A Ku Indeed!

Small and Great: Follow It!

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy, Life by Chris on November 9, 2008

I just finished reading an article, “The Purloined Philosopher: Youzi on Learning by Virtue” in the latest Philosophy East and West (58, 4) by a frequent commenter here at A Ku Indeed, Bill Haines. It’s a very good article, especially if you don’t know much about Youzi (and I don’t myself). There are a lot of things I’d like to comment on in it, but I have family visiting here at the moment and grading is piling high, so for now I’ll pick out a small piece from the article to talk about that I found interesting. The subject is ritual (li).

One of Bill’s overall claims is that book one of the Analects contains a number of fragments or sayings that are more the work of Youzi than they are of Confucius (setting up potential contrasts between them, and also potential tensions within the work as a whole). I won’t focus on that argument, but rather one of the passages that Bill attributes to Youzi, 1.12. It reads (Bill’s translation):

In the value of ritual,
harmony is the great thing.
In the way of the ancient kings
This is the beauty.
Small and great follow it.
There is something that will not work:
To practice harmony by an understanding of harmony,
without regulating it by ritual,
this will indeed not work.

This is one of my favorite sayings in book one, so Bill’s treatment of it caught my eye. What I’m most interested in here is the last four lines, the claim about what “will not work.”

Of course, Youzi’s claim here is that there are certain ways of putting harmony into play that will fail, so to understand the claim first we need to have a better understanding of harmony itself. Bill suggests that harmony (he) is “social harmony” and a kind of “cooperation without sameness, or singing together.” It is, as he puts it nicely, “the happy combining of different things.”

Next, we need to understand the relationship between li and he, because the “failure” here has to do with “ritual regulation”. Bill suggests that Youzi’s thinking is that the main function of li is to promote he. He writes that “harmony is the great and the small following a way together. They manage this by following ritual together.” Moreover, Bill suggests that the kind of cooperation between unequals that takes place without coercion “needs mutual confidence and an agreed plan.” Ritual provides this by embodying a social plan, and the coordination of ritual dance provides, in part, the mutual confidence.

Part of what I like about Bill’s point here about the function of ritual (li) is that it points to the need for a kind of, if you can pardon the analogy, “ownership society”. This comes out in Bill’s suggestion — which I think is right on target — that the various forms of instantiated inequality should not be cast or seen as a way in which a “conflict of interest that threatens both parties” comes to be settled at any point in time. Instead, and this is the point that I take away from this, each party should be seen as “owning” the ritual framework that they participate in. Without this sense of ownership, I suppose, what will be left is the sense of coercive power structures, and mutually inconsistent ends and wants. Thus, without ownership we get conflict.

This brings me to the last four lines of 1.12:

There is something that will not work:
To practice harmony by an understanding of harmony,
without regulating it by ritual,
this will indeed not work.

How, then, should we understand the “not working” part here? What does it mean to say that “ownership” has not taken place?

Let’s start at the beginning. The first line, I think, can be understood in terms of Bill’s point and my way of further construing it: “not working” means “not leading to harmony” which means “leading to a framework that instantiates a conflict of interest threatening both parties.” This, in turn, means a failure in “ownership” on one or both sides of the inequality within a given relational framework.

The next lines are interesting, reading “To practice harmony with an understanding of harmony, without regulating it by ritual, this will not work.”

The way the line is written brings up some interesting points. First, literally read, the remainder seems to make no sense. The claim appears to argue that regulation by ritual is necessary for harmony. Indeed, this appears to be some of the earlier story; namely, that only through an agreed upon framework that embodies a united social plan can harmony come into existence, and such a framework is instantiated via ritual interaction whose intelligibility is “owned” by both parties.

I’m left thinking that Youzi is thinking here rather something like this: “to attempt to practice harmony by means of simulacrum of ritual, will not achieve harmony.”

This leads us to ask what a “simulacrum” of ritual would look like. When isn’t it the real McCoy? What types of forms would such simulacum take? One way to think of this would be to consider two ways in which rituals could, in fact, be owned. There are at least two forms I can think of:

1. Owned ritual forms are “embodied” with just the right sets of emotions. 2.7 comes to mind as a specific instance of a failure of this kind of ‘ownership’, where caring for parents without the proper reverence is seen as inappropriate (bu-yi).

Although (1) is important, it’s not the kind of failure that Youzi seems to be talking about, at least in light of Bill’s comments about the function of ritual and harmony. Instead, it seems to imply:

2. Owned rituals are the result of negotiation between entities who are different, such that these differences must be ‘recognized’ on some level in the ritual behaviors for harmony to take place.

And (1) and (2), as far as I can tell, brings us headlong into a contrast within understanding Confucianism itself, where (1) sounds more like Fingarette and (2) more like Ames. This contrast itself, though I am not sure, may turn partially on the claim about “what is different”. Bill’s claim earlier is that harmony requires ‘cooperation without sameness’, though he doesn’t say (unless I missed it) what the “sameness/difference” contrast amounts to.

We could think of this contrast as referring to unequals. The teacher and the students are different; they play different roles within the same relationship, and these differences must be maintained for the common social goal of “learning” to take place. So a good harmony does not mix up those differences; we don’t want to treat students like teachers, nor expect teachers to act like students. Such a reading would be entirely consistent I think, with (1), and doesn’t seem to require (2). A student within this relationship would not sense “ownership” of the rituals if the roles if it were not clear what behaviors were expected from whom.

Or: we could understand “difference” as a difference of an individual within a role. So, it’s not just that students are different from teachers, but also that students are different from one another. So, a harmony between a teacher and a student that does not recognize — through the actual embodiment of ritual forms — those differences will reduce to a conflict between parties with different interests.

A reading of difference in this way is more inclusive; it encompasses (1) as well, as it is not inconsistent with it, and very well might require it as a necessary part.

But it’s being more inclusive doesn’t make it right. Youzi (or Confucius) may not mean for a “big tent” sense of harmony, or of “difference”.

Which is it? Bill doesn’t say; at the same time, that’s not his target in the piece. But we can ask the question here. Clearly, it seems to me, (1) and (2) imply a different “metaphysics” of the individual, so a lot hangs on the answer. (1) implies an individuality that, as Rosemont often puts it, is “a mere sum of its roles to specfic others.” The individual is exhausted by his/her functional relations to others. (2) requires role-relations as consitutive of individual identity, but holds out that it cannot be fully reduced to it. Instead, individuals are tropes of a sort, and that basic tropism must be embodied in the ways that rituals are performed.

Any ideas?


18 Responses

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  1. Bill Haines said, on November 9, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Hi Chris! I’m very flattered to be the occasion of such and extended and careful discussion.

    I don’t quite follow your discussion of the second half of 1.12. I get lost at the paragraph that starts “The way the line is written”, and I kind of stay lost through the rest. I’ll try to summarize here what I think Youzi is saying about ritual and harmony in 1.12; maybe that will help.

    Sacrificial festivals are paradigmatic of ritual (li 禮). They are dramas of cooperation-in-difference-yielding-a-happy-whole. That is, they’re miniatures of social harmony. They’re analogous to social harmony in general. Youzi believes in the psychological power of analogies, so he thinks thinks these dramas are main causal agents undergirding social harmony itself. Similarly, even little rules of etiquette governing relations among unequals make little shared dances with different roles, helping the unequals feel they’re cooperating in something, so the inequality doesn’t feel like a bare conflict of interest. (The other main kind of ritual was funerals, but Youzi wasn’t a fan of the ritual elaboration of grief.) So Youzi thinks ritual in general undergirds social harmony by being a picture of social harmony.

    When he says “To practice harmony by an understanding of harmony without regulating it by ritual” will “not work”, he means that if, knowing what harmony is in the abstract, we try to pursue harmony without using ritual, we won’t succeed in making harmony. In other words, if we just try to cooperate and be nice without having any formal rules, any symbolic dance, we’ll end up in conflict.

    Anyway that’s what I think he’s saying.


    My grounds for attributing certain passages in the Analects to Youzi rather than Confcuius are that those passages are prefaced with “Youzi said.” No commentators argue that the words are nevertheless Confucius’ words. But many leading commentators do attribute the words to Confucius out of forgetfulness, and many conceal the fact that the words are not attributed to Confucius in the text.

    I think I know why. Nobody develops a solid sense of Confucius’ views by reading the Analects once. One reads it dozens of times and build a picture gradually, a picture with a million untraceable roots. Now, Youzi’s remarks are among the most theoretically clear and bold and interesting in the Analects, and they’re mostly in Book 1. They lead off every reading of the Analects. So they naturally form a big part of the core of one’s vision of Confucius. But it’s only after one has read the Analects dozens of times (if ever) that one begins to try to sort out who said what. Further, in the Analects Youzi is not a *character,* like the indolent Zaiwo or the follower Yan Hui or the bold Zilu or the big talker Zigong or the detail man Zixia or the ambitious Zizhang or the filial Zengzi. Youzi is a name without a face. So one overlooks him, even as one focuses on his views. Now, much of what Youzi says is not in fact echoed by Confucius, such as Youzi’s claim that filial piety is the root of ren 仁. So one ends up permanently invested in a vision of Confucius that can’t be supported except by quotations that are, embarrassingly, not from Confucius. But it’s hard to recognize that this is the case, because one’s overall vision of Confucius is a tangled web and the Analects is a trackless maze.

  2. Chris said, on November 9, 2008 at 10:29 am


    Sorry about that. I think what happened at that point was that I had two points in my head, I was called away briefly, and then when I got back one dropped out, making for an odd transition.

    I was going to say that the line doesn’t make sense. You can’t “practice harmony” with an understanding of harmony but without ritual regulation if indeed ritual is required for harmony in the first place. So it seems to say “to X without Y won’t achieve X” when X can’t exist without Y in the first place, so “to X without Y” is non-sensical.

    Then I meant to transition to suggesting that Youzi perhaps means “to X without true Y” which introduces the notion of simulacrums of Y, which would make the passage more coherent.

    This turns to what actually follows: what would true rituals look like? This turns into the question about what kinds of “differences” harmony is meant to happily coordinate under a united social plan. Using your own way of talking about the function of harmony, I take it to imply that “true” rituals permit for a kind of “ownership”, but this itself can be seen in two different ways.

    And thus to the end, and the two options between (1) and (2).

    Hopefully that helps a bit.

    I need to compose my posts more carefully.

  3. Chris said, on November 9, 2008 at 10:45 am


    I made some quick changes to the main post. Take a look now.

    Also — so that I’m not misunderstood — this post is just about the early short section on ritual, not about the rest of the paper (I have some other posts in mind for other sections, specifically on the filial piety part, which I found very intriguing). So just take this post as the result of thinking more about rituals and 1.12, not about anything else you say in the piece later on.

    By the way, I found the larger claims about the construction of the work to be intriguing, especially given the fact that this is not something I know a whole lot about (other than Brooks and Brooks).


  4. Bill Haines said, on November 9, 2008 at 11:08 am

    The restatement helps!

    I think what’s bothering you might be that “practicing harmony” sounds like it means “succeeds in enacting harmony”.

    Regarding (I think) the line ““To practice harmony with an understanding of harmony, without regulating it by ritual, this will not work,” you write that it seems to make no sense. But you don’t say why. Then you paraphrase it in a way I pretty much like: “regulation by ritual is necessary for harmony. … only through an agreed upon framework that embodies a united social plan can harmony come into existence, and such a framework is instantiated via ritual interaction whose intelligibility is ‘owned’ by both parties.”

    I don’t see Youzi making the “ownership” point you stress, but the rest seems fine. But you’re not satisfied with it, and I don’t know why.

    Then you write, “I’m left thinking that Youzi is thinking here rather something like this: ‘to attempt to practice harmony by means of simulacrum of ritual, will not achieve harmony.’” Where does this idea of a simulacrum come from? My guess is that it comes from a thought like this: “If we pursue harmony without regulating it by ritual, then what *are* we doing with ritual? What kind of ritual are we going to have?”

    My answer: “None. I think Youzi just means that if we try to practice harmony without using ritual, we’ll fail. He’s saying we can’t have harmony without ritual, even if we know what harmony is and we all want it and we’re trying to make it. So the 60s were wrong.”

    (That’s analogous to his view that one can’t have ren without filiality (1.2), one can’t be just without being trustworthy, one can’t be ritually proper without being respectful (1.13), and Duke Ai can’t raise revenue without cutting taxes (12.9). It’s also analogous to the rule-utilitarian idea that we can’t maximize happiness without regulating our effort by rules. That is, a buch of act-utilitarians can’t make as much happiness as a bunch of rule-utilitarians.)

    I wonder whether part of what bothers you is that Youzi says “practicing harmony” when maybe he should say “attempting to practice harmony.”

  5. Chris said, on November 9, 2008 at 11:32 am


    Let me take on the first part first. I’ll come back to the other part.

    Yes — I’m taking “practice” in this context to be a success term. Maybe I should not. In any sense, I’m okay with the restatement as “attempting to practice harmony.

    The ownership point, I’m wondering here, stems from the claim about “united social plans”. If you are right in claiming that there’s a shared goal here implied by “harmony” then it appears that the “shared” part requires a sense of ownership of the goal by both parties.

    Think of a romantic relationship. Both want the relationship to move in this or that direction, or at least should if it is to be said to be harmonious. But it could be that one party dictates the goal (a man in a sexist relationship, say) and the means by which the goal is achieved. Then there’s a strained sense in which the goal or the means by which it is achieved are “shared.”

    Part of how I take “differences must be acknowledged” is this way: differences tend to annoy us when they run up against our own parochial self-interests. So to permit, or facilitate, the realization of difference within a relationship framework seems to require that each person overcome their own parochial self-interests in a way that allows for the other person to take partial ownership of the trajectory of the relationship. In a way, “acknowledgment of difference” requires ceding a kind of control, a recognition of the person-hood of the other. Failures to do this result in “sameness”, and a lack of harmony. Moreover, I would suppose that the “dances” performed in such a context are simulacra of ritual. They claim (so to speak) to make differences moving towards a goal intelligible, but in reality they do not.

    How’s that?

  6. Bill Haines said, on November 9, 2008 at 11:42 am

    I was just about to post this when I saw your latest. I’ll post it anyway and then think about your latest:

    Your paraphrase that I pretty much like is, “only through an agreed upon framework that embodies a united social plan can harmony come into existence”. But I’d add that the plan doesn’t have to be agreed on in the sense that people have recognized that there might be a choice.

    I think Youzi thinks the basic ideas of social harmony (in hierarchical society) are kind of automatically embodied in any rituals that involve cooperation in different roles (in a way that reflects and depicts differential status). The basic “plan” is that there is hierarchy. Further details might be expressed in details of rituals, perhaps different details in different societies; but Youzi doesn’t go into that.

    I think Youzi’s idea is pretty simple: ritual is a simulacrum of social harmony. It’s us practicing harmony in a concrete publicly vivid form, and that’s what we need to keep us harmonious. In defending that idea I introduced some details that Youzi didn’t stress but that I found plausible.

    There’s an even simpler underlying idea: our overall relation to society at large takes a form analogous to the forms of our more concrete face-to-face interactions. So if you want your overall relation to society to have a certain form, make your concrete face-to-face interactions be a picture of that form.

  7. Bill Haines said, on November 9, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    It’s way past my bedtime and I’m very sleepy, so this might be my last post for a few hours.

    I think you’re raising important questions about ritual in liberal society (hence important questions for Youzi’s broad argument for ritual). Those questions are more important than anything about Youzi.

    But as for what Youzi has in mind, he’s defending social harmony conceived as built around a very hierarchical mode of social organization, for which the primary familiar model was parent-offspring relations, modeled in turn on parent-child relations. (A secondary model was elder-younger relations among siblings). I think the main “difference” Youzi alludes to is vertical difference in rank or status: “small and great.”

    Families should be harmonious, but there are limits to how far children should or even can think of themselves as having identities quite independent of their being the children of their parents. I mean, thinking of themselves as individuals who might join society or not, depending on the terms, and hence who might “own” the terms on which they join.

  8. Chris said, on November 9, 2008 at 12:13 pm


    I agree that the agreement needn’t rest on or require a conscious recognition of choice. I think it’s rather, at least in part, a question of how one responds to the differences of the other party, a way of “leaving it open” to the other how to proceed. Perhaps using Xunzi’s notion of fixation can help here: within harmonious relationships, neither party is fixated with respect to how the other should specifically respond. As a result, harmonious relationships require a high degree of capacity for face-to-face spontaneity, or the ability to adapt to a feature of a unique situation (partly created by the differences of the other person) in a way that _doesn’t_ require conscious thinking in the sense of “crap…now what do I do?”

    In your second paragraph I wonder whether “difference” is taking on a different meaning; it’s not the trope-like differences of the parties (abstracted from roles) that matter, it’s the differences engendered by inequality. I tend to agree with you that this, too, is surely part of the meaning. I just wonder if that’s the whole thing.

    There seems to be some support for the above additional meaning of difference in Kongzi’s claims about the need for “shu”. Zigong (if I remember correctly) is no master of shu — the reason, it seems, is that he is too intent on forcing others’ behavior to fit very pre-ordained understandings of what “the right dance” would entail. He’s not open to differences on the part of the party in question; as a result, he’s a control freak of sorts, and this leads Kongzi, on my reading, to wonder what his true motivations in interacting with others really is.

    Also — I realize that you talk quite a bit about the narrow and broad, where sticking to the narrow keeps us on task with respect to the broad, but I’m curious about your suggestion that ritual is a simulacrum of social harmony. Is that the right way to put it? Or is it that ritual face-to-face interaction is a microcosm of social harmony, in a way? You wouldn’t want to say that ritual interaction is an inauthentic representation of social harmony, would you? Perhaps “microcosm” is not the right word here, but hopefully you get my point.

    Let that last point “hang loosely” — I need to rethink it, as well as your arguments about narrow and broad in your paper.

  9. Chris said, on November 9, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    You have a bedtime?

    I was pretty sure that Alexus, Manyul and I agreed at some point over the summer that you don’t sleep at all.

  10. Bill Haines said, on November 9, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    At least I don’t burn my hand to stay awake, as Youzi did.

    By the way, think the interpretive point carried by the title of your post is right and important – good eye! Just as the line in the ode Youzi is alluding to can be read descriptively as “small and great bow heads” or prescriptively as “small and great: bow heads” – or rather, should be read as both at once – so the same thing is true of Youzi’s line “small and great follow it.”

    A simulacrum is an inexact copy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a false image, as images go.

    In the paper, defending Youzi’s idea that harmony is rooted in ritual, I expressed my view that “cooperation without coercion needs mutual confidence and an agreed plan.” I meant it needs us to have the same view as each other about the basic framework of our cooperation. That might be a view about what our different duties are, or a view about who is giving the orders, or the view that we’re all supposed to sorta negotiate everything on the basis of mutual respect (or some complex mix of the above). In each case the question arises, how can I be sure that the other parties are committed to that framework? Where the other parties are the community as a whole, or a stranger, ritual is a big help.

    One might argue that my respect tells me to postulate that others will be respectful, at least if I have no evidence and hence no evidence to the contrary. But that’s a stretch – at least other people’s formal etiquette counts as their alleging that they respect me, which gives me something better than no evidence at all.

    My discussion of (he 和) in the paper is aimed not at fine points of what counts as social harmony, but simply at the main controversy in the literature about what Youzi means by the word in 1.12. The controversy is over whether he means (a) something like social harmony, or (b) something completely different, such as music (Huang), moderation (David Li), the coordination of man with nature (Waley, Dawson), fittingness (Ware), or an easy “naturalness” in the way we perform our rituals (Soothill, Legge, Pound, Kupperman, Slingerland).

    I suspect Youzi’s view was not that every aspect of our social harmony needs to be written into particular rituals, but rather only that social harmony in general, on a large and small scale, depends heavily on support by rituals of harmony.

    You write: “In your second paragraph I wonder whether ‘difference’ is taking on a different meaning; it’s not the trope-like differences of the parties (abstracted from roles) that matter, it’s the differences engendered by inequality. I tend to agree with you that this, too, is surely part of the meaning. I just wonder if that’s the whole thing.”

    I agree it’s not the whole thing, but I think it’s the one sort of difference that Youzi explicitly mentioned in his brief allusive poem; I think it’s the central point Youzi is addressing, and other points count as being addressed insofar as they’re similar.

    Though I gather you agree with the following, I’ll say it anyway — I think differences caused by social inequality are still real trope-like differences. (When Aristotle is talking about distributing power in proportion to virtue, as I read him he’s not talking about distributing power in proportion to some potential for virtue antecedent to the power distribution. He’s talking about social patterns in which those who have the actual power are also those who have the actual virtue.) Further, office and status aren’t just causes of other differences, they are themselves concrete differences between people. I think they’re the main salient differences to be concerned about if you’re concerned for basic social harmony in Youzi’s time, when things were falling apart.

    I don’t think early Ru were especially interested in creativity or making things up. At least, I think, they didn’t see themselves as having that focus.


    (Here’s a one-to-one translation of the last part of 1.12:

    知和而 {know harmony}-ingly
    和 harmonize
    不 not
    以禮節之 by ritual regulate it
    亦不可 indeed not can
    行也 go (particle).

    I’m inclined to think the verb”和 harmonize” doesn’t huddle all on one side of a distinction between attempt and successful attempt, but does lean toward the latter. Still I think that’s not a problem here. Compare: “Driving to Carthage without fuel—that won’t work.”)


    Your point about Zigong is intriguing – maybe start a new post about that some time soon?

  11. Bill Haines said, on November 9, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    I see that some of my comments ask questions you answered earlier, or argue for points you made earlier. Sorry.

  12. Chris said, on November 11, 2008 at 8:25 am


    Sorry for the delay — some backup yesterday on work, chores, and baby-watching detail (which I’m on right now, but she’s occupied in her vibrating chair).

    Is there really a story about Youzi burning his hand to stay awake?

    I’ll see if I can fire up one on the Zigong comment this weekend. I’ll have to find the relevant quotes first to make a respectable post. It’s a natural next post, given that it plays a central role in my intuitions about aspects of the text’s meaning on ritual and harmony.

    I realize that your paper isn’t focused on the finer points about social harmony — the post here was more of a “riff” on your early discussion in the paper. More of a springboard of sorts.

    A few quick things, then to your larger points:

    1. In a former life, I read a lot of Derrida and Co., and their use of simulacrum goes beyond inexact copy — they seemed to mean it as a clear derogatory term. In such contexts, it meant “copy of a copy of a copy” (to think of Plato), or something that is just far enough removed from the original to be an _inauthentic_ image or representation. The semantics of simulacra aside, though, my meaning above was just meant to imply this: some performances that can be seen as intelligible from a communal framework are not rituals, because they fail to succeed in embodying harmony. If anything, some behavior performances are “free riding” in a sense.

    Specifically, perhaps the “thief of virtue” in the Analects represents such an example? Here the person involved is not sufficiently invested in what he is doing (in the sense that Fingarette might require of a li performance). He mimics intelligible behavior, as opposed to exemplifies it. As a result, such movement is a “simulacrum” of ritual in my wording, or an inauthentic representation of the real McCoy. Perhaps a parrot provides a different example. Saying “polly wants a cracker” is surely intelligible to me when it comes out of a bird’s mouth, but there’s nothing behind the phonetic sequence; instead, it’s a mere mimicry of intelligible language. Polly is free-riding on the rest of the linguistic human community.

    2. Thanks for the one-by-one at the end. My mandarin is at a very rudimentary stage, but it was nice to be able to do at least associate some of the graphs with the English on my own!

    3. I’d like to push a bit on the “coercion/agreement” dichotomy you’ve set up. It could be the case, say, that a master and a slave are in a strange sort of “agreement” about the duties of each, and how to behave in various situations with respect to their difference “stations”. But I’d resist thinking that there’s a true “agreement” here at all, even if there’s a shared “understanding” (in the sense of “I _understand_ how behavior X is interpreted as intelligible by the local community). Perhaps that’s the difference? Although all agreed upon ritual is understood, not all understood ritual is agreed upon. So some coordinated “ritual” interaction is more based in mutual understanding than mutual agreement?

    I’m not sure that I think that moving from “understanding” to “agreement” requires parties with equal status; surely not, in fact — but it does seem to require some kind of shared goal, or a sense of “ownership” (to use the term I was pushing before) of the aim of the practices. Masters and slaves, I suppose, could share agreements on some more basic rituals, but at some point agreement would seem to slide into mere understanding.

    4. In the discussion of “negotiation of difference” (promoting difference, not sameness, but not just status inequity difference, but difference in particularity of person), I don’t mean to push any hard points about creativity. I agree with you that the text — as far as I can see — does not promote “making things up” (as you say). So no (perhaps) instances of Zhuangzi banging on his tub.

    That said, I wonder if we can still look at ritual interaction to see if it permits displays of creativity, even if this is not the aim of the participants involved in performances. At minimum, this would be a point about li-application not being merely a situation of applying rigid rules to contexts. Zigong, say, might need to be more “open” to the particularity of a situation, an openness that permits (but doesn’t necessitate) novel behaviors on the part of the other person.

    This last point is too big to fit in a reply, I think it needs a separate post. And I don’t know enough at this point to say anything terribly intelligible about it. But here are some scattered ideas, not meant to reach a definite conclusion:

    Some critique Ames on the ground that his “creativity” is a quasi-Existential notion of novelty ex nihilo. I would agree that this is hard to apply, if that’s a right reading of Ames. Meaning can’t be “created” in this way in that framework, given the fact that intelligibility is always given beforehand. To use Heidegger’s terminology, I don’t create meaning, I’m thrown into a previously existing meaningful world.

    That said (that a person is thrown) there are lots of resources for novelty. For one: thinking about my own heritage, the persons within it, and the way those persons interacted with their world, might create the grounds for thinking about currently changing “on the ground” particularities (my own included, as well as that of the world) in “new” ways that are not “novel” in the sense of “ex nihilo” but rather intelligible against the backdrop of a shared heritage.

    If this last part is hard to follow, it’s me not you. I’ll have to think this through and come up with a more straightforward way of explaining what I mean.

    Hopefully some of it makes some sense, though.

  13. Bill Haines said, on November 11, 2008 at 9:27 am

    Hi! Chris, you sure give good discussion.

    The story about Youzi is from Xunzi, who says it shows that Youzi had the limited virtue of a strong will. Xunzi’s comment is borne out by the fact that “Will” is the title of G. Gordon Liddy’s autobiography. A great read, by the way.

    1. I think you’re absolutely right that there can be “rituals” that aren’t really ritual because they have no meaning for the participants. I suppose I think they’re very unstable unless concretely enforced, like the pledjaleegents. As a child I consumed a lot of grape juice and crackers just to avoid horrifying the Christians.

    You’ve shed light on the “thief of virtue” for me.

    3. I think I’m the one resisting a coercion/agreement dichotomy – no? I agree with you that as between two groups who have the same degree of internal sharing-of-views about how to cooperate, the group that comes to its views more freely has more harmony.

    I think force has a place in preserving overall harmony, and I think ritual practices can be in a way a kind of middle ground between force and reasoning. That is, (a) since they just involve dancing around or putting the fork on the left instead of the right, they don’t feel especially constraining, but (b) they have an effect on how we view things (perhaps enhancing our perception) independently of any reasons we can articulate for ourselves.

    I think Youzi saw ritual as being about mutual respect, and respect is in part about limiting one’s own individuality, deferring to others. I don’t think that disagrees with anything you say.

    4. Now that I understand you better, I’m with you here. If we want some rich ritual we have to make it up (I suspect the early Confucians were in roughly the same boat, though they didn’t like to see it that way), and if people are to preserve that old-time Millian individuality they’re going to have to keep making things up.

    There’s a tension between ritual and creativity though, as there’s a tension between community and individuality. Part of the answer maybe is in the idea that rituals can be made of familiar elements of ritual, recombined in novel ways. And there do seem to be some basic modes of ritual – the sacrifice or libation, the rite of passage, burning the man, etc.: there are certain kinds of things ritual is supposed to mean, and there are natural limits on what kind of shenanigans can mean that. We’re thrown into that not-limitless semantic space.

  14. Chris said, on November 11, 2008 at 8:44 pm


    I haven’t forgotten. I’m still thinking about this.

    I don’t recall the story from Xunzi. I wonder if it was in a chapter that Hutton didn’t have for us over the summer (his translation was only partial — I haven’t had time yet to read through the rest of Xunzi’s work).

    In any case, it’s a funny story. Good lord. What some people will do.

  15. Bill Haines said, on November 11, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    Hi Chris,

    There’s no hurry in cyberspace. The Xunzi passage is in your favorite chapter, 21 on “fixation.” About 2/3 of the way through, and right after the story of Ji who lived in the cave.

    Incidentally, I’m not perfectly happy with “fixation” as a translation of bi4 蔽. I don’t think this character suggests the image of the stuck as opposed to the flexible (though Xunzi does go into how the condition is hard to cure). I think the word most centrally means covering. Hence hiding something, giving shade, beclouding, obscurity, the blinders of bias; but also sometimes covering in the sense of including, as at Analects 2.2 (“One word covers (蔽) them all”), or one’s fame covering heaven and earth.

  16. Chris said, on November 13, 2008 at 7:31 am


    1. I think a central issue here for me — not one that I feel prepared to argue a thesis on — is what constitutes this element of meaningfulness that we both agree is necessary for true ritual (which perhaps then, being performed, is then sufficient for harmony).

    Surely one element of true ritual performance is a kind of “embracing” of the participatory form by the agent. Your drinking of the grape juice doesn’t count as an embrace, because it’s mere “understanding” as opposed to “agreement” (using the language I was employing above). You knew what to do, but you did not identify with what you were doing (perhaps there’s a Frankfurt-style analogy lurking in here somewhere?). But still: is a Frankfurt-type identification with ritual form sufficient for “agreement”? My sense is that it is not, that there are further conditions here.

    3. I agree on your take on constraint. True rituals are constraining only in the sense that they do not permit “all things to be possible” for the agent. In a sense, a ritual form constructs — or perhaps molds or shapes — the interpretative (or perceptual or even emotive) landscape for the agent.

    But at the same time, “constraint” (you might agree) seems like an inapplicable word to use, because it is the very conditions that make for “constraint” (ritual forms) that make the notion of “possibility” (for the agent) come into being. Perhaps, in a sense, this is one way to understand the early Confucian opposition to there being individuals before there are societies.

    4. Your (4) is the tough part. Creativity can — and must, I think, and here I think I’d be in fundamental agreement with many things Joel (Kupperman) has said on this — occur against the backdrop of “constraint” mentioned above in (3). Without the “non-limitless semantic space” (as you put it), no shenanigans are possible at all. And agent are shenanigan-embodying creatures by necessity.

    So we agree, I think, on the conditions for “being creative”. Now the question is: what counts as a creative moment? Lots of things are possible in this non-limited space, but not all will (or should) count as creative, or as “real instances of ritual”.

    Part of my intuition here is that Confucian agents must perform rituals in a way that permits or facilitates a degree of openness to novel responses on the part of the other (permit me to abstract from hierarchical differences among the participants, which may affect the degree to which this ought to be done). Without this, I suspect that a ritual cannot be truly “identified with” in the sense I mentioned above (the Frankfurtian sense I hinted at).

    The openness to novelty, I think, is an openness to the fact that ritual itself is a negotiation of variables, some of which are not fixed. The agents within relationships themselves are not fixed in a way that past rituals can ever hope to fully capture (just as much as changing environmental or social conditions cannot be).

    At the same time, there are no Confucian agents who are simultaneously Millian individuals, I agree. But I think one problematic insight of Mill’s is something like this: he’s a nominalist of sorts about individuals (all things are particular), and he takes this nominalism to sufficiently ground their agent-hood, and then he wants to establish rights to protect the differences springing from that particularity.

    What I’d like to argue — sheepishly at this point — is that the Analects embraces the fact that agents are particulars, but only in part, because that particularity must be seen and understood against the backdrop of the “non-limitless space” of communal rituals. I’m not just a particular, I’m a particular son, for instance.

    Embodying my own role as a particular father, as a consequence, means putting myself into a necessary relationship with a particular other to whom I am related — my particular son (or daughter). Consequently, to truly “identify” or “embody” a father ritual vis a vis my children will mean performing those rituals in a way that (in part, this is not their sole purpose) opens the space for the son (or daughter) or perform in an embodied sense their own role — and that means facilitation of difference.

    Hence, and I think this brings me back to my earlier point — whereas I agree that “difference” surely includes a recognition of status inequity, I think it also includes a further point about a more austere nominalism.

    Lastly, I don’t think this reduces to a conscious recognition of or attempt to put into play any liberal ideas about social harmony. Instead, it could very well be that (a) agents who do this well don’t think about it at all; instead, they are virtuosos at being sensitive to just the right features of the environment (including the particularity of the other) in how they perform rituals and (b) it may well be the case that relationships that fail at doing just don’t work very well in a practical sense and (c) that the failure of (b) might rest in the fact that it constitutes a kind of coercion that yields ritual performers that can only, at best, “understand” their rituals, but do not “agree” to them (in the sense we were talking about before).

    Wow that was a rambling response. Sorry for any discontinuities within it, it was spaced out over a period of baby-watching, which means that I return to the post not entirely remembering what they hell I was trying to say!

  17. Chris said, on November 13, 2008 at 7:38 am


    Right in the middle of my favorite chapter! It probably did not stick out to me because Youzi’s name had little significance for me, so just became one of a series of Chinese names (just as, in the first few readings of the Analects, you gloss over the presence of this or that student in an aphorism).

    Where you there in the seminar the day that Hutton talked about the translation of that specific word? I can’t recall. If course, I have no sense of the Chinese, but it seems to me that both translations miss something that Xunzi is trying to get across. “Fixation” seem to miss the point that something is being obscured (in the sense of Zhu Xi’s “mirror” say), whereas “covering” seems to give off a passive feel, seeming to miss the fact that it is instantiated in a kind of active behavior (fixation) of bias.

  18. Bill Haines said, on November 13, 2008 at 9:17 am

    I was there the day Hutton gave his talk, but not when he talked about 蔽, unless that was the only day he was there and I’ve simply forgotten. I wouldn’t recommend ‘covering’ as a translation for the character in Xunzi’s chapter-title. ‘Bias’ or ‘blinders’ might do.

    More later.

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