I use “aspect” in the sense a side or feature, but also in the sense of a glimpse, perhaps a distant glimpse, from a certain standpoint. My standpoint is that of a contemporary British philosopher, devoted to the analytic tradition but with a wider, if patchy, range of reading and appreciative engagement with phenomenological and post-phenomenological works and with both ancient and contemporary Chinese philosophical writings. My own sense of what is important in philosophy bears the stamp of reading Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein, but in the present case can be considered to be an exercise in “analytic Chinese philosophy”, in part on the pattern of G A Cohen’s “analytic Marxism” or John Haldane’s “analytic Thomism”. I see analysis as a methodology, one of attentive questioning and dialogue, rather than as the prelude to a coercive triumph of one set of doctrines over another.
Investigating aspects of the self in the Analects, how people live, can live and ought to live as individual and social selves, belongs in part to controversies in the complex intellectual culture of Confucius’s own place and time, but also to the richly diverse and in some instances startlingly original Chinese commentarial tradition, stretching over more than two millennia, and to philosophers, like myself, with modern sensibilities shaped by other complex traditions. It will be helpful to begin by considering some continuing threads of Chinese intellectual and practical culture.
My quick sketch does not offer a Chinese philosophical essence to contrast with a Greek or Western essence, principally because neither complex of philosophical traditions has an essence, but these initial reminders can help us find a way to pose questions at least in part in a Chinese setting. Further, my remarks are meant to be conversational and selective rather than scholarly and comprehensive. They draw on accounts of Confucius himself and also on the long traditions of Confucian commentary, controversy, interpretation and inspiration.
The metaphysical grounding of Confucian thinking is the Yijing or Book of Changes, which gives priority to explaining and responding to transformation and creativity rather than to discerning stability, substance and identity. Confucian appreciation of language is not dominated by definition, taxonomy and sharp dichotomy, concerns which are at the heart of Greek theories of logic, proof and natural science. Change was comprehended through an account of opposites, each of which included rather than excluded its counterpart. Broadly speaking, grasping wholes, unities and complements took priority over determining parts, identities and distinctions. Confucius was delighted by those who, given one corner of a square, could give back the other three corners. Dialectic in some sense was more important than demonstration, intellectual persuasion more important than intellectual coercion, virtue and particular variation more important than law and universality. Because some of these rival features were recognised or even explored in Chinese intellectual culture, careful examination is likely to qualify my broad claims, though not reverse them. Qualification must also be given on the western side where repeated revivals of the influence of Socratic and Aristotelian dialectic have acted as a counterweight to demands to follow mathematical or scientific models of proof in philosophy.
Confucians recognised important distinctions that were sharply marked in Greece, but less severely drawn in their own thought. In contrast to a sharp distinction between soul or mind and body, leading eventually to the Cartesian self as a metaphysical subject, the central Confucian notion of a perceiving, feeling and acting self was the heart-mind, a mental and physical unity. In tracing the anatomy of the heart-mind, in contrast to the anatomy of the soul, we find reason, desire and emotion, but again they are not sharply distinguished.
Spinoza’s unity of joy and understanding in those free from human bondage is closer to Chinese understanding than an account of reason and emotion as external to one another in origin, function and consequence. Thinking and acting, the inner and the outer, were distinguished, but were also seen as a unity when we are faced with judging oneself and others. Kant’s deeply rooted unity of theoretical and practical reason seemed to be closer to the surface and less mysterious for Confucian thought. In contrast to the sharp denominational boundaries of Europe, a person in China could take part in the full complexity of culture by being at the same time a Confucian, Daoist and, later, Buddhist. Finally, fact and value are unified for heaven or nature and for humanity in the Confucian conception of Dao. At the human level, following Dao could guide the collective formation of human institutions as well as the individual development of character and its expression in deliberation and action.
Given our own circumstances, how can we read the Analects, a text or compilation of texts containing so little that is explicitly philosophical but which is nevertheless the source of so much interesting philosophy? I want to avoid what I find in the Analects being artefacts of my preoccupations, but I also want to avoid a mute response where there is no engagement between my preoccupations and the text.
In trying to navigate between these twin dangers, I turn to Michael Dummett’s distinction in Origins of Analytic Philosophy, between history of thinkers and history of thought: the former calling for detailed historical study of influence and careful note of precedent and transmission, but the latter calling for the internal history of “intellectual causation” that explains how problems get in the air of a culture and are dealt with through philosophical engagement. These are not fully independent tasks – they can learn from one another – but they ask different questions and require different sensibilities and different methodologies.
Dummett wrote as an analytic philosopher by training and preoccupation, but also through the conviction that analytic philosophy, not frozen in Frege’s initial programme, but as it has developed through philosophical exploration and alteration by his major successors, including Dummett himself, provided the greatest help in articulating and coping with the deep problems shared by analysis and phenomenology. Nevertheless, he was glad to call for continued dialogue with a suitable phenomenological contributor to the history of thought.
The Analects differs from the texts of Brentano, Dummett’s hero for placing ideas in the air that inspired both analytic and phenomenological philosophy. Brentano was immersed in a philosophical tradition and wrote in a recognisably philosophical manner. On the surface, the role of the Analects as a crucial textin the history of thought was, with other texts, to initiate or stimulate a tradition of philosophical reflection and articulation on a complex of questions that it put into the air or distilled from the air, without being explicitly philosophical in its own expression.
Questions of Dao (the way); learning; knowledge; self-cultivation; self-examination; culture, rites; music; harmony; virtue or power; humaneness; wisdom; righteousness; character; intelligence; stupidity; being a sage, gentleman or small person; gentlemen and common people or the multitude; being a father, son, elder or younger brother; being a ruler, minister, general, or subject; being straight and being crooked; rigidity and flexibility; rectifying names and rectifying oneself; acting, speaking, thinking, desiring and feeling all arise from the text, but for the most part seem to be placeholders for philosophical examination rather than instances of philosophical examination themselves. We can at least conjecture that they mark an intertwined agenda for philosophical discussion rather than a budget of separate issues, so that unless we deal with all of the questions, we cannot be confident that we have dealt successfully with any of them.
There are different possible explanations why the Analects, with so little philosophy on the surface, stimulated, and continues to stimulate, such rich philosophical discussion. One answer is that there is philosophy under the surface, in Confucius’s inner room where virtually no one was admitted, with hints in the text in part from what Confucius did not say: “One gets to hear about the Master’s accomplishments, but one cannot get to hear his views on human nature and the Way of Heaven (Analects V:13).” Perhaps some did not get to hear these views, but others, further along in their steps of self-cultivation, did get to hear them. Perhaps the views were said, but not heard because only a sage or someone nearly a sage could hear them.
According to the Analects, Confucius did not like conjecture or controversy and had contempt for those who used slick words to argue or persuade. He preferred not to speak, possibly because like his ideal of a sage or a proper ruler, his example would communicate how to live without speaking and that speaking would interfere with achieving this communication. Confucius puzzled about the relations between speech and action in judging a person, at times including facial expression in the mix. Perhaps the views were perfectly sayable, but useless in achieving his practical aims and hence left unsaid. In this respect, we might focus, not on the general audience, but on those few, who according to Confucius could hear one thing and understand many or who, given one corner of a square, could give back the other three corners. Understanding this kind of intelligence, its grounds and cultivation, and the intelligence that allows a gentleman or sage to be flexible and creative, rather than following in the footsteps of another gentleman or sage, seems crucial here. Perhaps there is an underlying theory that such individuals do not need and that it would be useless to express to others.
A different possibility is that human nature and the Way of Heaven for one reason or another are ineffable and cannot be said. Here we plunge into deep puzzles about language and reality, including the possibility of accounts that are not closely bound up with a Greek programme of logic, taxonomy, definition, metaphysics and explanation. We might look for an account of language underlying the Analects that allows for ineffability.
Modern western thinkers, Wittgenstein and Heidegger in particular, sought in different ways to distance themselves from the philosophical tradition drawn from the Greek programme, and we might be drawn to exploring whether philosophy rooted in the Analects and independent of this Greek tradition is possible and worth pursuing. One way of doing this would be to consider Confucius to be a philosophical theorist or proto-theorist, but one with a radically different conception of theory, perhaps a theory that is practical rather than descriptive or explanatory in nature. We might approach the Analects through accounts of language that reject the centrality of definition, accounts that allow adjustment rather than rigidity of meaning, emphasise pragmatic over semantic features and reflect on what is not said as well as what is said.
Another possibility, closer to the text, would be to consider Confucius to be an anti-theorist rather than a theorist. Many of his comments are hints or corrections that guide individuals or kinds of people away from error, in the way that Wittgenstein in his later works can be seen to be an anti-theorist whose main goal was to escape philosophical perplexity. Of course, the hints and corrections of the Analects seem to have a different motivation, more like the interventions of an instructor imparting a practical skill like driving a chariot or hitting the mark in archery, but in this case skill in how to live. In any case, we are likely to have different views concerning the potential of an anti-theory of hints and corrections to achieve perspicuity on its own without a theoretical background or eventual theoretical formulation.
One way of dealing with the hints and corrections of Analects would be to ask whether they have underlying theoretical presuppositions or commitments and, if so, what kind of theory is involved. If we have an agenda of questions drawn from the text, can we either achieve a plausible theoretical account placing and relating our answers to all of these issues or explain why gaps or overlaps in theory prevents us from achieving a satisfactory comprehensive account. Of course, there are other reasons that a comprehensive account can fail: a false unification of the text at one extreme and the frustrating likelihood that any philosophical theory will have limits, blind-spots and areas of incoherence at the other. But if we reject the call to theory, we must give some account of why it would be satisfactory to restrict ourselves to a method of particular guidance through hints and corrections and some account of much of the philosophy stimulated by the Analects.
I said at the beginning that in part I would use “aspect” in the sense of a glimpse, perhaps a distant glimpse, from a certain standpoint. In the Analects, it is not clear what is distant and what is close at hand, at least to those who could see. My own inclination is to approach the Analects by asking “how possible” questions characteristic of Kant’s transcendental method, but to ask them in a more rough and ready way than appears in Kant’s critical philosophy. I am not sure whether this allows close or distant glimpses of the self in the Analects or any glimpses at all.
Part of my motivation in being concerned with the self is a fascination with what I take to be the complex failure of Kant’s own explorations of the self at the heart of his critical philosophy. In glimpsing the self in the Analects, I stand on Kantian ruins. I choose this standpoint in part because I consider the Kantian explorations to constitute the highest ground from which to see the whole terrain of western philosophical discussion of the self before Kant from Plato and Aristotle in the ancient world and Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Rousseau and Hume in modern Europe, and after Kant to Wittgenstein and Heidegger in our own times. Although I do have a standpoint, I want to distinguish between what belongs to the text and what belongs to my preoccupations, no easy matter with a text already shaped and perhaps corrupted by preoccupations of its editors, transmitters, commentators and translators.
To do my best, I try to identify and then cancel Kantian concerns with the metaphysical, epistemological, moral, aesthetic, political and religious self. Insofar as possible, I want to identify and then cancel my own grasp of wider western discussions of the self, subject, ego, soul, individual, or citizen, leaving behind questions rather than doctrines, but this might be as impossible as cancelling Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat while keeping the Cheshire Cat’s grin.
In particular, I use “self” rather than the other terms, because it seems the most philosophically modest, so that cancelling its presuppositions and implications will be less likely to throw away the whole notion than cancelling the presuppositions and implications of the notions of subject, soul and so on. When we lift the cancellation, we might find that our glimpses of the self in the Analects are a fruitful basis for understanding the history of thought that it produced and for exploring how this history is like and how it is different from the history in which my own preoccupations are embedded.
Anyway, my initial questions include: How is it possible for different selves to have different characters? What are the differences between selves with different characters?
How is it possible for a self to learn? How is it possible for a self to examine itself? How is it possible for a self to cultivate itself? How is it possible for a self to rectify itself? How is it possible for a self to transform itself? Are small persons, gentlemen and sages different kinds of selves? How is it possible for a self to be a knower, speaker and actor?
What structure or anatomy does a self need in order to think, feel and act? How is it possible for a self to be related to other selves? How is it possible for a self to be related to Dao? How is it possible for a self to be related to culture? How is it possible for a self to be related to rites? How is it possible for a self to be related to music? How is it possible for a self to be humane? How is it possible for a self to be wise? How is it possible for a self to be straight?
On the basis of these austere beginnings, I will concentrate on two aspects of the self that emerged from early Chinese readings of the Analects, first the relational notion of the self, according to which the familial and social roles filled by an individual determine who that individual is or ought to be, and then the transformational notion of the self, according to which individuals determine their selves through a lifelong task of ethical self-examination and self-construction.
The relational self, instead of existing in metaphysical isolation, with relations to other selves externally regulated by separately grounded ethical concerns, is both metaphysically and ethically constituted by cardinal relations with certain others: ruler and subject; father and son; husband and wife; elder brother and younger brother; friend and friend. The relations are reciprocal in that holders of complementary roles are understood to have obligations towards each other, but, friendship aside, are asymmetrical regarding power and authority. Some Confucian modernisers have tried to replace or augment these traditional relations with relations of equality suited to the contemporary world, for example, citizen and citizen or stranger and stranger, but have retained a relational notion of the self. For Confucius, the whole pattern of cardinal relations was grounded in the filial piety of a son towards his father that was bound up in the father-son relationship. Ethical concern for others was understood as a graduated extension of this filial love guided by moral education, although a rival Mohist doctrine of universal and ungraded civic love prior to and independent of Confucian relationships was also available in the intellectual culture of the time.
Confucius lived in unsettled times, with the exemplary relationships and political and psychological harmony that he ascribed to earlier Chinese society in profound disarray. His recipe for proper governance was to “let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, the father a father, the son a son” (Analects XII:11). The ruler, subject, father and son held roles that they could fill according to the value-suffused standards of being a ruler, being a subject, being a father or being a son or in ways that showed the practical degeneration or corruption of these standards in society. For Confucius, crucial role-terms had contents that were irreducibly and inextricably both normative and descriptive.
This led to the Confucian doctrine of rectification of names, according to which the correct use of language was held to be a fundamental requirement for a well-ordered society. We should, for example, call a ruler a ruler, but also call a tyrant filling the role of ruler a tyrant, and a usurper filling the role of ruler a usurper. However, more emphasis was laid by this doctrine on the rectification of the thought, action and ethical capacity of an individual rather than on a change in the term designating the individual. For this reason, a Confucian approach to the self that stops with the relational self is inadequate. We are called upon to combine the outer “kingliness” of the relational self with the inner “sageliness” of the transformational self, but must remember that ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ here are not to be naively aligned with the behavioural and mental.
We can trace the transformational self by looking at Confucius’s distinctions among the “small man”, who thinks and acts by pursuing benefit and avoiding punishment, the “gentleman”, who pursues the virtues of humaneness and propriety in thought and action, and the “sage”, who has a creative capacity to understand and form the culture of rites that constitutes and distinguishes complementary human roles in which virtue rather than benefit shapes thought and action. The small man, gentleman and sage differ not only ethically and epistemologically, in how they act and what they can know, but also aesthetically, in the ugliness or beauty of their lives. Everyone has the potential to become a sage, but very few do so. The transformation of small man to gentleman and gentleman to sage is a continuing task of education involving the formation of one’s ethical self through self-examination, self-reflection and self-construction, where the final goal is to become fully humane.
Confucius’s autobiographical note summarises this difficult progress: “At fifteen I set my heart on learning; at thirty I took my stand; at forty I came to be free from doubts; at fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven; at sixty my ear was atuned; at seventy I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the line” (Analects II:4). The transformation of the Confucian self is guided by sincerity until spontaneity and authenticity are safely possible at the final stage of following one’s heart’s desires without overstepping the line.
Taking a stand for Confucius was to stand against the corrupted order of his time, but also to stand for the revival of an earlier flourishing and harmonious order. According to the interpretation of Xunzi, the stand needed the structure of rites and their conception of the relational self because individuals would lack the resources to pursue self-transformation outside a cultural framework and would not succeed in achieving personal and social harmony through self-transformation without this particular framework. Confucian rites were held to constitute and distinguish crucial roles that allow humanity in us to flourish. Only these rites brought the Dao of Heaven into human life. Nevertheless, a combination of three features of the interdependence of the relational and transformational conceptions of the self keeps the individualism of “taking a stand” being submerged within the traditionalism of a rectified and restored culture of rites.
First, Dao and sagehood both involve radical conceptions of creativity. At a metaphysical level, the Yijing opens with the hexagram for creativity, and the sage following Daocreates the rites essential for harmonious and fulfilling social and individual human life. Secondly, Confucius understood rites to involve questioning and judgement that allowed innovation and development rather than confining rites to a rigid formalism. Relations and rites needed the capacity for self-examination and self-rectification as much as these inner capacities needed the outer framework of relations and rites. Thirdly, the whole account of Dao, rites, relations and self-transformation had an external test of achieving harmony, both within society and within the self. In addition, in Daoism, Mohism, Legalism and later Buddhism, Chinese society had strands of thought and practice that challenged or supplemented all of the main Confucian features that I have discussed, helping Confucianism to be an open system of change and creativity rather than the closed system of inflexible dogma that marked its own degeneration.