A Ku Indeed!

Yen Hui and the “Mystery” of 11.4

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material, Ethics by Chris on March 31, 2008

In my opinion, Lun Yu 11.4 is one of the simplest and most straightforward passages in the Confucian text. It reads: “The Master said, ‘Hui! He is of no help to me! He agrees with everything I say!” Yup. Seemingly simple, straightforward and clear. But yet most commentators don’t think that it say what it seems to say. Philosophers! Leave it to them to muddy the clear waters on make murky what was obvious. Well, I’m not complaining. That’s how I make my bacon too. But in this instance, I just gotta disagree!

My reading of 11.4 today is the same reading that I had of it when I first read the Lun Yu many years ago. Basically, I take it to be saying that Yen Hui has failed in this instance to be authoritative in his relationship with the Master. The failure is evident in the Master’s direct claim: Yen Hui is of no help to me! The reason is clear (to me): Hui overly deferential (one way to see it might be that he has failed to bestow yi, and is intent on merely deriving it in his relationship with Confucius). He never disagrees with the Master, so it’s a one-way street, not an dynamic interaction.

Why would this be? And of what help is Hui to Confucius?

I take it that Hui can be of help to Confucius because he is, of all the living people in the book, the only one that Confucius states is better (at times) than he is. As a result, there are clearly times when Hui has the moral “upper hand” and can serve as a teacher to the Master. Whereas the Master is typically the benefactor, there are times — even if not often — when he can be the beneficiary (of Hui’s help). But Hui does not offer it — he never disagrees with Confucius, and so leaves him ignorant when he can be corrected or helped to see “another corner” of a difficulty. In a sense, Hui “retreats” from the relationship in my way of visualizing it, atomizing himself as Confucius as separate entities (this means that his failure is a failure of chih, or “realization” — he does not embody his role-obligations in this instance). In doing so, Hui fails in his relational duties as a student (remember: in the pursuit of jen, do not give precedence even to your teacher).

To those familiar with Hui, much as he is an overall charming character who is clearly held up to be a paragon of virtue, this reading may not be entirely surprising; if Hui has a fault, it is that he is overly deferential (in contrast to the overzealous nature of Zilu, or the pedantry of Zixia or the smooth-talking cleverness of Zaiwo). It may well be that Hui is simply unintentionally overdoing his respect for the Master — he is pushing deference to a point at which ends up being a vice in certain contexts within the relationship with Confucius. Or, it could be that Hui is motivated by something a bit more problematic: perhaps he is continuing a habit of cultivating the outward behaviors that allow him to be seen as a good person (5.6 stresses Hui’s rivalry with Zilu, showing him to not be immune to the need for recognition, and we all know that Hui takes the “poverty thing” a bit too far), something the Master occasionally ribs him for. In any case, on my reading, 11.4 is a clear and honest rebuke of a character who is, for the most part, good and virtuous.

Still, this is not the only reading of 11.4 out there. As a matter of fact, mine is most certainly the minority view. Most readings I have come across read 11.4 as a compliment of Hui. In fact, I recall a conversation about 11.4 with Henry Rosemont once, and he clearly took the analect as high praise (perhaps even the highest) for Hui. The reasoning? Well, Rosemont (and typical commentary) see the Master as suggesting here that Hui can perfectly, without words and with ease, take in Confucius’ words and make them “his own” without any need for disruption of the Master’s lesson (so Hui is beyond the need to actually deliberate — he is perfectly ‘adjusted’ to his world). Essentially, this reading stresses that Hui is “just that good” to put it in contemporary terms. This, apparently, is the long standing commentarial position on the analect — it’s overflowing praise.

I must admit, though — I’ve never seen the majority argument about 11.4 as persuasive in the least. Who is right? Well, from my perspective we have to ask: what exactly are the interpretative benefits of contradicting the obvious literal words of a passage? What kind of hermeneutic strategy are we employing when we do this?

Literally, no one would admit (even Rosemont and other commentators) that Confucius is praising Hui. So why depart from that reading? To read metaphorically a passage of the Confucian text is surely not a problem, I’d admit, as the reader who refused to employ such techniques would quickly be “lost at sea” interpretatively. But when a text appears to be straight and literal, why depart?

Interpretative Hermeneutics 

As far as I can tell (or with respect to my own style of interacting with historical texts), there is one main reason to read a passage that suggests a literal reading non-literally. That is:

One should depart from a literal reading if it causes textual inconsistencies elsewhere in one’s overall understanding of the text.

So, essentially, when one’s overall conceptual understanding of the text is disrupted by a literal reading of a passage, this may be a time to re-interpret that passage in a way that “saves the overall interpretation” (to misuse a motto of the  phenomenologist — to “save the phenomena”). In short, it’s good as a general interpretative heuristic to read the text in a way that maximizes authorial consistency.

So my question is simple here: has a case for this been made for reading 11.4 metaphorically? I don’t see it. Unless I am missing something (which is possible), there is no overall interpretation of the text, or of Yen Hui as a character, that is disrupted by reading the passage literally. In fact, reading it literally seems to support many of Confucius’ central claims:

1. No one is perfect (even Hui), striving for jen is continual, and so the Tao is not a destination but a road.

2. Yen Hui is as good as him at times, and sometimes even better.

3. Advancement on the Tao requires exemplars.

On (1): even Hui is not jen all the time. Remember, for Confucius, he keeps it up for three months once and then falls “off the wagon” (still impressive; for everyone else, jen comes in fits and starts). So if 11.4 points to a failure in Yen Hui, this is not inconsistent with the portrait of human weakness, nor of Hui himself.

On (2): Hui being weak from time to time doesn’t contradict this claim — if anything, it makes Hui more human.

On (3): it points out that even the Master needs an exemplar. He doesn’t have many (that aren’t historical figures, that is). So Hui’s responsibilities in this relationship are actually great. After all, Confucius needs an occasional benefactor, and that doesn’t shake (or shouldn’t shake) our understanding of the Master in any way either.

If this is all true, I see no reason to uphold the “Confucius is praising Hui” reading of Lun Yu 11.4. As a matter of fact, I’m left in confusion on the motives for the metaphorical reading. Why would one read the passage in that way? What are the benefits that demand overturning a clear literal passage with a clear literal meaning in favor of a metaphorical reading that actually reverses the literal claim?

21 Responses

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  1. Alexus McLeod said, on April 2, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Good points, Chris–I hadn’t thought too much about 11.4 before. I might suggest that part of the reason many interpretations want to read this metaphorically, though, is because of the seeming condemnation of Yan Hui in this passage. Confucius’ literal words are harsh–much harsher than we might expect toward one who is better than almost anyone else but occasionally, like any human is bound to, misses the mark. It might seem to make Confucius out to be almost a monster. Even someone as good as Yan Hui gets roundly condemned by being charged with being of NO help (fei zhu wo)?

    However, following your reading, we might also have reason to think that Confucius is being particularly harsh BECAUSE Yan Hui is generally so good. We tend to be much harder on people we expect better of, for example.

    I think you make some compelling points here.

  2. Bill Haines said, on April 2, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    The remark suggests to me something like the following scenario. Confucius says something provocative. Other students look to Yan Hui to see if he is willing to swallow it. Yan Hui justs sits there looking receptive, or taking notes, or whatever one does. The other students imitate his silence, stealing glances at each other. Confucius observes all this and makes his remark.

    2.9 could have been said in a similar context, and been meant to impart a slightly fuller point.

    How about that?

  3. Chris said, on April 3, 2008 at 9:38 am

    Bill and Alexus,

    Thanks for the remarks.

    I think that Bill is right to point to 2.9; this would be, I suspect, the central piece of evidence for the argument that Yen Hui is simply a virtuoso of “appropriation” or “realization” and thus 11.4 is a continuation of that claim.

    Still, I’m not convinced. Here are a few quick reasons:

    1. Confucius does say “Hui is no help to me.” Taken literally, there’s no connection to 2.9 — only the back part of the quote could be easily connected (“he agrees”).

    2. We need to pay particular attention to the fact that there is no student that Confucius argues is “as good as him” or “even better.”

    Confucius’ relationship to Hui is special. As a result, interpretations of quotes that deal with him should, I think, be read in that context. This seems to be the prima facie interpretative demand, in order to maintain textual consistency.

    3. Some further evidence for #2 is provided by Confucius own excessive grief for Hui when he dies. Confucius treats this death differently than he does others, as if the relationship is in kind a different one than those he shares with others (and other students). That difference, I think, is forged in #2.

    4. The teaching relationship is an unstable one, Confucius seems to think, and it requires constant new learning and adaption.

    It’s unstable because you can be the teacher in one circumstance, the learner in another. Many such relationships are lopsided, some more than others.

    The cultivation of one’s pedagogical status requires a continual re-engagement with “who one is” and “what the world is” or “how to walk the Tao.” To do this requires living exemplars, not merely historical ones (Yao and Shun don’t talk back).

    I think of my own teaching as an example. There are students (in certain situations, at times) from whom I expect a more passive approach in the pedagogical relationship. They need to learn better how to “think and learn” and to make lessons their own. But there are others from whom I expect more, because they have more — they too much think and learn, but they also have the ability to enter into a different relationship with me and with the other students because of some ability, or because of the possession of some sort of unique perspective they have. When they do not do so, I feel cheated as a teacher. A truly “harmonious” “teacher-student” relationship must, when appropriate (meaningful? significant? Yi?), be a two-way street.

    In my mind, these points suggest a very strong relational obligation on Hui’s part. Most times, he is likely a student. In those cases, 2.9 applies — no, Confucius says, he’s not stupid, he “puts into play” what he learns in an artistic sense.

    But sometimes he is not a student. And in such cases, he cannot simply withdraw, as he does in 2.9, to the dark recesses of his hut to personalize the lesson (one gets the feeling in 2.9 that Confucius is reduced to “sneaking a peek” through Hui’s window to see what he’s up to). In some situations with Confucius, he cannot be the beneficiary, he must be the benefactor.

    Thus the reading of 11.4, which acknowledges Hui’s capacity as a virtuoso of appropriation, but still makes room for his special status (and relational role responsibilities) with respect to the Master. Reducing 11.4 just to 2.9 seems to simply make him a “better student” than the others, but it doesn’t elevate his status to the level that I think the text demands.

    Oh geez. That reply was probably longer than the original post. Ah well. I’m sitting in a hotel lobby drinking too much coffee waiting for my check-in time, so I’m overly caffeinated!

  4. Bill Haines said, on April 4, 2008 at 12:59 am

    Alexus, do we know that it was very harsh of C to say that Yan Hui was of no help doctrinally? How harsh it was would seem to depend on how great a failing one thinks it is not to teach one’s teacher. If one does not expect a student to do much to teach a teacher, then maybe the remark is not very harsh. Also, whether it is harsh rather than just a little friendly ribbing would seem to depend on the quality of the personal rapport between the two people.


    I agree completely with your strong disagreement with Rosemont, Slingerland, et al here. Like you, I was surprised to hear that someone could take the passage the way they do, and I don’t find myself even slightly drawn to their reading. I think you may have read my comment as arguing otherwise, which it wasn’t meant to do. I am finding that my blog comments are usually unclear.

    But I might have a disagreement with you on some fine points.

    You write: “I take it that Hui can be of help to Confucius because he is, of all the living people in the book, the only one that Confucius states is better (at times) than he is. As a result, there are clearly times when Hui has the moral “upper hand” and can serve as a teacher to the Master.”

    If I were to read these words in such a way that they said something I disagreed with, my reasons for disagreeing would be two.

    First, I think I think a theme of the Analects is that we should consult even with our inferiors (5.15), up to a point (e.g. 4.9, 10.1). Even when they lack authority to tell us what’s right, they can offer proposals or questions worth considering (9.3, 9.8, 14.4, 15.23, 15.34, cf. 7.31).

    Second, I think Confucius’ positive statement at 5.9 can be understood as a bit of ritual humility and/or as referring to Yan Hui’s potential (cf. 9.21-23). When we look at those few of Yan Hui’s words that have come down to us, they seem unimpressive.

    I don’t see Yan Hui’s main fault as his being overly deferential, exactly. Rather, his words at 5.26 suggest to me that his Master’s favor led Yan Hui to struggle against an overblown view of himself. If Confucius at 12.1 is tailoring his words to the listener’s needs, then Yan Hui’s need is to forget himself some.

    To my mind, 11.4 shows Confucius recognizing, as he occasionally does, the value of discussion (citations above). On the other hand, compared to the Greeks or to ourselves, Confucius’ attitude toward discussion resembles the attitude of the liquid Terminator to Danish pastries. One common result of not engaging in debate is that one ends up not having learned anything one can articulate, like Yan Hui at 9.11. Confucius seems to suffer from the same difficulty when it comes to ren.

    I don’t see how your point 2 is supposed to oppose Rosemont et al.

    I think what 11.4 and 2.9 have in common is that they are discussions of Yan Hui whose primary intended audience is likely to be other students. I think lots of Confucius’ remarks in the Analects make better sense if we think of them as his gentle corrections of his students’ approach to studentship. For example, when he says that the ancients were reluctant to speak because they were afraid their actions wouldn’t measure up to their words, I think it’s very natural to read that as a gentle way of correcting, say, Zigong. I am reminded of my piano teacher, decades ago, telling me stories of how much other people practice.

    Chris, on another point, you write, “Hui is overly deferential (one way to see it might be that he has failed to bestow yi, and is intent on merely deriving it in his relationship with Confucius).” I don’t understand what you mean by “bestow yi.”

  5. Chris said, on April 4, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Thanks again for the reply – all great comments, I appreciate the conversation! On misunderstandings, by the way, I’m convinced that it is “blog-ming.” I always make comments on blogs and then get replies that leave me thinking, “but I said the exact opposite!”

    I think we do agree on the important larger point – that Confucius believes that learning environments require more active conversation and dialog between the participants. In the case of Hui, it’s something of the “don’t just sit there, _contribute_ something!”

    On some of the finer points:

    1. You’re right on the appropriateness of exchange from superior to inferior – I don’t disagree there, I just wasn’t clear. I don’t have my Analects here with me, but one that comes to mind (in support of your point) is 1.15 (I believe) and C’s conversation with Zigong.

    2. You may be right – 5.9 may be an instance of ritual humility. In fact, Yan Hui’s words are so few in the book. Mostly he’s remarked about. However, that said, it is clear that he is the favorite, there’s no doubt. As well, I’d like to retain what I take to be the core of the Rosemont/Slingerland interpretation, namely that Hui is a master of appropriation. I take that to be the reference in 5.9 (and in 2.9).

    3. I agree with you on Yen Hui’s flaw. I think it is exactly that he has an overblown view of himself. Or at least that he mistakes acquiring cultivating ren as a self-project with cultivating ren as a relational project. So instead of seeing whether his ren succeeds in having the desired effect on others, he becomes competitive, focusing more on whether he has the right dispositions.

    It’s at this point that his “being deferential” is important – failing to contribute to the conversation with C can thus mean two things: (a) he is focused on the importance of being deferential in the presence of his teacher, and not what the point of such ritual is, and so he loses the ability to perform that ritual in the right way, and in the right circumstances; also (b), because he is focused only on the self-project of cultivating ren, this misapplication of deference displays a kind of selfishness.

    4. I’ve lost track of my point numbers. If you mean by “point 2” this: “Yen Hui is as good as him at times, and sometimes even better” I just mean here that it should at least push Rosemont, et al, to read Yan Hui comments in a different light, if it is true, but this would need to be read in tandem with the point that we agree on – that pedagogical contexts, to be transformative, require more active conversation to get the conclusion I’m pushing for 11.4 moving along.

    It’s not that I don’t think Rosemont et al. disagree with #2, I just think that don’t push #2 to see that Hui is under a greater role responsibility with respect to C (in terms of their student/teacher relationship).

    5. I’m in between some talks at the moment, so I’m rushing — so let me hold off on the Yi point, which is (a) complicated and (b) more complicated by the fact that I used it inexpertly in my comment above.

    Very briefly, though, my very general point was that “appropriateness” in a given context has an element that is “taken from” context and there’s an element that you “bring” to that context as a particular.

    A rough comparison: 2.15, thinking and learning; good to learn (to derive) but also important to reflect (to bestow). Without bestowal, you get inflexible legalism, just dead Li. But my point above is complicated by this particular situation. Roughly, Hui’s actions are not Yi in 11.4 because he is seeking to derive without contribution, and in this situation (hypothetically), he’s a teacher; as a result, acting as a student only (passively speaking) puts him “out of adjustment” with the situation.

    But let me hold off on explaining this more technical point until later.

    Hopefully that helps some.

  6. Bill Haines said, on April 4, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Thanks Chris, for your kind and fascinating remarks!
    Keyed to your most recent point numbers:

    1. I didn’t mean to be making a point about exchange, though I’ll think about that. I just meant Confucius thinks that even our inferiors can make proposals worth our attention. I should have cited 12.20 too. I’m not sure what you see in 1.15. I’m inclined to read 1.15 this way: Zigong is disappointed that Confucius didn’t like his saying. He wants to see his failure here as small, and Confucius did say Zigong’s saying wasn’t half bad. So Zigong says in effect “Ah, you think even really excellent things can still stand improving?” And Confucius is happy to give him that.

    3. Do you think he should be focusing on seeing whether his ren has the desired effect on others? I find 12.1 puzzling, and I think its language may be purposefully ambiguous. I think it may be more about following others.

    3(b). When I tell my students that I learn from student discussions, I’m telling the truth for the purpose of encouraging them to speak; but it never crosses my mind to think that in saying so I’m attacking selfishness. (Alexus, in class I am a blockhead about what students will perceive as harsh or not. By “one” in my paragraph to you above I meant Confucius&Co.)

    4. Oh, I see – that’s a very nice point! (I mean that in the good way.)

    5. *Very* interesting. I’m looking forward to your explanation.

    Two more points:

    A. The fact that Confucius at 11.4 speaks of Yan Hui in the third person suggests to me that the main intended beneficiary of the remark may not have been Yan Hui. We don’t know that it was said to Yan Hui; we know it was said to someone else.

    B. 11.4 and 2.9 combined with Confucius’ strong favoring of Yan Hui, along with several other passages, suggest to me that Confucius may have been deeply ambivalent about discussion – and/or that his view of the way discussion is valuable did not imply that there ought to be a great deal of it. I think he may have thought that discussion is not for working out new things, but mainly for correcting mistakes about old ones. 12.1 doesn’t seem to be encouraging Yan Hui to express himself.

  7. Chris said, on April 5, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Sorry for the delay in response – the conference just ended, so I’m finally done. My brain is in that typical post-multiple-talk “mush” mode. But the beer I just had helped, so I’m ready to reply. 🙂

    Thanks again for your response, by the way. You’ve given me a few things to think about here and pushed my thinking on these questions. Here are some replies by the numbers above:

    1. On 1.15 – when you responded, I thought “what a divergent reading!” but then I quickly surmised that I referenced the wrong analect. I meant 3.8! Sorry – I’m short my copy on the road, and my memory for some analects is clearly less than accurate.

    3. Oh, geez — 12.1 is a rough one, as you know. We’re covering book 12 in my class on Monday, so I’ve been trying to construct a marginally less than futile discussion for it based mostly on that analect. When I get back home I think I might throw up a post on it, at least just to lay out the confusions in my own mind on 12.1.

    In any case, as you know we’ll need to come to some provisional understanding of ke-ji. Is “ke” to overcome? Or restrain? To return? “Ji” – a self, or impulses, what? There seem to be so many ways to read it; all we know is that Li plays a key role, clearly.

    With respect to Yen Hui, though, here’s my guess: Yen Hui’s “Achilles Heel” is that he sometimes forgets the main point of what it is that he is doing. To cultivate the self, say, is not simply about cultivating just the right dispositions. The “self” in “self-cultivation” is more than you (personal self – is this “wo”?).

    Instead, self is relational (one of the indirect points of 12.1, I think). So self-cultivation is “relational cultivation”. To cultivate ren is to extend ren into the relationships in which “I am.” If I fail, say, to develop ren in those to whom I am intimately related, it won’t matter what “dispositions” I have; to realize jen is to have “realized” effect. If those around me are diminished, what matters my “own” states of virtue?

    In light of this, sometimes I suspect that Hui is focused too strongly on dispositions, and not on effect. One way maybe to put it is this: in my reading, ren is the “opening up” of a space for virtue in the other. Good fathers, say, are good because they open up the spaces in which their children can be good children. They “adjust” to context in just the right ways, exploit just the right particularities in the situation, and so on (11.22, an obvious case of that).

    In light of this, if you are focused on a dispositional state instead of on the particularities of one’s context/role, you miss the mark. Deference is important, yes, but deference has a relational function, it’s not just “be deferential.” To fail to contribute in 11.4, as I see it, takes being deferential too far when one is called upon to play a slightly different role (one of the student who can serve as teacher), and thus it becomes a situational vice. But, if Hui sometimes loses “his way” and focuses too much on the disposition as opposed to the particularities of the situation/role, this will happen.

    3(b). I had an open discussion with my students once about this very question. I can assure you they were stumped in my willingness to paint (some) refusals to contribute as a case of selfishness. But it is, isn’t it? From a relational perspective, it’s not just about “your” education. There’s a “class” here, not a room full of atomic individuals.

    As “class members” you have role responsibilities (to help your fellow students to learn, and sometimes to help your teacher learn). It’s not “your” knowledge, “your” wisdom, “your” perspective (in the sense of a kind of Lockean private property). To have knowledge, wisdom, perspective, is to realize it, to bring it out into the “public” as a way of taking part in the community.

    What do you think?

    5. I’ll have to make a post on this and try to make better sense of the point I was trying to make — it’ll have to wait until I’m in town, though! I need my book. 

    Your (A) and (B):

    A. Good point. But I wonder – would this, given Hui’s own suggested weakness for appearing to have the qualities/dispositions of virtue, be better critiqued through another? He is competitive, at least with Zilu, at least insofar as I can see, but perhaps with the others too. The most effective way to critique him might be through them. Imagine Hui’s reaction upon hearing from Zilu that he “is of no help”! Compare to Zaiwo – what’s the use of indirectly critiquing him through others? Even the direct method has no effect – the man has no shame! (5.10)

    B. This is an excellent point. I think you are right, and I need to think about this more. We know at the very least that he dislikes glibness, but it goes further to a seeming suggestion that language itself is a crutch not needed in ideal circumstances (17.19, I think? “I am thinking of giving up speech…what do the Heavens ever say?”) There seems to be a strong preference for an inter-subjective “language” rooted in behavioral modeling. I need to think this one over more. It’s a central point, and I think you’re right to point it out.

  8. Bill Haines said, on April 5, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    Hi Chris,

    This comment is excessively long. I’m sorry. But I put the blame on you for saying too many interesting things. What’s your brand of beer?


    I don’t have any settled idea about 12.1 or its terms.

    On one kind of reading of 12.1, the answer to Confucius’ rhetorical question is supposed to be “Both options are too simple;” the immediate point of the question is to suggest that things are complicated. I think that is what you have in mind. It was what I had in mind, albeit very nebulously, in thinking that the passage might be about how Yan Hui should follow others. My nebula included the ideas that following ritual is following others, and that the phrase “gui ren” casts the approach to ren as a kind of following.

    Today I’m finding another reading of 12.1 more attractive. Confucius often says we should seek virtuous associates and avoid bad ones. That this was a familiar refrain is evidenced, I think, by Zaiwo’s snotty challenge in 6.26 about the well. Now, Yan Hui may have drawn the very reasonable conclusion that this refrain meant he should distance himself from some colleagues; or Confucius may simply have observed Yan Hui secretly worrying and wondering about that. And so Confucius might have thought Yan Hui needed to hear this: “Forget your precious self and focus on ritual. Other people will come around; they’ll get virtue from you. Do you think your virtue depends on them?!”

    People whose weakness is that they are careless in their friends need to be warned about that; people whose weakness is that they are too careful need a different warning.

    But so interpreted, of course Confucius’ remark at 12.1 is arguably internally inconsistent: its argument for the claim that Yan Hui’s virtue depends on himself alone is based on the premise that other people’s virtue doesn’t depend on themselves alone or even mainly.

    But I think this reading might still be right. Confucius may simply think Yan Hui is stronger in substance than the others. Also the term ‘ren’ may be flexible in the dimension of depth. Crudely: Yan Hui’s character will influence others’ behavior (cf. 12.19).

    And it is possible that Confucius is really being inconsistent. One of the main values of discussion is that it helps us find and eliminate some of our innumerable self-contradictions; but someone who does not accept certain kinds of discipline upon her own remarks (as Confucius shows at 11.22 he does not) is not going to get so much of that benefit from discussion.


    You write, “sometimes I suspect that Hui is focused too strongly on dispositions, and not on effect.”

    I wonder, though, what dispositions these would be; I mean, dispositions to do what? When Yan Hui describes his aspiration at 5.26, he doesn’t list dispositions exactly; he lists two kinds of harmful acting-upon-others he wants to refrain from. 7.11 maybe suggests that Confucius isn’t worried about the point you mention. 15.11, in which Confucius gives Yan Hui advice about govt that is different from the usual sorts of advice Confucius gives people about govt, seems to reflect no such concern. Oh, I think I see – you are thinking mainly of Yan Hui’s relations with Confucius – you’re thinking only of 11.4 and the disposition to absorb?

    You write, “in my reading, ren is the ‘opening up’ of a space for virtue in the other.”

    Extremely interesting. I’m going to have to think about the image.

    You write, “Good fathers, say, are good because they open up the spaces in which their children can be good children. They ‘adjust’ to context in just the right ways, exploit just the right particularities in the situation, and so on (11.22, an obvious case of that).”

    I don’t see a sensitive-responsiveness view of fatherhood anywhere in the text. 1.11 and 16.13 suggest a different view. I don’t understand how you’re reading 11.22.


    I think other things that keep even unselfish students silent are: sleeplessness, not having done the reading, timidity, humility, not understanding the value of discussion in learning, finding other students’ contributions in general unhelpful and drawing the obvious inductive conclusion, and sensing that the prof doesn’t really want to be challenged. One kind of student is focused on the grade, which she takes to be obtainable by absorbing what the prof thinks and winning the prof’s approval. But that sort of student will speak up when she thinks the prof wants it (unless she hasn’t done the reading etc.). Selfishness may more commonly lead to overtalking than to undertalking.

    Maybe my point about current education isn’t so applicable to your point about Yan Hui, because students have more of a right today to think of teaching as a purchased commodity. They’ve paid steeply for the hour.

    You write, “To have knowledge, wisdom, perspective, is to realize it, to bring it out into the “public” as a way of taking part in the community.” I think that’s at best an exaggeration; I don’t think it’s literally true of zhi (cf. 1.16).


    I think we ought to prefer a straightforward reading when one is available, other things equal. Also I thought your thought earlier was that Yan Hui had a weakness for the dispositions, not for the appearance of the dispositions. Is there any evidence that Yan Hui is overconcerned with the appearance of the dispositions? I don’t see any evidence that he is competitive with Zilu.


    I read 17.9 as a moment of frustration, which is why I’m not worried that it shows Confucius suggesting an extraordinarily high view of his own merits. If he’s describing an ideal, then I think one has to worry much more about that.

    I think you’re right about modeling. I’m inclined to think that one of the epistemological benefits of the point that virtue is infectious is that that allows us to pay less direct and explicit attention to our effects on others (2.21). We can focus mainly on ourselves, for our own characters are analog displays on which their own presumable consequences may be read (12.18f). That’s not to deny that the ultimate value is in consequences, nor to deny that one can go too far in self-absorption.

  9. Bill Haines said, on April 6, 2008 at 6:52 pm

    Chris, this seems apropos of what you were saying about 11.4:

  10. Chris said, on April 6, 2008 at 7:40 pm


    Thanks for the article and the response. I owe you a detailed reply to your comments — I have a response circling around in my head, but the conference trip has put me behind on class prep (that and my three year old simply demanding today that I throw spend a considerable amount of time playing games with her), so I’m a bit behind. I’ll be sure to get something up tomorrow.

    One quick note though, on wisdom. You suggested that I was at best exaggerating. With respect to actual pedagogy in the class, no doubt, and your points are well-taken. I should have been more detailed in my view there. Let me hold that point off for a minute, though.

    On the Analects, I think it’s a tough concept, surely not an easy one to pull apart (not that many of the concepts are in that text). I surely don’t have my head all the way around it. It doesn’t help that Confucius isn’t into the Socratic necessary and sufficient conditions game (different ontology, I suppose — Confucius isn’t looking for “ordered” abstract structures underlying these notions).

    But still; I was suggesting that “wisdom” isn’t a private affair — wisdom is a public notion. To be wise, I think, requires that one use one’s “tools” (to so speak) to cultivate the other (realization of the other is required by wisdom). In this light, perhaps 12.22, 6.22, and 15.8 might serve as evidence. It just struck me now that I’m thinking it seems that wisdom is a necessary condition for overall virtue; as a result, if Hui is not in 11.4 using his ‘capacities’ or ‘tools’ [whatever they are] in a way that would contribute to the Master’s cultivation (in situations where he is called upon to do so), he is lacking in virtue because he is not wise, given his failure to put what “he has learned into practice” in such a context.

    Bah. Reading that last paragraph over, it seem imprecise to say that least. I’ll have to work this through. Hopefully some of the general points show through.

    In any case, sorry to just toss those analects out like that without explanation. I think this topic (as do a few of the issues you’ve raised in response) deserves it’s own post, for sure. But just for now — it does seem to me that these passages contain the seed for reading wisdom, at least in part, as containing not only an engaged dimension of ‘realizing’ something in the world (as opposed to merely “internal” or “abstracted” wisdom or knowledge), but also a suggestion that wisdom includes the aim of cultivating others (perhaps 15.8 is the most forceful here). In 15.8, wisdom does not seem to merely be the ability to adapt one’s words/efforts successfully to the situation in order to effect realization of the other (where 11.22 might be the paradigm example of such a kind of wisdom), but it also includes the very drive towards realization of others — “the wise do not let others go to waste” (perhaps even 9.13 — can one horde virtue when given “the right offer” and be considered wise? Is horded virtue even virtue for Confucius?). What’s your take on these analects?

    Oh, also, a quick reference — on the point of Zilu and Hui in competition, I was thinking here solely of 5.26. I don’t think there is any other text to support it, but I think there’s a hint in that analect of it. Seems as if Hui is not just bragging about his character (part of my concern), but moreover saying “I’m not like _this_ guy over here!”

    In any case, I owe you a more detailed response on your points, especially on your intriguing points on 12.1 (which I’m in the middle of prepping for right now!). Coming soon, thanks for your patience!

    (p.s. the beer was a Bass Ale; but I don’t think drinking it made my reply above any more persuasive!)

  11. Bill Haines said, on April 7, 2008 at 3:14 am

    Hi Chris,

    If all points in blog comments were answered speedily, the universe would have to expand at a rate of … well I’m not sure, but we’d certainly never collapse back down and make fuel for the next universe. And that just doesn’t seem fair.

    Another thing that isn’t fair is that I’m not teaching.

    I was going to write that I didn’t say “at best,” but I see to my chagrin that I did. My particular comment was supposed to be about not pedagogy but rather the character zhi1 (often translated “know”), the character that appears in 1.16. But maybe you were talking only about “zhi4” (usually translated as “wisdom”, though the former character is sometimes used for this). Maybe you didn’t mean to suggest that “knowing” or zhi1 includes action.

    But in case you did, here’s a starter-objection to the idea that “knowing” (in English) includes action. I can “know” a stranger’s phone number or the capital of Burundi without ever using or announcing the information in any way.

    “She knows!” can be a warning, not because knowledge includes action but because given what else we know about her, we can expect that knowledge to help generate certain kinds of action.

    As for zhi1, I haven’t made a proper study of it in the Analects or elsewhere, but usually “know” or “understand” seems to me to work. But I haven’t thought a great deal about this. It would be interesting to go through a bunch of passages.

    As for zhi4 and the English “wisdom”, I don’t feel so strongly inclined to dispute that they involve action, though I would expect the Chinese word to be, like the English one, somewhat flexible on whether and how much action is essentially part of wisdom (or just strongly correlated with it, as in Aristotle’s view).

    In 6.22, and 15.8, I think Confucius may simply mean that it would be wise to do the various things he lists – as we say in English without meaning to suggest that wisdom necessarily includes actions or those actions.

    12.22 fits your view like a glove, and is awkward for my view. If there are some other passages that do the same, and none that cut as strongly the other way, then your view must be right.

    The passages you cite would be powerful evidence if they were in any other collection. But given the way Confucius answers questions, I think we can’t take his answers as strong evidence as to his views, if any, about the essence of the term in question.

    Regarding 11.22 – your latest comment leads me to think that in your earlier comment, where you said 11.22 obviously displayed a certain conception of fatherhood, what you had in mind was that Confucius’ teaching there is an analog of fatherhood, and the fact that son-father relations are specifically addressed in 11.22 played no role in your point. Is that it?

    I don’t think we can see for ourselves whether Confucius’ advice in 11.22 was wise, obvious, or wrong.

    There are two things I don’t like about what Confucius does in 11.22. First, he speaks in rhetorical questions. That allows him to seem to say something without actually saying it, and it constitutes an implicit (if gentle) rebuke to the student for not knowing the unstated thing already. Second, the rhetorical questions in 11.22 seem to assert two general principles that contradict each other (hence Gongxi Hua’s puzzlement). That is, one or both of the questions was misleading.

  12. Bill Haines said, on April 7, 2008 at 5:07 am

    Oops, only one of his remarks was a rhetorical question.

  13. Devil's Advocate said, on April 7, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    In class today I felt “shamed” to be an agent provocateur…

    What real benefit does Confucius have from Yan Hui other than an indexed replica of himself?

    If I’m not mistaken Yan Hui in many respects has the potential to rival his master, and given his relative age and preeminent intelligence perhaps surpass him. In multiple analects Confucius not only demonstrates humility by belittling his lack of knowledge, but he is quick to point out that he attacks the question at hand from both sides until he reaches a solution. His strategy carries the possible implication of dialogue. And unless the master hears voices of his ancestors in his head, there should be a live body present. Enter Yan Hui, a suitable candidate not for his practical wisdom or experience, but his intellect and thirst for knowledge. With such a resource at one’s disposal, would it not be wise to tap into it?

    Alas, a virtually untapped resource for moral knowledge lies at your fingertips and you are unable to elicit a proper dialogue. For whatever reason, Yan Hui does restrain himself from actively engaging his master, but I feel it performs a disservice. As Panza claimed within a class setting knowledge is not meant to be hoarded. In 11.7 when the master claim Yan Hui was the only one to truly love knowledge, I feel it is more appropriate to label it as a lust for knowledge. Indeed, a significant portion of virtue entails committing one’s wisdom through action. Being poor even when the dao prevailed, is that not hoarding your talents or making your meaningful contribution?

    I also smell political implications for 11.4. If one is seeking office and would use his disciples as literal curriculum vitae, then wouldn’t it be prudent to have your best student not be an act of mimicry? I read 11.4 with an exclamation point and a sigh, perhaps out of frustration.

  14. Bill Haines said, on April 7, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Hi Devil’s agent provocateur,

    Nicely put!!

    I agree with everything you say (except that I’m not sure about the cv part).

    I gather your comment mainly addresses Chris, but it looks like it might intend to express disagreement with me. Perhaps I seemed to say above that I thought Confucius’ remark at 11.4 was not meant to be heard by Yan Hui. My guess would be that the remark was meant to be heard by him, but that he wasn’t its whole audience, and that the primary purpose of the remark may not have been to teach Yan Hui.

    To what you say, I’d add that one reason Confucius might like a replica is that he thinks of himself as a transmitter. There’s little point in copying the past if the future isn’t going to copy you.

  15. Chris said, on April 7, 2008 at 10:08 pm


    Devil is one of my students — I alerted them to the good conversation in this thread today, especially given that we’re covering books 11 and 12 this week (well put, Devil, I agree with Bill!).

    On your last point, Bill — we’re using Ames and Hall’s “Thinking Through Confucius” in the course, and I’d say that their reading of the Analects is pretty liberal, at least with respect to the business of transmission/modeling/ appropriation. They appear to argue that straight copying without an element of personal appropriation — “making the lesson your own” via some aesthetic engagement — would be suspect. As a result, Devil’s take on 11.4 seems in line with their general stance towards reading appropriation.

    With that in mind, I wonder at times whether C’s claim to simply “transmit” is humility. But, then again, I’m under the spell of Hall and Ames as well (whether I should be or not I haven’t decided)!

    I still owe you some responses as well. I haven’t forgotten.

  16. Bill Haines said, on April 7, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    Thank you.

    In any case I was wrong to say “There’s little point in copying the past if the future isn’t going to copy you.” That hardly follows from the claim that it is good to transmit past patterns to the future!

    I wonder whether the “element of personal appropriation” has to involve changing the thing.

    I suppose that if Confucius is doing something good, arranging that it be done even longer is likely to have some value.

  17. Devil's Advocate said, on April 9, 2008 at 12:25 am


    Thank you for the gracious comments, they are appreciated!

    You’re right about cv, I took too much dramatic license with it.

    Prima facie, is it possible to understand all the complexities and nuances of ritual? I ask this because, if the transmission is anything like oral record, quality degrades and has something of a tendency to be filled in by others. Empirical work by Elizabeth Loftis reminds me of this. And if her research has any bearing, then it is within our nature to fundamentally alter or rearrange our perceptions at some level. I feel like 3.11 implies this at least.

  18. Bill Haines said, on April 9, 2008 at 8:26 am

    Hi DA,

    I’m anything but gracious. Any praise anyone gets from me is coerced from me by the facts.

    I think you raise an excellent problem for what I said before. (I hadn’t heard of Loftus, but I googled her and I think I get the idea.) I’ve thought about it, and here are the points I can think of to make in reply.

    1. I’d distinguish between how accurately we can absorb and transmit a ritual and how accurately Confucius thought we can absorb and transmit a ritual. When Loftus proves something about us, that doesn’t prove Confucius knew it.

    2. Much ritual would have been repeated often, and there were written instructions and coaching.

    3. Regarding 3.11, perhaps only the emperor and maybe a few associates were supposed to understand and transmit the imperial sacrifice.

    4. There is room for differences of opinion about just how arbitrary ritual is. If you think ritual is at root completely arbitrary, then you will think there is nothing naturally inappropriate about a ritual for expressing gratitude that involves kicking someone in the stomach. So you probably don’t think ritual is completely arbitrary. But how non-arbitrary is it? Confucius might have thought it was very non-arbitrary. Hence one might be able to figure out much of it for oneself. (See 3.9.)

    5. If we’re talking about making a precise replica, of course the haircut doesn’t matter, and the details of ritual might not matter either. What might matter more is the moral character. And you might think that what counts as good moral character isn’t arbitrary at all.

    6. I didn’t claim above that it was possible (or that Confucius thought it was possible) to produce a perfect replica. The question at issue was only, *if* Confucius could produce a perfect replica, would doing so be completely devoid of value? (Or, would it be devoid of value according to him?)

  19. Bill Haines said, on April 9, 2008 at 8:40 am

    DA, it might seem as though (or as though I think) my point 6 makes the other points irrelevant. I don’t think it does. For part of your point, if I understand it, was that it wouldn’t make sense for Confucius to think of himself mainly as a transmitter if accurate transmission is impossible.

  20. Devil's Advocate said, on April 14, 2008 at 11:01 pm


    Your points are well taken, particularly 5 & 6.

    If Confucius could produce a perfect replica, would doing so be completely devoid of value?

    Sounds like it depends on the crucible you’re using. If using Fingarette as a guide then the moral content would seem to correlate to how closely one could axiomatically approach to creating a perfect replica.

    It’s almost harsh to claim a perfect replica would be without value. I would even dare venture to say a replica reproduced with the authenticity and care of its original exemplar is ideal. However, I lean more towards the Hall and Ames suggestion that a faithful reproduction would also entail a certain amount of authorship and therefore change would be necessary. It wouldn’t be a holistic change, but something to promote attachment. In having some sort of attachment a higher degree of participation and devotion can be expected. Not out of a libertarian sense of selfishness, but from the stance the role of a proprietor of a ritual goes beyond the auspices of being a mere vessel or transmitter. This may synergize some natural inclination towards humanity. Something more noble, but akin to have skin in the game

    What do you think?

  21. Bill Haines said, on April 15, 2008 at 8:36 am

    Hi DA,

    If I understand you, the particular argument of the large paragraph is this: you’re saying that if C trains Y to do R, then part of Y’s attachment to R will be a kind of personal attachment to C. And that’s a difference between Y and C, because no part of C’s attachment to R is a personal attachment to C or anyone else.

    I hadn’t thought of that. It seems to me exactly right about Yan Hui and Confucius (and Ritual or Ren), because (it seems) Confucius had no particular charismatic teacher.

    But maybe that’s a special case. There could normally be a chain of teachers, so that this kind of consideration need not normally block exact replication?

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