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Li: Etiquette, Manners, and Ritual in Confucian Philosophy

This post is a continuation of an ongoing series of posts about classical Chinese philosophy that is resulting from my participation in a reading group following Bryan Van Norden and Philip Ivanhoe’s Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. All of the posts can be seen here.

I’ve taken a step sideways this time to read a bit more about the key concept of Li in Confucian philosophy. Li tends to be translated in various ways, which suggests the depth of the concept, and the different ways its used, so it’s worth getting a bit deeper into it.

To this end, I found Amy Olberding’s paper ‘Etiquette: A Confucian Contribution to Moral Philosophy’ (2016, Ethics 126: 422-446) to be illuminating.

Olberding translates Li as ‘etiquette’ or ‘manners,’ while other translators, such as Edward Slingerland who did the translation for the Ivanhoe and Van Norden volume, translate it as ‘ritual.’ To me this suggests the concept really encompasses all three meanings, which in English at least, we’d normally keep as separate.

This is indicative of the various usage in the Analects and other Confucian texts as well. Olberding writes that Li encompasses everyday etiquette – the social mores that govern all of our interpersonal relationships – as well as court etiquette, religious ceremonies, and mourning rites.

In other words, Li as a concept is about shaping all of our behaviour – from the everyday and mundane (e.g. when interacting with friends), to the occasional and special (e.g. during religious rites).

Joel Kupperman (cited in Olberding) argues that the emphasis Li puts on all aspects of our behaviour is one marker by which Confucian philosophy can be distinguished from most Western moral systems. In the West, Kupperman’s argument goes, the main preoccupation of moral philosophy is ‘big moment ethics’ – considerations about what ought to happen in situations where there is a lot of moral weight on whatever action is taken. Confucianism, on the other hand, places an emphasis on our conduct in all aspects of life – giving moral weight to seemingly benign social interactions.

Chenyang Li (again, in Olberding), suggests that one way that this can be characterised is that our behaviour and the way in which we conduct ourselves among other people is a kind of language. If we were to behave in a completely improvised way – without the observance of any social mores, then our behaviour would be incomprehensible. One could illustrate this with the kind of cultural experience many tourists have – coming from one set of cultural standards into another, tourists often find themselves unwittingly committing various social faux pas, with differing consequences.

Li is thus a marker of our ability to remain morally consistent and virtuous in all of our social interactions – at every level of society. When Kongzi cautions us against being sloppy in our adherence to ritual, then, it is a warning against being careless in our interactions with others.

Olberding argues that for Kongzi and some of his descendants, such as Xunzi, Li inaugurates moral learning – it is the starting point for shaping our moral character. The rules are first applied externally, with a goal of the student internalising them and absorbing them into their nature. This thus makes appropriate behaviour natural.

Part of this naturalising aspect of appropriate behaviour also relates to what Kongzi thought of human nature – we are naturally resistant to good behaviour. Olberding cites Xunzi as giving the clearest statement of this attitude (noting also that Xunzi was more pessimistic about human nature): our natural desires would go unchecked if we did not adhere to Li, the function of Li is to structure and order these naturally occurring impulses. Xunzi therefore argues that Li beautifies human behaviour – it makes us palatable to others.

I think it’s interesting that Confucianism places such a great value on building moral character – this places it in line with contemporary virtue ethical moral theories. I’m going to return to this with the next post, where I’ll talk a bit more about Van Norden’s reading of Confucianism as a kind of virtue ethics (which I find increasingly attractive). I’m also curious about how later thinkers accounted for Li, since I know that some, such as Mozi, were opposed to a rigorous and unquestioning acceptance of received tradition. Mozi comes next in the Ivanhoe and Van Norden reader – so I’ll get there in a short while, when the reading group moves on from Kongzi.