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« Obama Does the Confucian (but not the Daoist) Thing on Stem Cells | Main | Learning Chinese with Sexy Beijing »

March 13, 2009


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Fingarette's handshake is a well-written (and so not famous for no reason!) description of what takes place when ritual interaction is expressed at the highest (and most basic, socially!) level. I think here of Analects 2.4; the ren person or junzi is like a person performing a complicated series of figure skating routines, where the skater must be instinctively aware of the particularities of the situation (ice conditions, muscles, etc) so that conscious thought is not required (and in fact gets in the way) of seamless aesthetic interaction. The junzi's "routine" is no different, and perhaps more difficult to pull off correctly. One must not only be aware of external conditions that will need to be quickly and without conscious thinking adapted to, but one must do so in a way that facilitates the best performance of the *other* people in the situation as well. Perhaps team figure skating is similar. In any event, seamless social "skating" is not easy to pull off.

Analects 1.13 is interesting. I like Hinton's emphasis on the fact that (presumably) if your social "skating" routing is well maintained and performed, "kindred spirits remain kindred, and you're worthy to be their ancestor." Here I think Hinton emphasizes a key point I was trying to stress in my own post on Fingarette -- that appropriate Li-performances *enable* you to be the self that you can be. Here, Hinton seems to stress that if you perform correctly, you will *succeed* at being a *descendant*. It's not a given that your self, understood in a social sense, is something present from the start. You have to earn selfhood in an important way.


In the little time I have to discuss the Confucian worldview in my course at the city college I always discuss this delightful example from Fingarette. I use it to illustrate the fact that much of our daily lives involve "ritualized" moments such as this and hence we can speak (as I think Hall and Ames do) of them being conducted in terms of a more less background choreography that we are considerably less than fully aware of unless, for instance, there are "awkward" moments in which one or more individuals doesn't know, has forgotten, or is uncertain of the requisite rules (li), much in the manner that social norms operate: we don't really think much about them until they are ignored or violated. And of course we become more conscious if not self-conscious when we meet individuals from societies with different choreographies. I've always been interested in how we learn these choreographies (and where they come from, a prominent concern of Plato's Laws and a topic of course explicitly addressed by Confucius: e.g., the family, the Five Classics, exemplary individuals, etc.) in the course of childhood socialization as well as how they in fact evolve or change over time. [Incidentally, the 'choreography' metaphor or analogy is intriguing in much the same way the use of 'narrative' accounts of self and folk psychological narratives in a certain (uncommon) sort of philosophy of mind likewise rely on analogies and metaphors from the arts. With regard to the latter idea, I'm most intrigued by Daniel Hutto's 'narrative practice hypothesis' in which folk psychological narratives 'supply children with both the basic structure of folk psychology and the norm-governed possibilities for wielding it in practice. This is an account that provides us with a 'socio-cultural' basis for the understanding of reasons that strikes me as quite Confucian (and perhaps Wittgensteinian) in spirit. Relatedly, with good reason we speak of 'Zen and the art of....]

Now although "self-consciousness" spoils the proper handshake, as you note conscientiousness or awareness is, however, an integral dimension of its performance in the Confucian sense. I think Iris Murdoch well captures this heart-mind aspect of conscientiousness in the following:

The moral life is not intermittent or specialised, it is not a peculiar or separate area of our existence…. [W]e are always deploying and directing our energy, refining it or blunting it, purifying it or corrupting it…. “Sensitivity” is a word which may be in place here…. Happenings in consciousness so vague as to be almost non-existent can have “moral colour”… ('But are you saying that every single second has a moral tag?' Yes, roughly.)

Stephen Mulhall further explains Murdoch's views:

"The essentially egoistic energies that permeate and generate the texture of the self's everyday inner life (energies explored in Freudian psychoanalysis) can be transformed only by transforming their orientation; they must be re-directed, away from the ego and its interests and towards that which is not the ego. The broadest characterisation of the various techniques by which this transformation is effected is that of attending to particulars: we must either attune our consciousness to its objects, or (if we fail) those objects will be attuned to one's consciousness, to its fantasies and distortions--for on Murdoch's account, the reality of our world is determined, the facts are set up as such, by the morally inflected discriminations of our consciousness. In this sense, every subject has the objects she deserves. [....] And it is part of Murdoch's moral vision that human experience and thought is inherently or ubiquitously moral--that values do pervade and colour every aspect of our consciousness of the world [which is why jen is absolutely essential to the proper performance of li]."

To shake another person's hand, to kiss la bise, to bow-- these are part of the myriad of cultural background practices that make up any person's life. Hubert Dreyfus used to tell the story about his first trip to Japan, and sitting on the floor of an inn, he stretched out his arms-- poking a huge hole right in the paper door behind him! He said, "It was so embarrassing." But my son and I make countless adjustments just like this when we travel back and forth-- how to open doors, how to look or not look people in the eye; shoes, greetings, adjuting our eyes so the ceilings don't seem so low.... how to eat, what to eat, the colors we choose to wear--- where does any act become a ritual in all this ice skating?

Moral excellence (as "jen") is-- just like Iris Murdoch said, I think something that can only be expressed in every single action/utterance which makes up a person's life. That our values and our moral commitment is and should be expressed-- as pervading, permeating and staining (with colour) "every aspect of our consciousness of the world" I think is very appropriate to a Confucian worldview.

I do, however, question the translator's license as I think for Confucius while excellence was expressed in the everyday-- certain rituals were in fact set apart (so in some sense I suppose I am resistent to conflating ritual with background practices-- though I agree completely that our "excellence" is expressed in everything we do including both ritual and all background practices-- this includes the kind of narratives that Patrick above was so interestingly mentioning).

And to Chris, while "excellence" must be earned-- is selfhood earned in the same way? I think the iceskating (along with study or book knowledge 文) is certainly part of person-making-- but so too was it for Kant or for Sartre, no? This is where we disagree, I guess....

I think this aspect of moral excellence as expressed in every aspect of a person's life can be summed up by Chris' favorite 四字熟語

"A gentleman is not a pot"

Is this not the ultimate call for the moral "Renaissance man"... A lady of jen is not like a ritual bronze vessel afterall- (sake only in sake containers and each sized ding set aside for a particular use) but rather a truely excellent person knows the appropriate way to beahev no matter what the circumstance and basically can "do it all" (filial piety, correct comportment, courage, loyalty, integrity...)

In modern japanese there is the expression 器が広い人 a big vessel to connote this idea of a person who is very capable (but there are strong connotations of this being in the realm of human relations) No matter what you throw at them, they can handle it well.... I wonder if the opposite wouldn't be a person with a small heart...??


My view is that "excellence" and "selfhood" are synonyms for Confucius. One isn't a property that glosses the other. I think that's where Confucius would differ from, say, Heidegger or Kierkegaard. Heidegger doesn't think that "authenticity" (his "excellence", perhaps, though this is of course complicated as one cannot be simply "authentic" for Heidegger) constitutes self-hood. So yeah, I think for Confucius self-hood and excellence are both earned.

I think the junzi's "non-pot-hood" is a complicated subject. I think Peony is right, in part. It is related to an ability to adjust or adapt (or whatever) to any situation and do so without loss of excellence (or selfhood). The xiao ren (small person) cannot do this, and the smaller, the worse they are at it. Unlike the junzi, the xiao ren (and min, as well, but for different reasons, perhaps?) are only good at certain things. I think there's also a carry over here in terms of economic class -- the junzi is a person of leisure, good at many things. The xiao ren (or min) are artisans, farmers, or whatever.

But I also think it refers to how one should treat others. Junzi should not be treated as if they have a pre-ordained function. They are, in some sense, *like* Kantian ends. Xiao ren (and min) are different. Confucius seems to suggest in many places that certain people *should* be treated in accord with their functions.

At times, I want to read more into this, but I am unsure how much is legitimate. I'd like to read it as a Kantian prescription: "treat others as ends, not as mere means". I think there are hints of this in the text, but I am not confident at this point just how far one can legitimately push such a reading.


OK, I am reassured that we are in agreement concerning pothood. And to my mind the quote has nothing to do with how people are treated but rather about--again-- what are the standards of excellence (I really need to see the entire context though first, I am basing this just on the Japanese which of course this is quite a famous quote in Japan).

(And btw, I think this quote is very Chris too and so was not surprised to see you adopt it as your typehead!)

Changing gears, though....

What are you basing this selfhood=excellence definition on? Not all selfs are excellent right? We must be having some kind of issue concerning definitions but I think there is never an end to any of this. Indeed, what is the Chinese for "self" in this context? That is my 1st question-- and its why I thought the whole presentation of choices in Fingarette was problematic (in a certain sense).

I guess in my own mind I want to keep these notions of excellence from ideas of enlightenment...which, of course is why I'm not cray about the idea of "earning a self"... but first you'll have to email me and tell me where this is coming from so I can get a better of idea as there are so many huge gaps in my reading...

Peony -

I don't think that *this* quote deals with the treatment of others - it just references the junzi's non-pot-hood. I was thinking of other sayings in the work that discuss the "utensil/tool/pot" issue, where treatment of others with this in mind does come up.

It could be that I am overly influenced by Rosemont or by Hall and Ames (and no doubt an endless list of others) on the second question. I see the Confucian self as a relational being. "What/Who" I am follows from my specific role-related standing towards others. So I'm not a self who then *happens* to be a son, say. I *am* a son. In each situation I stand in some relational "space" and that space constitutes the "place" of my identity. Once there, I can speak the language (li) of that "place" or not. When I do, I *am*. When I do not, I am *not*.

If this (admittedly extreme) portrait is at least necessary to selfhood, then "being an excellent son" and "being a self" (in the above situation) are the same thing. There are no "bad sons" in a literal sense. We could talk about how this or that behavior is "inappropriate" (buyi) but at the bottom of it all, I think what you have in such a situation is a self that did not appear -- just nonsensical behavior (which does not speak the language of the space appropriate to it at that time).

If this is right -- and it would take a mountain of text and discussion to get to the bottom of it, I think -- then "excellence" and "self" are not really different terms, on some level of the discussion.

I think this is partly where I disagreed with you and Patrick -- I want to pull this dimension away from simply talking about "will". I don't doubt that entities in Confucianism (the Analects, specifically) will things. But I don't want to say that in this situation a *self* is willing. It's more as if an animal is willing something, a "non-person" of sorts.

Last paragraph is unclear, sorry: I meant to say that in all situations where this or that alternative is opted for, there is a "will" at the center of it all, but I don't want to say that there is, by entailment, a "self" at the center of it all as well. Basically, "will" doesn't entail "self" in my reading of the Analects. Some "willing" is done by non-selves.

So Chris, this is my issue with your "earning self": If you said that a confucian self-- like a Heideggerean self if embedded in the world and as such cannot be removed as a detached, non-embodied "I" in the way of a Cartesian Self, then Yes, I would be with you. Where I am unhappy is with the "no self" and then from this no self to extrapoliate to no choices. This feels somehow intuitively incorrect. Now are you sure you don't mean that a Confucian self is a "being in the world" whereby there is an existential self but the self cannot be "detached" or "disembedded" from its world and therefore choices are made from within the conext of the world...

Do we still not agree???

Thanks, everyone, for the great comment stream. I've been missing in action here for a couple of days - my busy teaching time...
Let me weigh in a rather oblique manner.
In thinking about what is required for Confucian excellence, I am driven back to Daoism. It is just hard out here for a Confucian...
The requirement of both constant awareness of the minutest details of social context and effortless creativity in orchestrating appropriate action seems beyond me. Is it just too demanding an ideal?
In my class (we are reading the Analects now) a student last week suggested that the Daodejing was telling us to "be" and not "do." We might push this distinction further: Daoism suggests that we simply "be" in the world, while Confucianism demands that we "do" the right thing.
Somehow being is more attractive to me than doing...


I suspect "being" and "doing" are indeed like yin and yang respectively, thus Daoism is suffused with the former while Confucianism comes to emphasize the latter, but of course it remains true that "Being is born of Nothing." Nonetheless, I think even in the case of Confucianism, exemplified by Analects 2.4, the ideal is the harmonious integration and dynamic balancing between these two such that they are not in any kind of opposition. With regard to Daoism, the "being" of course is integrated with a kind of "doing," most clearly in the notion of wu-wei. But it is the repective methods or techniques of "self-cultivation" if you will, which seem to me to be the locus of difference as to how to realize this ideal end or value: the Daoist emphasis on meditation practices on the one hand and the Confucian emphasis on li and the arts on the other (keeping in mind that the Daoist sage still has a 'job to do,' tasks to take care of, that he 'talks' and 'teaches,' and so on, e.g., 2.5: 'He is a doer but...').

With regard to the possibility that the ideal in question might be "too demanding," I'm again reminded on 2.4 in the Analects above as well as the statement that the Dao is both "evasive and elusive." In fact, "My words are very easy to understand, very easy to practice. No one in the world can understand, No one can practice them." All the same,

"And so the Wise Person:
Treats things as difficult,
and in the end has no difficulty." (63.7)


Ha, in my comment on ‘Confucius on the AIG Bonuses’, I was about to suggest that you should not discuss Tao with the Chinese in China but decided to leave the suggestion out.

Firstly they could be staunch Communists and may dislike all other doctrines or religions, if you will. Secondly, if they are Daoist, with respect, they may not understand what you are on about.

However, if you discuss virtues (Te) – Confucian and Daoist ones are the same – with them then they may see that you know one or two of Tao. Funny thing that!



I like it!

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