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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.

New Book Arrivals

Guest Post: Basic Readings on Capitalism

Guest post from William Hebblewhite:

Capitalism is a word we hear a lot about these days. It’s an all pervasive social form; an economic system which represents the highest order of individual freedom; an historical abnormality. It is often difficult to have a real, true sense about what capitalism is, where it came from, what it represents and what the future holds or capitalism. I am under no illusion that I can offer any answers to these questions. Luckily for me, there has been a myriad of writers across the ideological spectrum who have attempted to answer them for me. Here I list some of my favourites, and ones which I believe really showcase the vast vista that is capitalism, and the subtly and multivalent definitions that can arise from that one word.

The list is separated into disciplinary categories: History, Philosophy and Economics. I do not mean to purposefully exclude other disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology or political science, but I believe most of the work done in those disciplines can easily be folded into the others. For instance, David Harvey, one of the world’s foremost critics and commentator on Capitalism is a trained geographer. His interpretation of what capitalism is, and what is does to the world is uniquely informed by this geographical perspective. However, much of Harvey’s work can be broadly construed as philosophical and economic. Another case is that of the work of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek, who were economists by training, while their work also fits into the category of philosophy – particularly when they start speaking about “freedom” and its relation to capitalism. What I mean to be saying by these examples is that my categorisation is not to be taken too seriously, but rather that it provides an easy way for new readers to the subject to engage in those questions and topics that are of most interest to them.

Lastly, this is not a comprehensive list, and I do not suggest it is. This just represents a small window to the wide world of academic work on capitalism. There are wonderful authors which I have not listed with wonderful pieces on capitalism. There are also authors who I have not listed, merely because I have not discovered them yet. If you know of other works, or authors you think should be listed do leave a comment. With that being said, let us dive straight into my selections.

History:

Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View (2002, Verso), and Liberty and Property (2012, Verso)
Robert Brenner,  Merchants and Revolution (1993, Princeton University Press – Available on Verso)
T.H. Ashton and C.H.E. Philpin (eds.), The Brenner Debate (1985, Cambridge University Press)
Charlie Post, The American Road to Capitalism (2012, Haymarket Books)
Leo Panitch & Sam Gidins, The Making of Global Capitalism (2012, Verso)
Michel Beaud, A History of Capitalism (2001, Monthly Review Press)
David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies and Global Capitalism (2011, Brill)
Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (1963, Princeton University Press)

Economics

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century (2014, Belknap Press), The Economics of Inequality (2015, Harvard University Press)
Anthony Atkinson, Inequality: What Must Be Done (2015, Harvard University Press)
Milton Friedman, Freedom and Capitalism (1962, University of Chicago Press)
Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (2012, Routledge)
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776, available via the Liberty Fund)
Karl Marx, Das Kapital Volume 1 (1867, available via Marxists.org)
David Harvey,  A Companion to Marx’s Capital (2010, Verso)
Steve Horwitz, Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective (2000, Routledge), and Monetary Economics, Free Banking, and Economic Order (2019, Routledge)

Philosophy

David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2010, Oxford University Press)
Louis Althusser, On The Reproduction of Capital (2014, Verso)
Yann Moulier Boutang, Cognitive Capitalism (2011, Polity)
Edward Younkins, Capitalism and Commerce (2001, Lexington Books)
G.A Cohen, Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995, Cambridge University Press)
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (2013, Basic Books)
Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism?  (2014, Routledge) and Markets Without Limits (2015, Routledge)
Nancy Fraser & Rahael Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory (2018, Polity Press)
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (2009, Zero Books)


William Hebblewhite received his PhD in philosophy from Macquarie University. His research is focused on areas of contemporary European philosophy and political philosophy. In particular, he is interested in equality, and the relations of equality that exist in economic, social, moral and political spheres. He tweets @Whebblewhite.


I’ve added the year of publication and publisher for all of the texts Will suggests. Where possible, it is that of a cheap paperback edition or a free pdf. Any inaccuracies in this regard are my responsibility – Maks.

Review of Susanna Berger’s *The Art of Philosophy*

Berger - Book Cover

I was tidying up some files in my PhD folder when I found this review I’d written of Susanna Berger’s wonderful book, The Art of Philosophy. Re-reading it now, I think it’s still a neat précis of her book. As I recall, I wrote it for a student-run journal, and by the time I’d written it a new editorial team took over and wasn’t keen any more. I thought I’d share!


Susanna Berger’s The Art of Philosophy is an examination of the tradition of visual representations of philosophy common between the late sixteenth- and early eighteenth centuries. The tradition produced many large-scale tableau representations of entire philosophical systems, with the aim of exhibiting complex ideas in a more accessible form. Her central argument is that such representations, what she calls “plural images”, were not merely instruments for presenting philosophical systems, but that their production in itself was a form of philosophical thought. In so doing, Berger addresses an oft-neglected aspect of the study of early modern philosophy, namely, the visual culture which accompanied it. On her view, such representations formed a visual commentary, which emphasized that they were not just illustrating concepts, but offering in themselves new and enriching additions to philosophical ideas (p.3). As such, by studying the early modern visual depictions of Aristotelian philosophy, on which her book focuses, we can gleam an interesting insight into the way in which the key texts of the 17th century philosophical education were introduced to students. By doing so we can come to gauge their reception with more sensitivity to the context in which they were taken up.

The first chapter of The Art of Philosophy focuses on Siegmund Jacob Apin’s Dissertatio de variis discendi methodis memoria causa inventis earumque usu et abusu (1725). Berger uses Apin’s text to introduce several of the central arguments of her book. Though the treatise itself is unillustrated, it offers a view of a diverse group of didactic and mnemonic images, and it orients the reader towards the idea that visual representations of philosophy could not merely aid the study of the subject, but in themselves be works of philosophy. This chapter argues that the kinds of representation described by Apin were designed to integrate them with the lived activities of the viewer (p.42). In this way, such images could be used to make the acquisition of knowledge easier. This argument is picked up and illustrated in the second chapter by an analysis of several plural images, such as Meurisse and Gaultier’s Artificiosa Totius Logices Descriptio (1614) or Marshall and Meurisse’s An artificiall description of logick (1637).

The third chapter turns away from text embedded within images, to images embedded within text. In this discussion, Berger focuses on images contained within student notebooks, to argue that the ubiquity and variety of pictorial representations of philosophical concepts reveals that such images and the activity of drawing them were an important component of early modern philosophical education and thinking (p.145). Her contention is that these images were not merely used as study aids (as would be the case if these images were merely used to help with committing the material to memory), but that the drawings were crucial in the development of new philosophical ideas.

Berger continues the discussion of student notebooks in the fourth chapter which explores the way in which images in manuscript sources served as tools by which students and scholars could come to grips with difficult theories. One such example is the representation of the Square of Opposition – a diagram used to illustrate simple logical statements and the way they relate to each other (p.148). What emerges from this and the previous chapter is the ubiquity of the use of visual representations as study aims. Students found them useful in clarifying their thinking – and in so doing, showed that these representations were crucial to the way in which their own thinking developed and occurred.

The fifth chapter concludes the book with the argument that visual representations played a double role. That is, that beyond being essential tools for the transmission of knowledge, they also became dominant metaphors for understanding the activities of the mind (p.173). This is to say, that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the production of visual representations of knowledge and the production of knowledge.

Finally, the book ought to be praised for its extensive scholarly apparatus, and in particular the two appendices, which catalogue the surviving impressions of philosophical plural images, and offer transcriptions of the text inscribed into them. The Art of Philosophy is a book rich in examples and arguments. Berger shows persuasively that the visual culture arising from philosophy was crucial in the way in which the early moderns thought of the discipline. This book will thus be of interest not just to scholars of early modern visual culture, but also to teachers interested in presenting philosophy in an alternative format. It stands as a significant achievement in scholarship that is both rigorous and accessible.


Beyond my review, you might also want to check out this excerpt adapted from the book – with a tonne of images courtesy of the author!

New book day

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Super sweet score from the free book table at the office today!

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New arrivals in the office