Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Must Ruists practice what they philosophize about?

For my first post here, I’d like to invite opinions on a contemporary issue. I’ve been coming across a common critique of contemporary Ruism and I’m curious what people think about it. As a preface, let me say that I’m close to giving up on various permutations of “Confucian” and “Confucianism,” so I hope you’ll all bear with my use of “Ruism” and “Ruist” instead.

The critique, which is generally directed against New Ruists, particularly Mou Zongsan, is something like this: the essence of Ruism is a social practice which aims not at developing theories, but realizing the Way in society. Making it into an object of academic study, so that it becomes an isolated practice of theorizing, is a mistake. The 20th century turn of making Ruism into a kind of philosophy and carrying out philosophical research in philosophy departments is emblematic of this mistake. Since Mou Zongsan is often considered the arch-theorist of New Ruism, he tends to get the brunt of this criticism.

I suppose there is a hint of this idea in Robert Eno’s book, The Confucian Creation of Heaven, in which he argues something like this of early Ruism. The criticism I have in mind, however, is again directed at contemporary developments, notably the professionalization of Chinese philosophy as an academic discipline. Versions of this critique can be found in Taiwan in Lin Anwu, and in mainland China in Zheng Jiadong and especially Jiang Qing. In his 2004 book, Jiang goes on about how New Ruists have lost the Way and just debate among each other rather than connecting with society. He argues that Ruism is not a form of study (xue), but a way of living (dao), and calls for an attitude of shengming xinyang (which I am provisionally translating as “lived faith”).

Jiang has gone the furthest to live out this idea, as he left his academic position to establish a private academy dedicated to the study and transmission of Ruism. Not everyone is in a position to do that (I’ve heard Jiang’s academy is supported by some Chinese businessmen). Certainly there is something to what he says, as historically Ruists have tried to engage with their communities even when they were not able to attain high positions in government; I’m thinking of Zhu Xi in particular. Mou Zongsan was a very influential teacher, but I don’t know of any attempts of his to put his work in more accessible form for the larger public and I’m not aware of any work on his part to promote Ruism beyond the confines of academia.

So what do people think? Has Ruism become overly academic? Is there a conflict between promoting Ruism and maintaining objectivity? Zheng Jiadong makes the point that the modern university is not suited to the project of practicing Ruism, in part because of the demand for objectivity and in part because the system rewards theory rather than practice. I’d have to agree that seems largely true. But is this necessarily a problem? How important is practice? What constitutes practicing Ruism, anyway?

April 5th, 2011 Posted by | Contemporary Confucianism, Jiang Qing, Modern Chinese Philosophy | 38 comments

38 Responses to Must Ruists practice what they philosophize about?

  1. Bill Haines says:

    Hi David, thanks for the very interesting post!

    “Confucianism” is a notoriously contested term –pulled in many directions, each of which is pulled in many directions, etc. Unlike other contested terms it doesn’t seem to receive much in the way of attempts at definition. We talked about it e.g. here
    http://manyulim.wordpress.com/2008/01/22/what-is-confucianism-continued/

    I’m familiar with the term “Ruist” only as a way of referring to some early Chinese figures as being more or less Confucians, minus the suggestion that they are or think of themselves as followers of Confucius. Can you explain how you would like us to take the term for purposes of the question? Can you explain it without proper names–I mean, if that approach isn’t false to the thing?

    In general it seems to me that generally important practical things should be discussed academically.

    If Ruism is at least some views about how to live, then someone whose efforts are only academic would seem not to be an adherent, though we could of course invent vocabulary to distinguish those who are practically committed to it from those who mere think it’s correct (but might not aim to live well).

    Zheng Jiadong makes the point that the modern university is not suited to the project of practicing Ruism, in part because of the demand for objectivity and in part because the system rewards theory rather than practice.

    I’m curious to know what the problem about objectivity is supposed to be. Is it something deep about how we should not be governed by principles, so that the objective spirit of the university is inimical to Ruist attitudes (so that a Ruist society might not have universities)? Or is the point just that the classroom cannot be the main vehicle of transmission of Ruism because the intellectual environment of the classroom ought to be freer than that function requires?

    (Presumably Ruism is supposed to be something for society at large, so the idea that it should exist mainly in the academy isn’t on the table, yes?)

    As for rewarding theory rather than practice: I wonder whether the worry is that Ruism is not strong enough to withstand an environment of contrary pressures and rewards? Or is it that Ruism has little theoretical to say, so that Ruism in the universities would be like Table Etiquette in the universities? That is, one ought to practice it but oughtn’t to make heavy weather of it intellectually, because … well, for table etiquette the reason for not making heavy intellectual weather is that the content and basis of table etiquette are not very difficult intellectually and not very controversial among the generally educated.

    Or maybe the thought is that even in a Ruist society, universities would properly be liminal pockets of poor li, for various reasons (e.g. adolescence, the nerdiness of genius, the requirements of a vigorous adversary process)?

  2. Steve Angle says:

    Very thought-provoking! Responding to the strand of your remarks concerning the proper institutional setting for Ruism (university vs. academic academy, etc.), one thought that comes to mind is Zhu Xi’s insistence (e.g., in ch. 13 of his Yulei, much of which is nicely translated by Daniel Gardner in Learning to Be a Sage [California, 1990]) that one can both engage in true learning and prepare for the civil service exams at the same time. He says that one must avoid having one’s heartmind “fixed” on success or failure on the exams (Gardner, p. 194) and that one must be sure that he bulk of one’s commitment is aimed at true learning (moral self improvement). Since maintaining such a balance depends on being able to spend a significant amount of time focusing on the true learning (70%, he says on Gardner, p. 191), then there can certainly be a tension with an educational institution that doesn’t allow for an apt balance.

    I was talking with a Chinese acquaintance recently about her daughter, a high school junior, who is endeavoring to prepare herself both for the Chinese college entrance exam and the SAT/TOEFL for U.S. colleges. She gets up at 6am and is rarely done studying before midnight, and sometimes later. That doesn’t sound like much “true learning” is going on! (Not to say, of course, that a typical US teenage regimen of sports and TV is better.)

    Also, given that time spent studying classic texts, pondering them, discussing them, and so on can very well contribute to both exam success and to true learning, we shouldn’t think of the two activities as necessarily opposed. It depends on one’s attitude and goals in undertaking them.

    This, in turn, makes me wonder if the right kind of liberal arts curriculum might be a good, modern version of a Confucian education — especially if one wants to embrace the pluralism that is manifestly present in Chinese, or for that matter US, society. (Issues related to graduate education, academia, and the discipline of philosophy are all distinct and worth pondering in their own right; I’ll try to return to one or more of them later.)

  3. Bill Haines says:

    Steve, if I understand you, the potential problem you see about Ruing in the university is not about objectivity or about pressures toward theory as opposed to practice, but rather is simply the fact that the university (like most institutions) has a great deal of other business. Yes?

    David, the post leaves me wondering whether the criticism of Mou is about the content/implications of his theory (that it doesn’t sufficiently recommend any concrete practice) or against his allocation of space (he doesn’t talk enough about the concrete practical side of Ruism) or against his personal practice (not Ruist enough outside the study)?

    David, as you report the general criticism, it seems perhaps to be committing a gross fallacy: one shouldn’t make Ruism [only] an object of academic study [i.e one shouldn’t make it only an academic pursuit], so one shouldn’t make Ruism an object of academic study [at all]. It isn’t really that bad, is it?

    I suppose the real critical proposal is not that Ruism maybe shouldn’t be studied (as a historical object, as a practical option, and/or as a sociological fact), or shouldn’t be studied by Ruists. Rather the real critical proposal is that (a) academic activity shouldn’t count as the bulk of Ruism, or perhaps that (b) it shouldn’t count even as a part of Ruism. Yes?

    And what makes that proposal, or at least (a), tricky, is that the term “Ruist” might be understood not to refer to just anyone who willingly lives in the way that Ruists would recommend for society, but rather to refer to people who take up a kind of leadership position in the kind of society Ruists recommend: like the ancient Ru. Insofar as “Ruists” or “Ru” are by definition leaders, the questions whether the university is a good main place for them and whether their activity should be mainly intellectual, seem more serious and interesting.

  4. Manyul Im says:

    Hi David. Interesting questions! I think actually your post title has it backward; it should be “Must Ruists philosophize about what they practice?” The critique you focus on puts the onus on those who philosophize to provide a justification for their retreat to theoria, with the value of the practice sans justification taken for granted. That seems dangerous to me, not to be too alarmist. Isn’t the point of philosophical reflection for the Ruist to provide sound reasons on behalf of certain practices, instead of mere reliance on tradition? Even reliance on, or continuation of tradition, seems to require some justification.

    Also, just by way of clarification, I’m not sure that “the professionalization of Chinese philosophy as an academic discipline” hits a single target. There certainly are those who consider themselves to be continuing some form of Ruist or Confucian tradition when they study the appropriate portions of Chinese philosophy in academia. On the other hand, there are plenty of us who study Chinese philosophy academically, even those who study canonical Confucian texts, who have no such normative agenda as a Ruist might. There are also those who study Chinese philosophy academically for the purposes of developing and justifying certain sorts of normative theories of how to live and act who don’t restrict themselves to furtherance of any particularly Ruist norms.

  5. David Elstein says:

    Great to see all these responses and questions raised. I’ll try to respond to them and fill out Jiang’s and Zheng’s positions as best I can.

    First, in regard to Ruism rather than Confucianism, I have three main reasons. 1) The Chinese term has nothing to do with any form of Kongzi’s name, so it seems a little misleading to translate that it that way in English. 2) It gives the impression Kongzi is the founder of Ruism, when obviously that was not the case (e.g. Analects 6.13). I’ve been working a lot on Jiang Qing lately, and since he insists the Ru tradition goes back to Fuxi, some 3000 years before Kongzi, it seems really inappropriate to use “Confucianism” to talk about his work. Not that I buy his history, but it would seem to misrepresent his view to call it “Confucian.” 3) There were times in Chinese history when being a Ru did not mean being a self-identified follower of Kongzi, so this would require a different translation of the word, but then it’s harder to see how the meaning has changed.

    I don’t mean anything substantively different than what “Confucian” normally means; it’s a word choice preference more than anything. To try to avoid getting too off-track, I won’t try to offer a definition now.

    Bill, I’ll take a stab at your question on objectivity, though I don’t have Zheng’s book with me now and I might be putting words in his mouth. I think his objection to objectivity is possibily two-fold. In the classroom, it means presenting the pros and cons of all positions, and trying to put aside one’s own views when teaching so students can make up their own minds. It can easily lead to relativism, when students begin to think no position is better than any other and it’s just a matter of preference (I get this a lot). In research as well, one is supposed to put aside one’s own beliefs in favor of dispassionately assessing the evidence. This can have two consequences: 1) one may just not have enough time to do the work of transmitting Ruism, with all the other demands of academia, and/or 2) this may engender habits of mind not conducive to transmitting Ruism, as one may become more inclined to use a hermeneutic of suspicion, for example. I should add that for Zheng, he seems concerned about the whole idea of philosophy and religion as academic disciplines, not just Ruism.

    Steve, I take it that what Jiang and Zheng are suggesting is that the university environment as constituted is not conducive to true learning, which is learning that aims at moral improvement and not just accumulating facts. It may be possible to reform the system so that true learning is better supported, though that would require significant change, and probably be strongly opposed by many (certainly within American universities, I would think).

    Bill, there are different degrees of the criticism. As I said, Jiang left his academic position, and has probably the most extreme distinction between academic study and lived faith. Lin Anwu, for instance, is not that radical, and seems to believe it’s possible to be an academic and be committed to practice; it’s just that most (and especially Mou) aren’t.

    Manyul, I think that very point you bring up, that there are people who study Ruism without a normative agenda, is exactly the problem as far as they’re concerned. There shouldn’t be. I think all three of the thinkers I mentioned have at least an implicit belief that only “true believers” should teach or study Ruism, if it should be done at a university at all. Part of their critique is that Ruism is not primarily a theory at all, so one who does not practice cannot really understand what Ruism is about. It creates an artificial distinction between the theory and practice which did not exist in Ruism proper.

    I’m not saying I agree with this, but the critique is interesting, and it certainly has far-reaching consequences. The problem with these sorts of arguments about what Ruism really is is that there doesn’t seem to be any appropriate standard for settling them. Jiang, for example, is committed to a particular understanding of Ruism that many people dispute, and since he denies that Ruism is a philosophy, I don’t know how you’d begin to try to convince him otherwise.

  6. Steve Angle says:

    I’m not sure it’s right to suggest that Jiang and Zheng are advocating similar agendas. Zheng is a complicated case, since he left academia unwillingly (he was convicted of sneaking several women out of China by claiming, eachtime, that he was travelling with his wife, and spent time in jail). But while I agree that he writes compellingly about the challenge that the philosophy discipline and the objectivity of modern academia and education place to Ruism, I also think he sees Mou-the-philosopher very sympathetically. My sense is not that Zheng insists on only true believers/practioners; rather, he speaks about a challenge and is looking for a creative solution to emerge.

    With Jiang–and with some other self-identified Confucians I have met, most of whom have academic posts–the insistence on true believer may be more apt. However, I would say that Jiang takes justification very seriously. His official theory of justification, as spelled out in Zhengzhi Ruxue (Political Confucianism), maintains that justification must take place via the canons of a specific Confucian tradition of discourse, rather than being the willy-nilly tossing around of reasons. He claims to rely on the specific traditions of Gongyang/New Text Confucianism. This sort of reasoning may have little traction outside of the community of Confucians, of course. However (this is a big “however”!) in my reading, Jiang manifestly fails to stick to reasoning-in-terms-of-Gongyang-concepts-and-standards. He regularly engages in reasoning that is open to any old philosoher to understand and engage with. I have written about this in “中國哲學家與全求哲學 [Chinese Philosophers and Global Philosophy],”《中國哲學與文化》 [Chinese Philosophy and Culture] 1:1 (Spring, 2007).

    And on the issue of universities, would you say that the model of an American religious university, with overt committment to a particular sect of Christianity and a community of relatively like-minded students, would be a congenial model to Jiang Qing?

  7. Manyul Im says:

    David; regarding:

    I think all three of the thinkers I mentioned have at least an implicit belief that only “true believers” should teach or study Ruism, if it should be done at a university at all. Part of their critique is that Ruism is not primarily a theory at all, so one who does not practice cannot really understand what Ruism is about. It creates an artificial distinction between the theory and practice which did not exist in Ruism proper.

    I agree the critique is interesting. However, there are two independent claims here:

    1. One who does not practice cannot really understand what Ruism is about; and

    2. It creates an artificial distinction between the theory and practice which did not exist in Ruism proper.

    There are interesting versions of each — and uninteresting ones, I think. And it bears repeating that they are independent; 1 might very well be false while 2 is true and vice versa.

    I’m inclined to think that even if 2 is true, there’s not much at stake for the practicing Ruist. Artificial distinctions between theory and practice — “artificial” because they didn’t exist in some “proper” state — aren’t much of a threat for those who actually adhere to a tight theory-practice integration themselves. What’s the tangible harm? Is there a zero-sum game that describes the situation of coexistence between non-interested academic study of Ruism and interested study?

    A suggestion: A variation of 2 would be something like: “Some people who merely engage with Ruism academically, misappropriate the term ‘Confucian’ (or, less usually, ‘Ruist’) by presenting themselves as ‘Confucian scholars’ despite not engaging in any serious practice in the Ruist tradition.” Maybe there’s some zero-sum game created by this if some kind of monetary funding or attention to political voice is at stake. That might be interesting if it is true. (FYI, I always represent myself as a non-practicing scholar of Confucianism and do not pretend to “speak for” Confucians. I think that’s generally a good practice for those who are only interested academically in it — not the least because then one doesn’t get asked to represent Confucianism when one doesn’t really have any interest in doing so.)

    I’ll let others discuss the plausibility of 1 for now, in whatever version seems plausible or implausible to them.

  8. David Elstein says:

    Steve, I agree that Zheng is more sympathetic to Mou. The sense I get from Zheng is that he sees the professionalization of Ru philosophy as something of a tragedy that Mou was involved in but did not initiate or control. As I look back at him, I think it’s more accurate to say he’s concerned about uniting theory and practice, and in that respect he’s a little different than Jiang.

    You’re also right that Jiang appeals to the Gongyang to justify his views. What I don’t see is much of a justification for why the Gongyang should be so authoritative. He relies on this division between mind-and-nature Ruism and political Ruism, but this division itself is disputed. If mind-and-nature Ruism and political Ruism aren’t such distinct traditions, what makes the Gongyang so important? This is where the faith seems to come in, at least as I read him.

    But I confess I’m going off of 《生命信仰與汪道政治》for the most part. I’ll have to read 《政治儒學》as well. Do you have a copy of that article you mentioned? I’d be interested in seeing that.

    It’s funny that you bring up religious institutions. I was thinking earlier today that that’s probably very close to what he has in mind, with the alteration that they be state-sponsored. In Shengming xinyang he talks about government-established academies for study of the classics, and I would think only true believers need apply.

  9. Bill Haines says:

    Thanks, David.

    I don’t mean anything substantively different than what “Confucian” normally means; it’s a word choice preference more than anything. To try to avoid getting too off-track, I won’t try to offer a definition now.

    I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to ask about or challenge your preference among terms; nor to ask you to say what any term actually or properly means, or what Ruism properly so-called really is. I just wanted to know what, roughly, is the thing you mean to be asking about in the post (e.g. when you ask “What constitutes practicing Ruism anyway?”), so that I could try to think toward an answer.

    A Christian would hear “What constitutes practicing Christianity anyway?” as a real question, because she thinks there is a Jesus who gave instructions. I can’t hear it that way.

    But maybe the right answer to my question about what thing you are referring to is simply “whatever thing the three critics are referring to,” because the main question you mean to raise is “Are they right?” And then in asking what that thing is, I might be asking an unfairly hard or even impossible interpretive question; and this conversation isn’t for apriorizers like me.

    It sounds as though the critics may be failing spectacularly to refer to anything, as one fails if one speaks of, say, “The philosophy of Plato and Kant.”

    I think all three of the thinkers I mentioned have at least an implicit belief that only “true believers” should teach or study Ruism, if it should be done at a university at all. Part of their critique is that Ruism is not primarily a theory at all, so one who does not practice cannot really understand what Ruism is about. It creates an artificial distinction between the theory and practice which did not exist in Ruism proper.

    It sounds like the 3 critics would say that I cannot know what they are talking about, and neither can the people they are criticizing. I wonder how Jiang, before leaving academic life, understood his reason for leaving.

    Earlier I had tried (a little) to distinguish between the study of Ruism, which I had charitably assumed the critics would think could be done even by outsiders or enemies, and some other kind of academic activity which one might call “Ruist study of ethical and other issues,” which could seem to be an important part of Ruist leadership. After all, Kant never studied Kantianism. I had thought that when you spoke of the study of Ruism you must have meant the Ruist study of issues. I guess I was wrong.

    (I wonder on what grounds one might reject that distinction, or how one might lose sight of it, and two thoughts come to mind. (a) If one thinks the main Ruist way to study issues is to investigate the tradition to find out what Ruists have thought, then one might think that all Ruist study of issues is study of Ruism. But it wouldn’t follow that all study of Ruism is the Ruist study of issues. (b) One might be so deeply embedded in a Ruist community of discourse that one loses sight of the conceptual distinction between “Ruist” and “right.”)

    It seems to me “Ruism is not a theory” offers no prima facie support to the claim “Ruism cannot be studied theoretically.” Uranium and war aren’t theories, but we can theorize about them. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense to say that there are things one cannot understand without engaging in this or that practice.

    But it’s such an easy defensive move to make that I think that as a matter of good intellectual and practical policy one should be slow to grant such claims.

    And of course I want to question how the 3 critics, who may not swim as I do, know what I can and cannot understand … Me aside, much of what we read in e.g. the Analects is moral common sense in most times and places. I wonder whether the 3 critics are doing what Christians and others often do: radically overestimating the uniqueness of their tradition’s practical values. But then, I don’t know whether they would (as one might) regard it as a contradiction in terms to say that someone who has no direct or indirect contact with the Chinese tradition is a practitioner of “Ruism.” I wonder what, in their view, fixes the reference of 儒.

    I hope to say something about objectivity later.

  10. Bill Haines says:

    David, I find your response on Zheng’s worry about objectivity very interesting. Based on the rest of your #5 I wonder whether his worry might focus at least in part on a different picture of objectivity: that it aims at reasons and evidence that are in principle accessible to anyone (independently of one’s lifestyle).

    Regarding student relativism – some psychologists (e.g. William Perry) think it’s a normal “stage of growth,” in which case the problem for Ruism wouldn’t be the institution. I don’t know about that. My own teaching experience led me to think that a very big part of the attraction of relativism, nihilism, egoism, and Divine Command Theory for students is that these views are defenses against the demand that one think, defenses that the teacher seems to respect. I found that a way past these problems was not to raise and address them directly at the beginning, but rather raise questions of ethics in such a way that the students would think right off that they are not all difficult, and find themselves engaged in producing arguments — e.g. by the device I describe in the middle of comment #2 here:
    http://warpweftandway.wordpress.com/2008/03/04/introducing-chinese-philosophy-in-phil-101/

    But if (1) one mainly presents arguments to students rather than eliciting arguments from students, so that they get the idea that there is a fixed constellation of available arguments, and lose the connection between arguments and thinking;
    —and if (2) students get the idea that one has given them, or that one thinks one can or ought to give them, a set of arguments that meets these conditions: (a) the set is a fair representation or representative sample of what there is to be said on the issues, and (b) the set is neutral in the sense that it doesn’t tend to lean toward one conclusion rather than another;
    —and/or if (3) the topics one chooses as representative of ethical topics are ones for which one can indeed offer a set of arguments that seems to meet those conditions pretty well –

    then I think relativism and skepticism are predictable and even reasonable reactions. So I think college teaching shouldn’t aim at that kind of objectivity. I think one can keep one’s own controversial views out of the classroom without going that far.

    Also I think good objective scientific method (in research and teaching) pretty plainly rules out a hermeneutic of suspicion (though it surely requires some suspicion), so if that’s part of Zheng’s worry, I’d say he’s being paranoid.

  11. David Elstein says:

    Bill, it looks like I misunderstood your question, and I apologize if I seemed defensive. I thought you were asking a broader question than you actually were, and it looked like it would take us in a very different direction.

    If you’re asking what Lin, Zheng, and Jiang mean by Ruism, that’s more manageable, though as you’d expect, varies quite a bit. Lin’s version, or at least the part I’m most familiar with, arises specifically out of concerns with Mou’s political thought. Lin is suspicious of detached theorizing because he thinks it can be co-opted by an authoritarian government (like Neo-Confucian political thought). Mou wrote about how to justify democracy in Ruist terms, but Lin apparently thinks that’s not necessary: what is important is advice on how to realize democracy in society. So for how, practicing Ruism would apparently include some sort of democratic activism (among other things, no doubt).

    Zheng’s focus is a little broader. He talks about the disconnect between moral theory and moral praxis, so that there are philosophers who work on moral theories without realizing them in their lives. He seems to think theory is OK, but should be integrated with practice, and doesn’t (as far as I know) consider the possibility of studying moral theory A and practicing the values of theory B. So praciticing Ruism would involve attempting to instantiate Ru values in one’s own life, which could take a variety of forms.

    Jiang is more specific yet, as he seems to think there is a necessary connection between practicing Ruism and study and even memorization of the Ru classics. He also talks about restoring the ritual and music system, though not very specifically. I read him as focusing on social practice. Ru practice means trying to restore a society based on Ru values and Ru government. Jiang has a very nationalistic interpretation of Ruism, where’s it’s very much tied up with being Chinese. It makes me wonder whether he thinks people who did not grow up in Chinese culture can understand it, but I don’t know what he would say. He does engage some with non-Chinese scholars (notably Daniel Bell).

    On objectivity, I honestly have no idea whether relativism is the kind of knee-jerk reaction among students in China as it often is in America. It seemed one possible way of understanding Zheng’s concern. Interesting thoughts about how to deal with it, and maybe something to come back to later.

    Given that Zheng was writing in China, where a Marxist way of looking at Ruism is still pretty common, I’d say if he is concerned about a hermeneutic of suspicion (and again, that’s my interpretation and not something he actually says), it’s not paranoid at all.

  12. Bill Haines says:

    Thank you, David! Before I try to digest all that, I have another question:

    From the original post:
    Zheng Jiadong makes the point that the modern university is not suited to the project of practicing Ruism, in part because of the demand for objectivity and in part because the system rewards theory rather than practice. I’d have to agree that seems largely true. But is this necessarily a problem?

    Do you mean (a) you agree that the modern university is not suited to Ruist practice, and you’re asking whether that’s a problem, e.g. for academic Ruism; or (b) you agree about what the university is like, and you’re asking whether that means the university can’t be suited to Ruist practice?

  13. kaimarchal says:

    Hi David (and all the others),

    thanks for bringing up this question, this is a great topic.

    I think we all somehow feel attracted to the Confucian (“Ruist”) tendency to focus on the practical aspects of human existence, or even to underline the necessarily practical nature of any philosophical commitment whatsoever. We actually find very similar statements in thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Heidegger. Still, I think we should be very careful when using Western categories like theory and practice when talking about Confucian texts, since these texts nowhere make this distinction explicit. I would even go as far as saying that there has never been a notion of “theoria” in premodern China, i.e. the idea of a value-free scholarly enterprise with no relation to practice at all… In China thinking all to often is understood as practical endeavour. Which also means (in many cases): All thinking is political… I have to admit that I sometimes tend to think that this represents a substantial insufficiency of Chinese thought…

    To be more clear, I think, the idea that Ruism is necessarily practical and only accessible to the true believer is very close to an ideological claim. And I have to admit that I prefer Kierkegaard’s very subtle thoughts on the possibility of belief to the dry and often unreadable prose of Jiang Qing… Or, differently put: What exactly tells us that Jiang Qing really is important?

    Coincidentally, I just had a discussion with my students last week on Mou Zongsan’s critique of Kant. His argument can essentially be understood as an attempt to favor practice over theory: Kant, Mou suggests (first volume of “Xinti yu xingti”, p. 115-6), has made an effort to think through the concept of morality theoretically, but this effort was “too strained” 強探力索 and we “do not have to think in so a complex and difficult manner” 不必如此曲折艱思 (ibid). So, Mou claims, we can jump directly to Kant’s results, by demonstrating Kant’s theory through practice… In other words, practical insight is better than theoretical thought. I don’t know what you think of this, and my students and me had a long discussion on these pages (with the result that some student at the end, after we’d reconstructed the whole argument, suggested to me that the true wisdom of Mou’s lines must be hidden at a deeper level, since it wasn’t conceivable for her that the text should be so plain)… Mou’s gesture may be very attractive, but this kind of arguments can easily undermine the need to think seriously about serious issues. If we just claim that our practice is right because it is our practice (with no more need for theoretical arguments) we risk ending up with a very parochial version of Confucianism (and human life in general?!). The simplistic argument about the practical (“Chinese”) nature of Chinese thought is quite dangerous, I would even say, as it not only misrepresents the historical world of Confucian thought, but easily becomes a defense of anti-modern irrationalism…

    that the university environment as constituted is not conducive to true learning, which is learning that aims at moral improvement and not just accumulating facts.

  14. Bill Haines says:

    Hi David, sorry for the long delay. Thank you for your long and helpful replies to my questions.

    (I don’t think there’s such a thing as what ‘Confucianism’ normally means, but I’m willing to be corrected. )

    You say the modern university is not suited to “Ruist practice.” I wonder on what grounds. Anyway I’ll try to consider the claim in connection with your answers about what the 3 critics think constitutes Ruist practice. You’ve said:

    ZHENG takes RP to be the practice of “Ruist values.”

    LIN takes RP currently to involve democratic activism.

    JIANG seems to take RP to involve studying and memorizing the classics, and something about ritual, music, government, and Chineseness.

    As your discussion suggests, we might distinguish between two kinds or senses of “Ruist practice”: the practice we’d see in a Ruist society, and the path Ruists would recommend now for getting us there. The answers to questions about Ruist practice might then depend on which of these we mean. For example, one might think that in a Ruist society there will be no need for Ruist theory or even universities; but in the meantime, theory and institutions to support its development and propagation are invaluable tools of social change toward Ruist society.

    In connection with each of the three:

    ZHENG: If it means anything to say that “Ruist practice” is the practice of “Ruist values,” the point is to direct us to the relatively abstract aspects of Confucianism, such as the emphasis on family, good faith, authority, and the golden rule. These don’t seem to me radically or necessarily opposed to the modern university. Does anyone disagree?

    LIN: Is the modern university suited to democratic activism? True, like any job, the being a teacher or student or administrator takes much of one’s time away from activism for democracy. But students can study toward democratic activism – think of the Chinese graduate students at Cornell in the nineteen-teens (Zhao Yuanren, Hu Shi, Ren Hongjun, etc.), pursuing the various sciences in the interest of modernizing and democratizing China. For faculty, evenings away from party meetings can eventually produce a lifetime of tenured leisure for activism. And of course some faculty may work in areas directly helpful to the spread of democracy. Administrators can work for transparency and accountability in the university, and channel resources toward liberal arts and political science.

    JIANG: Perhaps the “modern” Western university is distinguished from the traditional Western university in placing less reliance on ritual. First-year students in most colleges are no longer visibly marked as owing deference to those in the older classes. (And I suppose Fingarette today would not be able to get a book the way he used to: for one thing, his office would be locked.) It may be essential to the modern university that it not require people to memorize the Confucian classics. But as Steve has suggested above, a good liberal education may be the more appropriate realization of Ruist values (depending of course on what we mean by “Ruist”).

    Has some of this discussion come close to addressing what you have in mind in saying the modern university is not suited to Ruist practice?

  15. David Elstein says:

    Hi Bill, apologies for the even longer delay. I’ve had a fairly busy couple of weeks, and wanted to read through a bit more before responding. I’m going to focus on Zheng Jiadong’s view, partly because I think he makes the best case for this kind of criticism, and because I happen to have one of his books at home to look at.

    Here’s the basic idea: in traditional Ruism, thought and history went together. I take it what he means by that is Ru thought had an impact on the historical events of the time and Ruist scholars were active in being part of the history being made. In the 20th century, and mainly after May 4th, that was no longer true, and Ru thought had little influence on what was going on. By the time you get to Mou Zongsan, there is no more Ru history, and Ru though continues on only in an abstract, transcendent form, so that he says to understand Mou’s thought does not require knowing about the actual history of the time. I don’t think that’s totally true myself, because certainly a lot of his thought was in reaction to liberals like Hu Shi and Yin Haiguang, and also to oppose communism. But Mou certainly presents his views as timeless and ahistorical.

    I don’t think what Zheng is after is a return to the Zhu Xi orthodoxy as a requisite for becoming an official, and it’s not entirely clear to me (I’m not sure it’s entirely clear to him) how thought and history could be reunited at this point. What I get from him is mainly the idea that Ruism should not be mainly about producing theories, but somehow dealing with social realities and problems on the ground. Is it impossible to do that in the university? Certainly not, as some people do. However, I do think it’s fair to say that the university structure does not really encourage it. I don’t think you can get tenure based on social activism. The system in most fields tends to encourage specialized research which in some cases may have application to some problems outside the academy, but probably more often doesn’t, and application is rarely pursued by academics themselves anyway. Basically, academics talk mostly to other academics (this blog is something of a notable exception). I think that’s Zheng’s main issue.

  16. Bill Haines says:

    Thank you very much for this reply about Zheng Jiadong. I’m grateful that you took the time to research his thought further in order to answer me. I’m still hoping, though, to find out why you think the modern university is not suited to Ru practice, if that is still your view.

    One possible semantic distinction between “Ruism” and “Confucianism” is that the former may suggest an ethic specifically meant for an elite, the Ru, while the latter may suggest an ethic for everybody. I want to press this question again: are you /the 3 proposing only that the university is unsuited for elite Ru practice, or more boldly that it is unsuited for Confucian practice in the wider sense; and if the former, is the proposal that the university isn’t fit to be the main locus of Ru activity, or that it isn’t fit even to be one locus among others? These seem to me very different thoughts.

    I take it what he means by that is Ru thought had an impact on the historical events of the time …. [A]fter May 4th, that was no longer true, and … he says to understand Mou’s thought does not require knowing about the actual history of the time. …Mou certainly presents his views as timeless and ahistorical.

    Offhand I would think that other things equal, an argument that is timeless, and/or that can be understood without historical background, would be more historically influential than one that lacks those strengths. For example, Adam Smith’s argument about the efficiencies of the division of labor, concretized in his example of the making of pins, seem to me pretty close to universal in applicability and comprehensibility, and not therefore impotent. And what could be more abstract than Mill’s argument in On Liberty?

    One might think of the Ru as originating in the use of historical records to rise above the appearances of the moment, moving in the general direction of the universal. Confucius’ interest in the golden rule– or was it Zigong’s interest? – suggests an interest in person-neutral principles, but I think we see that ideal more directly in a remark by Youzi in Analects 1.13, which I would paraphrase as: “Good faith is close to justice, because it means living as though your words will come back to you.” So far as I know, the modern (mis)reading of this remark was introduced by Zhu Xi.

    Confucius was in a way a champion of the abstract (An. 9.6: “Must the superior man have such variety of ability?”; 13.4: “If a superior man love propriety, the people will not dare not to be reverent. If he love righteousness, the people will not dare not to submit to his example. If he love good faith, the people will not dare not to be sincere. Now, when these things obtain, the people from all quarters will come to him, bearing their children on their backs – what need has he of a knowledge of husbandry?”; cf. Zengzi at 8.4: “As to such matters as attending to the sacrificial vessels, there are the proper officers for them” – Legge).

    The ideal we seem to see in these passages is a division of labor of sorts, i.e. between the high and the low, with the leaders responsible for the most general virtue or general norms. (Mencius’ idea that ruling takes time may be a little different.) Ideally, perhaps, core intellectual functions would not be distributed; they would be collective only in the sense of being handed down from the past.

    You point to the fact that the modern university tends to encourage specialized research. I think of the specialized as in a way the opposite of the abstract, general, theoretical. Anyway specialized research does seem out of the spirit of the Ru tradition, as does “dealing with social realities and problems on the ground,” depending on how much dirt under the fingernails we’re talking about.

    But actually what you said is that the modern university encourages a certain kind of specialized research: the kind that probably usually doesn’t have application to problems outside the academy. I would like to think that that kind of emphasis is not at all essential to “the modern university” except in the sense that there may be powerful trends tending to lead in that direction, trends destructive of the essence of the institution. I’m thinking especially of the decline of tenure, and academics’ being increasingly beholden to the will and standards of administrators, donors, and grantors rather than the unchecked judgment of their colleagues. (Of course there are grantors and grantors, and I wonder whether the critics are so practical as to value the building of a better mousetrap.) I don’t think it’s at all essential to the university that its topics be irrelevant. Should the Ru jump ship? Trying to save the university from the Ji family seems to me very much in the spirit of Confucius, and more practical than accepting its decline.

    Confucianism has always been about a great indirectness in social action. One doesn’t easily imagine Confucians marching in the streets, or canvassing door to door, or joining Journalists without Borders or the ACLU. One can more easily envision them writing memos to their rulers (hence, in a democracy, op-ed pieces) urging UN-authorized invasions for regime change. But to what extent would their essays appeal to reasons a ruling demos or educated public can grasp, and to what extent the authority of the Ru tradition?

    This is really a question: Can we gauge the genuineness of the critics’ concern by the concrete clarity of their accounts of the non-academic activity they favor?

    When the cold war was in its chilly vigor, one was often urged not to overlook the practical value of “basic research.” Einstein’s theoretical pencilings gave us the bomb, and so on, by way of the division of thinking-labor.

    I wonder whether what the 3 critics are sensing is that Ru theory (or discourse or whatever verbal product they and others had been producing) was simply not drawing the admiration and allegiance of others as powerfully as one might have hoped, or as powerfully as virtue itself is supposed to do according to what I think of as a core blunder of the tradition. (If virtue were as powerful as the classics sometimes say, how could it have declined?)

    I argued in another string (12/11/10) that there is a sense in which the Chinese philosophical tradition (not just Ruism) has been far more individualistic than the Western tradition: that is, China seems to have done far too little to take advantage of the possibilities of cooperation in thinking, or to develop the tools that make significant cooperation possible: clarity of terms and arguments, institutions of debate, mutual check, and intellectual openness. A crucial dimension of clarity in language is person-independence; that is, distance from what we see in the mnemonically numbered Analects 11.22.

    Eric Schwitzgebel has offered some empirical evidence that ethicists, more than other academics, steal books: http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/EthicsBooks.htm . I have my doubts about his argument. But I have to grant that the badge of being an ethicist might put one off one’s moral guard, and time in the sausage factory of moral theory might diminish one’s awe of the sausages. I’m not sure that either problem would be well addressed by leaving the challenges of the university to head one’s own privately funded moral-training academy. Think, for example, of the demands of fundraising and of maintaining one’s authoritative image.

    Some ethicists, I think, self-consciously conceive their project as theorizing about ethics without trying to be especially good people by their theories’ lights. Others try but occasionally fail, as people do. Such failure might not make their personal experience irrelevant to their intellectual investigations. It might instead add some relevant humility and understanding of the human condition.

    Normative theorists certainly benefit from experience of what it is like to live by the norms they discuss. But for a theorist to understand the import of living by each of the norms she is considering, arguably she has to compare the experience of living by it (and of course there are many different such lives) to the experiences of not doing so. She should compare the experience of living by each of the norms she hopes to consider intelligently, and in their various combinations, in a representative sample of walks of life; and what it is like to live among others who live in those ways; and what it is like to be the overseas victims or neglected posterity of people who live by the norms in question. Etc. No moral thinker can have more than a tiny fraction of the experience that is centrally relevant to the proposals she considers or chooses. Failing to come to terms with that obvious fact is a bad misstep, because it is likely to mean failing to develop the tools we have to address the limits of our direct personal experience (and failing to learn to negotiate their pitfalls). The basic tool is the division of intellectual labor. For example, we make records of lives and events, we try to generalize about them (social sciences and other sciences), and we learn to appreciate each other’s research products. We broaden our imaginations and quicken our minds by way of fictional literature (and ritual). And again, we study and practice the tools of clarity, and nurture the institutions of free debate and experiment, such as the modern university.

    (Of course the above argument assumes that Ru virtue is not such a radically special experience that one cannot begin to explain it to those who have not tasted it, the vast majority.)

    I wonder whether the 3 critics would hold that metaethical theory is pointless.

    Two kinds of norm one might expect Ru to be concerned with are norms for state policy and for political organization. I mean, because they are supposed to be committed to leadership in public affairs; though I am under the impression that the tradition has not been especially creative or thoughtful in those areas. A ruler should be virtuous, e.g. should have filial piety. Is it fair to say that the Ru tradition does not take the plurality of persons seriously?

    Lots of the most important policy issues these days are technical and place extremely heavy demands on the division of intellectual labor: issues about the environment, health, finance, energy and arms, not to mention the details of other people’s religions. Is it Ru to be Paul Krugman or, if you prefer, Niall Ferguson?

    In ethics we speak of living by one’s theories or not; what is the analog in political thought? Perhaps it begins with not speaking to the norms for a position one does not occupy, and then once one occupies it, not putting forth norms one does not act on. But those limits would seem to block most social criticism, and to stunt imagination where imagination is most needed.

  17. David Elstein says:

    There’s a lot here, so let me focus on the issue of practicing Ruism and the university for the most part. As a preface, though, I’ll say I don’t think I totally agree with your characterization of Confucius as a champion of the abstract, or that his thought is not related to the history of the time (you didn’t say that, but in case that was an intended implication of your claim that Confucius tended to abstraction, I’ll explain what I mean). Certainly one get something from the Analects without knowing the history of the period, but I think one gets a much richer understanding if one knows about the decline of the Zhou kingship, the usurpation of ritual prerogatives by local rulers, and increasing social upheaval of the late Spring and Autumn. Confucius himself talks of his work as only necessary because the Way is not prevailing (18.6). That’s in part my interpretation of what Zheng means by saying history and thought went together–Ruists believed in certain timeless ideas, yes, but they tended to see themselves as responding to particular historical circumstances. As I noted before, I think that’s true of Mou Zongsan as well, regardless of his transcendent appeals.

    I also don’t entirely agree with your claim that “Confucianism has always been about a great indirectness in social action.” Confucius and Mencius apparently tried to get their ideas implemented directly; they just failed. Wang Yangming probably had the most illustrious official career of any of the noted Ru philosophers, but others were often active in local concerns (e.g. Zhu Xi). If one goes beyond those we usually look at as philosophers but who might still be considered Ruists, the list is even longer. Focusing nearly exclusively on scholarship actually looks like a relatively recent phenomenon in Ruism to me.

    OK, back on track. Here’s my schematic simplification of Zheng’s argument, as I interpret him:
    1) Practicing Ruism involves working to realize Ru values in society in some way, beyond merely practicing them in one’s own life.
    2) Academic life as constituted does not leave a lot of time for this kind of practice, and the reward structure for professors does not particularly encourage it.
    3) Producing articles that virtually no one who is not also an academic will read is not practicing Ruism. This is what professors are mostly encouraged to do to be successful in academia.
    Hence, 4) the university as currently structured is not conducive to practicing Ruism.

    Put this way, I find this argument reasonably persuasive, as I said, if one accepts this definition of practicing Ruism. I’m on the fence about that. It seems to me teaching could be one way of trying to realize Ru values in society. However, even if one does this kind of teaching, it’s not as if one would get tenure without publishing, so while teaching is valued by the university it’s certainly not valued as much as research. My point is this system encourages faculty to focus their efforts on areas other than “practicing Ruism,” which I think is the basis for Zheng’s complaint.

    You ask what to do about that: should one try to change the system from within? That’s a good question, and of course history is littered with such dilemmas. I don’t know that Zheng has a very good idea of what to do about it, at least in what I’ve read. He laments how this has happened, but I don’t know that he’s got concrete proposals for what to do about it. Jiang Qing’s response is relatively clear. Could universities ever be the sort of place in which one could practice Ruism? I don’t see any a priori reason why not, though that level of institutional change would be very difficult. Maybe you’re right that Ruists should try to reform the system instead of abandoning it, but one must admit there is a streak in Ruism of taking one’s ball and going home if a situation does not look promising (Analects 5.21, 15.7). It’s not the only response, but it’s definitely there.

    And of course, this assumes that people who teach and research Ruism (and maybe Kantianism, Lao-Zhuang, Catholicism, etc.) are or should be people who practice it. I don’t entirely go along with that assumption, and if I did I’d be out of a job because I don’t consider myself a Ruist or “ist” of any sort. Maybe the point should be weakened, so that a university should be hospitable to both practicing and non-practicing researchers, instead of favoring non-practitioners. I don’t know if Zheng would go along with that weaker claim (Jiang, I’m fairly certain, would not). I might be able to get behind that version.

    • Bill Haines says:

      The following is the same as what I first posted as #18, but now with italicization corrected:

      I.

      Before I respond to your preface, I want to look at the core points of the main argument you lay out: that academic life does not particularly encourage working to spread Ru values, largely because the university particularly encourages publishing papers that only academics will read, leaving little time for spreading Ru values.

      I think the plausibility and relevance of these points depends quite heavily on which version of the thesis is being argued for. Here again are the three versions I distinguished, labeled for convenience:

      A) The university is unsuited for people who live by the values Ruists think everyone in society should live by.

      B) The university is unsuited to be the main place for the Ru elite, or Ru heroes.

      C) The university is unsuited even to be one significant locus of Ru elite or heroic activity.

      A Ruist who accepts (A) thinks that ideally there should be no universities, or at least not such as we see today.

      (B) seems to me true beyond question, and I suppose it is uncontroversial.

      In this comment I’ll narrow my aim and guess that the thesis you have in mind is (C). Regarding (C), then:

      1. For (C) to be true, there must be no sort of position in the university that is suited for Ru elite practice. That is, unlike (A), (C) makes no claims about conditions in the Biology Dept. How rare the suited positions have to be, for (C) to be true, depends on how narrowly (C) means “elite” or “heroic.”

      2. What the university particularly encourages is of limited relevance to whether the university is a useful position for heroic or elite Ru. These people ought to be better able than most to resist the temptation to sacrifice their values for salary bonus points, promotion, or an increment of certainty of tenure. And they ought to be a little smarter than the average academic, and thus have a pretty good chance at tenure without bending over backwards. (Ruists must think also that Ruist academics have the competitive advantage of being correct.) The proposition that the encouragements of the academy would overwhelm Ru heroes strikes me as untrue, and as a condemnation of Ruism.

      3. If the young Ruist academics are working in China, they may find that the demands for tenure are not too high. But suppose they are working to spread controversial Ru values beyond China, say in the West. One such value may be a profound respect for Chinese Ru classics. Toward spreading that value, it would seem that a great bottleneck is the currently very limited academic respectability of those classics in the West. Possibly academia is not the only position from which that problem can be effectively addressed. But if the classics do merit a very exalted position, then academia is surely one significant place to work to remedy the problem. (If they do not, academic defense may be less effective than other approaches.) And if there are other general Ru values that are not widely accepted, or not widely accepted by generally educated people, then it seems to me that if the Ru do in fact have a clear understanding why the widely rejected values are right, academic defense will be an important task toward propagating those values.

      4. I do not agree that for the most part, academic work is hermetically sealed within academia. (Maybe that is true of literary criticism.) Many academics in ethics, government, and related fields are quite widely influential outside academia, through television, op-eds, popular and semi-popular books, consulting work, and blogs. These academics read other academics. So do the members of ethics committees in hospitals and elsewhere, the authors of childcare manuals, etc. Journals do try to ensure that their papers contribute to current discussions, i.e. that they are especially likely to have ripple effects.

      5. (You seem to hold that prima facie, teaching does not count as “working to realize Ru values in society in some way, beyond merely practicing them in one’s own life.” I do not understand why not. Probably I have misunderstood.) There is teaching. True, the university rewards publication better, so one may spend less time on one’s students than would be ideal. But (a) insofar as teaching is increasingly done by permanent adjuncts, it may become easy for a gentleman who does not prize comfortable living to devote most of her time and effort to teaching; (b) it seems to me that there are many good teachers in the university today, so good teaching must be an option for Ru faculty; and (c) a Ruist probably thinks the Ru tradition is specially insightful about teaching and so has developed or can develop an especially good timesaving handbook for classroom teaching. (Of course the university may raise other kinds of obstacles to good Ru teaching than those you mention in your quick comment.) One might aspire, for example, to be like Michael Sandel at Harvard: to teach a tendentious Gen Ed course that reaches (in person and on line) scores or hundreds of future leaders each time.

      II.

      Maybe you’re right that Ruists should try to reform the system instead of abandoning it, but one must admit there is a streak in Ruism of taking one’s ball and going home if a situation does not look promising (Analects 5.21, 15.7). It’s not the only response, but it’s definitely there.

      I agree completely, but I want to quibble about the passages. Both from Sturgeon/Legge:

      5.21 子曰:“甯武子邦有道則知,邦無道則愚。其知可及也,其愚不可及也。”
      The Master said, “When good order prevailed in his country, Ning Wu acted the part of a wise man. When his country was in disorder, he acted the part of a stupid man. Others may equal his wisdom, but they cannot equal his stupidity.”

      15.7 子曰:“直哉史魚!邦有道,如矢;邦無道,如矢。”君子哉蘧伯玉!邦有道,則仕;邦無道,則可卷而懷之。”
      The Master said, “Truly straightforward was the historiographer Yu. When good government prevailed in his state, he was like an arrow. When bad government prevailed, he was like an arrow. A superior man indeed is Qu Bo Yu! When good government prevails in his state, he is to be found in office. When bad government prevails, he can roll his principles up, and keep them in his breast.”

      The second passage suggests that (a) under bad government, a superior person may postpone trying to spread Ru values. The first passage could be read that way, or its message could conceivably be that (b) in disordered times, the wise may be recklessly bold, or (c) [since a great pillar of wisdom is trust], a sign of wisdom is that you are especially disoriented in disordered times [when people are untrustworthy]. I have always been inclined to take it in the last of these ways.

      Proposition (c) suggests to me that in disordered times the Ru may find special value in academic work, once that institution has been invented.

      I don’t see that either of these passages suggests leaving a bad institution to promote Ru values elsewhere or otherwise.

      III. (last and least)

      To your preface:

      My previous comment was certainly written in a manner that invited misunderstandings galore; I apologize for that.

      I don’t think I totally agree with your characterization of Confucius as a champion of the abstract, or that his thought is not related to the history of the time (you didn’t say that, but in case that was an intended implication of your claim that Confucius tended to abstraction …) Certainly one can get something from the Analects without knowing the history of the period

      I said he was in a way a champion of the abstract, and tried to characterize that way quite narrowly.

      I think even the false proposition “Every surviving remark of Confucius is highly abstract” would not imply or suggest that (a) the thought in his surviving remarks is not related to the history of his time, nor that (b) historical knowledge isn’t needed to understand them.

      Confucius himself talks of his work as only necessary because the Way is not prevailing (18.6). That’s in part my interpretation of what Zheng means by saying history and thought went together–Ruists believed in certain timeless ideas, yes, but they tended to see themselves as responding to particular historical circumstances.

      I think they have that in common with Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and any academic who flatters herself that the world would be better off knowing the things she is helping it know.

      I also don’t entirely agree with your claim that “Confucianism has always been about a great indirectness in social action.” Confucius and Mencius apparently tried to get their ideas implemented directly; they just failed. Wang Yangming … Zhu Xi …. Focusing nearly exclusively on scholarship actually looks like a relatively recent phenomenon in Ruism to me.

      I stand corrected; thank you. I’m ignorant of what Wang Yangming and Zhu Xi and others did. I suppose I tend to think of the Ru tradition as envisioning the main levers of social action as: ritual and the good example of one’s personal virtue. That’s what I had most directly in mind in that sentence, though one could not guess it from my words. The immediate context suggested that the main sort of lever I had in mind was arguing to rulers, e.g. for military action. I should have had teaching in mind there too.

  18. Bill Haines says:

    I

    Before I respond to your preface, I want to look at the core points of the main argument you lay out: that academic life does not particularly encourage working to spread Ru values, largely because the university particularly encourages publishing papers that only academics will read, leaving little time for spreading Ru values.

    I think the plausibility and relevance of these points depends quite heavily on which version of the thesis is being argued for. Here again are the three versions I distinguished, labeled for convenience:

    A) The university is unsuited for people who live by the values Ruists think everyone in society should live by.

    B) The university is unsuited to be the main place for the Ru elite, or Ru heroes.

    C) The university is unsuited even to be one significant locus of Ru elite or heroic activity.

    A Ruist who accepts (A) thinks that ideally there should be no universities, or at least not such as we see today.

    (B) seems to me true beyond question, and I suppose it is uncontroversial.

    In this comment I’ll narrow my aim and guess that the thesis you have in mind is (C). Regarding (C), then:

    1. For (C) to be true, there must be no sort of position in the university that is suited for Ru elite practice. That is, unlike (A), (C) makes no claims about conditions in the Biology Dept. How rare the suited positions have to be, for (C) to be true, depends on how narrowly (C) means “elite” or “heroic.”

    2. What the university particularly encourages is of limited relevance to whether the university is a useful position for heroic or elite Ru. These people ought to be better able than most to resist the temptation to sacrifice their values for salary bonus points, promotion, or an increment of certainty of tenure. And they ought to be a little smarter than the average academic, and thus have a pretty good chance at tenure without bending over backwards. (Ruists must think also that Ruist academics have the competitive advantage of being correct.) The proposition that the encouragements of the academy would overwhelm Ru heroes strikes me as untrue, and as a condemnation of Ruism.

    3. If the young Ruist academics are working in China, they may find that the demands for tenure are not too high. But suppose they are working to spread controversial Ru values beyond China, say in the West. One such value may be a profound respect for Chinese Ru classics. Toward spreading that value, it would seem that a great bottleneck is the currently very limited academic respectability of those classics in the West. Possibly academia is not the only position from which that problem can be effectively addressed. But if the classics do merit a very exalted position, then academia is surely one significant place to work to remedy the problem. (If they do not, academic defense may be less effective than other approaches.) And if there are other general Ru values that are not widely accepted, or not widely accepted by generally educated people, then it seems to me that if the Ru do in fact have a clear understanding why the widely rejected values are right, academic defense will be an important task toward propagating those values.

    4. I do not agree that for the most part, academic work is hermetically sealed within academia. (Maybe that is true of literary criticism.) Many academics in ethics, government, and related fields are quite widely influential outside academia, through television, op-eds, popular and semi-popular books, consulting work, and blogs. These academics read other academics. So do the members of ethics committees in hospitals and elsewhere, the authors of childcare manuals, etc. Journals do try to ensure that their papers contribute to current discussions, i.e. that they are especially likely to have ripple effects.

    5. (You seem to hold that prima facie, teaching does not count as “working to realize Ru values in society in some way, beyond merely practicing them in one’s own life.” I do not understand why not. Probably I have misunderstood.) There is teaching. True, the university rewards publication better, so one may spend less time on one’s students than would be ideal. But (a) insofar as teaching is increasingly done by permanent adjuncts, it may become easy for a gentleman who does not prize comfortable living to devote most of her time and effort to teaching; (b) it seems to me that there are many good teachers in the university today, so good teaching must be an option for Ru faculty; and (c) a Ruist probably thinks the Ru tradition is specially insightful about teaching and so has developed or can develop an especially good timesaving handbook for classroom teaching. (Of course the university may raise other kinds of obstacles to good Ru teaching than those you mention in your quick comment.) One might aspire, for example, to be like Michael Sandel at Harvard: to teach a tendentious Gen Ed course that reaches (in person and on line) scores or hundreds of future leaders each time.

    II

    Maybe you’re right that Ruists should try to reform the system instead of abandoning it, but one must admit there is a streak in Ruism of taking one’s ball and going home if a situation does not look promising (Analects 5.21, 15.7). It’s not the only response, but it’s definitely there.

    I agree completely, but I want to quibble about the passages. Both from Sturgeon/Legge:

    5.21 子曰:“甯武子邦有道則知,邦無道則愚。其知可及也,其愚不可及也。”
    The Master said, “When good order prevailed in his country, Ning Wu acted the part of a wise man. When his country was in disorder, he acted the part of a stupid man. Others may equal his wisdom, but they cannot equal his stupidity.”

    15.7 子曰:“直哉史魚!邦有道,如矢;邦無道,如矢。”君子哉蘧伯玉!邦有道,則仕;邦無道,則可卷而懷之。”
    The Master said, “Truly straightforward was the historiographer Yu. When good government prevailed in his state, he was like an arrow. When bad government prevailed, he was like an arrow. A superior man indeed is Qu Bo Yu! When good government prevails in his state, he is to be found in office. When bad government prevails, he can roll his principles up, and keep them in his breast.”

    The second passage suggests that (a) under bad government, a superior person may postpone trying to spread Ru values. The first passage could be read that way, or its message could conceivably be that (b) in disordered times, the wise may be recklessly bold, or (c) [since a great pillar of wisdom is trust], a sign of wisdom is that you are especially disoriented in disordered times [when people are untrustworthy]. I have always been inclined to take it in the last of these ways.

    Proposition (c) suggests to me that in disordered times the Ru may find special value in academic work, once that institution has been invented.

    I don’t see that either of these passages suggests leaving a bad institution to promote Ru values elsewhere or otherwise.

    III (last and least)

    To your preface:

    My previous comment was certainly written in a manner that invited misunderstandings galore; I apologize for that.

    I don’t think I totally agree with your characterization of Confucius as a champion of the abstract, or that his thought is not related to the history of the time (you didn’t say that, but in case that was an intended implication of your claim that Confucius tended to abstraction …) Certainly one can get something from the Analects without knowing the history of the period

    I said he was in a way a champion of the abstract, and tried to characterize that way quite narrowly.

    I think even the false proposition “Every surviving remark of Confucius is highly abstract” would not imply or suggest that (a) the thought in his surviving remarks is not related to the history of his time, nor that (b) historical knowledge isn’t needed to understand them.

    Confucius himself talks of his work as only necessary because the Way is not prevailing (18.6). That’s in part my interpretation of what Zheng means by saying history and thought went together–Ruists believed in certain timeless ideas, yes, but they tended to see themselves as responding to particular historical circumstances.

    I think they have that in common with Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and any academic who flatters herself that the world would be better off knowing the things she is helping it know.

    I also don’t entirely agree with your claim that “Confucianism has always been about a great indirectness in social action.” Confucius and Mencius apparently tried to get their ideas implemented directly; they just failed. Wang Yangming … Zhu Xi …. Focusing nearly exclusively on scholarship actually looks like a relatively recent phenomenon in Ruism to me.

    I stand corrected; thank you. I’m ignorant of what Wang Yangming and Zhu Xi and others did. I suppose I tend to think of the Ru tradition as envisioning the main levers of social action as: ritual and the good example of one’s personal virtue. That’s what I had most directly in mind in that sentence, though one could not guess it from my words. The immediate context suggested that the main sort of lever I had in mind was arguing to rulers, e.g. for military action. I should have had teaching in mind there too.

  19. David Elstein says:

    Well, when it comes down to it, I guess we don’t disagree all that much. I probably should have been clearer about what I was attributing to Zheng et al., and what is my own view. I think the issue of teaching is probably the weakest point of the argument: why should this not count as Ru practice? Even if it’s not the most highly rewarded part of academic work–and there’s something a little perverse about the most prestigious and sought-after jobs typically requiring less teaching, from the Ru perspective–it’s still a pretty substantial part of the job. To clarify, I think Zheng (and Jiang, apparently) do discount college teaching as a way of practicing Ruism, but I’m not convinced they’re justified in doing so. It seems to me that is a great opportunity to encourage the development of Ru values. Your example of Michael Sandel is an excellent illustration of the possibilities here, though obviously he’s not transmitting Ruism.

    I still have a slightly different take on the importance of the university environment and reward structure and how much academics address broader audiences. If all Ruists were sages, or even junzi, your point that the university structure shouldn’t matter would be right. But I think it’s part of their case that few people are at that level. Most people are somewhere on the way and having varying levels of commitment to Ruism, and for those people the environment can be very important.

    I am also less sanguine about the degree to which a) research impacts the non-academic world as well as b) the degree to which academics are concerned about and try to realize a). Maybe who’s doing the transmitting and practical realization doesn’t matter, as long as it gets done. I remember reading some things a year or two ago about the difficulties in getting discoveries in biology to translate into medical applications, and the degree to which academic scientists are in many cases actively discouraged from pursuing practical application of their discoveries. Maybe a different reward structure in universities would change things; I don’t really know. Certainly the degree to which academics address the public varies by individual as well as field. Analytic philosophers, in my experience, don’t tend to be very good at it, and generally don’t seem to care very much (at least, that’s my explanation for why they tend to write in a certain way). I haven’t seen anyone criticize Mou Zongsan for his writing style, but he has a (well-deserved, I think) reputation for being abstruse. That probably doesn’t help matters. Political philosophy is, one would think, the area which might have the easiest time with real-world applications, but it seems like even there, there are few Philip Pettits.

  20. Bill Haines says:

    That would be a very nice place to end the discussion, but I’m finding this all too interesting.

    Actually your second paragraph suggests to me that I was way off-target in discussing (C); that the thesis you and the others have had in mind is something else, perhaps (A). If the thesis is (A), the critique would seem to be about the very existence of the university, or at least of the university as currently done. Or maybe my three guesses about what the question at issue might be are all wrong. Maybe it’s this:

    D) Those considering becoming Ru elites or Ru adepts should not pursue an academic career as a path toward making that decision (at least if Ruism is right).

    (A different proposal (E) would say that an academic career is not the only such path. I take it (E) is too uncontroversial to have been what you mean.)

    Your report about biology is intriguing! In case you happen to remember, I’d love to know what to read, or at least what are the reasons for the active discouragement. One guess is that a competent scientist might be more valuable to a university as a generator of new ideas than as an applier of one idea: because she generates more money that way, or because applications work tends to draw her away from the university and require new hires or make her a worse teacher. Those reasons would be reflections of the efficiencies of the division of intellectual labor; and at least the first one would be evidence that the active discouragement tends to increase the practical impact of the biologist’s academic work. Maybe there’s some other reason instead.

    I’m reminded of this famous quotation from Keynes: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

    Of course, the madmen may not be choosing their scribblers on the academic merits. Arthur Laffer’s influence may have been largely due to the shortsighted interests his ideas could serve, Sayyid Qutb’s basic premises are objectively pretty dubious. For our question, then, a key point may be: what interests outside the academy would apparently be assisted by (distinctively) Ruist ideas? Of course, that depends on which ideas you or the critics have in mind as being Ruist.

    Also, an academic’s work product can be misunderstood; e.g. Eichmann’s misunderstanding of Kant. Or they can be used in ways the academic would oppose. A biologist might develop a vaccine for a tropical disease, and find that her ideas are used only toward a weapon. Ruists might develop views and texts about respect that are then used mainly as tools of repression.

    An academic might wish she were the person who applies her ideas, because she wishes she could control the application; and so might leave academia to apply her ideas. But if the application she has in mind is the propagation of Ruist values to others, it would seem offhand that leaving academia does not address the problem. She ends up still propagating things to others, to be applied by others.

    Depending on what one means by “Ruism,” perhaps much of its doctrinal core is better classed in the field of psychology rather than moral philosophy. I am thinking for example of all of Youzi’s arguments in Book 1 of the Analects. (His argument at 12.9 is economic.) So one of the most effective places for a Ruist academic these days might be a psychology department. Academic psychology has, I think, been influential. For example, Milgram’s experiment and the Stanford prison experiment have had a wide influence on people’s views about human behavior as relevant to social institutions. Kahneman & Tversky’s work on the psychology of decisionmaking is influential among designers of laws and regulations (see e.g. the book Nudge. Work on the psychology of childrearing, homosexuality, racism, intelligence, etc. have been influential in policy and personal practices; and if academic psychology bears out Ruist claims, that should help spread Ruist values.

    • David Elstein says:

      Hmm, I don’t really remember where I read that stuff about biological research and medicine. Might have been the New York Times, or something like Atlantic Monthly. As I recall, the gist was the publication and grant system favors basic research over developing applications. To the extent this is an issue in philosophy at all, I think the situation is similar: universities look more favorably on publishing a theory (on Ruist politics, say) than on consulting with a community or local government on how to encourage development of Ru values. The latter might be nice, but likely isn’t going to lead to tenure or salary increase. If one can write a book about it, as Philip Pettit did on his experience with the president of Spain, that would different.

      The issue for Zheng is not just whether Ruist ideas are applied, but the divide between theory and practice, so that the theorizers do not engage in practice (again, teaching apparently doesn’t count for him). This might be for two reasons: 1) if the theorizers don’t practice, Ruist ideas will languish or 2) be misused or co-opted by people who do not understand or wish to use them for their own purposes. He seems to feel it’s important for theory and practice to be united, so it’s not just a matter of the ideas filtering into society somehow, but that it is the elite Ruists who do it.

      So if I had to pin it down, I’d say the concern is closest to D), though there are probably C) elements as well, rephrased to say the university as it is now is not a suitable locus for Ru practice. Zheng seems to leave open the possibility that the university doesn’t have to be that way, but is short on specifics about what would need to change.

  21. Justice&Mercy says:

    Just passing by. (I don’t browse here a lot.)

    I don’t think you guys are grasping the distinction.

    The idea is that Confucianism is a religious faith. Either you believe that Confucius was a Shengren or you don’t. If you believe that Confucius was a Shengren, then your orientation would be to orientate your life around the Classics.

    Alternatively, if you don’t believe Confucianism is a religious faith, but you still believe in some form of Confucianism or another as a life philosophy, you would still try to orientate your life around the Classics.

    Subsidiary goals including things like reviving morality in China and so forth.

    • David Elstein says:

      Yes and no. Jiang Qing certainly thinks of Ruism as a kind of faith, though he thinks applying “religious” to it is a mistake since “religion” is a Western term and not appropriate for Chinese ways of thinking. But that doesn’t really address the question of whether it should be an academic subject. Christianity and Judaism are uncontroversially religions and are also studied academically. I’m not aware of adherents of these faiths objecting to the academic study of them, but maybe there are and I just don’t know about them.

      Also, to say one should orient one’s life around the Classics is vague. As you point out in your next post, there is the question of which classics, and what does it mean to live by them? Surely it can’t mean following them to the letter: no one is going to follow all the prescriptions in the Liji, I don’t think.

      • Justice&Mercy says:

        Jiang feels that “religion” is a western concept. On principle, he advocates a Chinese system of classification.

        But his followers, whom I’m affiliated in some ways, definitely view Confucianism as a religion.

        Some people advocate a full-fledged revival of Confucian rituals. I’m not one of them. I like folk rituals more.

        • Justice&Mercy says:

          Yes, “orientating one’s life around the Classics” is vague. And there are many factions fighting it out.

          I think most people can agree on reviving traditional morality. Thankfully, there are “Q&As” being published, which may clarify things (depending on your perspective).

          As I said in my other post, I like the idea that there are secular academics. The only thing I don’t like is when some people insist Confucianism is not a religion.

          • Justice&Mercy says:

            As for which Classics – This depends on which faction you’re affiliated with. The Neo-Confucians obviously like the Four Books.

            Some people believe in the Thirteen Books.

            I personally believe that Mencius is the true transmittor of the Confucian faith. I place Mencius and the Analects above all else. I tend to use pre-Neo-Confucian commentaries. But my view is not popular amongst the people I talk to or hang out with.

    • Bill Haines says:

      Hi Justice&Mercy! You write:

      The idea is that Confucianism is a religious faith. Either you believe that Confucius was a Shengren or you don’t.

      Are you saying that (a) believing he’s a shengren is intellectually indefensible (and therefore not a topic for academia), and (b) it’s not wrong to base one’s life on something unreasonable, so long as it’s religious?

      Or are you just saying that believing he’s a shengren is different from not believing that he’s a shengren? In the latter case, I wonder why you believe he’s a shengren, and whether you think that view is intellectually defensible.

      • Justice&Mercy says:

        Well, personally, I subscribe to the view that he is both Shengren and Suwang. I base my conclusions on the Analects and Mencius.

        I have no problem with secular academics doing research on Confucianism. The only thing I don’t like is when some people insist that Confucianism is not a religion and deny the validity of my beliefs.

        But I can only represent myself in this. Other people may have different views.

        • Bill Haines says:

          That doesn’t say whether you believe (a) and/or (b)… do you?

          • Justice&Mercy says:

            Well, I’m not in particularly interested in a debate about theism vs. atheism.

            I noticed that you guys completely missed the boat in the discussion above, and so dropped by guide you guys on the right way.

          • Bill Haines says:

            Thank you.

      • Manyul Im says:

        Interesting points! I wonder what it actually solves to say that I believe Confucius was a shengren. That seems to depend on what I take a shengren to be. “Sage” is a very generic understanding of shengren and I’m not sure what is “religious” about believing in sages. I suppose that further depends on what one means by “sage” AND by “religious.” This can seem like one tight hermeneutic circle sometimes. But let me forge on. Belief in “saints” might imply religious commitments, broadly speaking. But even that has more secular meanings as well, in English.

        As an aside, I’m reminded of when people tell me that science is a religion — in contrast to someone insisting that Confucianism isn’t. That does make me feel a bit peeved (No, I say, science isn’t a religion unless you are playing very loose with the meaning of ‘religion’!). So, I think I understand J&M’s reaction.

        • Justice&Mercy says:

          First, I have to preface by saying I can’t represent everyone. But I’m sure a lot of people agree with my views.

          Mencius says, every five hundred years, Heaven (or God) will raise up a Shengwang. Confucius was the Shengwang of his generation. However, Heaven did not wish to pacify the world at that time. Therefore, Confucius took the duties of the Son of Heaven upon himself and wrote the Spring and Autumn.

          Heaven does not speak, and so Confucius was charged with speaking for Heaven. He was, in essence, a prophet.

          Both Zigong and Mencius testified that Confucius was incomparable. (Bo Yi, Liuxia Hui were also Shengren, but Confucius surpassed everyone.) If you believe that Confucius was a Shengren, then you would find certain texts, such as the Analects, Xiaojing, and the Five Classics to be a reliable guide to reality.

  22. Justice&Mercy says:

    The other thing which just came to mind is that you guys might be reading different books than Confucian believers.

    People who believe in Confucianism as a religious faith, apart from reading the Analects, also often focus on things like Zhouyi, Liji, and Chunqiu. The Gongyang commentary is especially important – Confucius, apart from being a Shengren, was also Suwang (the uncrowned king). This is the New Text Scholarship as so heavily promoted by Jiang.

    Personally, as a Confucian believer myself, I like the idea of secular academics working on Confucianism. This is especially because I can quote you guys’ stuff whenever I debate with other Confucians.

    • Steve Angle says:

      Hi–I’ve found what you’ve had to say here to be interesting, and wonder if you’d care to say a little more (either here, or off-line via email) about the lived context of your Confucian faith. Do you feel part of a community of believers? You mention different factions: do these exist outside of academic or at any rate written (perhaps on websites) debates (i.e., do people meet in different groups?)? Do you live in China? These are just a few questions, but perhaps you get my drift: I think that what it means to be a Confucian today–including to believe in Confucianism as a religion–is in a fascinating transitional stage, with different people and groups trying out different things. I’d love to hear more about you and your experiences. If this feels intrusive (especially as posted on this public forum), then I apologize; I don’t know another way to contact you.

      • Justice&Mercy says:

        Sure, I’ll email you later when I have time.

        I do feel like belonging to a community of believers. I would feel more like it if I lived in China, because these people get together every now and then. Plus there are so many new institutions available (such as schools teaching the Classics).

        Confucianism is definitely not confined by the academia.

        The different factions – It’s pretty complicated. First, the most successful case of Confucianism as an organised religion is not in the mainland, but in Indonesia.

        In Hong Kong and Taiwan, I think most self-identified Confucians would agree with the unity of the three religions.

        In the mainland, I would think Neo-Confucianism is most popular. But it’s extremely complicated in the mainland.

        I see myself as moderate. I think Buddhism and Daoism are also valid paths to reality. I see folk religions as allies (closer to Confucianism than to Buddhism).

        The people I’m opposed to are the fundamentalists and the Han nationalists.

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