A Ku Indeed!

Analect 1.2: Practical Identity

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy by Chris on June 16, 2007

The philosopher Yu said, “They are few who, being filial and fraternal, are fond of offending against their superiors. There have been none, who, not liking to offend against their superiors, have been fond of stirring up confusion.

“The superior man bends his attention to the roots. That being established, all practical courses naturally grow up. Filial piety and fraternal submission,-are they not the root of all benevolent actions?”

Analects 1.2 appears to have two main points, namely;

1. That filial piety and fraternal submission are the roots of benevolence (jen).
2. That those who partake in cultivating certain habits (filial piety and fraternal submission) are less likely to engage in certain behaviors (in this case, rebellion).

On (1): Why would Confucius think that FP and FS are the roots of Jen? I think what Confucius might mean here is this: given that FP is a kind of respect and deference for one’s parents, whereas FS is a respect and deference for one’s elder siblings, a necessary component of Jen is the ability to “see and to feel” the authority of “the Other” with respect to such a person’s needs and perspectives. Both FP and FS share a similarity not just that they are relations within the family, but that they are attitudes of deference towards others; in FP and FS one recognizes the moral authority of the “Other” (in this case one’s parents or older siblings) and one subordinates one’s own perspective to theirs. My suggestion here is that Confucius’ is recognizing that we feel strong desires to see our own perspectives as authoritative and to subordinate the perspectives of others to our own. When we do this, we naturally subordinate the status of other to that of mere tools, and we construct our relations to such persons as that of a user to a tool (in the fulfillment of our own wants). As such, there is only one point of view — my own. If there is no deference and no submission, there is solipism. FP and FS are the root of Jen because only in cultivating them can one break out of this pull towards self-interest and towards elevating one’s own authority. What Confucius seems to be saying here is that by cultivating these bonds within the family — where they seem most natural — one can then hope to later on extend Jen towards other people who are not in the family. He’s at least right, I think, on this — if we fail to cultivate FP and FS within the family, there is little chance that we will recognize the perspectival authority of others when the relationship is not a natural one.

On (2):

Confucius here, I think, makes two points.

(2a) Jen people do not rebel against others
(2b) Cultivation of an X-habit disposes one towards the world in an X-like way.

(2a) is not my concern here, but rather (2b) is. Here I think of the work of David Wong, who argues that the cultivation of a habit (say courage) alters the way in which one sees, interprets and feels towards the world. If this is true, then one would expect that habit-development will construct what Wong calls one’s “practical identity” — an aspect of the self that is adjusted towards the world in just the kind of way that makes certain types of actions likely given certain contexts. So, if a person in a war-situation has the habit of cowardice, they will “see” and “feel” the advancement of the enemy in a kind of way that makes them disposed the flee, whereas the person with the habit of courage will see and feel the same situation in the kind of way that makes them disposed to remain in their place and fight. Where one sees the enemy as “that which causes me pain” the other sees the enemy as “that which must be opposed”.

(MORE LATER)

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