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Confucianism as Virtue Ethics

[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. ~~ MS]

In previous posts, I have already suggested some details of what kind of ethics Confucianism is. Broadly, I agree with Bryan Van Norden that it is a kind of virtue ethics. It’s worth considering this in a bit more detail, however, to help see how we might think of Confucianism in relation to Western virtue ethical traditions.

  1. What is Virtue Ethics?

I want to start with a brief terminological consideration. Virtue ethicists are sometimes accused of vagueness with regard to what it is they think. The other major moral families seem to have a much easier time with regard to this. Consequentialists pick some chosen value X and aim to maximise it (see Petit, 1993), and deontologists concern themselves with articulating sets of duties and obligations for us to follow (see Gauss, 2001). In short, they are theories concerned with actions – for consequentialists the key is the consequences of our actions, for deontologists the rules and obligations by which our actions come about.

Virtue ethics, on the other hand, focuses on the moral character (i.e. virtue) of agents. They place goodness ahead of rightness, on motivation as opposed to action, and on developing a set of affective dispositions towards the world which we refer to as virtues. Because virtue ethicists focus on character, they’re also concerned with questions about moral development and progress, since one ought to be able to become virtuous. For many virtue ethicists, questions about how we ought to act aren’t all that important, since right action emerges from the agent’s moral character. A good person will act well.

Not all virtue ethicists will agree on this characterisation – and indeed, some, such as Rosalind Hursthouse, try to resist the need for any sort of strict definition (see Hursthouse, 1999). The vagueness with which virtue ethics, taken in the broadest sense, is understood leads to some difficulties. For instance, it seems that any taxonomy of the virtues is open to the objection that it is incomplete or arbitrary.

There is also the question of whether it matters if a thinker, for example Kongzi, was a virtue ethicist. In many ways – it doesn’t. Confucianism is its own thing. However, articulating the theory in terms of a category such as virtue ethics can help us understand and contextualise what we are reading. So reading Confucianism as a virtue ethics can be helpful as a pedagogical device, if nothing else.

  1. Ren, Li, and Moral Character

There are two key terms in Confucianism. Ren, meaning goodness or humaneness, and Li, meaning ritual, etiquette or manners.

Van Norden suggests that defining Ren as humaneness is closer to how we ought to understand this term in Kongzi. First, he argues, ‘humaneness’ highlights that caring for others is a key aspect of Confucian ethics. Second, ‘humaneness’ includes the word ‘human’ – and the Chinese character for Ren includes the characters for human and the number two – implying that Ren concerns relationships between human beings.

Ren is the term for goodness, but also for describing those who are good. Kwong-Loi Shun argues that in the Analects Ren is used both more narrowly to refer to one desirable quality among others (see e.g. Analects 9.29, 14.28), and more broadly to refer to an all-encompassing ethical ideal that includes all the desirable qualities (e.g. Analects 14.4).

Li, as I have discussed previously should be understood as an amalgamation of a few terms which we usually understand as separate in English – ritual, etiquette, and manners. In Confucianism the emphasis is on adhering to socially mandated rituals and manners – in effect, knowing how to behave in any given circumstances. The Master is renowned for his ability to adhere to ritual fully in any circumstances.

Importantly, both Ren and Li emphasise our interpersonal relationships and our moral character. As Chenyang Li and Amy Olberding show, Li is about making us intelligible and palatable to others. Training ourselves to adhere to ritual is to form our moral character in such a way that our relationships to other can become virtuous. By understanding Ren as the goal of moral study, we can understand the goal of moral striving as that of strengthening and preserving our relationships to others.

At the basic level, the relationship between Ren and Li, therefore, is one of mutual dependence. Ren sets up the boundaries of what we are to strive for (i.e. goodness) and Li clarifies the practice of our moral development. And while Li seems to, at least prima facie, to emphasise a set of duties to constrain our behaviour, Kongzi makes it clear that the key is our affective attitude towards our behaviour (i.e. our character). Consider for instance passage 2.7:

“Nowadays ‘filial’ means simply being able to provide one’s parents with nourishment. But even dogs and horses are provided with nourishment. If you are not respectful, wherein lies the difference?”

It is insufficient to merely perform the actions that conform with what is required of us by Li – we must do them with the right mindset as well. The mindset comes from our character, from how well we embody Ren.

  1. The Virtues and Moral Development

Confucianism, like other virtue ethical theories, gives an indication of the kinds of character traits we ought to be cultivating. Ren is the general term for virtue, however, there is a broad list of particular virtues we can draw out of the Analects: humility, ability to judge character, filial piety, righteousness, dutifulness, trustworthiness, courage, etc.

In general, I think the emphasis on Ren eliminates much of the need for particular virtues. This is also emphasised by the moral value of every social interaction.

Joel Kupperman argues that what sets Confucianism apart from most Western approaches to ethics is the emphasis on everyday activities, and away from “big moment ethics” (he doesn’t mention it, but I think the Trolley problem is a prime example of the sort of thing he’s talking of). Deontology has answers for when a murderer is trying to track down our friends, but not necessarily for how to behave when we visit our parents. Consequentialism fares a bit better, but even still it only places value on the outcomes of our actions – not on how we go about them.

Via the emphasis on etiquette and ritual, Confucianism gives moral weight to the mundane and banal things we do in life. Virtue is then closely tied with our moral character. And for this reason, as Olberding argues, Confucianism relies on ritual as a way of shaping our character. Internalising the kind of norms that define propriety shapes how we interact with the world.

Here, Confucianism places a great emphasis on a continual striving for Ren. Consider for instance 15.30: “To make a mistake and yet to not change your ways – this is what is called truly making a mistake.” Or, 19.7: “The various artisans dwell in their workshops in order to perfect their crafts, just as the gentleman learns in order to reach the end of his Way.”

Goodness is something we ought to continually strive to perfect in ourselves, the way in which an artisan will continue to strive to perfect their craft.

References:
Gauss, G.F. (2001). What is Deontology? Part One: Orthodox Views. The Journal of Value Inquiry 35:27-42.
Hursthouse, R. (1999). On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kwong-Loi, S. (2002). Rén and Li in the Analects. In B. Van Norden (Ed.) Confucius and the Analects: New Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kupperman, J. (2002). Naturalness Revisited: Why Western Philosophers Should Study Confucius. In B. Van Norden (Ed.) Confucius and the Analects: New Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Olberding, A. (2006). Etiquette: A Confucian Contribution to Moral Philosophy. Ethics 126: 422-446.
Pettit, P. (1993). Consequentialism. In P. Singer (Ed.), A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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.

Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy: Confucianism pt.1

Confucius -The Book of Life

This is the first in what will be a series of posts roughly following the reading group organized by the Monash University chapter of Minorities and Philosophy (MAP). Since all of our seminars have been cancelled, we’ve decided to spearhead a reading group on some material that we wouldn’t otherwise ever read at school. My intention is to write up my notes and post them, partly to encourage any of my readers to follow along, and partly because writing them up will help me remember the material better. All of the posts can be seen here.

We’re considering two texts:

  • Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, edited by Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden (2nd, Hackett, 2001).
  • Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, by Bryan W. Van Norden (Hackett, 2011).

Unless otherwise noted, all references will be to these two texts. Since as a group we’ve chosen to not rush through the texts, it might take us a few weeks to get through each section. Please feel free to leave comments with any observations from your own reading or any questions – I don’t want to pretend that I’m an expert, but I’m happy to give you my perspective on the answer, and if the question is more complex, I could even put it to the group.

  1. Historical Context

Kongzi was alive approximately between 551-479 BCE. His text, the Analects, is a record of his teachings, mostly written down by his many disciples. Some scholars have argued against the view that it is a unified text – but it is mostly studied as if it were, so it makes sense to hang on to that in our reading group.

He was the son of a noble family, that had fallen on hard times after the death of his father. Despite the setbacks he had experienced in his youth, Kongzi managed to acquire an education and enter into government service, though later in life he became disgusted with the rulers he served, so he became a travelling teacher.

Van Norden reports of the incident that precipitated the change of career. At the time, Kongzi was appointed to serve the Ji family, the de facto rulers of Lu, the province where Kongzi was born. The family which wasn’t too keen on Kongzi’s teaching. He left their employment when the family was sent a group of ‘dancing girls.’ The head of the family supposedly enjoyed their services in private, ignoring his official duties. This was the final straw for Kongzi, who resigned in disgust, and left the province seeking a ruler who would bring his proposals into effect.

The disgust Kongzi felt at the head of the Ji family stems from a reverence for tradition that is at the centre of Confucian philosophy. Kongzi felt that his times were turbulent because people have turned away from the traditions that have made the prosperity of the gilded ages past.

If we are to believe the Analects, Kongzi was a keen observer of the world, interested in the way in which our personal character relates to our character as members of the state. These interests translated into the main features of his philosophy.

  1. Is This Philosophy?

This is a question that we’re not really considering in the reading group – because we take the Analects to be a philosophical text. However, there are far too many who want to dismiss Confucianism as fundamentally unphilosophical, and call Kongzi a ‘sage’ as opposed to ‘philosopher.’ The question is worth addressing at least briefly.

The typical argument against the Analects being a philosophical text usually rests on the form of the writing. It isn’t a philosophical treatise the way Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics or Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy are. It’s a collection of fragments, many referring to the practical aspects of life, and few presenting arguments in the sense of presenting conclusions with premises to support them.

As far as that goes, I’m happy to say that the text doesn’t share the form with much that a contemporary philosopher would write. The discipline has its mores now, and we write monographs and journal articles, not collections of fragments.

But to say that the text isn’t philosophical just because its form is different from what we now accept as philosophy is ridiculous. Firstly, the Analects are clearly concerned with presenting a clear and cohesive system for understanding the world. There are philosophical claims being made and defended consistently, just not in a form that is easy to recognize. Secondly, the same people who want to dismiss the ancient Chinese philosophers from philosophy are happy to accept many ancient Greek philosophers who, in effect, also wrote in a form that’s deeply unrecognizable in contemporary philosophy. Parmenides wrote poems, Socrates never wrote anything, Plato wrote dialogues, Elizabeth of Bohemia wrote letters, etc. But we don’t usually have a hard time accepting them into the canon.

There is a well-documented history of philosophy excluding women and philosophers from countries outside of the West. However, every voice we’ve excluded on the arbitrary basis that we still operate in a philosophical world shaped by the racist and misogynist views of Kant and Hegel is a loss to the depth of understanding we could have otherwise gained. [i]

Some might accuse me of opening philosophy to the ‘non-philosophical’ by my acceptance of a very broad view of what counts as philosophy. I don’t really care about that accusation, because if philosophy’s main task is to help us understand the world, and everything is open to thought, then everything can and should be considered within the purview of philosophy.

Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (eBook Rental) | Chinese ...

  1. Main Themes of Confucianism

The Analects present a series of anecdotes about the Master. The text in the Readings is a selection of these, most focused on presenting the relevant philosophical themes. In his Introduction, Van Norden breaks the main themes up a bit differently to what I do, as does Mark Csikshentmihalyi in his SEP entry for Confucianism. It’s worth remembering these are just different ways of cutting up the same pie – and all of these categories relate to each other. I’ve settled on the way that seemed most clear to me.

  • Revival of traditional values

The revival of traditional values and rituals is the theme that stands out most in the Analects. Kongzi thinks that these traditional values and practices constitute the method by which we can change our psychology and attitudes towards the world, and our participation in them (and the way in which we participate) are key to how we can be judged by others. I’d already mentioned above that Kongzi was disgusted by the head of the Ji family shunning tradition and keeping the gift of the ‘dancing girls’ to himself, while neglecting his duties. Kongzi took them to be the exemplar of the degradation of tradition and ritual, and proof that disregarding these things leads to moral and political failure.

Beyond a strict adherence to tradition, we must also maintain the right kind of attitude towards ritual, as Kongzi says, “If I am not fully present at the sacrifice, it is as if I did not sacrifice at all” (3.12). The right motivation is thus required for ritual to actually affect us correctly.

I think the emphasis on ritual has a double meaning here. One is ritual in the sense described above – taking ritual in the sense of performing ceremonial and religious rites (such as sacrifices). The other is ritual in the sense of adhering to accepted social mores – and this is suggested by Kongzi’s emphasis on filial piety (e.g. 1.2, 1.6) and on the acceptance of social hierarchy in general.

  • The Family

In general, the family as a social structure plays a key role in Confucian ethics. In ancient China, family could be considered in two ways. The first is the family qua immediate relations. Families lived in multi-generational homes including one’s grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, etc. In this sense, the emphasis on filial piety and loyalty to the family means maintaining the proper hierarchy within one’s home and adhering to the kind of duties that come with one’s place within it. The second is the family qua state. The ruler of the state can be taken to assume the role of the ‘father of the nation’ and the state that of one’s home. Here again, the emphasis is on living in accordance with one’s place within the social hierarchy and in according to the duties that come along with it.

The family (in both senses) plays a key role in our moral cultivation. Kongzi said, “To live in the neighborhood of the Good is fine. If one does not choose to dwell among those who are Good, how will one obtain wisdom?” (4.1). In other words, our environment plays a key role in our ability to cultivate virtue. This applies to the family (as most clearly seen from the quote above) since they form our immediate environment, but it also applies to the state. Kongzi wrote that if one tried to rule by coercion, then “the common people will become evasive and will have no sense of shame,” however leading by virtuous example would mean “the people will have a sense of shame and will rectify themselves” (2.3).

Similarly, cultivating our moral character is how we can best participate in the state (2.21).

  • Ethical cultivation

Confucianism places a great value on moral cultivation, with many passages indicating that this is the true goal of life. Moral cultivation is how we can best support the state without directly participating in government (2.21). The pursuit of virtue also relates to the Way of the ‘Gentleman’ (more on this below).

Cultivating goodness is how we can live to enjoy pleasure and love (4.2, 4.3). In many ways, cultivating virtue has to do with how we interact with the world around us. Wealth is not inherently good, and poverty is not inherently bad, it is only our relationship to those things that determines their value (4.5).

Cultivating virtue therefore has a key role to play in our social relationships and our place in the social hierarchy. Consider the story of a man who refused a high income attempting to be humble – the Master reproached him for not considering how the higher income could be used to help others (6.5). Similarly, Kongzi tells his disciples that they ought “not be concerned that no one has heard of [them], but rather [to] strive to become … worthy of being known” (4.14). There is therefore a clear emphasis on the social aspects of virtue – after all, goodness would be useless if it were for our own sake only – we cultivate goodness both for ourselves (to be happy) and for the sake of our community.

  • Underlying philosophical anthropology

There is an underlying view of human nature that can be drawn out of the Analects. While Kongzi’s teachings did not concern a metaphysics of the human (like we often see at the base of Western ethics – such as those of Descartes or Kant), his philosophy is nonetheless grounded in a view of what kind of creatures we are.

Some comments (e.g. 2.4, 12.1) suggest that Kongzi held a view of human nature as resistant to change, and that human beings were not naturally drawn to virtue (see Van Norden’s Introduction pp.43-44). There seems to be a kind of ‘natural substance’ requirement for virtue; that is, some people are naturally able to cultivate virtue while others are not.

In 3.8 Kongzi says of the rituals that “The application of colors comes only after a suitable unadorned background is present” – that is to say, the moral value of ritual only comes to those who have the appropriate emotions or tendencies. Similarly, in 5.10 Kongzi says that “Rotten wood cannot be carved, and a wall of dung cannot be plastered.” All of this suggests that those whose nature is resistant to virtue simply cannot attain it or could, but only to a lesser degree.

Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy by Van Norden, Bryan ...

  1. What next?

There is much more to be said about Confucianism in general. In our first session we’ve managed to cover the first three sections of the Analects, which is to say that we have much more material to cover, though from my reading I think the majority of it expands on the themes I’ve outlined.

One major aspect of Confucianism that I have not discussed here, but intend to come back to next week is reading it as a moral theory. This includes two key features that I want to focus on in more depth, namely, the master virtue ‘ren’ and the Way of the Gentleman. Beyond this, I want to discuss the kind of moral theory Confucianism is, largely in relation to Van Norden’s argument that Confucianism is a form of virtue ethics.

I have a complicated relationship with this sort of taxonomizing of philosophy. On one hand, I think it’s handy to think be able to classify what we’re reading because it brings it together with what we might already know, and thus makes it easier to understand. If we begin our understanding of Kongzi from the standpoint of virtue ethics, we will be looking for a series of traits that loosely tie all virtue ethical theories together. Loosely speaking, we’re looking for an emphasis on character, goodness as opposed to rightness, and a set of character traits to cultivate.[ii] As far as all of that goes I am happy to agree with Van Norden that Confucianism is a kind of virtue ethics. I’m a bit worried, on the other hand, of retro-fitting an entire philosophical system into contemporary categories like that. As with any such classification, we inevitably miss some nuance and might overlook certain aspects of the view that we might not have if we took a neutral standpoint. This said – I can’t be too critical since the first chapter of my PhD thesis is titled “Why Descartes is a Virtue Ethicist.”

In any case, my mind is going to be on Confucianism for the next few weeks, it seems, so I intend to expand on this next time.

Notes:

[i] I highly recommend two books on the topic. The first is Bryan Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy (2017, Columbia University Press), and the second is Peter K.J. Park’s Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy (2013, SUNY Press).

[ii] For a really great introduction to classifying virtue ethics in relation to consequentialism and deontology, I recommend Justin Oakley’s paper “Varieties of Virtue Ethics” (Ratio 9(2), 1996, pp.128-152).

Some thoughts on Barthes’ *Mythologies*

I finished Roland Barthes’ Mythologies this week. I don’t recall ever reading this collection of essays before, so I was quite pleased by how current many of them still seemed. Barthes’ had a keen eye for society. What I was stricken by the most were two passages in the lengthy essay on myth that ends the book.

First:

The first bourgeois philosophers pervaded the world with significations, subjected all things to an idea of the rational, and decreed that they were meant for man: bourgeois ideology is of the scientistic or the intuitive kind, it records facts or perceives values, but refuses explanations; the order of the world can be seen as sufficient or ineffable, it is never seen as significant. Finally, the basic idea of a perfectible mobile world, produces the inverted image of an unchanging humanity, characterised by an indefinite repetition of its identity. (142)

I think looking at the history of Western philosophy we can trace this to the Greeks. This being the case, the interesting thing is how resistant to change the discipline has been. We see this now in the increasingly violent reactions to calls for change, such as the backlash Bryan van Norden and Jay Garfield received for their op ed in the New York Times a few years ago.

Philosophy reproduces itself by rejecting any form of radical change, and when it takes up new ideas, it’s only by assimilating them – i.e. by turning them into itself.

The other passage touches on this as well, at least slightly:

The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort of intellectual equilibrium based on recognised places. The petit-bourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie, but lags behind. (152)

The Other in Western philosophy is relegated to the margins, or, assimilated. When marginalised, it manifests in the form of a complete rejection of the discourses that matter to the Other. An example of this, to my eye, is dropping any sort of religious connotations from Buddhist thought. This doesn’t happen only to non-Western philosophy though; consider the case of stripping away the theological assumptions in Cartesian philosophy, or taking any sort of ideas without their proper context, really. In assimilation, the Other is included only insofar as its discourses fit within those of the West.

Barthes isn’t talking about philosophy, he’s talking about culture. Nonetheless, philosophy, as practiced in the West at least, is a bourgeois endeavour. It doesn’t surprise then, that the failures of the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois that Barthes can identify in the French society of the 1950s are in some sense reproduced in academia.

A few excerpts from Malebranche’s *the Search After Truth*

The current chapter I’m writing is focused on Nicolas Malebranche and his English follower John Norris. They’re both a lot of fun to read, but Malebranche in particular has a fun since he doesn’t spare any words to attack those he thinks are not thinking clearly, distracting others from true knowledge, or whose ideas he considers bad.

Portrait of Nicolas Malebranche

So here are a few of the passages I’d enjoyed for reasons other than their scholarly value for my PhD. For a start, here’s Malebranche having a go at the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca:

All this shows that few errors are more dangerous, or more easily communicable, than those with which Seneca’s books are filled. For these errors are refined, suited to man’s nature, and similar to that in which the demon engaged our first parents. They are clad in these books with pompous and splendid ornaments, which gain entry for them into most minds. They enter, grasp, stun, and blind them. But they blind them with a proud blindness, a dazzling blindness, a blindness accompanied by glimmering lights, not a humiliating blindness full of shadows that make one aware that one is blind and force one to admit it to others. When one is struck by this proud blindness, one places oneself among the noble and powerful minds. Even others include us in this class and admire us. Thus, nothing is more contagious than this blindness, because the vanity and sensibility of men, the corruption of their senses and passions, dispose them to search after it, to be struck by it, and excite them to impress others with it.

I do not believe then that one can find an author more appropriate than Seneca for exemplifying the nature of this contagion in an infinity of men whom we call noble and powerful minds, and for showing how strong and vigorous imaginations dominate weak and unenlightened minds – not by the strength or evidence of arguments, which are products of the mind – but by the turn and vivid manner of expression, which depend on strength of imagination. (181)

This is just one of many lengthy attacks against the Stoics (and Seneca in particular). But others don’t escape Malebranche’s ire either. Here are two short passages against Michel de Montaigne:

He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so. And so he became a gentlemanly pedant of quite singular species, rather than a reasonable, judicious, and honest man.

Montaigne’s book contains such obvious proofs of the vanity and pride of its author that it might seem useless to note them here, for one must be quite conceited in order to imagine, as he does, that people would wish to read such a thick book to have some acquaintance with our humors. He must necessarily set himself apart from the common man and regard himself as a quite extraordinary person. (186)

He goes on:

If it is a defect to speak of oneself often, it is an affront, rather a kind of stupidity, to praise oneself all the time as Montaigne does, for this is not only a sin against Christian humility but also an insult to reason. (187)

Part of the text presents an argument against wasting your time with focusing on the wrong kinds of knowledge, since they pollute your mind and take you further away from the kind of knowledge that is really valuable. Among those we should we worry about in particular are some scholars:

The rarest and most ancient histories are the ones that they glory in knowing. They do not know the genealogy of currently reigning princes, but they carefully research those of men who have been dead for four thousand years. They neglect to learn the most common histories of their own time, but they seek a perfect understanding of the fables and fictions of poets. They do not even know their own relatives, but if you wish, they will present many authorities to prove that some Roman citizen was allied with some emperor, or such other things. (297-8)

To be clear, he doesn’t think these things are entirely useless – only if they take us away from those kinds of knowledge that improve us.

Finally though, he thinks we should be weary of those who try to read too much, and read without properly understanding what they read. In particular, I think he’d dislike the kind of requirements contemporary grad students often face. Consider these this short passage for instance:

There are people thirty years of age who quote more evil books for you in their works than they could have read in several centuries, and nevertheless they hope to convince others that they have read them very closely. But most books of certain scholars are fabricated only with the help of dictionaries, and they have hardly read the indexes of the books they quote and some commonplaces gathered together from different authors.

In fairness to grad students, I think this passage is even more an indictment of the poor scholarship presented by some super popular “public intellectuals.”

The Search After Truth is a really rich work, so while I know I’ve picked out some passages that are amusing to me because Malebranche is having a go at someone, I’d not like you to think that the whole book or his way of doing philosophy relies on him being a jerk to other thinkers. In many ways he is trying to synthesise Augustinian and Cartesian philosophy. What he takes from Descartes, in particular, is a kind of moral epistemology. He thinks that if we avoid error in our thinking, we can be closer to the absolute good, that is, to God.

All quotations are from Nicolas Malebranche, 1997, The Search After Truth, trans. and ed. Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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!

Reading this week: Roy and Pessoa

This week I finished Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and started Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. The two texts are very different in many ways. Roy’s book is extremely political while Pessoa’s is introspective. The both made me pause in different ways, and while I’d usually avoid talking about a text I’m still reading, the The Book of Disquiet is having such an effect on me that I’m finding it hard to stop talking about it.

I was excited to pick up Roy’s book since I’d read her previous novel, The God of Small Things (1997), and thought it was extraordinary. I thought the new one was also very good, but I’m more reluctant to talk about it.

It’s not only a very political work, but a very timely one. The novel is set against the background of the complex history of Kashmir as a semi-autonomous, or even independent territory between India and Pakistan, and considers the lives of the people stuck in what seems like a perpetual conflict. I’m reluctant to have too strong an opinion about it because it demands a grasp of context that is beyond mind. And I worry that for many readers the book will be the only context – and given the complexity of the situation, that’s likely not a good thing.

The current troubles in Kashmir aren’t new, but a continuation of a long history that I’m not very close to.

Being familiar mostly with Roy’s fiction and only broadly conscious of her political works and leanings I’d consider her well placed to write a book enmeshed in the history of this particular conflict. And perhaps she has done that well. The success of the book, however, lays in showing the deep roots of the relationship Kashmir has to its neighbours. The intersection of geopolitics, religion, nationalism, and culture forms an abyss the bottom of which is invisible to casual onlookers. Maybe the abyss itself is invisible, given how little attention Western media has given to the current wave of trouble in the region?

In any case, it is this abyss of context that stands before me as a wall over which I can peer, but which stops me from giving in to my tendency to have an opinion. I could climb over it – but the one thing Roy’s book has succeeded at is showing me just how little I understand of the context, so that would be futile.

I mention all of this because I read the book at a point where I’d begun forcing myself to articulate my thoughts on what I read a bit more explicitly (which is also one of the occasions of me reviving the blog as a place to think out loud in public). It’s just my luck then that the first book I pick up is one on which I think articulating my thoughts might be irresponsible.

But it did make me think about the responsibility one has as critic, to bring out the context and to help the reader grasp it. A responsibility I myself hadn’t always been very conscious of, and which I think it is increasingly important to uphold.

Not all works demand such context, perhaps.

This is why Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is a fortunate choice of reading to follow Roy’s book with.

I imagine what I think will change several more times as I read the book and I hope to write some thoughts about it another time. But one thing that I am struck with immediately is how well it sets out its own context. The fragments collected here let us into a world that belonged entirely to Pessoa in his lifetime.

The edition I own (trans. Margaret Jull Costa, ed. Maria José de Lancastre) is a masterwork of literary translation. I could pause on each sentence and try forever to articulate what it is that makes it genius. The words aren’t even Pessoa’s any more – they’re the translator’s. But they leave openings to interpretation, and ultimately here the context isn’t so necessary. The fragmentary nature of the work, the fact most of the fragments are undated and thus impossible to order (no that there is much of a discernible narrative anyhow). This removes all context and lets the reader get lost within the work itself, on its own terms.