A Ku Indeed!

The Guilt in Throwing Confucius

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy, Existentialism by Chris on March 15, 2008

Yeah, that’s an odd title. Sometimes I do feel like I want to throw Confucius across the room (well, the book, not him, obviously). But that’s not what I mean here. Rather, I’m interested in the connection between Confucius’ insistence on the importance of orienting oneself with respect to the li (rituals, tradition) and the nature of Existential guilt, specifically how this concept “cashes out” in terms of “thrown-ness” in Heidegger (no shock there I suppose, I’ve made quite a few of these Heidegger-Confucius posts lately). I suspect that David Hall is casting his spell on me (I’m guessing that it’s Hall who is behind the clear Heideggerian tone of Thinking Through Confucius — it doesn’t strike me as particularly “Ames” like, but I could be wrong).

Confucius believes that it is essential to authoritative person-hood (jen) that an individual succeed in interacting with the circumstances and situations within one’s life in a way that acknowledges ritual propriety. Essentially, I can’t just do whatever I want in some situation X and claim to be authoritative. Rather, for my manner of engagement in a situation, in order to be significant or meaningful (yi, also “right” or “appropriate”), must incorporate ritual or li.

First, it’s important to notice that for Confucius, “who one is” is essentially structured by the particular roles composing one’s self. So, I’m always, in the situations I find myself in, a “son” or “father” or “teacher” or “citizen.” Some role (or set of roles) are salient in all aspects of my actual life. In a given situation, say, it may be the case that my fatherhood is salient. If so, then appropriateness (yi) will require that I engage the situation as a father. What this means is complicated, but my aim here is just to draw up a more basic structure. Specifically, engaging as a father will require that there be a basic language of fatherhood that I find myself located within, a social language that already makes it possible that I can be a father in the first place (social languages and roles, or the li, might be understood, perhaps, as the existential ground for person-hood).

If this is right, then jen requires an embrace of the social language and rituals that I find myself immersed in. I must understand my project of father-hood within the larger historical set of social practices that comprise as a whole “what it means to be a father” as it was understood by my historical ancestors. This means, as is clear to anyone who has read the Analects, an embrace of the role of one’s past in forming the basis for who one is (as this is understood through the practical lens of acting in the world), and who one can be.

Let’s jump to Existentialism, specifically Heidegger. Heidegger argues that there are a few necessary conditions for authenticity, which I would read in Confucius as jen (this connection is by means perfect; for one, Heidegger claims that authenticity or eigentlich, has no moral dimensions, and is no “better” than inauthenticity. Confucius clearly does not share this suggestion. The jen are morally superior to the hsiao jen, or the min, depending on how you understand the notion of the authoritative).

The necessary conditions for authenticity include (not limited to): having a conscience, and wanting to have a conscience (which means embracing what conscience tells you). Well, what does it mean to have a conscience? At the very least it means embracing your Existential Guilt.

Existential guilt itself is complicated. It does not function like moral guilt. It’s not about actions. Rather, it’s about one’s very existence itself. It’s not about what I do, but rather about the fact that I am in the first place. For the Existentialist, I’m not guilty because I do X, Y and Z; rather, I am guilty because I exist. That sounds depressing, but it’s not. Guilt itself, in the sense in which it is similar to the moral conception of guilt, depends on my having a lack. Think of moral guilt. I step on your toes and I am guilty of not being sensitive. There’s something missing from me that leads to my actions. It’s not a lack that I have as an existent; rather it’s a sort of character deficiency. A lack in my “personality” or “empirical self” or whatever.

Existential guilt is about what I lack as an existent qua existent. So what do I lack for Heidegger? A few things, but the central lack that I am concerned with here is: not being the basis of what I am. In other words, it is never the case that what I am is entirely within my power. Why not? Centrally, because I am thrown. To be “thrown” is simply to be a being in context. I find myself in this history, in these situations, with these talents. My very “possibilities” for being are conditioned. What I can do is structured by the historical “there” into which I am thrown.

From here, Heidegger argues that part of what it means to be guilty is to recognize that I am always lacking in this way. It’s never a guilt I can get around or get rid of, because it’s part of my existential constitution. I simply am a historical being. As a result, “taking responsibility” for this wouldn’t mean changing it, but rather recognizing it through action. I must, as an authentic being, take an active stance towards myself historically. I must see my present situation as meaningful through the lens of my history. I must actively take a role in understanding who I am in such a way.

Back to Confucius: are things much different for him? Is not jen dependent not merely upon doing rituals (as “one does them, specifically”) but rather as through engaging with rituals in such a way that one exemplifies an active way of understanding oneself through a historical lens? It appears to me that existential guilt is imperative in Confucius. One must recognize that “who one is” or the hope for “authoritative being” is not wholly within one’s power in the sense of creating it ex nihilo. Rather, it requires a recognition of the way in which one is embedded within one’s social and historical situation, or one’s thrown-ness.

Basically, one reaches back into the past as a way of understanding the significance (yi) of one’s current relational or social situation. One reaches back into the past as a way to have a dialog with one’s ancestors; this itself provides the particularistic grounds upon which one can meaningfully engage with the language of one’s immediate social roles.

I’ll stop there, that’s plenty! There is so much more that can be said here, it’s a big topic. No doubt I’ll be cleaning this post up, as I just typed it off the cuff, and I’m sure I’ve made some blunders in here somewhere.


One Response

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  1. Swad said, on March 15, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Maybe it’s because Confucius introduces the language of a moral imperative to authenticity, but isn’t his idea of “li” much more of a normative good than the culture into which Heidegger thinks we’re thrown? My impression, which may be way off, is that Confucius has a warm picture of traditions while Heidegger’s is pretty bleak, or at least very neutral.

    A somewhat different question – does Confucius think that traditions have some sort of teleological value, a purpose that actors may not see but can be seen through the course of history? Kant seems to think so, and the value of tradition for Confucius made me wonder.

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