A Ku Indeed!

Ssu 思(Reflecting)

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material by Chris on February 13, 2008

Hall and Ames suggest that “thinking” or “realizing” has two parts: the first is hsueh (learning) and the other is ssu (reflecting). Learning is the appropriation and transmission of cultural meanings and history. Reflecting, they suggest, is also necessary to true thinking — the person in question must learn how to creatively adapt those rituals and meanings to the unique situations you find yourself in.

Their treatment of ssu is interesting for a number of reasons, so I’ll just highlight some of them.

1. Reflection has non-cognitive physical components.

2. Reflection is necessary because it acknowledges what Hall and Ames (H/A) seem to suggest is the irreducible particularity of the being-in-context (the agent’s relationship to his/her world).

3. Without reflection, ritual ( li ) is not meaningful in experiential contexts.

All of these are interesting claims. (1), unfortunately, isn’t discussed much by H/A. They hint at some emotional components to reflection, but it remains undeveloped.

(2) and (3), it seems to me, are linked. I’ll remark on (2) first. It seems that the suggestion here is that:

2a. What is appropriate in a situation cannot be ascertained beforehand because the meaning of each situation is entirely unique to it.

2b. Each individual has the capacity to utilize a creative impulse that allows he/she to reveal the meaning (the appropriateness or yi) of that situation.

(Two points I don’t talk about here: first; I should note that it is not clear to me which of the two H/A prefer here, that (a) creativity reveals what is uniquely appropriate, in the sense of a kind of Aristotelian moral vision of sorts, or (b) whether creatively yields what is uniquely appropriate. An important difference [I wonder if this distinction might speak to the agent-prior/agent-basing distinction Michael Slote discusses], but I’m not sure at this point which is being presented, or which H/A prefer. Second; what does 2b amount to? Clearly, it’s not something that can be understood in a reductive sense, but can we gain any access to it, or is it completely beyond our abilities to understand? Shades of Kierkegaard here, for me; the individual’s relationship with being [God] cannot be understood by others).

(2a) and (2b) above seem to lead to the point in (3). Rituals and encoded social meanings and histories are really the accumulated “depository” (for want of a better word) of what has been, historically, appropriate in this and that situation as those situations presented themselves in the past. It is the fact that those rituals “illuminated” those situations (interesting that one meaning of ‘reflect’ in English is ‘to illuminate’) that made them meaningful (appropriate). Now, even if it is the case that our situations share great similarities with situations in the past, there is never any exact match, because of (2a). As a result, an attempt to “shoe horn” ritual into a current situation without ssu is inappropriate because the rituals are not meant to exactly “illuminate” the present. They shed light, but they cannot exactly illuminate. As a result, they are not meaningful on their own.

(Second side note: point [2b] reminds me of the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers and his view of the ‘fully functional’ person. According to Rogers, such ‘healthy’ people have a number of important qualities, one of which is the creative ability — and openness — to use the old as a way of highlighting the new. Confucius, of course, has an analect on exactly this ability.)

I think what H/A must mean here is then that the person must, in utilizing creativity, find a way to adapt the rituals so that they become meaningful in the situation. Ritual on its own, without proper reflection is dead. Thus Confucius’ insistence in LY 2.15, where he suggests that shueh without ssu is perplexing, and ssu without hsueh is dangerous. Each requires the other, and cannot be understood without it.

One side point, not one that H/A discuss. I take it that in a reciprocal relationship that is informed by “shu” the benefactor in the relationship has a responsibility to assist the other person to be virtuous in that situation. So the benefactor has a responsibility not to be “dogmatic” or “unbending” in their application of li — they need to figure out “how can I help this other person to further develop into a better person?” Creatively adapting the needs of the particular situation is called for in order to make this happen. My wonder is this: is the Confucian agent also required to made similar adaptations to the li (creative application) in order to help the ancestors to remain “relevant” or “significant” in the present? Is there an analogue here to helping the other in a situation to become a better person?


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