Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Guidance through Principles vs. Concepts/Terms–What's the Difference?

So, continuing some thoughts about language and theory in ethical thought, I’ve been thinking about what significant difference there is supposed to be between ethical guidance through principles as opposed to guidance through some form of “conceptual mastery” or even “skill mastery.”

One way to think of the difference, roughly, between Western and early Chinese ethical thought is to think of the former as emphasizing formulation of principles and guidance through them and the latter as emphasizing either mastery of some sort of “thick” ethical concepts or some set of “ethical skills.” Hence, dominant forms of ethical theorizing in the modern West seem concerned to formulate correct principles of right action so that people can adopt them for deciding how to act, in morally relevant contexts of choice. On the other hand, what seems of concern to early Confucianism seems to be to grasp the meaning and import of certain important terms such as ren 仁 (“humaneness”), li 禮 (“ritual piety”), and so forth; and/or to master certain sorts of “moral perception” skills that involve some kind of correct “connoisseur” responses and judgments–e.g. seeing something as ren or as failing to be li.

There are a few questions about the accuracy of these generalizations that call for some narrowing. Isn’t “Western” really just a gloss for a particular style of theoretical inquiry, largely in the modern era, that models itself on scientific inquiry or on legal reasoning? Shouldn’t something be said about the role of “manuals” of ritual and ceremony, e.g. the Zhouli (The Rituals of the Zhou) and the Liji (The Record of Ritual) for Confucian thinking about ritual piety? They seem to provide discursive action-guidance, and maybe even justification (as a set of rules) for particular ritual actions and attitudes, if not for the institution as a whole (which is something I take Xunzi to have been trying give). Also, the Mohists seem pretty clearly to be formulating an action-guiding principle–viz. to promote benefit.

But those sorts of questions aside, I wonder how different in practice competent application of principles could be from expressions of competence with respect to concept application or skill implementation. What I have in mind is that application of a principle, like application of a concept, actually requires a skill–call it a “connoisseurship of principle application”–that then subsumes the process under similar sorts of success-conditions as any other skill: there has to be something like a “correct perception” of when a principle applies to a situation, just as in the situation where one sees that a concept applies.

Those who know the later Wittgenstein views could maybe see a connection here–I’m not at all an expert on Wittgenstein and it’s been years and years since I read anything on his views, so that would be helpful if someone could speak to the connection or its lack. Those familiar with W.D. Ross should see some connection here, I think, because Ross’s intuitionism requires some kind of noetic perception of one’s true duty from the interactions among considerations of prima facie duties that apply to a situation. That sounds like a skill to me, not unlike skill in legal reasoning (?)–someone who knows about this could also speak to it better than I.

This is all to suggest, tentatively, that there really isn’t much difference when we get down to the business of ethical living between having a “principle-based” view and some more “skill-based” view. Or is there? I’m inclined to reduce principle-application and concept-application to considerations of skill, albeit some kind of mental or “perceptual” skill, but maybe there are problems with that…

July 20th, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, Taoism | 13 comments

13 Responses to Guidance through Principles vs. Concepts/Terms–What's the Difference?

  1. Dave says:

    Don’t these differences in theoretical formulation simply reflect different approaches to pedagogy?

  2. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Dave; interesting suggestion. I wonder if you could say more. It seems to me like pedagogy might play a role in the early Chinese case, since the texts are very likely to have been written for the sake of some form of training in debate or ruler-advising (the Mencius seems especially like this). But I’d be interested in hearing why one form of approach (e.g. concept-mastery or moral “perception” honing) would strike someone as more appropriate for such pedagogical purposes than another approach (e.g. having the trainees memorize principles and practice applying them to hypothetical cases).

    With the modern ethical theory case, it seems less like pedagogy is involved since the principle-based approach appears in works of philosophical treatise, rather than in a pedagogical genre.

  3. Dave says:

    Keep in mind that I’m not at all a scholar, just an interested layperson temporatily de-lurking with an idea off the top of my head. Probably I should’ve said “pedagogy, or the lack thereof.” I’ll probably get myself into big trouble if I say much more, but I was thinking not just of modern Western philosophers, but of the way that particular cultures of debate may have shaped the larger context of Western philosophy and philosophical education since the time of Socrates – the Socratic “dialogues” are, in a certain sense, records of combat. The culture of the first universities in the 12th and 13th centuries was marked by intense intellectual warfare, I gather; the modern dissertation defense carries a faint echo of the gladiatorial atmosphere that used to permeate these once very public and popular affairs. A discussion of ethics should probably bring in strands of religious tradition, as well, and there not only the wrangling of the Schoolmen but also the often-unresolved debates that form the core of the Talmud come to mind.

    So I was thinking rather naively that this debate tradition would favor the formulation of concepts designed to withstand attack, without realizing that some of the ancient Chinese texts may have been “written for the sake of some form of training in debate” as well. So I yield the floor. 🙂

  4. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Dave. Thanks for the further comment (I can’t “see” you when you just lurk, though I can go over and admire your great photographs!). I like your suggestion that “this debate tradition would favor the formulation of concepts designed to withstand attack.” That’s pretty plausible and could go part of the way toward explaining the Confucian style of “debate.” Chad Hansen, as I recall, gives that kind of analysis of Mencius (in *A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought*) and what Hansen calls Mencius’s “anti-language” tendencies. If you question the accuracy or usefulness of language for discovering the Way, particularly through debate, then you can insulate yourself against arguments (say, of the Mohists)…

  5. Bill Haines says:

    Dave, don’t go! This is really interesting.

    Hi from the woods of CT –

    One might follow the lead of Plato and Aristotle and say that a skill differs from a virtue in that it can be applied for good and bad ends. Someone who is skilled at judging who has Ren might use it to avoid Ren or appoint officials who lack Ren. Skill in judging what a principle requires in particular cases could be used toward the end of disobeying the principle or causing it to be disobeyed.

    Someone skilled at playing Stratagema could use that skill toward the end of securing a loss or a draw rather than a victory – though of course it’s hard to become skilled at a game without often trying to win at it. For that sort of reason, skill at applying terms such as ‘pawn’ that have meaning only within certain practices tends to be accompanied by a disposition to pursue the ends of those practices.

    The difference between skills and dispositions seems analogous in some way to the difference between terms and sentences (a difference Chad Hansen says was far from salient to early Chinese thinkers) – especially sentences that command action or assert existence. The sentence says not just “Ren”, but rather “Ren: Yes!”

    Offhand it seems to me that thinking in terms of sentences makes it easier to think in ways that are more neutral among perspectives. But I’ve hardly thought about that.

    Dave, I would think offhand that thinking in terms of terms (that lack clear verbal definitions) rather than thinking in terms of sentences would make one’s thinking less vulnerable to attack, not more. If I claim by my skill to pick out A, B, C as Ren and D, E, F as not, how do you catch me out? Skill at sentences might serve offense better than defense.

  6. Bill Haines says:

    I guess part of my view that thinking-in-sentences is less perspectival than using other kinds of perceptual skill to apply terms is based on the analogy (or closer links) between the latter and sense-perception. When my senses report that there’s a book or an orange at hand, the representations they give me are robustly perspectival, or at least more so than are such sentences as “There’s a book at hand” or “There’s a book on the desk in Room 1404”.

    Manyul: as between (a) the competent or skilful application of principles (in the effort to adhere to them) and (b) the competent or skilful application of terms (in the effort to exemplify them), one might tend to think especially of the former as happening in large part by way of inferences or arguments, connecting the principles to other articulated sentences. Someone speaking of the difference between (a) and (b) might have that sort of difference in mind.

    Maybe for modern Westerners but not for ancient Chinese, the picture of ethical thought as mainly taking form (b) is associated with a kind of despair about ethical thought, or about the potential for ethical thought to connect robustly with other kinds of thought (at least by way of formally valid inferences, i.e. inferences supported by surface grammar).

  7. Manyul Im says:

    Hey Bill!

    “…as between (a) the competent or skilful application of principles (in the effort to adhere to them) and (b) the competent or skilful application of terms (in the effort to exemplify them), one might tend to think especially of the former as happening in large part by way of inferences or arguments, connecting the principles to other articulated sentences.”

    Right; that’s what I was thinking of as somewhat inaccurate in terms of what really goes on in principle application. The idea is that we move from more general ethical principles, I take it, through some more particular premises, to a conclusion about how–or even whether–the general principle applies to a particular situation. But I’m not sure that’s how things usually work.

    My thought is that it’s less discursive and more involved with some quasi-perception of “fit” between the principle and the situation. Or, I suppose I would accept the idea that even if such bridging(?) premises are involved, the judgment about the particular case at hand is some quasi-perceptual or “skillful perceptual” one. (Isn’t this roughly Aristotle’s view?) So, take an aesthetic judgment example as the model. Suppose I’m a beer expert (snob?) and I accept as a general principle that a pale ale should be moderately to aggressively “hoppy.” Still, in order to judge that the pale ale in front of me accords with that principle, I have to have a good, acquired sense of how that range of hoppiness tastes. A more Aristotelian example would be in being able to judge that a particular activity is excessively daring and hence not so much courageous as rash (any number of other judgments of “the mean” would require the same kind of quasi-perceptual skill). Finally, here’s an oft-quoted Mencius passage (from 4A17) that provides a similar example (Legge trans.):

    離婁上: 淳于髡曰:“男女授受不親,禮與?”
    Chun Yu Kun said, ‘Is it the rule that males and females shall not allow their hands to touch in giving or receiving anything?’

    Mencius replied, ‘It is the rule.’

    Kun asked, ‘If a man’s sister-in-law be drowning, shall he rescue her with his hand?’

    Mencius said, ‘He who would not so rescue the drowning woman is a wolf. For males and females not to allow their hands to touch in giving and receiving is the general rule; when a sister-in-law is drowning, to rescue her with the hand is a peculiar exigency.’

    In the Mencius example, what looks like either concept-mastery (of li “ritual piety” ) or principle application (of the rule that men and women should not touch hands while exchanging things ), relies on a quasi-perceptual judgment of how the concept fits or how/whether the rule applies in the situation.

    So, I think there is much more that is the same between principle and concept application than is different. And I think what ties them together is this sort of perceptual or quasi-perceptual judgment of fit that is skill-like.

    I hope that hasn’t mashed together too much, too quickly; help me out if so…

  8. Bill Haines says:


    I agree that if the rule in question is a simple one that basically just endorses some named virtue such as honesty or li, there will be no cognitive or other difference to speak of between trying to follow the rule and trying to have the named virtue.

    The more interesting kind of case is e.g. “the rule that men and women should not touch hands while exchanging things,” as you say. I think for most cases this formula probably succeeds in articulating the rule well enough that one can use the formula along with other fairly plainly true sentences to reason verbally to correct applications. I think hard cases such as the one you review form a small periphery, for that formula. Of course one has to use judgment not only to apply that rule of li in hard cases but also to decide which cases are hard. In applying the rule by way of the formula, logic is commonly reliable but never a guarantee.

    But there seems to be no ready slot for logic in the “skilful application of terms” picture.

    Different kinds of ethicist seem to have different kinds of views about how much of a logical/verbal core (nexus?) there can be to practical thought or to moral philosophy. Virtue theorists on the whole seem pessimistic, except maybe for Thomists (and except for the verbal business of defending against other philosophers). Bentham seems rather optimistic.

    I think you’re right to point to the rules in the Books of Ritual as not fitting the skilly flowy picture of early Chinese thought. These books seem to reflect heroic efforts in the opposite direction.

    It’s probably obscure why I’m worrying above about skills v. dispositions. I’m not sure my worry involves any objection to you. The worry is that thinking of ethical thinking mainly in terms of skills is presumably thinking only about part of ethical thinking, a part I think it’s a little unnatural to separate from the rest. For rules, the idea would be that one is already committed to following the rule, so that the part of ethical thinking that remains to be done is only thinking about how to follow the rule.

    For mere terms – well, if the term is the name of a virtue, then the assumption is that one is already committed to exemplifying the term, so that the part of ethical thinking that remains to be done is only thinking about what counts as exemplifying it.

    But if the term is a term like ‘exchange’ or ‘married’ that one might use in more than one rule (a rule about how to treat married people and a rule about how to treat unmarried people) then the story has to be more complicated.

    Are we disagreeing?

  9. Phil Hand says:

    Ooh, good to see there are more laymen about.

    I had one idea immediately when looking at this post, which is: could ethical skills be something like procedural justice?

    I’m not really sure my understanding of procedural justice is correct, but what I’m thinking of is something like this: a system in which justice is deemed to have been done not when a correct verdict/action is reached (because it is generally impossible to tell whether this is the case), but when all of the requisite procedures have been followed correctly. Of course, the procedures are established with a view to obtaining correct verdicts as often as possible; but for any justice practitioner (lawyers, police, judges, juries), you don’t have to think about what is correct. You just do your part (so juries don’t consider whether the defendant deserves punishment, only whether or not she did it, etc.)

    Could this kind of idea be applied to ethics? So, skill-based ethics could refer to being good at approaching ethical problems and issues in the correct way, not necessarily to being good at arriving at any putative correct solution.

    I’m trying to think of examples of how this would work in ethics, and I’m only really coming up with legal examples. But I wonder if this kind of thinking could be connected with the Confucian distaste for Mohist “sophistry”: Confucians don’t believe you should work out the correct answer (to a moral question) and then take actions to effect it; rather they think you should take correct actions, and in the process, the solutions to moral questions will emerge.

  10. Manyul Im says:


    Come Thursday, we’ll have to try a range of pale ales up in Middletown…

    I understand the worries with the skill-model of virtue (Daniel Jacobson, an old friend from grad school, has an excellent paper on that in *Ethical Theory and Moral Practice* 8, (2005). Here’s a link to a pdf on his website: http://www.bgsu.edu/downloads/cas/file27030.pdf).

    I don’t know if we disagree; maybe it’s a matter of degree. Or maybe there are actually two separate theses I’m conflating:

    (R1) As a matter of psychological fact, people don’t tend to reason discursively from principles/rules to applications; instead, they tend to make quick intuitive matches between them.

    (R2) The nature of principles/rules is such that they always require an intuitive leap in order to judge their relevance in any particular situation.

    I imagine we disagree to some degree on both.

    Here are some thoughts about R1. It’s an empirical claim, I think, though I’m not sure how “intuitive matching” could be detected. Also, “discursive” might refer to some form of reconstructed rational process, or it might refer to some kind of act of “ratiocination.” I’m not sure what to think here–reconstructed rational process might be consistent with the phenomenon I have (vaguely) in mind.

    Some thoughts about R2. This is probably what I have more in mind, but I don’t really have an argument. However, I could start by pointing out how how *making an inference* provides a case in point. Following a rule of inference might seem rote but “getting” the inferential connection, or “seeing” that the conclusion follows seems more than rote, like something more intuitive. (Maybe this opens up a lot of difficult questions about the nature of reason and rationality–and maybe about psychologism and the normative nature of rules of inference?)

  11. Manyul Im says:


    Just saw your comment; I’ll have to read it and reply later.

  12. Bill Haines says:

    Manyul, I apologize if the following is all off-target!

    Suppose the formula by which you described the non-touching rule is the standard formula by which the rule is taught and remembered: “Men and women should not touch hands while exchanging things.” Then surely the formula—its several words and their order—would play important roles in how people come to conclusions about what the rule requires.

    That isn’t to say that people normally run through syllogisms in their heads on those occasions when they have to catch themselves so as not to violate the rule. And it isn’t to deny that people who live by that rule usually don’t even think about it. But it’s to say something about the kind of authority that’s available to support views about what the rule requires in particular cases. It’s to say something about how people would think about it if there were a dispute. I mean, a dispute about a standard case, not a peripheral case. That’s a tricky point I guess because disputes are usually not about standard cases (is that right?).

    Learning the broad outlines of the rule by way of such a formula seems very different from having only a one-word name for it and learning mainly by watching – yes?

    I have no problem with R2. I think we need intuition constantly, for everything–for example, when I take ‘Socrates’ in the premise as a name, or as the same name as ‘Socrates’ in the conclusion, I don’t do so by way of an argument; or if I do, then I need lots of intuitive leaps for the latter argument. (Misleadingly brief aside: I think the main mechanism of intuition is representations, so that intuition is in at least that thin way analogous to verbal thinking.) I’m curious to know whether for you “intuitive leap” is redundant. Is every use of intuition a leap?

    I’m not sure I understand R1. It’s talking about how in fact people tend to address a certain problem or question, but I’m not sure exactly what the problem or question is. I’ll suppose it’s this: the problem faced by someone who already has (G) some Grasp of the rule but hasn’t yet come to (A) a conclusion about how it Applies in a particular case.

    And I think we’re talking more specifically about the case where Grasp G consists in knowledge of a fairly clear formula like ‘Men and women should not touch hands while exchanging things.’ And the Applications A we’re mainly talking about are applications to ordinary or standard cases, not peripheral hard cases.

    That kind of problem is maybe normally so easy that one hardly has to think about it. The main skill required would not be special to the rule but would be e.g. skill in applying the word ‘hands’. But sometimes a person might need to think a bit: for example if she is not in the habit of following that rule, or if following it would be very costly for her. In those cases I would expect the several words to be important helps.

    The formula “men and women should not touch hands while exchanging things” is maybe unusual in being well articulated. I mean, it has lots of fairly clear parts, put together in fairly clear ways, and one supposes that it captures fairly well the rule of li it refers to. Other respected practical formulae aren’t so articulate: “Thou shalt do no murder” is in a way not articulate at all, since it comes down to one word; the Golden Rule formula is very vague. Talking with beginning students about the Golden Rule can certainly lead to doubts about whether people listen to their own words. (The pithy maxims of the Analects seem to aim at being something in between an articulate rule and a poem.) One way to take your thesis is as this: “Plausible practical rules tend to be only minimally articulate, hardly different from single terms (with positive or negative auras).”

    An arguably different topic is the question whether we can make our practical thinking more articulate if we try (and whether that would make it better).

    And then there’s the division of deliberative labor represented by the project of Moral Philosophy. Maybe in ethics as in other branches of knowledge, arguments in books can be part of the authority that lies behind the good decisions of people who haven’t seen those books – even if people don’t usually run syllogisms in their heads in living by rules.

    I can’t get DJ’s pdf over my slow phone here in the woods; I’ll look at it later.

    See you Thursday!

  13. Manyul Im says:

    Phil; intriguing set of thoughts. “Procedural justice” has at least one clear analog in moral theory–the proceduralism, or “formalism,” of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. So, the idea is that morality expresses a good will, so the quality of the willing–the maxim according to which one wills–is the morally relevant aspect of action. What actually occurs as a consequence of an action is not what makes it morally right, according to Kant; the only thing that matters is what was intended and whether it was from the motive of duty. That’s pretty procedural and it is entirely consistent with a deliberate, reasoned style of acting.

    I think the idea of ethical action being like the expression of a skill is more about the ability of the agent to perceive relevant facts, make effortlessly correct decisions, and accomplish deft feats of moral juggling if necessary in difficult situations. There’s usually some bit of importance attached to “spontaneity” versus deliberate (i.e. deliberation-involved) action. So, the Confucian view can be seen as involving this sort of “skill” cultivation so that in the end, the gentleman is effortlessly and gracefully correct in all that he does. So, having to resort to argument or even deliberation would seem to indicate that one hadn’t quite attained the height of moral cultivation.

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