6 thoughts on “Review of Sagehood

  1. Is it bad form to comment on my own post, about my own book? Probably. But I thought that it might be interesting to reply a bit to Bryan’s discussion of li 理. He suggests that “coherence” is confusing, and argues for “pattern” as a better understanding/translation. Three things in reply. First, here’s what I say in the book about “pattern” (on p. 33):

    Finally, let us consider “pattern.” Although there are some attractions to understanding li as “pattern,” in the end such an equation founders on one of two difficulties: either “pattern” is too vague to adequately give us the meaning of li, or it is too specific. It has been suggested that pattern is a more basic idea than coherence. We cannot find something to be intelligible, for example, without noticing some kind of patterns: some commonalities, some connection with other aspects of our experience. Still, li is more than merely being-patterned. Its connection to value is fundamental. Its connection to human intelligibility is also critical. Whereas there could be patterns that no human could ever notice or make sense of, li is necessarily accessible to humans. From this perspective, “coherence” better expresses the meaning of li because its meaning (as I have stipulated it for our purposes) is richer and narrower. On the other hand, if we try to equate li to some specific Pattern—the precise pattern that occurs in all things—we will lose the contextual flexibility and sensitivity to human subjectivity that is vital to li. The contemporary scholar Brook Ziporyn, on whose work I draw extensively in this chapter, has noted that both “pattern” and “principle” imply “repeatability, reiterability, [or] the recurrence of ‘the same’ in different instances; the same ratio, the same form, the same relations” [Ziporyn forthcoming, 85]. However, there is no saying precisely which pattern is universally present, whenever we can say there is li.

    Second, here is a brief endnote attached to that paragraph, specifically addressing Bryan’s use of “pattern”:

    Bryan Van Norden’s reading of li as “pattern” vacillates between the vague and the specific senses of pattern. On the one hand, he says that li is “a pattern common in all things.” He also suggests that certain numeric patterns (sets of one, two, four, and five) might point at the structure of “the pattern” [Van Norden 2004, 107–8]. But in the end these efforts toward specificity are abandoned, because of the “limitations of the adequacy of language,” and we are left with only the vaguer idea of being patterned.

    Finally, in his review Bryan says, “We can grasp fairly easily what Zhu Xi means by the pattern made by the grain in wood. But what are we to make of the notion of the coherence of a piece of wood?” The problem is that “the pattern made by the grain in wood” is the palest of imitations of what Zhu Xi means by li. Talking about the coherence of a piece of wood may be a bit jarring, but as we begin to press ourselves to think what it might mean, in fact (I believe) we begin to move in the direction of what Zhu Xi has in mind. Happy to elaborate if anyone’s interested.

  2. Steve, the book sounds quite exciting. Here is a thought from ignorance:

    At the end of your comment you answer Bryan by saying the grain in wood is “the palest of imitations of what Zhu Xi means by li. Similarly, the shape of an artifact is only the palest of imitations of what Aristotle means by ‘form’, and yet it seems to play a central role in acquiring, communicating, and perhaps in generating Aristotle’s putative idea. For all I know, the grain in wood and jade plays a similar role for Zhu Xi. Maybe cases can be paradigms even if they are poor examples, so that translators should strive to make the application of the term to these cases especially easy to see.

    I am certainly interested if you have some elaboration ready to post!

  3. Steve,

    I just want to say congrats! The book sounds quite interesting, indeed, provocative. In any case, I’ll read anything by anyone who has read Iris Murdoch. I very much look forward to reading your book.

    Is there a chance it will issue in paperback as well? Otherwise it may take me a few days of bargaining (meaning: I’ll have to promise something of value in exchange) with my dear wife to persuade her to let me add it to my book order list.

  4. Thanks, Patrick, and I’m happy to be able to play my part for marital harmony: there will be a paperback edition, due by early 2011.

    Bill, a good point. Let me see if I can express what I have in mind. For starters, it’s important that “pattern” isn’t all wrong: it’s my second-favorite translation for li. It’s just that it either says too little or too much, as I maintain in comment 1.

    What does “the coherence of a piece of wood” lead you to think about? Here’s what it does for me: (1) Attention is first drawn to that which makes up and sustains the piece of wood as a (coherent) entity. It’s not just a blank wholly solid item. It has structure (yes, including grain). (2) Next I think of what the piece of wood could be part of, and the related question of why I care about the piece of wood. (In the book I have stipulated that “coherence,” as I am using it, is shorthand for “the valuable and intelligible way that things fit together.” I don’t think this is far from some of the natural meanings of coherence, but I intend it in this more precise sense.) I may also think about where the wood came from. “Coherence” pushes one to think about interrelationships on different levels, which is exactly what li is about.

    Let’s take another example. Zhu Xi likes to talk about boats. Compare “the coherence of a boat” with “the pattern of a boat.” The latter makes me think of blueprints…and not much more. The former immediately suggests to me — maybe it’s reading too much Zhu Xi, I admit — the question of how the boat fits with humans and human purposes, as well as with water. This tie to questions of value is critical, because li or coherence needs to lead us to grasp not just why something is as it is, but also how it should be.

  5. What does “the coherence of a piece of wood” lead you to think about?

    I’ve been asking myself that and similar questions. Here are my thoughts, in roughly the order in which I had them, sharpened up a bit because I’m writing them down. There were three lines of thought:

    1. If I were to find in the street a slip of paper that said “What is coherence?” I would definitely think first the absence of contradiction. And if the slip said, “What is a coherent object?” I would think of the absence of contradiction in an object. What came to mind in fact was a little solid ball, of some uniform substance like plastic or clay, standing for a maximally simple object. For the absence of contradiction is a purely negative concept: the simpler the ojbect, the farther it is from involving contradictions. (It’s been years since I’ve thought about Parmenides, and I don’t think he influenced the above thought, but I notice now that he did argue that the only way the world can be free of contradiction is if it’s a uniform sphere.)

    2. If I ask myself, “What do people mean by coherence?” what comes to mind is the intelligibility of an attempt to say something. Coherence is the opposite of incoherence, which is a failed attempt. When I paraphrased “coherence” as “intelligibility,” it occurred to me that “coherence” in this sense might be a synonym for a sense of “logos.” But then I decided that was wrong. “Coherence” in this sense isn’t intelligibility as opposed to bruteness, like a poem as opposed to a blank page. Rather it’s intelligibility of an attempt to say something. There has to be the attempt.

    3. When I ask myself specifically, “What is it for a piece of wood to be coherent,” as I did in reading the book review, the first thing that came to mind was non-contradiciton, as in (1) above. But my second answer is that the coherence of a piece of wood is its sticking together: cohesion, kin to adherence and adhesion. This idea of sticking together does draw attention to whatever would be the main places where the thing would come apart if it were to fall apart.

    (In a paper somewhere on Kant’s universalization formulation(s) of the categorical imperative, Chris Korsgaard finds someplace where Aristotle characterizes “form” as “how the parts fit together,” or something like that, and she proposes that Kant is likely to have had that conception of “form” in mind when he said (something more or less to the effect) that the universalization formulation(s) represent the Form of the CI. Korsgaard elaborates: the universalization test tests whether the end mentioned in the maxim fits together (universally) with the means mentioned in the maxim.)

    I think of coherence simpliciter as an “intra” concept. If I’m asked about the coherence of a piece of wood, or of an argument or set of views, how it fits with or sticks to things outside itself definitely doesn’t seem to be at issue. That sort of question comes in only when we add the preposition ‘with’.

    By the way, I find Aristotle’s form/matter distinction and the things he does with it (e.g. those two kinds of cause) to be very handy intellectual tools, quite aside from any purely metaphysical applications or senses they might have. So I have hope that some broad elaborations of the veins/grain idea might turn out to be a similarly useful tool, even if Zhu Xi’s greatest ambitions for the idea don’t work out.

  6. No doubt “coherence” doesn’t send other people where it sends me. Also I think the important question may be where “coherence” would send someone given that it is supposed to be a translation of Zhu Xi’s term, and given a few pointers about that. That’s not the question I was trying to answer above.

    In the book I have stipulated that “coherence,” as I am using it, is shorthand for “the valuable and intelligible way that things fit together.”

    Trying to find a word that emphasizes the “fitting together” you mention, and that does not lean heavily toward either the intra or (like “fitting”) inter, I cleverly hit upon “fitting-together.” But while “fitting” has the value connotations you want, “fitting-together” doesn’t. Also upon consideration I think it’s just intra, like “coherence.” Also “fitting-together” seems fundamentally false to the image of grain, veins, rivers&roads, etc. If Zhu Xi wanted a term for “fitting together,” I would think he wouldn’t have used one that evokes especially those images. In connection with grain, the fitting-together of a piece of wood seems to focus on the slices of wood, the ones that meet at the thin dark grain-lines (never mind that the wood is hardest at the dark lines). But the grain/veins image of li seems to stress the lines, and that the pattern is and can be replicated, extended. I don’t know where I first heard the idea that while the West has thought of forms, concepts, laws, etc as exoskeletal containers or shapes, China has tended to think instead of endoskeletal patterns, but there seems to be something in it. I mean, there is meat on those bones. That road goes somewhere.

    It’s not hard to see how the idea of a container fits the idea of a concept or a law. Venn diagrams and the like. I wonder whether the connection between pattern/grain/veins and order is as natural as that. That is, I wonder to what extent it simply reflects a visual sense of what writing looks like. Cracks in the tortoise-shell and all that.

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