao with Hansen, who am I to say what he is? I was only suggesting that, if one were the reincarnation of an ancient sage, then the question of accuracy would not arise.

  10. On this issue I’m a fan of the “division of labor” view. Some of us will be accuracy geeks, others will be happier to detach the parts of Confucius that they find more valuable (although some do this more self-consciously than others). We need both kinds of philosophical exegetes. The accuracy geeks force us to consider viable possibilities that would not otherwise have occurred to us, the revisionists (self-conscious or not) help us get down to the business of bringing the ideas to bear on our own lives. There isn’t enough time in the world to master both of the skill sets as well as the true geeks in either camp, so we’re better off with a division of labor, with their separate interests and aims.

    Sometimes members of one camp insist that their work on a topic has some sort of absolute research priority over the work of others. So, for example, Nathan Sivin is fond of saying that the study of Chinese philosophy goes completely awry when it ignores the literature on medicine and health. I’ve sometimes said that one shouldn’t draw conclusions about Confucianism and rights unless one is comfortable with the literature and conceptual apparatus of contemporary liberal rights thinkers. When views like these prevail in any discipline, it is almost the death of that discipline. This is probably truer of philosophical inquiry than just about any other.

  11. Carl,

    “Perhaps it’s too late for someone like Ivanhoe to justify his entire body of work by contemporary hermeneutic standards.”

    I guess I’d count this as one of those “absolute research priority” views that I was referring to above (“No work on topic X is legitimate without first doing work on topic Y”). But maybe I’m wrong. Could you explain? I have to confess that I’m not much more than a dabbler in hermeneutics. Am I wasting my time?

  12. Carl: Dan’s right; I certainly don’t see “Whiteheadian” as a term of derision nor do I use it as a quick dismissal. It does capture rather (too) quickly an approach that Ames and Hall have spawned very successfully.

    Justin: I like the division of labor template you propose. I think that works best when both the accuracy geeks (the accounting office?) and the revisionists (marketing?) realize how much they can be of service to each other in moving their respective agendas forward. So, that’s good; I think this could turn out to be a very helpful template. The only hesitation I have is I can’t quite think of how the success of the revisionist division helps move the accuracy agenda forward. And maybe from the side of the accuracy types, it is that apparent asymmetry that makes the revisionist endeavor seem bogus.

  13. Justin: I think if one is working in classical Chinese philosophy as a Western-trained philosopher in the year 2008, the basic hermeneutic (and post-colonial) principle can no longer be ignored: translation is always interpretation. In this case, topic X is coupled with topic Y. If you think you are only doing one, then you are simply doing the other one without due care.

  14. Manyul: I’m curious. You describe Hall and Ames’ work as a kind of Frankenstein monster. I presume, then, that you know of scholars working in Chinese philosophy who are not Frankenstein monsters, i.e. not patchworks made of their respective philosophical parts. Could you give an example of someone who works in Chinese philosophy today (reincarnation or otherwise) who does NOT require grafting what they do onto any interpretive framework? If you cannot, then what is the point of singling out Hall and Ames as the monstrosity? Aren’t we all Frankensteins? The only difference is that Hall and Ames go out of their way to justify the shape of their monster. Perhaps the argument that justifies what they do has weaknesses, but some argument is better than no argument.

  15. I believe I was the one who first brought up Ames and Hall, and I did so because it is a comparison with a good internal control. Far from being dismissive, I think their use of process philosophy in interpreting Confucian and Daoist philosophy works very well and illuminates certain truths that were already present in the philosophies. On the other hand, I think that their basing “Thinking Through Confucius” on, “At 15 I set my heart on learning; at 30 I firmly took my stand; at 40 I had no delusions; at 50 I knew the Mandate of Heaven; at 60 my ear was attuned; at 70 I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the boundaries of right,” is just plain wrong from a philological point of view, right? It has been long recognized that that passage is too polished and is a later addition. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a very good description of the Confucian process, or that it isn’t meaningful, but if I wanted to emulate the thinking of a particular individual I wouldn’t use something I know is an anachronism. That is sorta shooting yourself in the foot before you even get out the door.

    That’s the difference, right? Everybody brings their own angle to the table. I don’t think anybody is going to say these people aren’t “authentic” in some way. To do so would consign philosophy to the dustbin of history. New ideas get added, traditions get recombined: that is vital to the process. But I don’t think people should lose sight of where these ideas are coming from, both in terms of when they study someone and by extension, when they themselves are philosophizing.

  16. On Zhuangzi reincarnated, Chad Hansen:

    Carl, I was also puzzled about Hansen’s remarks in “An Introduction with Work to Do”. I thought he meant it in earnest, so when I met him I asked about it. Hansen’s response: it’s all tongue-in-cheek, you know, like Zhuangzi on the River Hao bantering with Hui Shi about the minnows (and then he looked at me as though I was humor-impaired, which I am, actually).

  17. Carl,

    I’m not sure why that presumption is warranted, but I appreciate your questions and the opportunity to clarify my view.

    Of course translation is always interpretation; but that’s almost a platitude even in analytic philosophy since the work of Quine and Davidson. As Chad Hansen likes to emphasize in almost everything he’s written, one nearly always has to choose from among competing demands of interpretation. For him the choices lie between demands of charity and coherence, under the assumption that the Warring States texts have largely philosophical concerns. I suspect that he would argue that every interpretation must answer to some form of the demands of charity and coherence; that is his considered hermeneutic stance.

    Bruce and Taeko Brooks emphasize something different. They aim for, relative to many other scholars interested in Warring States texts, much more detailed contextualization within periodized concerns that they attempt to uncover, concerns that are not prejudged to be philosophical in nature. I don’t think the Brookses thereby transcend interpretation; but they certainly don’t emphasize concerns like those of, say, the New Confucian scholars who are looking for some core of ideas onto which the concerns of modernity and non-Western secular humanism can be grafted.

    I think here a text like the Analects is quite telling. The only thing any scholar could come up with is a monster–nothing derogatory intended by the term. The text itself clearly presents a monster in the figure of Confucius, by the way that it was very likely to have been composed. In making interpretive choices, one could tend strongly toward ignoring that and treating Confucius as a non-monstrous (i.e. non-detached) historical figure with whom one might hold a dialogue, or one might tend more toward acknowledging the composite, clumsy nature of the Confucius construct and treating the Analects as a multivocal text. I think I tend often toward the former in my approach, just as Ames and Hall do, and indeed the way that Hansen does. Others, like the Brookses or Dan Robins, tend more toward the latter approach. It just happens, however, that I am not Whiteheadian in my approach–not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    By way of petty defense, I’m not the one who brought up Thinking Through Confucius (it was Justsomeguy, as he has avowed). One person’s perception of “singling out” is another person’s perception of offering a concrete example. But I take your point–we could consider other examples who might fare more poorly in terms of being explicit about their hermeneutic commitments than Ames and Hall. I’m not sure it’s fair to relegate Ivanhoe to the 19th century, however, despite the Walter Scott associations…

  18. Very likely a fine line can’t be drawn between translation and interpretation, but isn’t it plain good sense, nevertheless, that a distinction can be made?

    Here’s part of A. C. Graham’s response (in CHINESE TEXTS AND CONTEXTS) to Ames’s thought-provoking essay, “The Mencian Conception of Ren Xing“, p.288:

    Although I am convinced by much of Ames’s paper, and of Thinking through Confucius, both seem to me the worse for a confusion between translation and exposition which undermines his own argument. Thus Ames says that the opening of the Zhongyong (tian ming zhi wei xing) “is often conceptualized and translated with strongly essentialistic assumptions to assert that ‘What is decreed by Heaven is called the xing‘”, and decides that this phrase “might be more appropriately rendered ‘the relationships that obtain between man and his world (tian ming) are what is meant by xing’.” (p.154) To me, the second version is not a translation at all. Granted that there can be different opinions about what counts as legitimate translation, it is reasonable to insist that a philosophical translator does his best to approximate to the key concepts of the original and to their logical relations, to follow the structure of the thought rather than to reprocess it; full success is unattainable of course, so to the extent that translation fails one supplements it by exposition….”

    To some extent I believe it is possible to immerse oneself in the ancient texts, to arrive at a sympathetic understanding of the world of thought behind those texts. This would be more difficult than immersing oneself in Shakespeare’s plays, or Plato’s dialogues, but if it’s possible in the case of Shakespeare’s plays or Plato’s dialogues, then why not in the case of ancient Chinese philosophers?

    The primary value, to me, of accurately understanding the ancient Chinese philosophers is to make such immersion possible. Then it fills me with a sense of longing for the bygone era, and a desire to realize it in the present. In this way, I think, my hope of seeing Confucianism revitalized in today’s world is rooted in an accurate understanding of the past.

    A secondary value is the historical lesson I provided earlier, about how accurate translation of Indian Buddhist texts preceded the flowering of sinicized forms of Buddhism.

    p.s. Damn those Prufrock verses! 🙂 They always reverberate in my head for days around my birthdays. And it feels worse when one is still a grad student like me, with nothing to show for it.

  19. Hi Carl,

    Hmm. I’m having trouble deciding what we disagree about here. I hope you don’t mind indulging me as I try to make it a bit more concrete.

    Let’s say there’s an exegete, Franz, who’s a Western-trained philosopher and a Western-trained Sinologist. He writes a book on de (德) and political power. He notes that well-known authorities on the topic have misconstrued the character “de,” in part because in they have hewn too closely to the translation of de as “virtue.” Franz uses the Shijing and the Xing zi ming chu to recontexualize de, and argues that it is be understood as a particular kind of political power, which is legitimized by the good character of the holder of that power (or something). Along the way, he scores the usual points against said well-known authorities on the topic, some of whom have worked out fairly systematic theories of interpretation. But Franz doesn’t offer a systematic theory of interpretation. He just offers what we might call a “localized” theory of interpretation, and a piecemeal one at that.

    Nevertheless, a lot of scholars find Franz’s book useful–some because it strikes them as a more accurate interpretation of the texts than those of the going authorities, some because it helps them better understand what they like about the classical Confucians, some because it helps them figure out what they don’t like about the classical Confucians.

    I’d be curious to know what objections people might have to Franz’s method here. Just to get the ball rolling, I’ll mention two general lines of attack.

    (1) We might say that Franz is less likely to produce a useful piece of scholarship than the going authorities, especially the ones who do have a systematic, worked-out theory of interpretation.
    (2) We might allow that Franz could in fact have a more useful piece of scholarship the going authorities, but nevertheless insist that it doesn’t count for much until he clarifies his hermeneutical presuppositions.

    I’ll put my cards on the table and say that I think (1) is implausible. History doesn’t bear it out. And if it were true then we’d never get anywhere.

    I suspect that much of the squabbling is due to variants of (2). What motivates (2) is the idea that Franz “owes us an account” of his overall method of interpretation, including its aims and theoretical commitments, even if the book itself seems to be of use to other scholars. I’d be curious to know why. Any takers?

    I’ve been wondering about this for awhile, so I welcome any and all glimpses into the minds of those who object to Franz’s method.


  20. Yeah, I see your point, Manyul. I guess I’m inclined to say (with you?) that at the end of the day accuracy isn’t an end in itself, even if it’s okay or even good to have people who treat it as such.

  21. Let me add that I’m biased against Davidson and Quine, or more so against the literature on hermeneutics their work on interpretation has spawned.

    Immersion in different conceptual frameworks is not as hard as it is made to look, say by the thesis of the indeterminacy of translation. After all, one is not born into a particular conceptual framework as one is born into a particular race. One learns one’s way into one’s own, and by learning one’s way into other conceptual frameworks, can to some extent make them one’s own. (Searle’s criticism of the indeterminacy thesis is, of course, much better… see his “Indeterminacy, Empiricism, and the First Person”.)

  22. Justin: I think your scenario and question are very thought provoking. These are my initial thoughts:

    The variants on #2 are interesting to consider, but also it seems to me that one has to consider what constitutes the “authorities” being “owed an account.” For instance, Hall and Ames bend over backwards to justify their translation of REN as “authoritative humanity” in the Analects. Justification in this case, most would agree, is owed to the reader. Those who translate the terms as “benevolence,” however, don’t seem to owe anybody anything. Is the latter translation really more justified? By what authority?

    Isn’t it just an unreflective habit at this point to use English terms like “benevolence,” “Heaven,” etc.?

    That was Hall and Ames’ point in the 1980’s. But have they succeeded in challenging the “authority” mindset associated with the old terms and ideas? I don’t think so. One test case could be the translations of the Daodejing that Hall and Ames offer and that Ivanhoe offers, respectively. Hall and Ames’ translation is pretty wild, counter-intuitive, frustrating, downright weird at times, and JUSTIFIED in their introduction. Like I said, it is easy to criticize Hall and Ames because their assumptions and rationale are laid bare. Ivanhoe, on the other hand, translates the Daodejing with a few explanatory footnotes and all the old vocabulary. Is he the authority, then? No justification needed?

    This is not to say there there are not wonderful aspects to Ivanhoe’s translation. In fact, if I had to take one with me on the train, I’d take Ivanhoe! I just find the two cases representative of two different levels of seriousness towards the general problems of translation and interpretation.

    I think Manyul’s intial question is a very good one: What difference does “accuracy” really make? But he couches that question with the misguided suggestion that Hall and Ames perhaps don’t care! Of course THEY care – why would they take so much time to justify themselves if they didn’t care to be accurate!? The question is whether or not someone like Ivanhoe, tossing down a Daodejing whole cloth from the tower, cares enough.

    To return to Manyul’s actual question, I do think it is important to ask whether or not one has to care about “accuracy” at all. In many ways, it doesn’t make much of a difference to anyone but the scholarly type. I am not going to begrudge anyone their Alan Watts, Heaven, Ivanhoe, Legge, whatever. There is some “truth” in all of those approaches, and plenty of feel-good value. So I say go for it.

    I just wonder if it is not already time for “scholarly types” to be expected to conduct themselves more like Hall and Ames, Slingerland, Hansen, Van Norden etc. and less like Nivison, Schwartz, Ivanhoe, etc. In other words, provide SOME justification for how you interpret the tradition. Give us SOMETHING to consider, to challenge, to be persuaded by, or to reject on principle. Don’t just assume your authority. That is not possible to do anymore, now that there are competing interpretations.

  23. Carl and Justin,

    Maybe it would be worth distinguishing a few questions.

    First, to what extent should we try to provide our interpretive claims with explicit justifications? I think we all agree that this is important (Franz presumably does this in his book on de, for example). But sometimes people publish work in which substantive interpretive claims get taken for granted, as if the work were written to edify (or whatever) people who already accept the underlying interpretation. (Carl, is this what you see Ivanhoe doing?)

    Second, to what extent should these justifications be holistic? Hall and Ames, as well as Hansen, think that to get early Chinese thought right, you need to recognise certain general features of the tradition, so they are suspicious of piecemeal or local attempts to justify interpretive claims—because they are liable to overlook more general issues.

    Third, to what extent should attempts to justify interpretations be grounded in an explicit theory of interpretation? (Here I’m thinking especially of Hansen’s appeal to the principle of humanity.) Working with such a theory might help one avoid ad hoc interpretive arguments, and might therefore tend to make one’s interpretive arguments less piecemeal, but it would not achieve this in the same way that holism would.

  24. Dan and All:

    Dan, you make a very interesting and clarifying distinction: the “piecemeal” vs. the “holistic” approach.

    I think it echoes to some degree Kuhn’s discussion of “paradigms” and the “normality” of discourse. The Stanford crowd has a “normal” discourse going on: it takes place within a paradigm that either has no explicit justification or rests on a forgotten one. Within that paradigm, there are certain “piecemeal” problems posed and “edifying” things to say to one another about those problems (like “is there some tension in line 6, 2A:6 of the Mengzi?” or whatever). It’s become basically an industry, meaningful only to those who are already on the inside. Like I said, I doze off when reading the likes of Nivison. I have no clue what he is talking about or why.

    I wonder, then, where the boundary is between such “edification” and plain old insularity. What I like about the Hall/Ames approach (a paradigm shift if ever there was one) is that it opens the door to people like me, those who didn’t have the fine fortune of going to Stanford (or to grad school for that matter). They actually invite me to adopt the new paradigm itself, right up front. They seek to persuade me, to allow me into Chinese philosophy as they take it to be.

    In the “holisitic” approach of Hall and Ames there is a justification for me to consider, one that I can either accept or reject (maybe it is “Whiteheadian,” I don’t know. I’ve never read Whitehead, but I understand Hall and Ames – does that make me a “Whiteheadian”?) Once I understand the justification, I am entitled to whatever access into Chinese philosophy it provides. I am free to take it or leave it. Seems like an honest deal to me.

    I have an avid and long-standing interest in Chinese philosophy (spent a year teaching English in Nanjing in the early 90’s – got me hooked). Not being a sinologist myself, I’ve grown to appreciate Hall and Ames’ willingness to justify and explain their interpretations to me. We commoners rely on the “scholarly types” to provide that kind of service. Not many do.

    So, how do the initial questions of “accuracy” and authority fit into this? That’s still a live question. At least Hall and Ames address the issue head on and assume in themselves no inherent authority. Maybe being connected with Stanford confers some kind of automatic, unassailable authority. Is there a certain “Condi Rice” attitude of cock-sureness that one acquires especially there? I don’t know. If so, the world would be a better place without that.

    I haven’t much more to say. I’m just a weekend warrior on the blogosphere. Monday means back to work. Thanks for letting me chime in. I’m glad I found this blog. Keep up the good work.

  25. I suppose that depends on how you view Confucianism, Daoism, and the rest. Are they dead lumps to be picked up by whomever and used to justify their aims or are they living breathing traditions where scholars handling them have a debt and a duty to that living tradition and so should strive for a degree of accuracy.

  26. One can develop variations on the actual ideas of the old texts/philosophers, or ideas suggested by the old texts, in ways that don’t involve seeming to attribute one’s ideas to those texts/philosophers. Even if Confucius is set in stone, Confucianism is still alive and so can be moved. And Confuciusmithjonestein can be given that correct name.

    Let’s suppose one is talking explicitly about an old texts/philosophers, not about entities clearly identified as being different (Confucianism, Confusmithjonestein).

    Then: On the one hand there’s (A) striving for accuracy. On the other hand there’s (B) treating the old text/philosopher as a mnemonic device to hold one’s own ideas. And there are many intermediate projects, some more intermediate than others.

    I think any substantial departure from model (A) in the direction of model (B) is prima facie questionable unless none of the following conditions obtains:

    (1) Our own ideas are not solidly established. There is reason to keep an open mind, either about whether they are true or about whether we ourselves understand them. (This will be true, for example, if our ideas would standardly be classified as “philosophical”.)
    (2) The old text/thinker is the object of many other people’s reverence or respect.
    (3) The old text/thinker are objects of many other people’s exegetical interest.
    (4) The fact of substantial departure from model (A) is not advertised on the cover of the book so as to be understood by potential purchasers.

    But it would seem to me, a priori and offhand, that intermediate projects are not very attractive to pursue unless all the above conditions obtain.

  27. Sorry about the long delay. I just got back from a weekend in Bluejean Eugene.


    Thanks. I think I now have a clearer understanding of your position. Once you put it this way, though, it looks like we’re back at the view that research priorities are context sensitive, and not absolute. It’s not that Franz’s work is all worthless unless it comes packaged with an explicit, holistic theory of interpretation (thanks Dan). Rather, it’s that it doesn’t fulfill the demands of certain areas of inquiry, or answer the needs of certain scholars or readers. But, of course, this doesn’t mean that Franz’s work won’t be useful in other ways. And in fact, if the present is at all a mirror of the past, the rigor of Franz’s work is going to be a better predictor of it’s lastingness than it’s fidelity to an explicit, holistic theory of interpretation. Boram’s apt selection from Graham shows how that kind of fidelity can actually get in the way of good and lasting work.

    Just a quick plea to let the plumbers do their work without demanding that they also become full-time theorists of plumbing.

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