A Ku Indeed!

Lost in the Thickets of Jen

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, virtue ethics by Chris on July 7, 2008

I remember once an old professor of mine read a paper I wrote on the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and commented on the back that while the thesis was acceptable for the most part, there were times when it was clear that I was “lost in the thickets of Kant.” I have no doubt that he was right, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever been stuck in that unenviable place. I was reminded of this in the seminar today when Steve Angle was talking about the notorious difficulties translating (or even getting precisely clear on the meaning of) the term jen. Like Kant, it’s easy to get stuck in them damn thickets.

To be clear up front: I have no idea precisely what jen means. Still, I get the impression that there are some general brush strokes that are probably applicable. I’ll toss out some general ideas while using Wing-Tsit Chan’s “Chinese and Western Interpretations of Jen” (1975) as a backdrop, because I find it to be a useful piece.

One of Chan’s central points that he wants to press home is that jen has two meanings and uses: a “particular” sense and a “general” sense. When jen is used in the particular sense, it is meant as a virtue among other virtues, and he recommends “benevolence” as the translation of the term in those cases (this is perhaps the central use by Mencius). When it is used in the general sense, Chan thinks of it as a description of the person as a whole, a description that, when true, entail the presence of the other more particular virtues. So in the particular sense, one might suggest that a person has jen or displays jen, in the general sense it might be better to say that “this is a person of jen.” Or something similar to this. I think Chan is right here, or at least my sense of the text is that this is a supportable distinction.

At this point, I just want to jot down some notes and reflections on jen, mostly from Chan’s piece but also pulling together some strands from other places. First, I think it is instructive to find a “ground floor”. We need a place from which conversations about jen can then proceed. My thinking is that a good place to start from the ground up is with the notion of keji, or “self-overcoming.”

The central component here would be LY 12.1, where the agent is instructed to “self-overcome” as the path of jen. To self-overcome (keji) would be the mark of the excellence of the human (I suppose this would link up with Jiyuan Yu’s claim that ren is the specific de of the human being, or refers to the specific fashion in which human dao is exemplified). Specifically, I think the point here is that in jen we have (or can have) the capacity to blur the boundary between the self and the other. A jen person is one who is (at least generally) successful at this.

As Chan notes, LY 17.6 is a good description of what the jen person would look like.

“One who can practice five things wherever he may be is a man of jen — earnestness, liberality, truthfulness, diligence, and generosity.”

In each case, with the possible exception of diligence and earnestness, the virtue mentioned is one that seems to imply a successful blurring of self and other. (I don’t think diligence and earnestness cause a problem here, given that the “one thread” of jen is said to be chung and shu; chung seems exemplified by diligence and earnestness, and shu seems exemplified by the rest).

Similarly, when we think of a person who lacks jen, we would expect the opposite. Thus we are brought to LY 14.2:

“When one has avoided aggressiveness, pride, resentment, and greed, he may be called a man of jen.”

Here we have a negative description, but one that functions nicely to highlight the various vices of the xiao ren, vices that highlight egoistic thinking and a failure to “master the self” and differentiate oneself from the animal.

Jen as a particular virtue seems to play an important role here — it seems to be the central “particular” virtue that allows for the bridging of the self and other. For Chan, this is exemplified by ai, or “love,” the integral component of benevolence.

On this point, I like what Chu Hsi, a medieval commentator, points out. His suggestion is that it is jen that provides the (at least emotive, though surely more than this) glue that connects the self to the others. He says that in jen:

“the intense affection for parents is extended to broaden the impartiality that knows no ego.”

Hsi’s point, I take it, is not that jen creates a space for an impartial Mohism, but rather that impartiality is understood to be the capacity to look beyond the restrictive self and, presumably, to think in terms of the larger relational self that one occupies in one’s particular relations with specific others (as opposed to all others). I take it here that the point is also that within the family unit one learns to cultivate benevolence or love (ai) and to then extend it outwards to other people.

For me, that’s the broad brush starting place, anyway.

One area in which (as people who read this know) I am undecided is how, whether, or in what way (or to what degree), to also incorporate in a notion of jen as activity, specifically successful activity with respect to care for others. I am also taken by the idea of jen as a “mood” (though this is speculative on my part, so I don’t want to make any claims as of yet). The approach above seems to me important, but stops short of suggesting that actual success is required to be jen. At this point I am not entirely convinced that this is in fact true, but that’s for another post.


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