Xiao and the Body
Shirong Luo gave an interesting talk last night on the concept of xiao (filial piety) and how it related to care and respect. I found it to be an interesting talk and I jotted down a number of questions on my pad about it. In this post I’ll highlight one of them (at some point I might try to outline another in a separate post). It concerns self and identity and extending the notion of the physical body as a gift from one’s parents to understanding one’s social body as a gift as well (from one’s cultural lineage).
It is well known that in the Confucian tradition (at least?) the physical body of a child is seen as a gift from one’s parents. As a result, one is expected to treat the body with deep respect as a sign of gratitude for the gift one’s parents have given you. So, when you die, it is important that your physical body be intact (no severed limbs, no tattoos I suppose, and no nose rings) so that you can “give it back” in one piece (literally). (There is an analect on this somewhere, but I can’t recall the number).
I wonder if this way of talking about “the body” can be extended to a sense of one’s “social” identity.
First, start with the notion of the body-self; for some thinkers, continuity of self has a bodily condition (as necessary condition, say). Thus, if your parents give “you” your body, then there may be a sense in which they have given you “you”. Alterations to that body may be seen as alterations of self, and thus as a result the gift one was given is made impure. Perhaps, to use an odd example, it would be like someone giving you a shirt, and you return it and get a different one, or you get a car as a gift and you have it repainted a different color. On some level, it says that the gift was not good enough “as is” and thus is an insult to the giver. We all know how touchy those holiday gift-giving situations are! Of course, in the case of the body, people don’t seek to lose a limb, but the way Luo spoke made it seem as if losing one still, in the end, would be seen as carelessness, and so as a result a lack of respect to one’s parents. A case of bad stewardship, say.
Can this way of talking be extended to the “social” self? To make my point, I should preface it to note that Luo’s talk got me thinking in terms of Heidegger. To use a bit of his way of speaking, just as much as I am “thrown” into a body not of my choice (I simply find myself in one), I am also “thrown” into a social environment, one within which my sense of who I am in a non-bodily sense necessarily emerges. Without a social environment that pre-dates me, or a community in which intelligible human relations can be understood, the grounds of the very intelligibility required for me to be a self in a significant meaningful sense would not exist.
In many ways, this environment is made up of a web of rituals (li) that together constitute the language that lies at the basis of my social self. Much of this is relational. I am thrown into being a son, into the very Li which constitute the language of that way of meaningfully interacting with specific others. I am thrown into being a New Yorker, and an American, and a resident of the 20th and 21st centuries (all of which have the same structure in terms of Li). Of course I can resist these relationships, but this doesn’t stop them from forming the groundwork from which I can meaningfully interact with the world. To think in terms of Nietzsche, slaves may resist the nobles, but the form of their resistance is made intelligible against the backdrop of the social environment created by the nobles themselves.
Seen in this way, the language of Li is a gift given to me from my ancestors without which “I” could not exist in a meaningful sense. I need “them” to be a father, or a son, or a student, or whatever. As a result, I wonder whether we can extend the body discussion here — to suggest that one’s social “body” is also a temple, just as much as one’s physical body is a temple. It is a gift, so one is obliged to respect it and care for it, and perhaps to “give it back” intact when one is done (perhaps this is to “pass it on” to others).
If we continue the metaphor, however, we are left with the issue of alteration of Li. How should we view it? On these grounds, it looks as if an alteration of Li might be akin to getting a tattoo on one’s body. Unfortunately, this post is getting a bit long, and I need to rush off to the morning seminar. So I’ll just leave it open with some questions.
First, I am committed to the view that Li must be changeable. However, this metaphor, to me, suggests that to remain “me” a kind of continuity with my past social “body” must be maintained. My intuition here is that continuity of self will require a kind of negotiation (if you will) with one’s ancestors. In a way, one will have to “get their approval” to make the change. In a way, like asking your parents if it would be acceptable to put that tattoo on your arm. Perhaps some tattoos are not acceptable, whereas other might be.
To move in this direction, we’d need a way of talking about the social body that allows us to suggest that for it to continue, and to be nourished (indeed, for it to be cared for and respected) will require these eventual amendments. In this light, I am partial to Hall and Ames’ treatment of Yi as a way of understanding this concept (I realize others are not similarly partial to them), but I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts anyone else might have. Or even criticisms of the basic setup for the analogy and metaphor.