The Chronicle: “Chinese Philosophy Lifts Off in America” Posted on September 23, 2013 by Steve Angle A very nice article about Chinese philosophy in the U.S.!
It’s a good article though the title seems incongruous with the actual trend in the U.S. — at least as far as academe is concerned.
Definitely. This was one of the issues I had with it as well. Especially in terms of philosophy departments. When I first saw that title I thought “Really? Maybe in HK, Singapore, China, etc., but in the US? I don’t know about that.” Although they get into that issue late in the article, the title does seem to suggest something quite different.
The article does mention “the deaf ear toward it [=Chinese Philosophy] still displayed by many departments of philosophy, especially at first-rank institutions.”
And while maybe the “lifts off” in the headline is an exaggeration, it is after all a headline. The rest of the article makes the case that there has been substantial progress in the last 40 years: many more APA sessions, scholarly societies, Chinese philosophers working in the U.S. and U.S.-born philosophers working on Chinese philosophy, courses at the undergraduate level, interest among deans and so forth than there used to be. What would the U.S. portion of the “Map of the Profession” have looked like 40 years ago, I wonder?
All good points.
Although one of the things I’ve found strange about Chinese philosophy in the US in recent years (meaning like the past 10-15) is that along with the rise in APA sessions, societies, philosophers working in the area, etc. seems to have come a steep decline in the number of philosophy departments in the US at which it is possible to actually get a PhD in Chinese philosophy. The number has gone down even since I started grad school back in ’03. It’s no longer possible, for example, to get a PhD in Chinese Philosophy at the place I got my own little more than 4 years ago (UConn, philosophy dept.). Why has this rise in interest (even within philosophy) not translated into more, rather than fewer, places where students can do work in Chinese philosophy?
I guess this is in part attributable to the “deaf ear” toward it mentioned in the article that you quote above, but I wonder how much longer we can sustain the interest in or the “rise” of Chinese philosophy if we cannot continue to produce scholars of Chinese philosophy (at least within the discipline of philosophy)? Seems to me that if we can’t maintain the flow of the source waters, which is production of experts in the area, then we can’t maintain the river.
I would say that religious studies and East Asian Studies programs can keep it alive in some sense, but it’s also true that our disciplinary methodologies and the ways we approach the texts are often very different, and that much of the philosophical work done on Chinese thought will simply dry up if there aren’t new generations of philosophers working on it. I do a lot of work in Han dynasty philosophy, for example, an area in which hardly *any* philosophers work. My methodology and the way I approach the texts is often radically different from the way others in history, religious studies, or EAS departments approach the texts (not *always*, but often). I’ve actually been openly criticized for engaging in philosophical ways with Han texts. So while I think that it’s a good thing that Chinese philosophy is thriving in different fields, we need a future for it in the discipline of philosophy as well, and from where I’m sitting this future looks kind of bleak.
I keep hearing that people in philosophy have a unique approach to texts, but it’s the sort of statement that’s repeated more often than it is explained. So I have to ask: what exactly are the philosophers’ disciplinary methodologies and why are they uniquely valuable?
Sorry to butt in here: it’s a really great question, Paul, and it got me thinking.
I can’t draw comparisons but I can at least talk about a kind of ideal picture of what it is to be a professional philosopher (of the Anglophone kind I’m used to), and the strengths of the way such a person would approach philosophical texts from long ago and far away.
Very general basic questions about the cosmos, life, ethics, politics, psychology, thinking and understanding: these are in some sense special topics (and in many ways they hang together). As with any topic, experience in thinking directly about them, reading and being taught about them, and especially discussing them, presumably makes a big difference in how well one is oriented to the fields and able to avoid small slips and big mistakes both in one’s own thinking about them (especially as formulated verbally) and in one’s understanding of what others say and write about them.
Having spent time working on those topics will make one more sensitive than others (ceteris paribus) to what might be going on in texts on that sort of topic—and more interested, hence more dogged in pursuing interpretive questions. Interpretive questions on philosophical texts require philosophical creativity, philosophical thinking. That’s hard but possible. People who have spent time doing philosophy have had some experience of making progress on hard philosophical questions, clearing up errors and arriving at greater clarity, by thinking and discussing. It takes a while to get students to believe that that is possible; that’s one thing philosophy teaching aims at. (There are tricks….)
The more sensitive and dogged someone is on philosophical matters, the more interpretations she will think of, and the more quickly aware she will be of potential harmonies and disharmonies, and the better she will be at distinguishing significant echoes from insignificant ones, and the better she will be (other things equal) at judging when two passages of philosophy probably reflect different minds and when they don’t.
On the other hand of course, a philosopher who has been exposed to a certain range of views can be too confident that she understands the range of possible views on a topic, while someone who does not claim to be a philosopher might be more open-minded.
Philosophers, I think, tend to disagree in very profound ways with many of the people they interact with in their department and in reading and writing. They’re accustomed to long, long interactions full of moments in which one finds out that what one thought was a disagreement was in fact a slight difference in the use of words or organization of the material, or was a disagreement on a topic other than what had appeared. There can be profound philosophical differences between people who grew up on the same street, because we don’t get our philosophical outlooks and modes of thinking just by absorbing them from our culture; we get them by helping to build them, building our minds. (General culture is often neutral on philosophical points.) Many of the best friendships among philosophers are between people whose outlooks are radically different from each other; they never run out of debate. Also Anglophone philosophers have at least some experience with texts from partly different cultures, such as ancient Greece. Hence professional philosophers tend to have some skills that are relevant to understanding culturally alien material. Encounters with other people’s philosophy is always sort of like that. And a good philosopher, conscious of her limitations, is hungry to uncover new ideas, new ways of thinking. Ravenous. Desperate.
Of course, there’s alienness and there’s alienness.
When I was a philosophy teacher I used to recommend to my students the following way of reading a philosophical article or chapter (toward doing philosophy or toward doing the history of philosophy). First, read it through, trying to understand what the writer is trying to show, and what reasons are offered. After reading it, write down the worries you have about what has been said: your questions, doubts, objections; things you wish the author had addressed. Look over what you’ve written until it’s pretty well in your head. Then read the piece again. You’re likely to find that the author has in fact raised and discussed most of these questions and worries, perhaps very plainly, and you missed it. (After the second reading, write down your remaining questions and objections, ….)
A commonplace in Anglophone philosophy departments is that reading philosophy to explore the philosophical questions, and reading philosophy to do the history of philosophy, are pretty much the same kind of activity. The way you understand an old text is by engaging with it seriously, humbly. And if you want to think about philosophical questions you should read old books, because lots of them are wicked smart, and they can give you some great ideas, calisthenics, and tricks. And sometimes those old books are ahead of us all. That’s the usual view I think.
Setting aside for just a moment questions about authorship and authenticity, a philosopher’s questions in reading an old text would be: How can I paraphrase what the writer is saying? What reasons are offered—and how good are they? What other reasons can I think of on either side? Now that I’ve thought of them, do I see the text dealing with them—answering or evading them? What are the background assumptions, and how well do these ideas fit with other things the author says?
A philosophical reader is going to try to treat the text as an interlocutor. She’ll try first to take the ideas and arguments seriously, considering and evaluating them on the merits. If she can’t find a way to accept them, then she’ll try something analogous to considering and evaluating them: she’ll consider and evaluate them given certain background assumptions that the writer seems to be relying on, and making fair concessions to the writer’s unavoidable ignorance and lack of tools, so as to find the most charitable interpretation and mine the text for valuable ideas (concepts, tools, processes, genres). One does this even for e.g. Thales’ claim that everything is made of water.
I’ve been writing as though the text in question has a writer, a single writer. I’m inclined to think that a text written by an individual is much more likely to reward probing charitable analysis than is a text by a committee, a text that fell together from several hands over the years, or a collection of remarks by one person in many conversations over many years. One expects the latter sorts of texts to be full of real contradictions, not full of prima facie contradictions that can be resolved by thoughtful reading.
So the approach to reading I described in 3a may not be suited to some important early Chinese texts.
As I mentioned at the beginning of 3a, reading philosophy is hard: one misses a great deal the first times.
Philosophy is really confusing. One can see this in students’ writing. A student who can write very well about matters that are not conceptually challenging can, when she turns to philosophy, lose all grip on grammar and syntax. Philosophical ideas are even hard to remember in quantity, because one thing that is always at issue is how the material can be organized: what are the leading concepts. There is no filing system you can count on.
Philosophy stays confusing. One learns to deal with that.
When people ask me to define “philosophy” I mention the kinds of topics I listed at the beginning here—basically, what’s general and basic—but I say that what really makes us count something as “philosophy” is that it is the general and basic questions, topics that seem unavoidable, but that we are still so far from agreeing on how to learn about that we don’t feel we can certify experts on the answers (as we can certify experts in chemistry etc.).
If there are special certifiable skills for philosophers, they are the skills of thinking (and speaking, listening, reading, writing, teaching, staying calm) about big things in the face of hurricanes of confusion. Not that doing so isn’t important in other fields as well. But I think they loom larger in philosophy. To be a good philosopher one has to be especially sensitive to the way language works, and to general questions about method and knowledge, as well as special questions about philosophical method and knowledge. Philosophers’ heads are full of ideas and theories—general ones at least—about that sort of thing; it’s part of the training.
It’s a longstanding commonplace at least in American philosophy departments that philosophy differs somewhat from other fields in that in order to be good at any one branch of philosophy, you have to kind of keep up with all the other branches, or the main ones. Everybody knows a little something about ethics, philosophy of language, epistemology, metaphysics, Greeks. That fact not only makes for more interaction between unlike minds, it also means that people who study ethics are prepared to be sophisticated in general about evidence and argument, and about words.
Something very similar might be true of the study of ancient texts or ancient anything. I’ll bet a lot of what draws people to that sort of study is the fun of the challenge of having a small and relatively static set of concrete evidence. One has to know something about a great many fields. The game is in the reasoning.
There’s an old cartoon that shows two gorillas under a tree next to some big piles of banana peels. One of them is saying to the other, “You know, I really like bananas. I mean, sure, we all do, but for me it’s much deeper than that.”
The banana peel for 4a is that especially in ethics (the core topic for Chinese philosophy), Anglophone philosophers’ conception of their method could be summarized without too much unfairness as: trying to figure out how to be as wise as people who don’t do philosophy at all. Testing our theories against common sense, against the ordinary person’s moral intuition.
Aristotle thought philosophers should test their theories against “the opinions of the many and the wise,” and that’s much of the method we see him using. There’s an appreciation, I think, that while we try to articulate general principles, the academic focus can cause us to lose touch with the parts of ourselves and our neighbors that are in observational contact with the subject-matter. 多乎哉？ 不多也。
Here are a few quick thoughts on that-hopefully I can properly articulate this in the limited space here. What I’ve found is that we (philosophers) are more likely to engage in conceptual analysis, for one. When thinking about why Xunzi may have held that 性惡, for example, or why one might in general hold such a view, philosophers are much more likely to look to issues of theoretical integrity, such as how holding such a position might effect one’s ethics in general, and we’re also more likely to engage in consideration of whether such a view is plausible as an ethical view in general. I often see historical approaches that explain the concepts of certain thinkers on the basis of their positions in government, political or economic aims, etc. I find some work in this area to be quite reductionist, in that the fact that some thinker may have had a political axe to grind can be seen as fully explaining his ethical or metaphysical positions.
I see a lot of this in work on Han dynasty thinkers, an area in which hardly any philosophers work. There is a serious absence of work considering 1) the plausibility of various Han ethical and metaphysical views as ethical and metaphysical views (philosophers like myself will generally ask “ok, let’s think about whether Dong Zhongshu’s position concerning tian and ren or Wang Chong’s position on ming are plausible/adequate/true; 2) theory-based explanations of positions rather than historical/political based explanations. One big example of this is the Han “syncretist” project of texts like Huainanzi. This is often read as simply an imperial project, aimed at political unification, and underlying philosophical reasons (the idea that we might facilitate discovery of *true* positions through a syncretistic method) are often ignored or at least seen as explanatorily impotent.
I think in general philosophers are much more likely to approach the early Chinese texts asking the question “are the views expressed in this text *true* or at least plausible?” than non-philosophers, as well as the questions “if it’s not plausible/true, how might it be fixed to make it so?”, and “what can we learn from the plausibilty or implausibility of this view about theories of human nature, virtue, etc. in general?”.
Not to say that no scholars of early Chinese thought outside of philosophy ask these questions, but it’s much more rare, and one’ can be accused by non-philosophers engaging in an illegitimate project if one approaches the texts guided by these questions (an accusation I’ve had brought against me on these very grounds).
I don’t see the approach I suggest above very often in work on Han thought, and I think part of the reason is that there are hardly any philosophers working in the area (something I’m trying hard, and mostly without success, to change…).
That’s interesting. One word I saw several times in your post was “plausible.” I agree that historians rarely ask whether So-and-so’s positions were “plausible,” because we’re trained to accept that very little of what people in the past believed is plausible from our own point of view. (Aside: I’ll never forget browsing through the introduction to a textbook of logic by T.L.S. Sprigge in a used-book store, and coming across the comment to the effect that in doubtful matters, he intends to follow the majority opinion, because the majority is usually right. I closed the book immediately, and this experience may well have been one of the deciding events that turned me permanently away from philosophy. No historian would take seriously the proposition that, in doubtful matters, the majority is usually right. With such a massive store of bad ideas from the past, you’d have a better chance of proving that the majority is usually WRONG.)
Anyway, back to the issue. I have one other concern about plausibility: why is that a value in itself? Not everything that is true is plausible. (Would you have considered it plausible that there are more discrete chess games than atoms in the universe? Or that the Earth is traveling at a speed of 67,000 mph–to take a very old example?) Nor is everything that is implausible necessarily uninteresting or inconsequential. (I find the Christian doctrine of consubstantiation highly implausible, but that doesn’t make it unworthy of consideration.)
I’m dwelling on this because I often find philosophers making the kind of move that Alexus describes–discarding this or that position on the grounds that it is “implausible”–and I’ve never quite felt the thrust of persuasion behind it.
So I do hope there is more to the discipline of philosophy than adjudging plausibility. But I’m just a grumbling historian.
oh no-That’s an unfortunate passage! The view that the majority is usually right is most definitely a minority view in philosophy. Indeed, we spend most of our time trying to show (as did most of the great philosophers of history) that often the majority view is held on irrational grounds or just plain false. In fact, I just finished going over the “appeal to the masses” fallacy in my Intro class last week-I’m shocked that a logician would blatantly walk into that fallacy! I suspect the author of the book your read may have inserted that as a joke. It’s far from an accepted philosophical view. On the contrary, it’s what logic textbooks are made to combat.
Also-I completely agree with your points about plausibility and interest, but plausibility is often all we have when truth is not directly accessible, especially in a priori considerations where appeal to empirical data is not available. That’s why I said truth or plausibility. It’s going to be pretty much impossible to determine the truth of certain things, but we might be able to determine whether they mesh with our intuitions. This of course doesn’t show they’re true, but it will at least show that they cohere with certain already accepted (hopefully demonstrably true) positions we hold, which is something.
Agreed that this is not the *only* thing that makes a view interesting, but I take it that’s why there are a number of legitimate approaches to texts, religions, etc., including the philosophical. Early Confucian texts are interesting from a lot of different angles (I think, at least): historical, literary, philosophical, and many other. Certainly a position might still be interesting or consequential even if untrue. I think that classic period Maya were wrong in their astronomical and cosmological assumptions, for example, but I’m still fascinated with their astronomy, and also think it’s useful to understand. But I take it that my approach to studying such positions (at least on my own conception of what philosophy does) falls outside the realm of philosophy and maybe to the historian or scholar or religion or literature. Which is why when I do work on ancient astronomy, I don’t take myself to be engaging in philosophy (even though I’m then working in another useful area, when I take off my philosophy hat).
That said, some historians of philosophy have a different attitude on this issue than I do. There has been for a long time a debate between those who think we should be primarily interested in discovering the truth, whatever it turns out to be and regardless of what historical philosopher x held, vs. those who think we should be primarily interested in discovering what historical philosopher x actually held. Ideally, these projects are mutually supportive, and one might engage in both.
So … you think there is such a thing as truth in the context of moral philosophy? That some moral views can be said to be true and others untrue?
Can’t remember the title of the book by Sprigge that I was talking about (and I don’t see anything in his bibliography that rings a bell), but it didn’t sound sarcastic.
Absolutely- I think there is moral truth. This is primarily why I’m interested in the classical Chinese moral philosophers–I think there are important things they get right in the realm of ethics.
And of course there’s truth in moral philosophy–even if one is a complete eliminativist about morality, truth is still necessarily involved. Such eliminativism would just boil down to the view that all moral claims are false. And this itself is a truth claim (and requires justification, like any truth claim).
Of course, I’m neither an eliminativist or a relativist, and I think there are true moral systems or positions and false ones. I don’t have a fully worked out conception of what moral truth is (who does?), but I think there IS such a thing. Just like one will presumably hold that there is some true unified theory of physics, even if they don’t yet know what that theory is.
Now this is a difference that I really WASN’T expecting. (So far, the other differences have not been all that surprising.) Is this a typical pattern? Do most philosophers share the view that there are true and false moral positions? ‘Cuz I don’t believe that and can’t imagine that I ever will. I certainly don’t think it’s analogous to a universal theory of physics. If I’d have to find any basis for meta-comparison, I’d look to judgments about art.
re: “Do most philosophers share the view that there are true and false moral positions?”
I believe they do. Myself, I’ve been convinced by the anti-realist / error-theorist group in meta-ethics. Thus, my favourite philosophers with regards to ethics/morality are Richard Joyce, Richard Garner, Joshua Greene, Russell Blackford, etc. (You can see one reason I’m a fan of Zhuangzi/Laozi).
Yeah, call me a Daoist too (if that’s what “Daoist” means …).
I think part of the problem causing disagreement here is our focus on the concept of truth. Even error theorists think there is truth in morality- all moral claims are false. This is a truth claim.
Even if one doesn’t accept this, of course, it doesn’t thereby saddle one with problematic entities like “moral facts” (which I don’t think exist), as there are all kinds of sophisticated anti-realist theories that aim to account for the truth of moral claims in a non-eliminative way. I take it one of the strongest motivations for pursuing this is the intuition (which I share) that to say that things like slavery or genocide (for example) are wrong is true in a more robust way than an eliminativist or radical reductionist about the moral (such as an emotivist) will hold. Their wrongness doesn’t just reduce to my, or my society’s finding them repugnant. Indeed, even if no one found them repugnant, they would still be wrong. This is the kind of intuition that guides many philosophers attempting to give accounts of moral truth.
Though I share certain intuitions with Zhuangists also.
Actually, I don’t read Zhuangzi as offering an error-theory or being against the notion of moral truth- I see ZZ more as trying to make a quietist point about the ultimate fruitlessness of ethical, metaphysical, etc. theory to help attain something like thriving. I tend to read it kind of like Madhyamaka. That said, I don’t have a good argument for that reading. In part because the ZZ is so damn impenetrable…
I understand the point, yet as much as I am opposed to slavery in any form, I do not believe it is “wrong” in the sense that pi=4 is “wrong.” I don’t think the universe comes with moral truths in the same way that it comes with physical truths.
I’m starting to think we have stumbled on an unexpected yet massive difference between historians’ and philosophers’ approaches. I expect that the vast majority of historians would share my point of view. I say this not as a justification–we’ve already talked about the fallacy of appealing to majority opinion–but to give some sense of how historians view what is at stake. Historians don’t go back in time and declare, “This practice of theirs was wrong, this practice of theirs was right”; rather, we try to understand, first, what those practices were, and, second, what meaning they had for the people who practiced them. It’s usually not taken well when a historian judges practices of the past according to modern Western values, and generally I don’t think most historians believe that human civilization is on a centuries-long quest to discover moral truths in the same way that we’re on a centuries-long quest to discover physical ones.
I agree that the comparison with Zhuangzi is distracting because the position of the text is hard to determine with any certitude. Qiwu lun may well be arguing that there IS a universally correct set of moral truths which (most) human beings are unable to grasp because of their partial perspective of the universe. That would not be the same position that I’m taking here.
I agree with Alexus that most moral philosophers think there are truths and falsehoods about morality (at various levels of particularity and generality), or the cluster of topics that we loosely gesture at by the term ‘morality’ (duty, obligation, fairness, decency, what it is to be a good person, etc.).
A. Don’t you think it would be wrong?
One approach toward convincing people of this view is to ask such questions as, “Don’t you think it would be wrong of you to go around mutilating babies for fun tomorrow? Can you think there’s nothing wrong with that? It wouldn’t be wicked?”
Let’s say Smith replies, “I find even the idea of doing that repulsive and repugnant, and I would do my best to stop anyone else I saw doing that, and I wouldn’t want anything to do with them later, and those things are also true of most people I know, and hurting babies would get me in trouble, etc.; — — but I don’t think it would be ‘morally wrong’ . I don’t even know what that latter claim would mean, if it supposed to mean something beyond the former sort of point.”
Smith’s reply raises the question whether moral language does in fact mean anything. I think there’s a general presumption that it does, since it’s language—universal and longstanding even.
Suppose it does have meaning. The next question is whether it means something “beyond the former sort of point.” Why not think that something more or less like that cluster of points, what Smith was willing to grant, is what “immoral” means? Smith’s reply seems to show that she thinks that cluster of points is at least in the neighborhood of what “immoral” is supposed to mean. If, like her, you’re willing to grant that sort of point; and if you think that sort of point is at least in the neighborhood of what “immoral” is supposed to mean, then I think you should be very much open to the possibility that moral language is meaningful and that it would in fact be immoral, morally wrong, for you to mutilate babies for fun tomorrow. You might legitimately think there are open questions about the details of the definition that might be offered, and you might even—as I do—think the word is somewhat vague—but that’s different from being sure the word is meaningless.
Let’s call that rough approach to understanding moral language the “Smith” approach. On that view, “X is moral” means roughly “We hate X.” That sort of statement can be true or false.
The Smith analysis suggests that morality is sort of like aesthetics.
For my part I don’t think the Smith analysis is right.
B. Accounting for differences
People who think there is moral truth commonly think that, within limits, what may be wrong in one place and time may be morally OK or even obligatory in another. (People who don’t believe in moral truth can’t have that view.) What could explain such differences? Such differences would be predicted by any basic principle that has different specific implications for factually different kinds of case. Here are some examples of proposed general principles that would generate moral differences.
1. It is immoral not to honor and obey one’s parents.
If your parents are fighting with my parents, this principle will tell you to do some things that it tells me not to do.
If the parents in England tell their children to wear hats and the parents in France tell their children not to, this principle requires different behavior of children in the two places.
2. It is immoral to steal.
When the coffee cup is mine, this principle says it is wrong for you to carry it off without my consent. When it is yours, this principle says no such thing.
3. It is immoral to lie.
This principle implies that it is immoral for me to tell people my name is Paul, but it has no such implication for Paul.
4. It is immoral to break your promises or your contracts.
This principle has different concrete implications for different people depending on what they’ve promised or agreed to.
5. It is immoral to be disrespectful.
This principle will tell people to do different things depending on the local conventions. Perhaps in England it is a conventional sign of respect to wear one’s hat to breakfast, and in France it is a conventional sign of respect not to. Principle 5 will then have different implications in the different countries, about which sort of action is wrong.
6. It is immoral to do for a trivial reason something you think will cause others great pain for years.
Suppose that in France people think that anyone who gets fish oil in her hair will be sent to Hell, and in England they do not believe this. Then principle 6 tells people in France not to put fish oil in other people’s hair for trivial reasons, while the principle has no such implication in England.
7. It is immoral to neglect the long-term well-being of one’s children.
Suppose that in England any girl whose feet are not bound will be an unmarried outcast for her adult life, and in France this is not so. Principle 7 may then imply that for each set of parents in France it is immoral to bind their daughters’ feet, while in England vice versa.
Or again, suppose that in England the generally recognized authorities hold that anyone who worships Zeus instead of the Hulk will go to Hell, and in France vice versa. Then principle 7 has opposite implications, in the two places, about what kind of religious education would be immoral for most parents to instill in their children.
In sum, while moral differences are indications that morality is not super-simple, they are not prima facie indications that there is no moral truth. On the other hand, if there were no moral truth, if there were no such thing as its being wrong for Smith to do D, then there could not be moral differences.
Note that for everything said in this section it doesn’t matter whether the proposed principles are taken as proposed exceptionless principles, or proposed rough generalizations that might be overridden at the edges by one or another strong countervailing consideration.
C. Accounting for disagreements
Section B talked about how general principles about what’s moral, if any are true, could predict and explain how different kinds of concrete action are in fact moral or immoral in different places and times, or for different people. The principles make relevant certain kinds of facts, and those kinds of facts in fact vary from place to place, from person to person.
People’s beliefs about the facts vary from place to place and time to time, even more than the facts do. Indeed, beliefs vary quite spectacularly. And that means that if any general principles (such as the seven proposed examples listed above) are generally recognized, people will nevertheless have spectacularly different views about what in particular is morally fine or awful. One mechanism of the spectacular differences is religion, as vast threatened rewards or punishments can be large enough to overshadow what might be expected otherwise, and the vast threatened rewards and punishments can be attached to arbitrary lists of requirements.
D. A proposed account of the meaning of ‘moral’
In another thread I once wrote:
Imagine some Jones who, asked about mutilating babies, gives an answer parallel to Smith’s but different: “Well, my going around mutilating babies—if I did that, it would be deeply uncaring and disrespectful of me. For me to do that would be for me to fail to hold myself to the standards I hope others will hold themselves to. The only way it would even be possible for me to do such things would be if I had fallen fundamentally out of touch with the fact that I am one person among others, and stopped looking at things also from others’ points of view.— — But I don’t think it would be ‘morally wrong’ . I don’t even know what that latter claim would mean, if it supposed to mean something beyond the former sort of point.”
Well, why think it means something beyond the former sort of point?
Here are two questions:
1. Is it obvious that the five-part account is significantly off target, as a linguistic analysis of the word ‘moral’?
2. If the account were correct, would there be moral truth?
E. Value judgments and the study of history
I would distinguish between morality (which is about the quality of a person’s decisionmaking mainly as pertains to her relations with others) and goodness in general (as in e.g. “It’s a good thing that asteroid missed the earth”). One can then raise the question whether it’s a good thing that people be moral. Does it lead to more happiness, better results overall?
But I want to make two other uses of the general notion of goodness here (which I’ll mark by numbers). We might ask: what’s the value of history, and especially of the history of culture and ideas, and moral ideas? What’s the (1) good of it, what’s the benefit? Of course there are lots of benefits. I’d like to suggest that a main benefit is to help us make better decisions, individually and collectively. We look at what other people thought and did, what the problems were and how it worked out, and we benefit from their example.
I submit that if we want to benefit from their example, we must at some point think about this value topic: whether what they did worked out (2) well or badly. And as with the study of dates and wars and the other kinds of things people are happy to call “facts,” we understand more and better if we do our thinking about that value topic together, using the practices and institutions of the academy, with the participation of historians, as part of the study of history.
For example, historians might ask, “Footbinding—how did that work out for them?”
This is quite different from asking whether it was moral at the time (see the discussion of principles 5 and 7 above), and quite different from asking whether it is moral by the specific moral standards we apply to ourselves under current conditions. It is even different from asking “Would that work out for us if we tried it now?”
Yes, I certainly agree with the way you’ve divided the possible questions about the phenomenon of footbinding.
In Reply to Paul Goldin above (we’ve run out of nest comments/replies, and so have to start again).
Perhaps, like me, you oppose slavery, etc. for compassionate reasons. Compassion needs no justification from ethics, (and I reject those who might argue that one should be compassionate, or more compassionate).
Paul: “I expect that the vast majority of historians would share my point of view … It’s usually not taken well when a historian judges practices of the past according to modern Western values”
— I’m not sure about the “vast” part. I often see value judgements in historical work, though perhaps largely unconsciously done.
Paul: “Yeah, call me a Daoist too (if that’s what “Daoist” means …).”
— I think that is part of it. But there was naturally some diversity amongst those early “Daoists.” One of my upcoming essays in my Classical Daoism series will examine the approach to ethics/morality found in the early texts considered Daoist, which would appear to distinguish those thinkers from others (Ru, Mo, and to a lesser extent, Fa). (Right now, I’m finishing up one on mysticism, self-cultivation and longevity, for which some of your reviews, Paul, have been helpful.)
@Scott (re “I often see value judgements in historical work”):
Sure, but it’s much harder to avoid making value judgments generally than to avoid making judgments on the basis of modern Western values–which is what I was talking about. I think most historians accept that it’s virtually impossible to avoid making ANY judgments; the point is that when the basis of a historian’s judgments is entirely presentist, his or her colleagues tend to get very nervous about the inherent anachronism. (If there’s one thing that historians can’t stand, it’s anachronism.) They’d probably be a lot less nervous, for example, about judgments that are in conformity with the beliefs and practices of the historical actors themselves.
Now I think I might have a better understanding of the philosophers’ objections to my brief comments on footbinding (http://warpweftandway.com/2011/12/11/goldins-confucianism/#comment-8656), which struck me as bizarre at the time. For a historian, a claim that reduces essentially to “Footbinding was bad” is trivial–whereas for philosophers, my refusal to condemn footbinding on the basis of modern values was misconstrued as condoning the practice. I still think that was a foolish inference, but at least I understand it better now.
I don’t completely agree with that account of history, but rather than get back into that just now I’m wondering, Paul, whether I’ve persuaded you that there’s moral truth? : )
Ummmm … no, you haven’t.
For that matter, historians don’t really ask the kind of question you posed: “Footbinding–how did that work out for them?” The questions they ask are more like: “Footbinding–what did it mean to them?” “What did they think they were doing?” (I mean really, in history, the answer to the question “How did it work out for them” is usually “They died.”)
I think historians would readily assent that footbinding would be a horrible thing TODAY, but not for historical reasons; it would be for reasons that have everything to do with how we judge actions TODAY. (For example … “Footbinding is bad because it limits women’s opportunities in society.” That would be a plausible start.)
At the risk of sounding philosophically naïve, I also have to say that you guys are using the word “truth” in diverse ways, and a few of your shots look like foul balls to me. “There are truths and falsehoods about morality,” as you put it, is a substantially different claim from “There are moral truths.” For example, it is a truth that different people have different opinions about morality. I don’t see how that kind of trivial, almost tautological, truth says anything about whether moral judgments themselves can be said to be true or false.
P> “no, you haven’t”
Is that it, Paul? Is the ball still in my court?
How about my two questions at the end of D?
And how about you, Scott, have I persuaded you?
P> historians don’t really ask the kind of question you posed: “Footbinding–how did that work out for them?” The questions they ask are more like: “Footbinding–what did it mean to them?” “What did they think they were doing?” (I mean really, in history, the answer to the question “How did it work out for them” is usually “They died.”)
Well I was making a case for what they should do.
I think Keynes’ point in saying “In the long, run, we’re all dead” was not that it doesn’t matter what economic policy we choose (nor even that it doesn’t matter what the long run effects of a policy are). Rather it was something like this: in an emergency one sometimes has to do things that are normally undesirable things because of long-run detrimental effects; there will be time to ameliorate those effects later when we’re out of the hot water. But your point seems to be that it doesn’t matter what the effects of a policy or practice are?
It may be that we’re using ‘truth’ in different ways. The kind of thing I think is at issue is this: whether it can be really so that someone’s action was morally wrong, that she had a moral duty as an officer, or an obligation to Smith, or that she had a moral vice, or that she is a morally bad person, or that a policy is unjust; and whether there are true generalizations (rough or otherwise) about the kinds of actions or activities or policies or traits or decisionmaking procedures that are morally good or bad, OK or wrong.
(If A says “There’s no such thing as moral truth because there’s no such thing as morality” and B says “If there’s no such thing as morality, then there is at least that one moral truth: that one!” then maybe B’s point is uninteresting. (Compare: A says “There’s no such thing as truths about square circles, because …”….) But if A says “There’s no such thing as moral truth because what’s morally right for any person is just whatever that person thinks is right,” then B might fairly reply, “Haven’t you just granted that there are many true statements of the form “P ought to do X”?)
I don’t think Alexus or I have offered as a “truth about morality” the truth that people have views about morality. Anyway I haven’t meant to. I might have seemed to do so when I said, “if there were no moral truth, … then there could not be moral differences.” But by “moral differences” (my section B) I don’t mean moral disagreements (my section C). Rather I mean this kind of difference: hat-wearing is morally OK in England but not in France. Granted, the statement I just quoted from myself is trivial as I meant it, and I shouldn’t have made it.
I’m sorry, but I am not interested in having a debate about morality at this time. It’s a convenient fiction in my opinion, though one we can do without, (although perhaps some people wouldnd’t be able to function well without it). I will say that one thing I like about the early Daoist approch is that their advice is almost never “do this because it’s morally right,” but “do this because it works.” Sure, it’s founded on self-interest, but I don’t think that is bad. Paradoxically, (one contributor to the) Laozi tells us that when we let go of our self-interest, we actually have a better chance of realizing it (chapter 7: 非以其無私邪，故能成其私?). This helps explain why Daoism and Legalism blended easier than did Daoism and Confucianism: amoralism vs moralism.
Joshua Greene’s PhD dissertation is a really good study of morality. It’s called “The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth About Morality and What To Do About It” and can be found on his website, at the very bottom. Anyways, I’m going to return to the essay I’m writing.
Fair enough! : )
I fear that this discussion has gone off the rails, but, before we bury it, Bill deserves some explanation of why I think “How did it work out for them?” is not a profitable question for historians to ask.
First, the very premise is problematic: it’s hard for me to accept that we today, despite our partial knowledge of their circumstances, pressures, motivations, and so on, are in any position to make pronouncements about the success or failure of people in the past. (Never mind that I don’t know what standards we would use to make such judgments: if they are our own, they are at least anachronistic, and probably marred by defects and blindnesses of their own.)
More importantly, asking “How did it work out for them?” is a great way NOT to understand the past. History is a mode of understanding–no more and no less. It may seem paradoxical, but if our interest in history is limited to asking how we can learn from the mistakes of the past, we’re going to end up learning very little about the past. For one thing, the lessons that we might glean are so banal as to be essentially useless. “History teaches us not to fight a land war in Central Asia” is one chestnut that you hear fairly often these days (although land wars have been fought in Central Asia for centuries, and some people have won them, so I’ve never quite grasped the point of this bit of wisdom–and really, what kind of war can you possibly fight in Central Asia if not a land war?). “People who have nothing to lose can be very dangerous.” I’d hope that history has more to teach us than platitudes.
All this is my long-winded way of getting to the main objection: Bill’s program supposes that people in the past were just like us, with different costumes and inferior technology, but basically thinking through their alternatives in the same way that we would. And nothing could be further from the truth. They often had radically different values, a radically different conception of their roles in society–and this explains why they said so many things that we’d consider hopelessly embarrassing at a cocktail party today. To take Alexus’s example of slavery: it may be harrowing to have to admit to yourself that if you lived at a different time and place you might have been a slave-owner, but it would be more honest than to pretend, say, that you would have been an Abolitionist in second-century Rome.
They weren’t like us, and that’s what makes them so interesting. They help us discover what’s distinctive about OURSELVES, because they show us how the values that we take for granted are not values to be taken for granted. They make us rethink what we actively believe and question what we passively accept.
An example that happens to come to mind: once you study the varieties of marriage in the cultures of the world, the social conditions in which the various institutions emerged and the problems that they were supposed to alleviate–you start to realize that the arguments against gay marriage today make no sense whatsoever. But that’s just a personal example.
Thanks Paul – and good points. Maybe someday we can come back to this.
Paul asked what’s special about how philosophers read old texts, and I answered that I think it makes a big difference if the reader has thought hard about the same topics the text is about. That answer depends on the idea that there is such a topic as (especially) morality or ethics, a topic one can investigate—so far still on the rails, eh?
I think sometimes readers who aren’t into the philosophical questions seriously overestimate the extent to which the texts might be shaped by non-philosophical concerns, such as Alexander’s intrigues. Readers who don’t much see the philosophy look for something else, while philosophical readers tend to expect the text to be moved mainly by considerations internal to philosophy no matter how pressing the political stakes.
This is why I avoid the slippery slope of philosophical ethics and embrace the warm blanket of phenomenology. When it comes to Daoism, especially Zhuangzi, many scholars (and PhD students for that matter) become trapped by a blind need to place the text and its ideas in a specific historical milieu when in fact they transcend it completely. Yes, Zhuangzi jested with Confucius and Mozi, but the arguments he was putting forth are not necessarily specific to them as historical persons. To focus only on these aspects is to lose sight of the tremendously broad strokes of Zhuangzi’s intellectual brush. Ethics and moral arguments are important, don’t get me wrong, but they fall short of conveying the entirety of the human experience. Zhuangzi shows us this time and again. Indeed, if we were to ask him about the points being made here, he would simply chuckle and gently shake his head.
Hi David, I agree that ethics and moral arguments are important, and that they fall short of conveying the whole of human experience.
I also think: Much of what is important about them isn’t the conveying of experience at all. Conveying human experience is important, but it falls far short of being the whole of what is important. And conveying the whole of human experience is a pipe dream, a philosopher’s abstraction.
Perhaps you agree with me that even if there is moral truth and some people are going around saying there isn’t, nevertheless discussion of whether there is moral truth would still be a waste of time if the idea that there is no moral truth isn’t preventing or altering anyone’s consideration of some ethical or moral arguments.
Oh, you were referring back also to my spiel on the philosopher gorillas, §3b in particular—I had almost forgotten about that!
I don’t think the point I made there is limited to the field of ethics. I’m inclined to think that the project of solving apparent contradictions is one of the most important levers for finding things new to us in old texts; and I think the project makes more sense when a single writer (or at least a careful committee) can be assumed, though I grant it doesn’t absolutely require that. So I think it’s really helpful to know over what ranges of text we can fairly take a single author as our working hypothesis. And for this and other purposes I agree with Taeko Brooks that the historian and textual scholar are essential.
Suppose we know of a certain text that we can never know who wrote what parts when, or whether the author of one part even knew of what other parts. Still, as you say, the text might be rewarding. It might be full of helpful ideas or at least thought-provoking bits. In such a case, I think, reading for that reward would benefit especially from philosophical (and literary) skills; writing about/from such a text would be a creative philosophical and/or literary enterprise.
Hate to say this. You guys are missing the one basic fundamental of Chinese philosophy: there is no moral truth among fools.
That must be why Hans-Georg Moeller wrote a book based on Zhuangzi’s view called The Moral Fool! 😉
Moeller’s amorality is a western liberal value alien to the Chinese mind from here to antiquity. Zhuangzi’s boat was empty, and only the fool would subject its errant behavior to moral condemnation. Vessels of the human kind need to be spanked for misconduct unless they are devoid of occupants.
“the one basic fundamental of Chinese philosophy: there is no moral truth among fools” – Two things:
1. This seems fairly heavy handed; claims about the basic fundamentals of any philosophical tradition are more useful if they are supported by some kind of at least summary argument
2. I’m not inclined or prepared to make judgments about who’s a fool and who’s not. That said, “there is no moral truth among fools” leaves out any claims about whether there is moral truth among non-fools. Determining who is a fool and who isn’t seems like a risky game, in particular for anyone who feels very confident that he isn’t one himself. So I’m not sure how productive this string of conversation is since we haven’t established who the fools are and if we tried to, someone would have to be prepared to name the fools and the reasons for regarding them as such — but that would threaten to devolve into petty name calling or just question-begging arguments about what constitutes foolish activity.
Provocative quips can be powerful in the right contexts. But it’s hard to know where this string is meant to go so it would be nice if you were more forthcoming. Or you could leave fools to their foolish musings and disregard them. Cheers.
The philosophical tradition of the Chinese is a matter of opinion. This claim may also come across as heavy-handed, immoral even, especially to one who is learned on the subject. Is it offensive to assert “there is no moral truth among fools” or to claim that it is “the one basic fundamental of Chinese philosophy”? Let’s investigate.
The fool is an unintelligent person lacking good sense and judgment. This is not a claim but a dictionary definition. If this definition is acceptable, then “there is no moral truth among fools” is practically an a priori statement requiring no proof. What we are left with is the claim that it is “the one basic fundamental of Chinese philosophy”.
If we agree with the claim that “the philosophical tradition of the Chinese is a matter of opinion”, then there is no issue to resolve and each is free to subscribe to his own school of thought. If this is not the case and you have an inviolable truth to defend, then it would be helpful if you submit a case to debunk the travesty.
Even in matters of opinion, support for an opinion can be helpful for generating constructive discussion where convergence of opinion or acceptance of irresolvable difference might be outcomes. Otherwise, I’m not really sure what the point is — why should we just toss opinions at and past each other?
Thanks — I do know what a fool is by definition. The question I don’t think is worth pursuing is who, in particular, counts as one. So, I meant to say that noting there is no moral truth among fools is irrelevant unless you care to identify who the fools are (not what a fool is). As an aside, “There is no moral truth among fools” is not at all a priori. Just because a group of people lack sense and judgment does not obviously imply anything about the existence of moral truth.
The onus to provide support is usually on the person who makes a provocative, sweeping generalization about what the one basic fundamental of something is. If you don’t wish to support that, I’m happy to let it go.
Also, I should think an “inviolable truth” doesn’t really require defense. Not that I have any intention of trying.
Chenping writes: “The fool is an unintelligent person lacking good sense and judgment. This is not a claim but a dictionary definition. If this definition is acceptable, then “there is no moral truth among fools” is practically an a priori statement requiring no proof.”
I agree with Manyul that this is not true. I would imagine all fools believe their own views on morality are moral truths.
If “there is no moral truth among fools” is equated with “there is no real sun among blind men”, would you still say it is not true?
You would be asserting that all blind men believe their own “views” of the sun are the real sun. I would bet that even the blind men would not agree with you.
Well, that’s easy. In the most literal sense of “there is” there clearly is a real sun among blind men. They just can’t see it. You clearly mean something more like: “Blind men can’t really know what the real sun is.” But that’s false as well. Direct perception isn’t the only way to know what something is or that it exists. Likewise for “There is no moral truth among fools.” Not having the intellectual wherewithal to discover truth for themselves doesn’t imply anything about whether the truth exists. So, there’s nothing a priori or obviously true about “there is no moral truth among fools” or “there is no sun among blind men.”
For Zhuangzi, the fool is the most sagious of sages.
Is “sagious” even a word? Do you mean to say that, in your view, Zhuangzi considered the fool as the most sagely of sages? This is a depressing thought. If Zhuangzhi (and Moeller?) was correct, then Confucius and the Buddha were fools.
This doesn’t add up, Mr Chai. We need to talk.
And you can quote me on that!
Maybe it seems like a depressing thought, but it may very well be a strain both in the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi. A couple of quick examples:
Daodejing 20: “The multitudes all have excess, but I alone seem destitute. My mind is a stupid man’s!” 衆人皆有餘，而我獨若遺。我愚人之心也哉！
Zhuangzi’s Qiwulun also has this: “The multitudes hustle and bustle, the sages are stupid and foolish…” 眾人役役，聖人愚芚…
That Confucius or Buddha would come out fools on such a view isn’t a reductio ad absurdum. (Indeed, if they were fools, then on such a view, they would also thereby be sages.)
Chenping writes: “If “there is no moral truth among fools” is equated with “there is no real sun among blind men”, would you still say it is not true? You would be asserting that all blind men believe their own “views” of the sun are the real sun. I would bet that even the blind men would not agree with you.”
–Let’s not equate those two. Blind men know they’re blind, most fools don’t know they’re fools.
I think “there is no moral truth among fools” does not hold up in Confucianism either. While certain “fools” themselves may not be able to fully appreciate a “moral truth,” certainly a Confucian sage can. When Confucius thought of going out to live with the Eastern barbarians (9.14) and his students urged him not to, he responded: 何陋之有？ I suspect he understood that as a moral truth…
You don’t have Chinese values. Why don’t you use the English translation to support your argument so that I can see where you are coming from?
(9.14) in Chinese has no relevance unless you share the value of the Chinese sage who does not suffer fools of any culture.
Once we start talking about “Chinese values,” we’re in the world of essentialism, and that’s where I check out, because I don’t write about Never-never-land. That’s the arch sin for a historian.
Confucians believe that the values of sages can be extended and absorbed by others, even “barbarians.” We can all be like Shun if we put our heart-minds to it. But I agree with Paul, your comments are drifting into a kind of essentialism – I might say exceptionalism – and, ultimately, suggest that there is no ground for conversation. So, I guess that is the end of the exchange.
So, you reckon 9.14 was about the extension of sagely values to barbarians? I can understand why westerners would derive such an idea from 9.14 based on their cultural experience of evangelism: missionaries spreading god to the godless.
Nowhere in the Chinese text of 9.14 indicated that Confucius’s motivation to live among the nine tribes of non-Han people was to extend moral truth to fools.
I am not invalidating the westerner’s take on 9.14. It is the westerner’s perception of Confucius and it is, therefore, the westerner’s moral truth. I just want to make that clear and keep the story straight, the way any true historian would.
Instead of making wild attacks against so called “Western” readings (whatever these are), should we not go the original horizon of understanding and reconstruct how readers in pre-modern China were actually reading 9.14 ?!
Here is Zhu Xi’s one: 子欲居九夷。 東方之夷有九種。欲居之者，亦乘桴浮海之意。 或曰：「陋，如之何！」子曰：「君子居之，何陋之有？」 君子所居則化，何陋之有？
And this idea (君子所居則化) is certainly not based on the “cultural experience of evangelism”…
Clearly Zhu Xi was an evangelical Christian. How silly of you to be taken in!
It’s just Buddhism. Those damn Indian barbarians infecting Zhu Xi’s mind…
It seems there are always “foreigners” around one who’s so inclined can blame for whatever view they want to reject. Although I guess it gets harder the further you go back… maybe next up is nationalist Confucians claiming Mozi was actually a 北狄…
There actually was a theory among the 古史辨 crowd in the 1930’s that Mozi was not Chinese. It was never the mainstream view, but it was seriously entertained for a while. I can dredge up the reference(s) if you’re interested.
Definitely-I’d like to check that out! It occurred to me after I wrote that it seemed like I’d heard a view similar to that actually expressed before, but couldn’t remember where I may have heard it.
How readers in China – at any time in her history – read Confucius is determined by the dynastic government of the day. Even in America, philosophy departments of academia are not free of insidious politics intent on corrupting the human mind. It has been said that goats are not particularly bright and sheep are truly stupid but men alone are fools in the belief that they are neither goats nor sheep.
If you don’t harbor that belief, let’s kick Zhu Xi aside and tell me what you think the Master said. What is your reading of 9.14?
Why don’t YOU tell US your interpretation of Analects 9.14–that is, if you really wish to contribute to the conversation and not just be a heckler? I think I’m not the only person who’s getting a little tired of the game of watching you challenge everybody else to come up with answers, and then dismissing everything as the words of a fool.
Dear me, silly indeed… We barbarians need to be more careful in the future!
There’s no “reply” button above, so I’ll respond to Alexus here. The theory that Mozi wasn’t Chinese seems to have been first voiced seriously by Hu Huaichen 胡懷琛 (1886-1938) in Dongfang zazhi 東方雜誌 25.8 (1928), with follow-ups later that year in Dongfang zazhi and other journals. (Hu’s idea was that Mo Di was 印度人.) I could swear I read similar stuff somewhere in Gushi bian, but I’m not finding anything tonight. Anyway, there is a good summary of the whole debate in Zheng Jiewen 鄭傑文, Zhongguo Moxue tongshi 中國墨學通史 (Beijing: Renmin, 2006), II, 489-99.
P.S. The 翟 of Mo Di was frequently glossed as 狄.
Thanks Paul-just put in an order in for a copy of Zheng Jiewen’s book. I love the idea that Mozi was a 印度人- that’s a slick move. Two birds with one stone! He was a barbarian responsible for Mohism, and also prepared the way for the Buddhism of his fellow barbarian countrymen to take hold centuries later!