A Ku Indeed!

Confucius and the Forking Path

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Existentialism by Chris on January 9, 2009

Peony at her blog asks a very good question: just how similar would Confucius be to Kierkegaard? More pointedly – is Confucius just an ancient version of Judge William from Either/Or, imploring the reader to get off his or her butt and finally make a choice or a leap into the authentic life of being socially embedded within roles? I find this to be a fascinating question and I’d like to think a bit more about it here. I’ll do it by situating the question within the context of Herbert Fingarette’s writing. Fingarette, I believe, upon hearing this question would take his shoe off and slam the table with it like Khrushchev while repeatedly yelling “NO! NO! NO!” Let’s walk this through below the fold and see how it shakes out.

The Kierkegaardian Prelude

From the Kierkegaardian perspective, authentic life is all about making choices with commitment and firm resolve. In his classic work Either/Or Kierkegaard presents us with three ways in which life could generally play out, the “aesthetic,” the “ethical,” and the “religious.” Although I think the “religious” path as Kierkegaard understands it is interesting, let’s restrict ourselves to the first two.

Essentially, Kierkegaard’s attack on the “aesthetic” life is that it avoids choice. Aesthetics fail to commit. They just

“float along” through life, carried in one direction or another due to some strong attractant in some way related to pleasure. One might be carried away in the direction of beautiful women (Don Juan), or motivated and driven by money, or fame, or fortune, or perhaps driven by a kind of internal imaginative masturbation that yields pleasure through the imaginative manipulation of possibilities (Johannes the Seducer, and most philosophers). Although the “types” of aesthetics differ, they are held together by a failure to make fully embodied choices about how to live one’s life. Aesthetics are, in a sense, “slaves” to this or that, and fail to take charge or take the drivers’ seat in life.

Enter Judge William, who demands of the aesthete that he “choose!” The Judge shows the aesthete that there is actually a plan, or a structure to how society works; everyone has a role to play, and in that role one finds ones full actualization. However, one must choose to take one’s place within that society and fully commit to the embodied realization of that role. One must be one’s roles, and continually re-commit to these roles as one moves from situation to situation, leaving behind the flaccid slave-like existence of the aesthete.

Enter the Protagonist: Confucius

There are clearly some similarities between Confucius and Judge William. Mostly, there’s the notion of completing oneself through the fully embodied social life. For the Confucian, there’s the Henry Rosemont-inspired claim that “one is nothing but the sum of one’s roles that one stands in to particular others.” In the Analects, one gets the clear impression that one’s very identity is structured by the rituals that form the “map” of those social roles. To actually be a person, by these lights, requires that one perform ritual (li) in such a way that one embodies “the roles that one stands in towards particular others.” Similar to the way Judge William talks, it is if your identity “awaits you” (given that your roles are already set). There’s a big table set up for dinner, and everyone is eating, but there’s one empty chair. That’s your chair; if you sit in it, you “become who you really are” (to steal a phrase from Nietzsche). If you don’t, and the chair remains empty, you fail to become yourself, much as the aesthete fails.

Moreover, the contrast with the aesthetic form of life maintains some analogy with the Confucian picture as well. Confucius’ own contrast between junzi (exemplary persons) and xiao ren (the small and petty) is laid out in, at least prima facie, the same terms. The xiao ren are pictured as being led around like slaves, driven to this or that as a consequence of being too attached to pleasures. Xiao ren are, in Confucius’ terms, “driven by personal gain” and are too often attracted by “beautiful women” as opposed to pulled by the beauty of virtue. In addition, it is easy to get the impression that junzi are self-determining in some way, or at the very least “in control” whereas xiao ren are neither, and seem to be, like Kierkegaard’s aesthetes, slaves to the world. To use a distinction drawn by MacIntyre, perhaps we could say that the junzi is driven by “internal goods” (of virtue) whereas the xiao ren is driven by “external goods” – and where the language of “inner and outer” seems to imply something about the self such that being driven by what is external” to the self entails heteronomy. Once we start walking down this road, it is not surprising that Judge William places such a premium on the question of freedom, and how it is related to the integral notion of choice.

Fingarette’s Shoe

But perhaps it is here that the analogy ends. Once we move to issues of choice, perhaps it is here that Kierkegaard and Confucius part ways. After all, it is an integral component of Kierkegaard’s story that Judge William argues that the aesthete must choose to “enter into the ethical”. The aesthete must summon every ounce of determination and commitment and make that leap from one type of selfhood to another, fully responsible for the choice and what it entails.

Herbert Fingarette, in his Confucius, the Secular as Sacred (specifically in the chapter “A Way without Crossroads”) argues otherwise. Fingarette’s argument is very interesting, and can get somewhat complicated, but I think the main components of it can be laid out simply. It looks something like this (some of what follows is my interpretation of implied premises that Fingarette is using):

1. A crossroads requires two real paths (tao).

2. For a path to be real, the agent must be capable of maintaining (or perhaps more fittingly “exemplifying”) his selfhood in the process of its embodied actualization (through practice).

3. Maintaining or exemplifying one’s selfhood requires embodied performance of li (ritual).

4. Only one kind of performance in a situation can succeed in embodying li.

5. Thus, only one type of situational performance will maintain or exemplify the self.

6. Thus, there can never be more than one path (tao).

7. Thus, there are no “choices” in Confucianism.

Fingarette’s argument here is interesting, and leads to what Rosemont has called (at least in personal correspondence) “the way or the ditch”. Essentially, there are no two paths that are equally “real” in the sense that the traveler can justifiably suggest are both consistent with “the way” (or Tao). To engage in the right (yi) performance of ritual (li) is to exemplify the self; to do otherwise is to lose the self, to fall into a state of being an animal of sorts (xiao ren).

The difference here with Kierkegaard is sharp and powerful. For Kierkegaard’s Judge, it is clear that “the self” exists before the leap into the ethical; as a result, making the move from the aesthetic to the ethical involves a fundamental moment of real choice (between those alternative ways of living). It may be the case that one is more authentic than the other, but that doesn’t have an ontological implications – the self exists in both situations. Thus, for the Kierkegaardian Judge, although performance of li (ritual and roles) helps to authenticate the self, li does not constitute the ontological precondition of the self.

For Confucius, Fingarette would argue, things are quite different. There can be no “leaps” from one type of life to another, because there’s only one kind of life to start – the tao. You’re either on the path or you are not (in which case you are in Rosemont’s “ditch”). Moreover, if you’re off the path of the tao, no leap can get you back onto it – instead, you must be “shaped” by corrective forces (presumably here the suggestion is that the magic powers of ritual held by exemplars above you will move you back towards the path). The individual must add “effort” but this is different from the leap of Kierkegaard.

Lingering Questions

There are many questions that can be raised about all of this, and a pile of objections. Moreover, one question that interests me regards the extension of li; if it is the case that ritual performances can be altered or changed by the person to adapt to a specific circumstance (a la Roger Ames, perhaps), how will this be explained in the Fingarette fashion? Can it? Would such a way of talking about creativity require an Existential dimension of “choice”? My intuition here about the last question is that it does not necessarily involve choice. Even if Li can be adapted to meet the situation at hand, it still appears that there is a one path that best fits the local context – even if it turned out to be non-repeatable in other situations (and so unique to that context).In such a case, you still get what Fingarette argues for – the seeking out of the right path, not a “choice” between rival alternatives equally playing the role as potential extensions of “the Way”.

Here I’ll stop, because I have nothing remaining to say other than to pose more questions!

24 Responses

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  1. Peony said, on January 9, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    Hi Chris,

    This was an inspired Post– except, of course, that you never did answer the question of why Aeneas just comes across such the Ass. If both are doing their duties– following their paths, why does Aeneas come across so incredibly wishywashy and dislikeable–the anti-hero– to Odysseus?

    Even setting aside Aeneas (which I have done), there is still so much to respond to in this post– but the first problem I have is in your conception of “choice” (both from a Kierkegaard perspective but more from the Confucian perspective)

    1) Kierkegaard
    When Judge William says to the Young Man– “you will get all that and more in marriage,” I don’t think he is saying that the aesthetic is wrong because it lacks commitment– because in fact, some aesthetics do commit (or to put it in a different manner, a Kierkegaardian commitment could in fact be the pursuit of a beautiful woman– like Helen– or a life devoted to art and culture. If those are ends in themeselves and are experienced as truth, right?) People in the aestheic can commit (Tomasz). And they can be very clear about it too.

    Judge William says “choose!” but at the same time– it’s not the kind of choosing that you are impyling, I think.

    “Marry and you’ll be miserable, don’t marry and you’ll be miserable” “Kill yourself and you’ll regret and don’t kill yourself and you’ll regret it”…

    The choice is an existential one…And I am not sure that “choosing” to devote one’s life to the beautiful woman or to a life of art or culture would _necessarily_ be impossble in Kierkegaard’s world as it wasn’t really the nature of the choice was it?


    2) Confucian either/or
    In the same way, I think the Confucian “good person” similarly can choose “either” a truth which will lead to the cultivation of his Self (or in Kierkegaardian terms will lead to the expression of her subjective self)– “or” not.

    While the choices open to these “selfs” are determined by cultural context (lichtung) so that Kierkegaard has much different (and arguably more over-the-top choices) than your average Confucian scholar who of course lived so much earlier, still it seems to me there is only one real choice in front of them both: walk the path of self cultivation or not. (either or)

    Sam Crane sent along the introduction to the art of War and I really liked this quote:

    “In contrast with its classical Greek counterpart where “knowing” assumes a mirroring correspondance between an idea and an objective world, this Chinese “knowing” is resolutely participatory and creative– “tracing” in both the sense of etching a pattern and following it. To know is “to realize,” “tomake real.” The path is not a “given,” but is made in the treading of it. Thus, one’s own actions are always a significant factor in the shaping of one’s world.”

    So, even though the choices are less varied (or really in Kierkegaard the examples are just way over-the-top) still to me it seems that there is only 1 choice– to walk this personal path or not. I mean, isn’t it the same forking path in both cases? And isn’t the Confucian “commitment” to self cultivation in the end a commitment to Self?

    I wrote this post about Mi Fu …. Have, in fact, the Confucians come down hard on him? Or is he somehow “forgiven” within their worldview? I guess what I am trying to bring up is the possibility that the Confucian cultivation of self– or the Confucian forking path– does have more of a range of possible expressions (expessions as choice) than your post hints.

    And more importantly– what does this tell us about Aeneas??

  2. Chris said, on January 9, 2009 at 4:44 pm


    I don’t think we agree on the nature of choice; an aesthetic who actually “chose” to live aesthetically, in a truly committed fashion, would, in my opinion, transcend the aesthetic. I think this is partly Judge Williams’ take on “A” — he thinks that he is close to this stage, and so is on the cusp of the ethical in his way of thinking. Typical aesthetics take no risks — they avoid them. By the way, I don’t think K thinks we have to “discard” aesthetic sensibilities. But I do think he believes that we cannot live the aesthetic _life_ and be authentic. Marriage, as Judge W puts it, should be ethical and aesthetic. But that said, the ethical is in the driver’s seat (for W).

    On C: I’m not decided at this point whether Fingarette is right (that there’s only one path). I’m not committed as of yet on this question. But I think his analysis is interesting, and if it’s wrong I’m not sure what the problem is yet.

    On K: I think _authentic_ selfhood has one path only — the religious. But “being authentic” and “having a self” are not the same thing for him, I think. That’s what I meant in the post by “ontological presuppositions”. For K, the self in the aesthetic stage (even the lowest “immediate” stage) is there, ontologically given, but “asleep”.

    I’d be worried about applying that sort of language to Confucius. My feeling here — and that’s all it is at this point — is that “authentic self” and “ontological self” (the self that can be the ground of legitimate choice) are one and the same. If you aren’t the former, you don’t have the latter. And that doesn’t seem to be the case for K, at least on my reading.

  3. Chris said, on January 9, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    I should amend that last part. For C, I don’t think that having an authentic self makes you a chooser for Fingarette — because there’s only one path, so there’s nothing to choose in a sense of having alternatives. For K, one can “choose” the religious or not; the alternatives are open and real, even if only one is authentic. Perhaps this is one reason for anxiety: in either option (for K), it is the self that chooses its own fate, and so has to live with the consequences of those choices (risk). For C, I think Fingarette is onto something by suggesting that this way of talking would not be appropriate.

  4. Peony said, on January 9, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    I agree with everything you said except for this point: that for C there is no real choice. I disagree. There is a choice– the same as for K: choosing or not choosing the authentic path. When it comes down to it, the Confucian self too must choose to be a small person or to cultivate self as authentic path– no?

    The available choices (ways to express one’s self via authentic path) are just much fewer (not surprising given the time).

    I do agree with you said about Kierkegaard completely. My problem is, for C: if as you say “authentic self” and “ontological self” are the same and that there is no choice, that makes it seem as if everything is up to fate in the Confucian world– but in fact, I do not think that is accurate. Basically I disagree with the Fingarette application above.

  5. Peony said, on January 9, 2009 at 5:53 pm


    Chris– maybe we do disagree about choice in Kierkegaard… but I would really need to think about it first so I will be in touch about this later. However, just as a quick note: while I love Dreyfus’ interpretations of Kierkegaard, Melvyn Bragg also did a great show on Kierkegaard for In Our Time– which was more basic but at the same time brought out the interesting point that these worlds of the ethical, religious, aesthetics were not levels in the sense of moving up– (that is they were not teleological)– so that I think I do in fact disagree that a committed aesthete is in the ethical (the ethical is not necessarily a step up either— as I tend to become very Judge William-like when I am overly tired, irrtable or otherwise in less than friendly spirits…) To me an existenitial choice is basically either or/

  6. Peony said, on January 10, 2009 at 2:33 am

    Agreed about Kierkegaard.

    Not so about Fingarette (well at least as presented here). If there were no choices– no alternative paths etc.., we would be back to the Greeks. No, Confucian duty to my mind has nothing to do with Fate. I think the choices available are just different due to cultural context. However, I still think the same choices apply:

    authentic choice to commit
    inauthentic choice to commit

    And, even the terminology– like “path” or “self-cultivation” leads me to believe that we are talking about self-conscious and self-aware agency.

    I guess I will be able to respond better when I read the book. However, if there are no other valid paths for a self to choose, that makes it sound like serfs or greek heroes…. no??

  7. Chris said, on January 10, 2009 at 7:56 am


    Fingarette is actually pretty dismissive of the notion that there is any real “inner life” to speak of for the Confucian. But I’ll leave that to the side, as it’s a totally different (and controversial) point.

    I need to read the text over again, even more carefully, as I am attributing some reasoning to Fingarette that doesn’t explicitly argue for (but I do think he is suggesting). But I think the core of the position is just this:

    If the self for a Confucian emerges from li-performance specifically appropriate to a given situation, and there’s only one such appropriate li-performance, then the self (with respect to the tao as forming the basis for self-constitution) has no real genuine choices. It’s not that there aren’t a variety of options that present themselves to the agent — that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that there are a variety of choices. It’s the job of the agent to figure out which of the options leads to the Tao, and which to “the ditch”. I think Fingarette would argue that the presence of options, for deliberative fodder perhaps, should not fool us into thinking that there lots of possible choices.

    Fingarette spends a great deal of time talking about the lack of “guilt” in Confucianism — perhaps this would help. Think of the Existentialist here. Guilt, as you know, if fundamental and primary. Guilt is actually part of the Existential “ontological” preconditions of the existence of the self for them. Remember for Heidegger, part of what you learn in anxiety is “You are Guilty!” Part of the meaning of this (complicated notion I think) I would suggest is this: ever-present guilt refers to the ever-presence of the agent’s own capacity — as a self — to determine its own direction. In other words, it’s ground as a choosing and so perpetually guilty self is never in jeopardy in as a result of the choices it makes. You make choices and you have to live with them. You can’t escape yourself, in a way.

    For Fingarette, the Confucian self has no such guilt. There’s no “core” stuff or thing or whatever from which choice springs, and which is maintained regardless of the choices made. Selves are not just social products all the way down, they are social products that must be put together in the right way in order to exist at all (where “the right way” = “in accordance with Tao”). So if a wrong turn is made, *poof* — “you” are gone.

    For many of the Existentialists, part of what it means to be “free” is to be capable (and this capability is the ground of the guilt of the self) of choosing inauthenticity or authenticity. I think Fingarette’s argument here suggests that there are no inauthentic selves, because “inauthentic” and “self” are contradictory pairs (there’s “the Way” and “the ditch”).

    The issue regarding Fate I’ll have to think a bit more about. My quick intuition is that Confucius (not that he ever thought about this stuff, for sure) would be a type of compatibilist, and that this would allow him to side-step concerns about Fate. But I’ll have to think more about it.

  8. Chris said, on January 10, 2009 at 8:00 am

    Also, on the Kierkegaard point regarding “stages”: I agree that these are not levels in the sense that one passes through one to the next, disregarding the former ones as one goes.

    But at the same time, it is undeniable that K seems to think about the “stages on life’s way” on a quasi-developmental level. People who live purely aesthetic lives are almost always portrayed as child-like, whereas the religious is seen as fully mature, with the ethical in the middle somewhere.

    My own thinking on this — which I think we talked about in the Buddhism thread a while ago — is that full authentic selfhood for K involves a way of retaining the aesthetic and ethical. But that doesn’t mean that they are “co-equal” with the religious in terms of authority, as I think he clearly rejects that. So I do think they are meant to be developmentally hierarchical, but I don’t think that this means that authentic selfhood can dispense with any of them.

    Hopefully that makes sense.

  9. Sam said, on January 10, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    I can’t speak to Kierkegaard, but i think Fingarette is drawing an overly strict distinction. I think there is choice in Confucianism. And there may be more than one right thing to do in any given circumstance. And, even if a person, with good intentions, chooses an action that turns out not to be the best, that does not consign one, automatically as it were, to the “ditch.” Indeed, one can get out of the “ditch” by continuing to seek, and to do, the right thing, next time, if one so chooses.
    Two passages come to mind to counter Fingarette. First, 9.26 from the Analects:
    “The Master said: ‘Vast armies can be robbed of their commander, but even the simplest people cannot be robbed of their free will.'”
    What is will if not choice? One has to willfully choose to do the right thing. But, if will is will, then one can choose to do the wrong thing. Or one might be able to choose the OK thing, not necessarily the best, but not the worst. And try to do better next time.
    Now, I agree that the noble-minded will willfully choose to do the right thing; but I think it is a matter of choice.
    Another passage, this time from Mencius (11.14, or 6A.14):
    “…There’s only one way to know if people are good or evil: look at the choices they make. We each contain precious and worthless, great and small. Never injure the great for the sake of the small, or the precious for the sake of the worthless. Small people nurture what is small in them; great people nurture what is great in them.”
    Yes, we should do the right thing: but we have to choose to do the right thing…

  10. Peony said, on January 10, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Chris, I really agree with Sam on this point. And, even if there is no concept of inner life (Descartes inner theater/ or Kant’s autonomous mature person) even still, this does not negate Will. For Aeneas and Odysseus– it could be argued– also *did not* have the same kind of inner life that we moderns do– and on top of that, they were also coming right up against fate– and yet Will came to play (Dido rejected her fate and in Purcell’s opera ends, I think by singing, “Remember me, not my fate”) Even the gods forgave her too.

    There are always choices to make. My copy of the book will take a few weeks to arrive but after I read it, I may change my mind regarding Fingarette, but I do really agree with Sam on this point regarding the will and the multiplicity of available paths– for now.

    When I think of the performance of li (and this is very much influenced by Aeneas’ brilliant paper on the topic) is not that the person kind of morphs into the ritual expectation but rather that through a pattern (Japanese “kata”) that character and collective understanding are embodied creatively in that particular person. The same is seen even in tea cermony. Those patterns (there are dozes) of preparing tea are so involved and elaborate and at 1st glance they almost seem self-obliterating because you are so busy getting all the steps right– but in fact it’s not like that. If 10 people follow the exact same elaborate steps perfectly the expressions will be different in all 10 cases. Hopefully all beautifully presented and delicious cupts of tea, but all different. (My tea teacher would always tell me, do what is intuitive)

    Choices of utencils will also creatively reflect self in the same manner. These are all choices and even to walk this path of tea as way of life is also a choice. Does that make sense?

  11. Peony said, on January 10, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    On Kierkegaard, that is how I read Kierkegaard but during the BBC show, the experts tried to make the point that these were not developmental stages…. this got me thinking and now I am not sure. In any case, these have everything to do with perspective. I guess for now, I basically do agree with what you said regarding the religious. At the same time, I do not think it’s about the content of the choice but rather the commitment which is really what matters.

  12. Chris said, on January 10, 2009 at 4:23 pm


    At the moment, I’m somewhat ambivalent about Fingarette’s position, but I do find it very intriguing, not to mention the fact that on many levels it seems to make sense given the way in which early Confucians apparently thought of selfhood. So with that in mind, I’ll play advocate for Fingarette just to continue the argument.

    A few questions/thoughts:

    1. Are you sure that the text of the Analects supports there being more than one right option in a given circumstance? I certainly agree that there are no universal principles or laws that can tell a person what to do across different situations, and in that light each situation is unique in its own way. But this can be compatible with there being one right thing to do.

    2. I think 9.26 is an interesting passage. I don’t like the “free will” interpretation of “zhi”, and my impression is that this is reach in translation. Most have “will” or “purpose” or “ambition” or “intention” which can carry a must less controversial interpretation with radically different theoretical presuppositions and consequences.

    Let’s say that it means “will”. If so, at least one line seems possible here in reply: the “will” (zhi) is not “the self”. So merely moving oneself to do this or that is not evidence of a _self_ direction behavioral performance. The will may well be a component of one’s natural constitution, and it may well be an aspect of _self-directed_ behavior when it occurs, but “zhi” itself is not sufficient for selfhood — if in fact Confucians view the self as a social entity.

    When you say…

    “But, if will is will, then one can choose to do the wrong thing. Or one might be able to choose the OK thing, not necessarily the best, but not the worst.”

    …this highlights the possible concern here as I’ve tried to advocate for it. You say “one” can do right or wrong and that “one” might be able to choose the OK thing. But who or what is this “one”? One interpretation here is a kind of social atom, a self that is simply composed of “zhi”. By these lights, the self predates the choice, and it survives regardless of what is “chosen”. But I think Fingarette might argue here that this self that “predates” and survives regardless of what is chosen, while it may well be a key component of Western notions of selfhood (and perhaps even in later Confucians like Mencius — though I’ll remain agnostic on that here), it is not a coherent notion in the actual thinking of Confucius.

  13. Peony said, on January 10, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Hi Chris,

    Sorry to butt in (I know you addressed the above to Sam) but just so I can better understand your point:

    If you can do it easily by cut and pasting from google, please add kanji to zhi since I cannot read it if you don’t (I am guessing 意?)

    …. also, I think it would be helpful to explain on the other hand what it means to have two VALID choices for Kierkegaard (or F.)

    How is there really two or more VALID paths for Abrham or Kierkegaard concerning Regina? To deny a Cartesian inner theater is one thing but to deny that there is a self that stands apart from decisions seems pretty sketchy. I would assume he only is talking about the very ancient people– but then I wonder what (in the texts) is he basing this on?

  14. Chris said, on January 10, 2009 at 4:31 pm


    Some thoughts:

    I’ll have to read Aeneas’ paper when the volume comes out. But when you say…

    “When I think of the performance of li (and this is very much influenced by Aeneas’ brilliant paper on the topic) is not that the person kind of morphs into the ritual expectation but rather that through a pattern (Japanese “kata”) that character and collective understanding are embodied creatively in that particular person. The same is seen even in tea cermony. Those patterns (there are dozes) of preparing tea are so involved and elaborate and at 1st glance they almost seem self-obliterating because you are so busy getting all the steps right– but in fact it’s not like that. If 10 people follow the exact same elaborate steps perfectly the expressions will be different in all 10 cases.”

    …I don’t disagree with you (or with him; too bad he’s not here to argue this point). But I’m not sure that I am convinced at this point that the fact that each situation is unique and particular, or even that li-performances are creative, require that there be ten different options _in_ that unique situation. Ten different situations, sure, ten different options. But in each: perhaps one — a unique one, but one nonetheless. If so, “creativity” would not require choices — it would require the capacity to actualize or embody what is unique in that situation. Which might be very consistent with “no choices”.

    On K: in one way of thinking about it, no — the content doesn’t matter. One could embody the religious in a whole host of fashions that are equally authentic. In this sense, K (and the Existentialists) do think there is choice. That said, I don’t think that a truly _aesthetic_ life for K could be seen as authentic at all, and so in that sense he is developmental, even if aesthetic elements must be contained within the religious for such choices to be authentic themselves.

  15. Chris said, on January 10, 2009 at 4:41 pm


    Here’s Sam’s 9.26 in full, if that helps:


    On K’s valid choices: as you know, the Existentialists don’t claim that choices, even when authentic or not, have any ontological implications for the self. An authentic choice, Heidegger seems to think, is just as “real” as an inauthentic one with respect to the implications it has for the self. The self is just as real in either case, predating and surviving the choice of either/or made. It is for this reason — I think anyway — that the Existentialists were so wary to say that one choice was “better” than another in a moral sense. Sartre thought that Heidegger’s “authenticity” stunk of morality, and Heidegger thought the same about “bad faith”. Each of them denied that it had any such implications, even as they held to the loaded language.

    I think this is the notion that Fingarette is opposing, I believe, specifically. The nature of the performance and the stability of the self itself are mutually implicated for Confucius.

  16. Peony said, on January 10, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    OK, I see what you are saying (well, I think I do at least). I cannot answer as it would all come down to the definition of what is choice. However, I would suggest (this is just a guess) that by looking at the way we can see how ancient peoples are described as having lived their lives (by looking at the Odysssey or reading about how the Sage reacted and made choices in his times) it seems clear that they did indeed make choices…. but that there were perhaps less dramatic choices available to them due to historical context is also a given…

    I am going to have to read the book myself, because I am not clear about his reasons yet. And it rather reminds me of the old shame versus guilt dichtomy that I really never have grasped– since I count a number of guilt-ridden japanese among my friends– not to mention some shameful Americans too 🙂

    On Kierkegaard– what do you think the gloomy Dane would have had to say about Helen? She sure caused a lot of trouble (a lot of dead soldiers and poor Odysseus forced to wander the seas for ten years or how long??) But could she have chosen otherwise?? And being a sexy kind of choice– was that aesthetic? No way.

  17. Peony said, on January 10, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Chris, that helped!

    and this

    ” the Existentialists don’t claim that choices, even when authentic or not, have any ontological implications for the self. An authentic choice, Heidegger seems to think, is just as “real” as an inauthentic one with respect to the implications it has for the self.”
    I agree with that– and now I understand what you posit Fingarette as getting at. And, in that case, the point makes sense (not the word stability– but something else?)

  18. Chris said, on January 10, 2009 at 4:57 pm


    A quick comment, then I’ll be back in a bit: Fingarette’s essay is very intentional about discussing the self-choice issue in the context of the guilt-shame distinction. I haven’t brought that part up (other than the brief mention earlier) because it just complicates matters. But I think at this point it might be clear why the self that Fingarette suggests Confucius does not operate with would be consistent with “guilt” whereas the one he thinks Confucius is embracing is far more consistent with “shame”. But this is a whole different (though intensely interesting!) conversation. Perhaps we should hold off on it until we both have a chance to read through the essay, and we could discuss it then, text in hand.

    On “stability” — I didn’t like that term either, as I was typing it. I just wasn’t sure what word to use!

  19. Peony said, on January 10, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    if you are up for it– shall we, then? Say in late January? Mid-February? A Fingarette reading? because the guilt/shame thing has gotten on my nerves for years (and I feel great shame admitting that too!) we need to somehow “lure” aeneas back from the sea though– so I shall leave that to you (i would call you Palinerus but you wouldn’t much like that I bet).

    stability to the self is a problem– what does Fingarette use?

  20. Sam said, on January 11, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Wow, I watch a couple of football games and, bam, you all have run this thread to 19 comments…
    I am at home without my texts. But, Chris, yes, perhaps “free will” presses the point a bit too far (it is Hinton’s translation). But “will” is certainly in play. And I think Mencius is the place to develop this idea further. My sense is that he very much emphasizes the importance of making moral choices.
    On the question as to whether there is more than one acceptable moral choice in any particular circumstance, I would agree that this is not true for all situations: some will be much clearer. But what of the visit that Confucius pays to Nan Tzu, the concubine of Duke Ling of Wei (don’t have the cite here). Adept Lu worries that this is the wrong thing to do, as it would appear to be from a fairly conventional application of Confucian ideals: a noble-minded man paying a visit to a concubine of ill repute. But Confucius says that if he has done anything wrong Heaven will strike him down. There are a couple of possibilities here:
    – that Lu and Confucius (and I would say that Lu, however much Confucius makes fun of him at times, is a man working conscientiously on being noble-minded) would make different choices in this situation. Is Confucius automatically right? Maybe not. Even he recognized that he came up short in terms of Humanity. Perhaps reasonable noble-minded people can disagree on the right action in a given circumstance.
    – that only Heaven can ultimately arbitrate what is truly right and wrong. Confucius himself could be wrong. So, how can we know? Only Heaven can “know” (if, indeed, that sort of “knowing” is something Heaven can “do”). And if we cannot, in certain situations (not all, just some), really know what the right action is, then we also cannot know if there might be more than one right action…
    Or something like that…

  21. Sam said, on January 11, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    Also, I, too, am dubious on the guilt/shame thing. Sounds too much like Christians trying to hold up their religion as superior because it is driven by a deeper, internally embedded moral sensibility (guilt) and not merely impelled by a shallower, surface dynamic of what others might think (shame). Western Christians, then, would be the real moral persons, while shame-ridden Chinese (and Japanese and others…) are morally lesser persons and in need of salvation, etc.

  22. Sam said, on January 11, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    For something a bit different, though still in the existentialist vein, have you seen this?

  23. Peony said, on January 12, 2009 at 2:12 am

    Sam, I innocently clicked on your “existentialist link” above and I am now begging— can’t you start writing about soccer instead?? Anything but football (and baseball!)

    … and yes, the shame/guilt thing is pretty shameful & I am totally guilty of not understanding why people seem to believe that the distinction exists. Hopefully we will get to the bottom of it when we tackle (that was a soccer tackle) Fingearette….

    And Chris, regarding Fingarette, I think the problem is not going to be whther the ancient Confucians had valid choices (more than one) or not, but rather does anyone? You said that the existentialist Self is not dependent on the choices one makes– I disagree (well, at least according to Heidegger) I am just not all that clear. Our choices are completely dependent on our historical context AS WELL AS our social context and therefore I am not all that sure about a Self that stands someow apart from our choices/culture/social context to the extent that you are hinting…. (Kant would of course disagree) My book won’t be here for at least 2 weeks so I guess we can make a date to meet back and chat… looking forward to it– but hope to learn what you meant by “stability” sometimes… stability of the self sounds rather un-promising to tell you the truth 🙂

  24. Chris said, on January 12, 2009 at 9:00 am


    Two quick thoughts:

    1. I agree “will” is in play (as one translation of “zhi”) — but, and this is an important “but” — I’m not convinced that “having a will” and “having a self” are equivalent phrases for Confucius. So if “having a self” is required for making “choices” in the robust manner that I think Fingarette is taking about (and “moral choice” would be in that discussion), then the possession of “zhi” won’t be sufficient for making the choice-argument I don’t think.

    2. On Nan Tzu. I always feel bad for Confucius here. I mean really — what’s the old boy up to there? Does he have a Bill Clinton problem? 🙂

    But the way you describe it here is consistent, I think, with what Fingarette might say. I don’t take his argument to suggest that there’s a trans-contextual “right thing” to do. I think he means that once you’ve factored in the context fully, there’s one right thing to do. And that is perfectly consistent with it being the case, say, that for Confucius X would be the right thing to do in that situation, and for Lu something different, Y. The reason is that Lu and Confucius are not the same person, and so when you factor in their specific differences, the context changes in the situation, allowing for there to be different “right” responses in each separate case. But that’s the clincher, I think — there’s still only _one_ right (yi)_ response, _in each case_.

    Also: I do think that reasonable noble persons can disagree on what is “yi” in a given circumstance — but in the sense above. Lu and Confucius can differ in a reasonable way here on what is appropriate. But that doesn’t mean that there’s isn’t one right thing for each of them.

    I think, by the way, that the discussion between reasonable noble persons on what is appropriate might serve as a context for learning more about the situations of each party (since this would be central to understanding why what is yi is different in each case), and thus coming to a greater mutual understanding.

    Perhaps when Confucius says that “the junzi seeks harmony (he) and not sameness (tong)” this is part of what is implied: a reasonable person can see that given different contexts (he) what is appropriate (yi) can actually shift. What would be bad would be if Confucius insisted on conformity (tong) to the same action, such that everyone, regardless of context or role, must do the same thing in roughly the same situation.

    Still, though, and again, I think this is very consistent with the suggestion that what is appropriate (yi) in a given situation (and I say here “given situation” in the fullest and most robust sense I implied above) doesn’t vary at all, and that there’s only one proper path for the Tao.

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