The article from the current issue of Dao that we have chosen for discussion is Michael Slote’s “The Philosophical Reset Button: A Manifesto,” available via open-access here. This time around, we offer opening comments from both BAI Tongdong of Fudan University, and myself (Steve Angle). Those comments follow here, and let the discussion begin!
Bai Tongdong, Fudan University
In this article, Slote argues that Western philosophical tradition is too rationalistic, and it should be reset by taking into the wisdom of the Chinese philosophical tradition that emphasizes the role of emotion, empathy in particular, in good life, ethics, politics, and even in epistemology. A focus of my own research is to show the contemporary and comparative relevance of traditional Chinese philosophy, and thus I highly appreciate Slote’s “manifesto.” There are many deeply felt—not just recognized—agreements between him and me, but I will focus on a few differences in the following.
1) Is the Western philosophical tradition overly rationalistic? I tend to be suspicious of general claims like this. Socrates (not the historical figure, but the central character of Plato’s dialogues) seems to express a longing for a world of Ideas, but we shouldn’t forget that he is known for his irony and Plato never speaks in his own voice. Oftentimes, what Socrates says on the surface can’t be simply taken as what he actually means. He famously claims that body is a hindrance to the pursuit of the soul, but then rejects suicide out of the obedience to some god’s will, a rejection offered by someone who is tried for impiety. Aristotle does say the life of theoria is the best, but this is a controversial “Platonic turn” in his otherwise a-Platonic, if not anti-Platonic, work on ethics. The French philosopher Pierre Hedot claims that the way of life was also a central concern for ancient Western thinkers, and the so-called rationalistic turn may have become dominant only during Western modernity. Franklin Perkins has an interesting article (unpublished) on the issue of philosophy as a way of life in West and in China.
2) Is the Chinese tradition focused on emotions? Again, the Chinese tradition is a big camp, and let me just mention Han Fei Zi the Legalist philosopher who doesn’t seem to have much use of sympathy-based moral cultivation. Indeed, he is a harsh and perhaps one of the most incisive critics of Confucian moral cultivation. His political philosophy reminds us of Machiavelli and Hobbes, although he lived 2,000 years or so before the latter.
3) Do we really need Chinese philosophers to reset (Western) philosophy? Many of the ideas Slote wishes to promote are already developed by Western feminists, care ethicists, etc. Some of the issues, such as the role of empathy in epistemology, are not really a serious concern for traditional Chinese philosophers, and their relevance to these issues has to be a big stretch.
4) Again, do we really need Chinese philosophy to reset (Western) philosophy? In spite of what I just said, my answer is yes! But to me, the reason is that human beings qua human beings have universally shared problems that can transcend time, space, and peoples. Different philosophers offer different answers to commonly shared human problems. Then, in doing comparative philosophy, we shouldn’t begin with comparing concepts, but should understand the underlying problems and see if there are shared or commensurable problems between the objects of comparison. If there are, we can compare the solutions offered by different philosophers and evaluate their relative merits. In this sense, we are not really doing comparative philosophy between China and the West, but between different philosophers/philosophical texts. No one should question the significance of comparing Plato with Aristotle in terms of our understanding of both, and of philosophy in general. Then, why shouldn’t we compare Plato with Confucius, Hobbes with Han Fei Zi, etc.? There may be some fundamental differences between Chinese and Western philosophies, but we can only discover them after we give some comprehensive comparisons among all the Great Books in the past, Chinese and Western. But it is not to deny the particular value of comparing Chinese philosophy with Western philosophy, because to experts on both sides, the other is indeed much more the Other, the Stranger, than the usual suspects of comparison within one tradition.
5) To conclude, then, the comparative work between Chinese and Western philosophical traditions is one for all those who are philosophically curious, not just to “you Chinese.” And indeed, for good or for bad, the West can only turn to the Other when its Self gets into trouble (its philosophy, its politics, and above, “it is the economy, stupid”), relative to the other. So, for a richer philosophical scenery, let’s pray for the Chinese economical miracle to continue a bit longer!
Steve Angle, Wesleyan University
For many readers of this blog, Michael Slote’s “Philosophical Reset Button” will sound like preaching to the choir: yes, surely Chinese philosophical traditions have much to teach us! His connection between post-World War II US global power and the current influence of Anglo-American philosophy within professional philosophy circles around the world makes good sense, as does the speculation that as China’s global influence continues to rise, so will Chinese culture, including its philosophical traditions, have an opportunity to play an increasing role around the world. In this brief comment, I propose to reflect a bit more about what it might mean to “reset” a philosophical tradition or community, and thus on how things may go from here.
Here are three ways in which tradition A (in this case, the Western tradition) may be change as a result of encountering tradition B (Chinese philosophy). (1) At the most conservative end of the spectrum, adherents of A may look into B for solutions to problems already well-defined within A. (2) More change may come when adherents of A learn enough of B to see that it challenges ways that they have formulated some of their questions; B puts emphasis on ideas that have no direct correlate in A, or at least aren’t important in A’s framework; and so on. Adherents of A respond to these challenges by making piecemeal changes to their framework, re-building it from the inside. (3) Most radically, adherents of A may be convinced to abandon A and adopt B. Alasdair MacIntyre is our leading theorist of this possibility; in works like Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988) he sets down the conditions that would have to be met for adherents of one tradition to choose to adopt an alternative. They have to see that their own tradition has failed in its own terms, see that an alternative tradition is succeeding in its own terms, and furthermore that the alternative tradition can explain the failure of their original tradition. Under such circumstances, MacIntyre says, it is rational to jump ship.
Some of Michael’s language suggests that he may have something like (3) in mind. Ironically, one of the best examples of this type of arguments in recent world history comes from early-twentieth-century China, when intellectuals like Chen Duxiu called for the rejection of Chinese traditions in favor of “wholesale Westernization,” using reasoning that anticipate MacIntyre quite closely. Of course, what actually happened in twentieth-century China is different from and more complicated than a wholesale change from one tradition or discourse to another. And on balance, I do not think that the reset for which Michael is calling is really this extreme. He recognizes that the Chinese traditions are not, themselves, perfect (see his remark near the end about human rights), and I expect that what he really hopes for is a robust version of my option (2).
For even (2) to happen, many of us have more work to do. This is not just true of Anglophone scholars of and practitioners of Chinese philosophy (i.e., readers of this blog). A major obstacle in the way of philosophers in China playing the role that Michael envisions is the tendency for scholars in China to engage with Chinese traditions in exclusively historical or culturalist modes, typified by the category or “national studies (guoxue).” Even within philosophy departments, a great deal of work is organized around the chronological tracking of a term or idea, in which the bulk of the scholarship consists in assembling relevant texts into one schema or another. The challenge is to use native traditions of philosophical questioning and inquiry—which certainly exist—as a starting point for a new form of Chinese philosophy, without simply re-inscribing the categories of Western philosophy. To do this, Chinese philosophers themselves will need to engage in some degree of growth and change of type (2). To some degree, that is, the current practice of philosophy in China needs its own reset, if it is to satisfactorily instigate a reset within Western philosophy.
Terrific opening comments. How interesting it would be to look into the Structure of Philosophic Resets: epistemological ones, violent ones, etc. And I’m grateful especially for Bai Tongdong’s point 4. Too often, reaching out becomes talking about instead of talking with, and too often “Chinese philosophy” or “Western philosophy” is used as a mere stalking-horse. (Aside: I think the West rarely approaches its own in a comparative spirit, comparing one to another.)
I wonder whether Michael’s essay is really a manifesto to Chinese philosophers—does it appear somewhere in Chinese, perhaps with references? I think of it more as a sketch for a manifesto to Western philosophers, urging them to attend to certain issues. Here are some disagreements with its initial points, basically elaborations of Bai Tongdong’s point 2.
The Analects devalues concern for good food, sex, and physical comfort, albeit not grouped as “bodily.” Still, Confucius would have agreed with Aristotle that it’s vicious to be too little drawn to bodily pleasures or too little fearful of bodily damage. More extreme devaluations can be found in both China and the West.
The West has always attended to everyday life. But as above, the paper often uses terms like “the West” to refer perhaps only to Western philosophy; that is, perhaps excluding novels, television, innovative social organization, and the kind of thing we might class as “philosophy” when talking about old China: Aesop, Theophrastus, Benedict, Luther, Montaigne, Franklin, Peale, Post, Covey, Gilligan, Goleman, Sacks. That’s the cultural matrix of Western philosophy, even of logical positivism. This is important if Michael’s idea is not that Chinese philosophers have ideas ready for the West, but rather that their cultural tradition primes them to do so.
Modern Western philosophy is part of an intellectual division of labor; it aims to lay new theoretical foundations (even on how to live life) by good academic standards. So (a) undergraduates can be disappointed by the gap between daily concerns and the abstract course material; and (b) theorists may focus too readily on what is easily articulated to fit big arguments; and (c) theorists and readers err by eliding academic justifications with recipes for quick deliberation. That all comes with the territory, and it tends to shortchange emotion unless we work at that.
Surviving literature suggests that “the Greeks” in general reveled in the emotional drama of life.
They certainly celebrated their bodies. They invented realistic sculpture of the human form, using it even to represent gods; though humongous appetitive bits were standard in some ritual spectacles such as comedies and parades. The squabbling Greek towns invented the Olympics and persisted in them, along with several other regular series of panhellenic games; and invented the genre of epinikia to celebrate the victors. Our schools have gyms; for the Greeks it was the other way around. In Athens the main such large public educational complexes focusing on nude and seminude athletics for all ages were the Academy, the Lyceum, and the Cynosarges—predating Plato, Aristotle, and Antisthenes the Cynic. State funds combined with private philanthropy to provide an adequate supply of body oil. That’s what the Greek philosophers were steeped in.
Plato was a baby when Aristophanes’ Clouds appeared, in which Just Logos displayed his pedagogical wares next to those of Wrong Logos, representing the new intellectuals:
Plato may have felt he was siding against those sophists when he warned about overindulging bodily appetites and, in the Republic, gave as the two main parts of the Guardians’ education music (tunes, literature, philosophy) and gymnastic.
(Greek comments on bodily appetites were not automatically bound up with any mind-body dichotomy.
Aristophanes made his “Socrates” ride a hanging basket to distance his cogitation from the earth’s downward pull; maybe the playwright was thinking of the atomists. Empedocles made love and strife the engines of physics. Aristotle thought matter moves for sakes; and he thought the psyche is the form whose matter is the body’s matter. His psyche is a set of functionings: nutrition, growth, movement, sensing, feeling, and thinking.)
I think Plato and Aristotle shared the following vision and usage:
(a) Among pleasures, pains, and passions, some are felt in parts of the body: in the skin, mouth, genitals, muscles, damage sites, etc. These are the “bodily” ones. Good care of the body involves disciplining them.
(b) Probably every operation of the mind involves affect. —pleasure, or things we might want to call “passions,” pathe. But among the things we might call “passions,” pathe, some are more violent than others, less responsive to thinking, or less integral to good general rational functioning; so that it seems apt to say these are affecting us, moving us, pushing us around. These are events are salient as passions, the stereotypical cases of “passion,” where the word is most at home, most apt (cf. Met. 1022b15-19). (We might say the same about the English ‘emotion’. Translators often use ‘emotion’ for thumos, really a passionate excitement loosely associated with the chest.)
(c) Violent or unintegrated passions, such as strong but not routinized bodily passions, tend to be base and disruptive. Properly balanced, well-ordered habits of thought&feeling are the stuff of virtue and reason.
I find no mystery in (a)(b)(c).
Consider the main thing Michael says about Plato.
It is easy to see how (a)(b)(c) might inspire someone whose tradition imagines shades apart from corpses, to think of separating psyche from body and to think the tie between them can vary in degree, as proposed by “Socrates” in the Phaedo and in a myth in the Republic. (Anywhere else?)
But the passage Michael cites, from Republic VI, does not mention withdrawal from the body. Socrates is arguing that real philosophers would make good rulers. After saying they should take good care of their bodies from youth to support their philosophy, he drops the topic of bodies. He points out that we inevitably mimic what we associate with and admire; we absorb its qualities. Giving long attention to changeless systems such as geometry trains orderly habits of thought&feeling, and tends to make us better moral trainers of others.
A passage in the Gorgias with the same Stephanus page numbers stresses the difference between indulging bodily appetites and caring intelligently for the body.
Aristotle and Emotion
Aristotle has been called “strongly cognitivist” about passions; he sees them as essentially involving beliefs and attitudes.
Aristotle thought sense organs maintain a “mean” state, in a sensitive balance between extremes so as to register qualities all along a scale—I think of a spring not too far stretched or compacted (e.g. DA 424a2-11, a33-b3). The Nicomachean Ethics puts a responsive emotional balance at the heart of moral virtue:
But let’s not carry balance too far:
To constitute Aristotle a main exhibit of the Greek malady, Michael says Aristotle “tells us a life of pure theorizing is the highest kind of existence” (1).
Yes, in some sense. But if “pure theorizing” means a priori inquiry, it’s not the most prominent procedure in the old empiricist’s philosophy. In ethics, for example:
Aristotle does say that theoria is the highest existence any being can have. But most beings can’t have any. Irwin describes it: Aristotle “is not thinking of the inquiry needed to find answers; he probably thinks of surveying the deductive structure of a demonstrative science” (Nic. Eth. 2nd ed., 349f).
Pure theoria is the existence of the divine being. Theoriais possible part of the time for some humans—an existence of impure theoria, if you like—enough so that the life centering on philosophy (inquiry + theoria) is the best available life for any humans, available for some. But Aristotle seems to see that simply calling that the best life for humans does not quite fit much of what he says about ethics for elites more broadly.
Pure theoria is not pure of affect. Aristotle tends to think of pleasure as being more like something we do than like a pathos. The term pathos leans toward suffering, and being altered. But pleasure pervades, enhances and completes the good functioning of the healthy mind (1174b17-75a33); “we judge each thing better and more exactly when our activity involves pleasure.” Hence the purest and most permanent theoria, the activity of the Unmoved Mover, “is also pleasure” (Met. 1072b14-16).
—Oops: the above comment was elaborating on Bai Tongdong’s point 1, not his point 2.
I agree with his point that even the material the West calls “philosophy” has long attended to everyday life—not just in the ancient world, but more recently, and especially when talking about moral education. (And I’d like to distinguish more clearly my points that (a) the cultural background of Western philosophy has always been full of deep thought about everyday life, and that (b) much of this has been in the sort of discourse that we would class as “philosophy” in the context of early China, so for comparative purposes it’s not fair to exclude it from Western philosophy.) More on these matters here.
Unlike (yes?) the Chinese tradition, a large part of what Western thought has increasingly stressed about everyday private life is that one should hesitate to lay down detailed rules (requirements) for that, for many reasons including the value of working things out for oneself (cf. Rousseau’s Emile). As Mill says in On Liberty, Ch.3:
As change in the basic conditions of life accelerates, the empirical questions become ever more difficult, and intuition—reflecting the experience of generations—becomes ever less reliable, as Jonathan Glover pointed out in the preface to Causing Death and Saving Lives (1972). That’s an argument for the urgency of work on the theoretical foundations of ethics and politics.
I said there are places where Plato seems down on the body, and mentioned the Phaedo and a bit of the Republic. The other main place is in the Phaedrus.
Robin A. Parry, in “Plato and the Goodness of the Body,” argues that Plato was never as down on the body as he sometimes seems. Along the way, Parry points to a passage in Plato’s Timaeus :
Simon Goldhill writes of classical Greek culture and Socrates:
I suppose one of the main concerns of “sheer bodily existence” is food. Plato’s Socrates comments on this in Republic II, 372, praising a simple natural diet, but acceding to Glaucon’s insistence on fancy cooking (to have the city they design face some challenges). Plato was right, yes?
XIN 心 as evidence
Michael gives many exhibits of Western wrongheadedness. There are two exhibits to show China’s philosophical strengths. The first is the word xin 心. Michael writes,
(Is Michael’s claim symmetrical—the Chinese thinkers tend to think of cognition as emotive and of emotion as cognitive? They don’t much speak of mere cognition or mere emotion?)
How would the word xin 心 be significant evidence of a tendency not to separate? Having a non-distinguishing term isn’t evidence one way or the other. The English word ‘body’ doesn’t suggest that English-speakers tend not to distinguish nerves from arteries, sitting from metabolizing, or shape from weight; nor does having the word xin 心 suggest that Chinese thinkers hesitated to distinguish a heart of true and false from other hearts.
Lacking distinguishing terms would be some evidence of not distinguishing; but Michael doesn’t offer that kind of evidence. Maybe he or someone else can speak to that.
Lacking a non-distinguishing term, a term for something that both thinks and feels,
would be some evidence of separating them too far. Michael’s concluding observation, “there is no Indo-European language containing such a term,” would, if true, be evidence about the West, but none about China.
Is the observation true? If by “such a term” Michael means a term for a part that encompasses both thinking and feeling, one such Indo-European term is ‘mind’ as Michael means it in his previous sentence, and as it is standardly meant in the phrase ‘philosophy of mind’. Better examples may be ‘soul’ and ‘psyche’. One term for a bodily thing that thinks and feels (on the usual casual opinion) is ‘brain’, though usage doesn’t follow the opinion. Another term for a bodily thing that thinks and feels is ‘person’.
I wonder if Anglophone scholars’ sense of the Chinese word xin 心 is slightly skewed by the strong narrow associations of the English ‘heart’. In a thread on xin 心 (3/19/2014), Tim Connolly quotes Edward Slingerland in JAAR 81:1:
But the real issue at hand is not separateness of organs or parts. The issue is the separateness of mental operations or events: cognition, emotion, etc. So the more relevant vocabulary evidence might be verbs.
The English verb ‘appreciate’ has a cognitive and an affective aspect. But let’s look at ‘know’. Does this word, this concept, conceptually separate cognition from emotion? It does in the sense that it allows for the idea that some cognition is without emotion. But it does not separate them in the sense of referring only to cognition with emotion. It does not imply that cognition is often or ever without emotion; it is silent on that. (In just the same way, it is silent on whether cognition often or ever involves emulsion.) And all the converse points are true of ‘feel’.
What enables us to think about the relation between knowing and feeling in general is that we have such terms, terms like ‘know’ and ‘feel’, allowing us to refer without prejudice to (a) all and only knowing or (b) all and only feeling, respectively.
(Of course my argument here assumes that the two concepts are not in fact identical. The two verbs do not take the same range of objects; and feeling that I am right is surely not the same as knowing it.) If a language did not allow such questions to be raised, would that be a strength? It might, in certain respects.
What’s the issue? What’s the Western mistake?
What kind of “conceptual separation” does Michael have in mind here as the “conceptual mistake” (9) committed by the West and less by China? The example he gives in this section is the view that beliefs as such are “inert.”
He had rebutted the inertness view on page 6, on the grounds that we are emotionally invested in our beliefs. We are prone to be annoyed or irritated when our beliefs are challenged.
I think the rebuttal mistakes the familiar Western view. The familiar view does not deny that we are often or always emotionally invested in our beliefs. Western thought does not separate belief and emotion in that way or any similar way.
The familiar philosophical view that might fit the tag “inertness of beliefs” is the view that beliefs by themselves have no rational motivating or rational normative force. More precisely, you can’t logically deduce your way from premises that are beliefs (however strong) to conclusions that are intentions or desires or prescriptions.
The word ‘belief’ is vague; it can mean a believed proposition, i.e. an abstract object with logical but no causal relations; or it can mean a kind of psychological object, an object in nature, which would of course have causal properties. The familiar view I have been describing is a view about propositions believed—about the absence of a certain logical relation between propositions and prescriptions, intentions or desires. You can’t deduce an ought (or a want) from an is.
This familiar view is not the strange view that beliefs as psychological objects have no causal power, which seems to be the main target of Michael’s criticism that we react emotionally when our beliefs are challenged. (On beliefs as natural objects, I think there may be a respected view they should be defined as dispositions to infer, which would make them non-inert; but I’m not familiar with the literature.)
The familiar view also not the view that beliefs make no contribution to rational motivating force. The familiar simple view surely is that while believed-propositions without desires can’t rationally move us, neither can desires without beliefs. It’s the combination that moves us.
The familiar view is also maybe not as popular as one might think—especially among moral philosophers.
( Michael also describes the inertness view he is challenging as the view that beliefs have only a “mind-to-world direction of fit.” This term is appropriate to “beliefs” not in the sense of “propositions believed,” but rather in the sense of mental representations that constitute a key part of a belief as a psychological object. Think of having a mental image of a glass of iced tea—does that image’s presence and the way it is wired into your mind constitute your believing there’s a glass of iced tea, or your desiring a glass of iced tea? Depends on the wiring. Whether the picture is (or rather, helps constitute your having) a belief or a desire depends on what kind of potential action it’s connected to. (If the picture weren’t connected to any potential action it wouldn’t be anything.) One test (among others) would be: if you notice a discrepancy between the mental picture and the world, which one do you change to make them fit? That’s what the “direction of fit” terms are about. But another kind of action beliefs or belief-representations are uncontroversially connected to is that they shape your pursuit of what you want.
One confusing but familiar idea in the discourse around “direction of fit” is that many representations are both kinds at once. They are “pushmi-pullyu representations” (Millikan)—analogous to the “models of and for” that Geertz finds essential to religion. )
In my comment on xin just above,
after the second block-quote,
in the paragraph beginning “The English,”
the sentence beginning “But it does not”
should end: “cognition without emotion.”
The Possibility: Yin and Yang
To show that Chinese thought is deeply suited to correct the Western mistakes, Michael offers two exhibits. I’ve discussed xin 心. The other pertains somehow to yin and yang.
Traditionally, these are the pervasive ur-opposites, in balanced cyclic motion and mix. The tradition has life in it yet. I haven’t studied it. Is part of its usual function, to elide distinctions by linking different oppositions together? I am not sure whether Michael wants to retain that feature, or other features. He proposes to Chinese philosophers that they apply or transfer their traditional terms to a new (2013, p. 280) idea of his: that we should balance rational control with receptivity.
Michael’s 2013 paper points out that one early Confucian did emphasize mainly the ethical aspect of yin and yang (arguing against balance). But I don’t understand how the old duality, or using its names for Michael’s idea, is the only way for Michael’s addressees to promote or justify his idea. I don’t understand how it would help.
(I argued here that a serious downside of Michael’s proposal is that it tends to misrepresent reason, to miss its point. Reason is protocols for receptivity.)
To show that Western philosophy needs this Chinese (?) medicine, Michael discusses two wrong views in Western ethics. I’m not sure either has been held. In reverse order they are:
(What does “liberal” mean here?)
If this “rational control” is supposed to involve an articulate thought about each particular potential feeling etc., then Michael’s account of the view seems to me literally not to make sense. (I’ve heard Kant’s universalization test described in terms reminiscent of the account here, but with different intent.) If on the other hand the critical scrutiny in question can be performed by developing principles habitually applied, whose degree of demandingness is not here specified, then I don’t see the prima facie difficulty.
Michael discusses href=”https://books.google.com/books?id=1F5bsm5dzDwC&printsec=frontcover&dq=michael+slote,+empathy&hl=en&sa=X&ei=2X8pVYHVLe2HsQStxYDYBA&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=so%20long%20as%20you%20think%20first&f=false” title=””> here an analogous view that is far less radical because it is not held to apply to “every feeling”—it seems to speak only of major emotional commitments.
Would a Confucian sensibility tend to reject a view on the general grounds that it implies too much vigilance and self-scrutiny? Compare what Confucius says to Yan Yuan at 12.1:
2. Plans of Life.___
I think this report is misleading about Rawls, because (a) “the only sensible or rational way” suggests a weak minimum standard, while Rawls is sketching an ideal or maximum; (b) Rawls’ “rational” is a technical term for something like end-means rationality; I believe it does not coincide with what Michael means by the word; (c) if I read Rawls correctly (TJ §63), his idea is not that full rationality involves having formulated a plan. Rather it means living in such a way as could be described by such a plan. In other words, it means lacking what Confucius calls 惑 (Analects 9.29, 12.10; cf. 5.11). Rawls is talking about what it means for ends used in evaluation and decision to cohere, given the vicissitudes of life, consistent with the person’s lacking one dominant end.
Here are Aristotle’s words:
(The claim does not appear in the Nicomachean Ethics. Despite the stylometric evidence, the Eudemian seems to me the earlier work—full of youthful simplicities.)
Here what Aristotle calls “a mark of much folly” is not the lack of a detailed plan, but the lack of any overall end. He says that we should choose one when we have the capacity to make responsible decisions, not “in advance” of life. Further details should be worked out “without hurry.” (Aristotle’s ethics is perhaps the locus classicus for the very idea of sketching something roughly now and leaving the details for much later.)
There is something to be said for Aristotle’s very tersely formulated proposal, especially in a world where much of the direction of your life is up to you and many people go badly wrong, working against their own interests. Toward choosing a major, you should try to get clear on what you want out of life. Before spending several hours a day for years on Buzzfeed, you should think about where you want to go and how to get there.
Surely part of Aristotle’s thinking here is that there are incompatible kinds of admirable life worth aiming at, and to do any of them well one has to have some focus, one has to aim at it and plan for it specifically.
Michael objects to the idea that we each ought to have a detailed plan of life:
But most projects we should plan are not guaranteed to succeed. Different patterns of family, friendship or career can be much helped or hindered by different kinds of long-term preparation and habituation.
Michael’s suggestion here, that Western philosophy or Western liberalism tends to go wrong by undervaluing spontaneity in romance and friendship, may not fit his overall argument that Confucian sensibilities are suited to correct the West. The point goes deep. In a recent exchange on another Dao article, its author agreed with the commentator that Confucian conceptions of what it is to be a child or youth were profoundly informed by the expectation that one does not choose, spontaneously or otherwise, one’s own marriage partner, career, etc.
one more try at that link (or go to Michael’s book The Ethics of Care and Empathy in Google Books and search for “so long as you think first” — it’s on p. 77.
EMPATHY IN THE TRADITIONS
Does the West stand in need of help on empathy that China’s philosophical tradition is well suited to provide? Yes, obviously. We all need all the help we can get; and China’s philosophical tradition is vast, sophisticated, and different.
Is the Chinese philosophical tradition far superior to the Western in the general area of empathy? That’s a different question, and the manifesto says little to address it. Michael’s point that Chinese philosophers tend not to consider empathy/emotion separately from reason/cognition doesn’t imply that Chinese philosophers give much attention or any mention to empathy. Westerners too can say things that encompass empathy without separating it out—e. g. in speaking generally of cognition.
Here are some scattered observations.
A. Western Discussion
1. On the one hand, the Stoics are all about the “therapy of desire” and developing sayings and psychological exercises for daily life, so I thought they might talk about empathy. On the other hand, the Stoics are half-Buddhist, so I thought they might exemplify the shortcomings Michael attributes to the Greeks. I asked Google, and found a web post by a pro-Stoic cognitive behavioral therapist claiming to give a list of quotes by Marcus Aurelius on “Overcoming Anger and Developing Empathy.” The list is evidence that empathy never crossed the mind of Marcus Aurelius.
2. Michael reports some Western discussions of phenomena that can be called empathy, such as Hume’s discussion of sympathy (a mainstay of the Western curriculum), including the absorption of feelings, attitudes, and beliefs; and German romantic discussions of Einfühlung. And he says the care ethicists discuss empathy.
Here are a few more:
Aristotle lists among the five “defining features of friendship” the point that friends co-distress and co-delight with their friends, as especially does a mother with her child (e.g. EN 1166a1-7). In the Poetics he speaks of feeling “pity and fear” while watching a (fictional) tragedy. I haven’t checked the Rhetoric, much of which is about how to bring an audience over to your side emotionally.
Empathy might also include the meatier kind of thing Plato discusses throughout the Republic : absorbing broad patterns of feeling and action from people, music, literature, political structures, or the geometry of solids.
Michael tells us that speech act theorists neglect audience empathy. I found nothing to disagree with that when I googled empathy “speech act”; but I found that among speech act theorists, or some of them, “empathy” by the speaker has been a formal topic for some decades. So maybe the problem here isn’t in the neglect of empathy, but in speech act theorists’ narrow focus on speech agents rather than patients.
Western psychologists have been studying empathy intensively for the better part of a century (Stueber, “Empathy,” SEP). There seems to be an empathy boom underway in Western philosophy—following upon the emotion boom and the first report of mirror neurons in macaques just 24 years ago. (Ask Amazon Books for empathy philosophy.) Is it all care ethicists?
The web site of the “Center for Building a Culture of Empathy” has a vast amount of material on what it calls the “Senate Debate on Empathy.” http://cultureofempathy.com/references/senate-debate/
3. John Stuart Mill comes close to noticing a very important point about empathy for one’s own future experience, but he misses it. In Utilitarianism ch. 4 par. 9, he virtually identifies (a) believing that something would be pleasant, with (b) finding the idea of it pleasant now. We might want to say he’s rightly pointing to something loosely analogous to imaginative empathy with one’s own possible future experience, and suggesting that it is a very basic mechanism of cognition (the brownness and pleasantness of my mental image of an imminent glass of iced tea are representations of the tea’s brownness and pleasantness, respectively). But Mill shows no sign of seeing it that way.
4. Michael writes,
At least it has been recognized by me:
But my account doesn’t appreciate Michael’s point about the importance of the distinction between feels and attitudes in this context (7f; see below). I was thinking of a chain of feels, giving them specific reference by their placement, as the placement of a red dot in a painting or mental image makes it refer to the color of the person’s nose, not her chin.
B. Western Cultivation
1. It would seem offhand that a prime training ground for the play of empathetic imagination, a prime sign of interest in it, competence in it, and respect for it, is the production and consumption of fictional literature—novels, plays, etc. Certain kinds of history and biography can play similar roles, to an extent. The West is strong in these areas
2. Another prime training ground, I suppose, is egalitarian decisionmaking structures or habits on a large and small scale, from the state to the family. Insofar as decisions are made by discussion among people who may represent different interests, the only way to get what you want is to learn how to appeal to other people’s points of view, to develop your empathetic imagination. The West has been strong in these areas. Is it weakening?
3. Insofar as law and culture honors individual rights, each person is empowered to insist that her standpoint be taken into account by others whose projects might impinge on her.
4. The practice of addressing social arrangements in terms of clear enforced egalitarian rules can facilitate empathetic imagination, helping people appreciate each other’s predicaments by giving everyone’s experience the same framework. If we have national health insurance in place of the free market, each of us better grasps everyone else’s general position regarding potential illness and care. If a piece of proposed legislation would apply not just to the masses but also to the legislators, the legislators better appreciate its potential impact on the masses.
5. A lively awareness that it might be possible or desirable to design and implement novel structures and practices may encourage imagination generally, and thus empathetic imagination.
C. Chinese Discussion
The manifesto does not touch at all on the following questions: Have Chinese philosophers given much direct or indirect attention to the topic of empathy? What are some of the main discussions or mentions of empathy in the Chinese tradition, and how do they compare to the Western discussions? Does the Chinese tradition too make various mistakes by neglecting empathy? I have little to say on those questions either way; I just don’t know.
There are several places where Mencius might be thinking of empathy. In his discussion of the baby about to fall into the well, he might have in mind empathy with a distressed teetering baby, or he might just mean we are naturally alarmed when we see a baby blithely toddling toward a well. In the latter case, empathy might still be involved—or rather, empathetic imagination, as the observer might be feeling the potential distress of the baby or parents. The one sign Mencius might be giving that he has something like empathy in mind at 2A6 is his phrase “惻隱之心,” but only on a verb-object parsing of “惻隱” (be distressed at sorrow) rather than the generally accepted reduplicative parsing (discussion under Comment 1 to this post ).
D. Chinese Cultivation
Aside from direct discussions of empathy, are there signs that old Chinese philosophers (a) had exceptional tacit understanding of empathy, or (b) were so practiced at the play of empathy as to have, thereby, insights on many other areas where the West might be weak, or (c) had views and practices so nurturing of empathy that their followers today would tend to be especially well-practiced at empathy and thereby insightful on modern questions?
1. In “Confucianism and Moral Intuition” I argued that very early Confucians were interested in techniques and devices that facilitate a way of perceiving that is analogous to and partly coincident with empathy.
2. But endless re-reading and memorizing of texts, with the aim of personal advancement or becoming a model to others, might tend to stunt one’s empathy.
3. Novels, plays, kinds of history and biography that resemble novels–old China seems to have developed these genres quite late, not far in comparison to the West, and not as a highly respected branch of culture. Is my ignorant impression correct that the bulk of the fictional literature that did develop is about fighting and intrigue?
One could live happily on old Chinese lyric poetry, forgetting to eat. But I have the impression that lyric poetry in China as elsewhere leans toward (non-fictional?) portrayal or enhancement of one static perspective, rather than toward exploring dynamics of relationships or multiple points of view and misunderstandings; and that the Chinese kind leans toward a conventional menu of kinds of perspective, rather than toward exploration of the strange or new. Yes? On the other hand Chinese poetry is suited to train people to feel their way into nature, which might help (or divert).
4. Traditional Chinese and especially Confucian family life and political life seem to lean against egalitarian decisionmaking, clear egalitarian rules, and rights.
As Youzi and Tocqueville have pointed out, the shape of our interaction with near ones tends to be writ large in our approach to society as a whole.
E. One Comparative Example: Altruism
Michael says that for
This report of the rationalist and/or mainstream view doesn’t ring a bell for me right off. Trying to envision the kind of thinker Michael has in mind, I make two guesses: (a) I guess he does not mean people who think our altruism is immune to adjustment by experience or training, because I think a view like that must be extremely rare or nonexistent among people who think we have any altruism at all. (b) I guess the idea is that they assume altruism while omitting to explain it, not that they think it has no explanation.
The problem with these rationalists, Michael says, is that they overlook a basic mechanism of altruism:
(I believe the last two occurrences of ‘distress’ should have been ‘pain’. If we empathize with Smith’s distress at her pain, we will want to stop her pain.)
This is a nice point—subtle and important. Three comments:
1. If my two guesses about the rationalists are correct, then their ignoring this nice point might not constitute a mistake. Maybe Michael means they underestimate the potential for training further altruism (or avoiding unwanted altruism) in oneself or others?
(2. In context the suggestion is that the rationalists’ neglecting the point is somehow due to their ignoring care ethics, but Michael does not say whether care ethicists make the nice point. Do they?)
3. Is the Chinese tradition fertile soil for nice points of that sort, if the occasion arises? Here is a direct test. For Mencius, “in some funny way, altruism in the form of compassion or sympathy is just some sort of basic fact about human motivation” (to borrow Michael’s words). I gather this Mencian view was long a main pillar of the Confucian tradition, and maybe still is. I ask now in ignorance: was something like the nice point raised and remembered in China in response to, or elaboration of, the Mencian view?
In a NYT Op-Ed piece on April 16, Nicholas Kristof wrote wrote,
(Actually just five experiments reported in one paper: 18 October 2013: Vol. 342 no. 6156, pp. 377-380.)
Respect, Religion, and Rights
I have especially benefitted from Michael’s insistence that full respect for someone involves trying to see things from her standpoint. Trying to see from others’ standpoints is familiar enough as a core element of morality, and I wouldn’t know whether his particular point is new or old in the philosophical literature; but his putting it this way reminded me especially of my experience of respect for my cat—we’re very close—and helped me connect that to my ideas about respect for persons more generally. Alas, not in time to shorten my comments in this string.
Maybe empathetic effort as an aspect of respect for persons is most important in respect for people under our authority or power, people we know well, people who fall short in self-understanding, communication, assertiveness and power. Maybe it should not loom as large in most respect for persons by officers in institutions dealing with adults, where basic respect tends to demand rules with concrete practical clarity.
I think Michael’s discussion of respect, focusing on freedom of religion, may have problems that block it from supporting the larger argument of the paper.
First, I question his account of the Western mainstream. He writes,
I think the epistemological view he means to attribute to the mainstream is that we can all see that people have that right (not the trivial point that once we know about that right, we can all infer tautologically that we should avoid violating it—should “respect” it).
1. I wonder whether that epistemological view has any significant place in the philosophical or political mainstream. Locke, Mill, and Rawls gave complex a posteriori justifications for that specific right, resting on broad familiarity with European history. Perhaps Michael will tell us what philosophically influential brief (or complex) a priori argument for freedom of religion he has in mind. Granted, some rhetoric in a 1776 war declaration alleged that a right to “liberty” is self-evident, casting the point as a theological one. But has that epistemological claim been influential among philosophers, as applied to freedom of religion?
2. Epistemology aside, I think Michael’s main point on 6f. is that the current mainstream makes the mistake of thinking that (a) the fullest respect for persons is constituted by, exhausted by, non-violation of their rights. (I think it’s easy to read Michael as assuming this view himself rather than attributing it as a mistake, but that’s not how I read him.)
I don’t know if that’s a popular view these days among philosophers. I’m ages behind in my reading. I thought the mainstream grew disenchanted with rights-talk a few decades ago. Or maybe that was just in politics.
Is it a mistaken view? Michael’s argument against the view that (a) nonviolation of a person’s rights exhausts full respect for the person is that (b) full respect also involves trying to appreciate the person’s standpoint.
Now, I would think any attraction of (a) is that it is, or seems to be, a tautology, invulnerable to that kind of refutation. Still, it could turn out not to be so. When Michael challenges it by offering as a counterexample the point that full respect involves trying to understand others’ standpoints, that challenge succeeds if it is implausible to think that we have a right that others try to understand our standpoint—or at least, that others about to attack or impinge upon us take our feelings and outlook into account. And maybe we do have such a right.
Another kind of challenge to (a) is to propose that while nonviolation of a person’s rights may exhaust the respect for her that is owed to her, it may not exhaust all the respect for her that is a good idea for other reasons. For example, you may have no right that I give you the increment of respect that is studying your work, but I may see that I would benefit by doing so.
3. A different general question is whether we should or even can give each person the fullest possible respect for her. More time spent on one person can mean less spent on another. And I don’t know whether full respect for a person even makes sense as a concept—compare complete largeness or complete acceleration. If we give imaginative empathy a big role in our conception of respect, it would seem to follow that full or complete respect does not make even approximate sense.
4. Regarding the general approach to religion Michael advocates here, I don’t see how it departs from the mainstream Western view. I think the usual view among political thinkers and philosophers is this: Law should protect freedom of religion, and (less urgently) people should be tolerant in their attitudes, and (less urgently) it’s good to look into other religions and try to see others points of view. Treating a neighbor that way is part of the fullest possible respect for her. (Here I’m assuming Michael would agree with most people that there is such a thing as excessive empathetic attention to the many religions; and he himself would seem (6) to make an exception for “crackpot” views.)
Postscript: Aristotle on respect.
I think respect has an important place in Aristotle’s thought, under the name ‘honor’ (τιμή, verb τιμάω). The first six virtues on Aristotle’s list are presented in what looks like a developmental ordering of kinds of goods: (1) bodily safety and pleasures, in courage and temperance; (2) wealth, in munificence and generosity; and (3) honor, in magnanimity and an unnamed virtue (proper pride or, if you like, dignity)—the virtues concerned with the fair distribution between oneself and others, of great and small honors, respectively. This third set is kin to distributive justice, for which Aristotle’s two leading examples of distributed goods are honor and wealth. Aristotle’s conception of politics (ethics) is mostly about the fair distribution of political authority (which he classifies as a kind of honor). The basic norm for interaction in the city, the family, and friendships is that insofar as there is inequality, the lower party owes the higher party more honor (respect, obedience), and the higher party owes the lower more benefits. (Compare xiao 孝 and ci 慈, or Plato’s role ethics.)
Gilligan versus the Rule Men
Michael charges that modern Western moral and political philosophy continue to focus on rules without addressing Carol Gilligan’s challenge to that focus.
I suppose I am like the majority of Anglophone ethicists in having read In a Different Voice long ago. Like so many others, I found the ideas intriguing, somewhat plausible, and in that book not supported by significant evidence. I’ve read little more of her work; there’s so much in the world to read. But everyone who does ethics should read that book, at least for its ideas.
I assume Michael is not suggesting that Scanlon and Rawls did not read it. The complaint is rather they and others (have) continued to focus on rules without seriously addressing Gilligan’s work in print. That seems true; and though I have known several of the rule men Michael lists, I don’t recall ever hearing them discuss Gilligan. (Certainly there are people whose work addresses mainly technical complexities, and whose general grasp of the concept of morality is weak.) I do not know if other people than Michael lists have addressed the challenge that Gilligan’s work might pose, so that the people he lists might feel it has been done.
Perhaps the rule men hesitated to get into the questions of innate gender differences that Gilligan’s early work raises. If the different voices are innate, then the Confucian men of a million rules marking vertical roles might not be the best hope for correcting the horizontal rule men of the West.
Or perhaps the Western rule men’s thought is that the special features of women’s development that Gilligan describes are, if real, largely creatures of oppression and limitation—indeed, familiar creatures of oppression and limitation, such as we also find with racism or other economic exploitation. That’s not an implausible view on the face of it. Of course it leaves open the possibility that the focus on rules that Gilligan sees as especially male is too much a creature of the oppressive practices that delegate to women the responsibility for being emotionally sensitive and supportive, caring for children, and attending to home in general (intimate links between mind and matter such as are not yet delegated to machines). But in leaving open that possibility, it does not settle the question.
People not much involved in Western philosophy, such as philosophers in China, could easily get the impression from the Manifesto that aside from a few feminists doing care ethics, Western moral philosophy today consists of men who made their names some decades ago, who ignore the women’s work. Kuhn would not be surprised or discouraged. But I get a different picture when I think, for example, of the many women who have been leading the field of Kantian ethics in recent decades.
Here I’ll try to list some reasons in favor of a focus on rules and principles when thinking about the overall form of morality and institutions—and especially, rules and principles for all.
As I’m not prepared to discuss Gilligan’s work and its implications, I won’t try to weigh these reasons against countervailing considerations. But I note that a focus on rules seems consistent with an emphasis on empathy; indeed insofar as a rule theorist aims to be realistic about humanity she must take empathy into account. Empathy makes some rules more followable or valuable or trainable, others less. Some possible rules can be major supports for empathy, others the reverse—as discussed earlier. Empathy might be part of an account of the kind of agreement, real or hypothetical, that validates rules. Etc.
Shared commitment to clear universal rules, e.g. a government of laws, tends to protect the weakest. Alternatives tend not to.
As Aristotle and Hayek have argued, a government of laws is a powerful device for aggregating wisdom, for helping people collaborate over time to make a wiser social order.
Toward the beginning of a Comment above, I wrote that maybe empathetic effort “should not loom as large in most respect for persons by officers in institutions dealing with adults, where basic respect tends to demand rules with concrete practical clarity.” Here I’ll elaborate on that last clause.
Respect for clients of the institutions, or citizens in general, urges (a) that institutional actions be predictable; (b) that the job of officers be clear and easy for them, so as to minimize temptation to deviate and opportunity for self-deception; and (c) that the actual and potential workings and tendencies of the institution be readily intelligible to its designers, monitors, and amenders, and to citizens in general.
And respect for the officers urges a clear definition of their responsibilities, both to make their job easier and to make their personal accountability fairer.
As I proposed in an earlier Comment, clear rules applying to all tend to make us all more intelligible to each other by setting us each in the same framework; they help us appreciate each other’s standpoints. Rules guaranteeing rights, including rights to participation in decision-making, ensure concrete respect for each of our standpoints.
We might distinguish between ethics and morality—ethics compares actions (and people, etc.) in terms of better and worse, while arguably morality is more narrowly limited to “what we owe to each other.” And perhaps the broad strokes of what we owe to each other depend on what we may reasonably expect or demand. Hence it would seem to depend on the shared understandings, defining responsibilities and/or rights, that are actual or would be reasonable—to depend on rules or principles.
Moral education involves telling and showing. Rules are easy to tell. Arguably they are also easy to show, since they constitute a kind of simplicity of behavior. (Granted, many or most attractive basic rules are negative, are prohibitions; and these cannot easily be shown by examples of comfortable adherence to them. But we show negative rules mainly by negative examples. Simple everyday negative rules, the kind whose violation may tempt the young, can be shown by a few slaps on the wrist, or by giving someone a taste of her own medicine (which can happen by itself anyway), or by sitcoms, or by our adherence in cases where violation is obviously a temptation.)
Before knowing what the moral lessons from Gilligan are, one might suppose that they can be formulated as general normative principles, or even rules.
Perhaps they cannot be formulated as principles of justice for the Rawlsian “basic structure,” if these have to be cast in terms of “primary goods” for purposes of decision in the original position. But these are a very special sort of principle—they are not practical rules for individual action, and so they may not be directly implicated in questions about Gilligan’s relevance.
Sometimes when philosophers speak of altruism or the moral point of view they mean, not occasional concern for particular others, but a general commitment to care or respect for people as such. Perhaps a certain kind of language is needed to make that perspective possible. Kant said—never mind. Youzi, as I read him, brings out a connection between generality of maxims and appreciation of others’ standpoints—in a passage the Confucian tradition has largely misunderstood, within An. 1.13:
This is the remark that led me into a serious study of Chinese philosophy. I take Youzi to be pointing to a parallel between trustworthiness and general morality, such that the former trains us for the latter. (Thus 信 is to 義 as 孝弟 is to 仁.)
A trustworthy person, in deciding what to say, takes into account her possible future standpoints and predicaments, and chooses a commitment that she can plan to stick to, that she commits to endorsing from future standpoints. She lives as though her words will come back to her, and by this practice she develops the capacity to plan; she gives language a purchase on her life. A moral person does the same, but chooses her maxims also to suit other people’s standpoints. She lives as though the tables of life may be turned and her words come back to her; and through this practice she or her community develops the capacity for normative discourse—especially if the maxims each person can universalize turn out to be the same maxims. Something like that.
Contrast Analects 11.22.
Youzi’s operative conception of general morality or justice here is like the Golden Rule, but applied at a more constructive and comprehensive level.
Presumably Chinese philosophers will make increasingly important contributions to global philosophy in the coming decades. Michael argues for the far more radical position that China’s heart and clubs and diamonds suit her to take the spade to Western philosophy.
One should at least canvass the most obvious candidate reasons, if only to check how strong the reasons on the pro side will have to be. Here are a few not discussed earlier:
There is a profound language barrier. For that reason alone it’s hard for any one person to live in both traditions well enough to channel China’s “deepest historical traditions” while holding the attention of Western philosophers. Intermediate specialists can help. But can that slow boat outpace, say, the good philosophical argumentation that Michael sees already being published in the West?
In my ignorance I have the impression that as compared to other philosophical traditions, the Chinese tradition has shown little interest in analyzing the composition and mechanisms of the psyche (not to mention most of the other areas in which Michael finds Western mistakes). Is that right? At least, similar points are sometimes made about early Chinese thought. Now, that broad topic seems to be the core area in which Michael hopes that China, because of its deep traditions, will correct the West. But as he says, “Thomas Kuhn has taught us that we are reluctant, and more than reluctant, to give up a theory in the absence of a new and better theory to grab onto” (2).
Anyway, there must be many mistakes of neglecting empathy that China or at least Confucianism wholly or largely avoided, even if only by neglecting the topics. The hope is perhaps that when Chinese philosophers develop tradition-steeped views on other traditionally neglected topics such as civil liberties, speech acts, direction of fit, and special predicaments of modern life or democracy, they are likely to avoid mistakes on these topics arising from inattention to empathy. But I wonder whether mere omissions can survive Western influence, even if the West is wrong.
Some top Western philosophers are Chinese in background. But Michael looks specifically for help from people steeped in Chinese traditional philosophical sensibilities.
One’s competence and influence in “philosophy as philosophy” depend on facility with discussion: on comfort and skill with give-and-take in discussion of theories. They also depend on the benefit of actual feedback and collaboration one can get only in an environment of free and skilled discussion. It takes long effort and good models—such as, famously, Michael Slote—to develop the relevant intellectual and emotional skills and habits, including the kind of clarity in terms, sentences and paragraphs that suits collaboration with strangers in unknown circumstances; comfort with the agon, as well as a feel for argument as a kind of fellowship and criticism as a kind of favor (not that it’s always that); and a readiness to point out one’s own errors and ignorance and to innovate openly.
I submit that traditional Chinese sensibilities effectively resist the development and exercise of this gongfu. Being steeped in Chinese tradition might in these ways be a handicap for the resetting project.
The Confucian tradition’s intellectual project may be a very different sort of thing from the West’s “philosophy” (which is not to say they can’t harmonize productively). I think the Western philosophical tradition sees itself mainly as investigating universal questions, aiming at theories that could ground academic disciplines (that is, ground collaborative projects competent to certify experts as worthy of others’ reliance). Arguably the long Confucian tradition saw itself in significant part as the transmission and elaboration of a specific culture, a set of feudal institutions with a particular history. Perhaps more to the point, it tended to aim at a different kind of verbal work product: sayings for various kinds of individuals to cherish, texts for them to live in, rules for rituals, and conversations with the king.
Maybe Michael’s thought is that what the West and the world needs is the construction of a new academic philosophy that aims not so much at general theories as at something more like what the Confucian tradition aimed at?
Michael asks Chinese philosophers,
In the West, wherever the philosophical mainstream makes identifiable mistakes, it is in the interest of all career philosophers, especially the young ones, to publish objections and alternatives. Academia often honors innovation. Established big names like Michael have security and time. Besides, it’s fun to raise objections and to work out something new.