Category Archives: Mencius

The Heart of Deference

Section 2A/6 of the Mencius tells us that the heart of deference (辭讓) is the starting point of ritual. I’ll try to convince you that this is a puzzling claim, and then suggest a solution to the puzzle.

The puzzle is that ritual obviously mobilises motives other than deference, and calls for behaviour that is not simply deferential. Think of the way that grief takes on ritualised shape in funerals: this is not just an extension of deference. So, why did it make sense to the author or authors of Mencius 2A/6 to say that deference is the starting-point of ritual?

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Kings and Thieves

Section 5B/4 of the Mencius is a very interesting text. It’s one of the points at which the Mencius gets defensive about Mencius’s personal virtue. The issue here is Mencius’s willingness to accept gifts from rulers who acquired them by taking from their people. Why accept those gifts, given that you wouldn’t accept gifts from a more everyday sort of bandit?

This passage interests me in part because I’m interested in Mencian defensiveness (on which see also the earlier thread about Shun and his awful family). But that’s not the issue I want to take up here. What I’m wondering about is how (if at all) Mencius’s argument is supposed to work. Continue reading →

Your Xing and What You Do

This post sketches part of the argument in my paper “The Warring States Concept of Xing,” which is just out in Dao 10.1 (Spring 2011). “Xing” is commonly translated as “nature,” though “spontaneous character” would be better.

There’s this idea that (in Warring States terms) it can be your xing 性 to do something even though you have no tendency to actually do it. This idea is badly wrong. And no one would take it seriously if they weren’t misreading the Mencius.

The big problem is that the Mencius seems to say that it is our xing to be good, and that people who study the Mencius are mostly trained to think that that claim somehow stands for or summarises everything else the collection has to say about human nature. And trying to interpret the claim so that it does stand for all that leads to some major interpretive troubles. Continue reading →

What Is Shun's Awful Family Doing in the Mencius?

I’m interested in hearing what, if anything, people think the crazy stories about the sage king Shun and his awful family are doing in the Mencius. I’m thinking especially about sections 5A/2 and 5A/3, which tell us how Shun responded to his family’s attempts to murder him, but 5A/1, 4A/26, and 7A/35 are also on-topic, and maybe 4A/28 and 5A/4 (and others?) as well.

One reason I bring this up is that I know that Manyul, Steve, and I have very different ideas about this, and maybe others do too. So it should be fun to talk about. Continue reading →

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.

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Rethinking Confucian Sovereignty

Starting next week, I’m going to be giving a series of lectures, collectively titled “Contemporary Confucian Virtue Politics,” at the University of Michigan. In case any reader might be in Ann Arbor, you’re more than welcome to come; information is here. I thought I would sketch out one of the ideas here and see what y’all think.

One of the thoughts motivating the third lecture (with the same title as this post) is that there is a tension within one prominent way in which sovereignty is articulated in classical Confucianism. My eventual claim is that resolving this tension requires making some significant changes to Confucianism, but that these changes have the effect of allowing the revised system to better realize its core commitments than did the original configuration. In other words, the argument that I end up making for what we can loosely call Confucian democracy is not a claim that democracy is compatible with Confucianism, but rather than it is required by Confucian commitments themselves. In making this argument, I take myself to be building on ideas of Mou Zongsan, and at certain points draw explicitly on some of his arguments.

For now, I wanted to see what folks thought about the “tension” claim. I am focused on Mencius. Roughly, the idea is this: Continue reading →

Empirical Perspective on Mencius-Xunzi Debate

Eric Schwitzgebel, one of our contributors, is having problems registering for a WordPress ID, so he has asked me to post this podcast of a lecture that he presented on the Mencius-Xunzi human nature debate. It is also cross-posted over at his blog The Splintered Mind:


Podcast of “An Empirical Perspective on the Mencius-Xunzi Debate about Human Nature”

… given to the Confucius Institute of Scotland on Jan. 19, available for listening or download here.

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What's Wrong With Those Pesky "Village Worthies"?

I’ve started work on a paper that asks how issues like continence and conscientiousness look when viewed through the lens of early Confucianism. These seems like a good idea in part because of the great range of ways in which such issues are treated in recent virtue ethics/virtue theory literature: some take it for granted that conscientiousness is a virtue, and perhaps even a central one (e.g., Adams, Wallace), while others insist that it is not a virtue at all, while disagreeing about what value it may have (e.g., Slote, Roberts). How do Confucians carve up the terrain? What attitudes, states, dispositions, and so on do they recognize that might do similar work to conscientiousness and related ideas?

These are big questions that I don’t propose to seriously address in this post, though maybe I’ll go there in subsequent efforts. (I’m new to this whole blog-posting thing. One step at a time.) For today, I want to focus on the infamous “village worthies (xiang yuan 鄉愿)” who are described briefly in Analects 17:13 as “thieves of virtue” and discussed at somewhat more length in Mengzi 7B37. My questions are: what’s wrong with them, and do the two texts view them in precisely the same way?

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Bootstrapping Problem in Mencius

There’s a very problematic passage–I’ve always thought–in Mencius 6A: 15:

Gongduzi asked: Though equally human, but some are great men (daren 大人) and some are petty men (xiaoren 小人). Why is this?

Mencius replied: Following their greater parts (dati 大體) makes them great men; following their lesser parts (xiaoti 小體) makes them petty men.

Gongduzi asked: But being equally human, how is it that some follow their greater parts and some follow their lesser parts?

Mencius replied: The organs of the ears and eyes do not think and are wrapped up in things (bi yu wu 蔽於物). When there is interaction among things, [those organs] are only led around. The organ of the heart thinks and because it thinks, it can attain (de ) things [i.e. control and/or transform things]; if something does not think, it cannot attain things. This is what is given to us by Heaven. First, take a stand (li hu qi da zhe 立乎其大者) on the greater; then the lesser is unable to take over. That is all there is to being a great man.

Mencius doesn’t really answer Gongduzi’s question to my satisfaction because it seems clear to me that Gongduzi can just repeat the question in this form: “But being equally human, how is it that some ‘take a stand’ on their greater parts while others do not?”

I call this a bootstrapping problem because it seems to require some kind of “super-agency” in which a person has to take a stand on the better part of herself without being able to rely on that part to guide her in taking that stand. Or so I’ve argued in “Wielding Virtue in the Mengzi” (in Conceptions of Virtue East and West, Kim-chong Chong (ed.), 2006).

Doesn’t this seem like a problem for Mencius? Is there a solution?

Flourishing, the Non-moral Good, & Virtue Ethics

Here’s an issue that I think is relevant to any view about “flourishing” attributed to early Chinese philosophy. If the basic idea of flourishing is some idea about faring well, or “welfare,” we can ask what it takes conceptually to have such an idea. What comes to mind for me is that there has to be some notion of a person’s good, where that good is construed in some way independent of acting correctly–i.e. it has to be a notion of a person’s “non-moral” good. Even as I write that, I’m not quite sure what the reason for that is, but it seems important to me to keep welfare distinct from rightness. I might be totally wrong, but my philosophical instincts whisper otherwise.

The reason this seems important to me vis-a-vis early Chinese philosophy is that it seems like the non-moral good is featured in the Mohist idea of benefit, li 利. But li is not taken as theoretically central or even relevant in the Analects and the Mencius. Maybe it is important in the Xunzi, but I think that is because the Xunzi has a consequentialist view like the Mozi. If any of this is on the right track, then there is not in fact any virtue ethics in early China, in the sense that Van Norden and others think there to be. A lot rides on the idea of flourishing as relying on that of the non-moral good, and hence as being construed independently of rightness, so I wonder what can be said in favor of or against that…