Current Reading – September 2021

In an effort to take back control of my life to be read stacks, and maybe also in an effort to get back into philosophical activity with a bit more seriousness, I’ve put myself together a little syllabus (I use the term very loosely) to get things moving again. Here, I’m sharing the books that I currently have on the go. Looking back over this post after writing it all out, it’s a fair bit all at once. Still though, it’s helping me recapture the excitement that got me into this mess in the first place, so I think it’s worth it.

My current reading stack – from the top: Montaigne‘s Essays, Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Proust’s the Way by Swann’s, Jameson’s Postmodernism, and Kant’s third critique
  1. Kant’s Critique of Judgement

Partly, I’m motivated by my desire to broaden my horizons and to fill in some gaps left over by the way in which my MA and PhD specialised. Though I wrote my MA on Kant, I focused on the political texts and the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, so besides reading a few sections of the third critique, I never had a chance to sit down and engage properly. I want to slowly make my way through it over the next two weeks or so, and then prop myself up with some secondary literature (maybe 3-4 books, 10-12 papers). After this I’m going to address a huge gap in my reading – Hegel. I’ll probably post something about that in a little while as an update to this post.

  1. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

I never doubted that reading Proust would be an experience, or that I’d be taken somewhere exciting. The problem is, of course, that it’s hard to ever sit down to read 2000 pages of anything. However, being in a lockdown that’s seemingly without end, I cracked The Way by Swann’s and now I’m in it. My plan is to read this quite slowly, 25 pages a day (or more if I want). If I try to force it, the size of the task is overwhelming, but I can do it bit by bit. At this pace, I should be done before the end of the year.

  1. Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

I must have picked this up at one of Verso’s very pleasant 90% off sales (it seems a huge part of my TBR stack is from various Verso sales). But it’s one of those books of which I’ve read sections at various times in my education (mostly undergrad, I guess), but never the whole thing. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel about it, coming back now, after a whole bunch of schooling. I’m also planning on reading Jameson’s A Singular Modernity afterwards. Where this will lead, is likely some depth of literary theory, but I’m also thinking of this as part of a broader interest in aesthetics and politics.

  1. Montaigne’s Essays

Much like Proust’s Search this is a book I’ve meant to read from start to finish for a long time. Unlike Proust, I’ve read parts of this at various times, so this is mostly a quest for reading all of them. I try to read one most days, but I’m less strict about it than I am about the Search. Nonetheless, slowly but surely I’m making my way through.

  1. Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

I’m broadly interested in Buddhist philosophy – having had a thorough introduction to Buddhist metaphysics recently while copyediting a colleague’s book on the subject (which I’ll doubtlessly write about when it comes out). I’m also somewhat interested in the connection between theology and philosophy in Buddhist thought, and this book came highly recommended. I practice meditation (and though I’ve done so on and off for a long while, lately I’ve made it a firmer part of my day), and the book contains a number of practical techniques and approaches to meditation. I’m finding the discussions of death and dying to be very interesting here, and think Rinpoche offers an interesting perspective on suffering and death.

  1. Mark Fisher’s K-Punk

This book, collecting Fisher’s blog posts and other assorted writings is just a wonderful monument to his thought. As a critic, his writing is exciting and deeply knowledgeable. Though it’s one of the bigger books I’m reading at the moment, the fact it’s an essay collection means I’m just picking it up whenever the mood strikes. I find every essay offers something interesting, and they’ve been expanding my reading list (largely, to include all of Ballard’s books).

There are two things to note here. First, this is a lot of books to be reading all at once. I didn’t include a few other collections of essays and short stories that I’ve started – I do pick them up every now and then but they’re not high on my list of priorities at this moment. Generally speaking, the only one of these books I read every day is the Proust. And in total, I planned my reading out in such a way that I won’t force myself to read more than about 350-400 pages a week, which is manageable, and gives me time to digest what I’ve read and not feel like I’m rushing. I suppose this is aided by the fact that I’m not reading with the same goals as I had in grad school – now all I’m aiming for is either pleasure (as in Proust or Montaigne) or understanding (Kant and the others). So if I go slower or faster, that’s fine too. I’m still trying to work out how my life can look balancing my scholarly and literary ambitions with the necessity of working a full time job.

The other thing to note is just how masculine the list is. To this my response is that I keep track of the books I’ve read and of the general gender break-up of my reading, and I’ve got a bit of slack because I’ve read more books by women earlier in the year – and a good chunk of my reading list is made up of books by women. A few years ago I noticed that my reading wasn’t reflecting how I thought of myself, or even what I thought I was reading. So as an experiment I read only books by women for a year (with the exception of books I needed for my PhD – but those I seldom read from cover to cover anyway). This has had two effects – the first is that it reaffirmed my commitment to reading women at an equal rate to reading men, the second is that it has shifted the way I instinctively pick books to read.

However, I wonder if this is still going to be the case with regard to my more academically inclined reading. While at the moment I have more novels by women waiting to be read than by men, I wonder if this is also the case when it comes to the philosophy books – and with the exception of the early modern period – I’m not that confident. But I am endeavouring to address this, and it’s not like it’s all that hard to find women I’m keen to read from the 20th and 21st centuries. Of course, there are many other axes at which I need to consider the diversity of my reading – obviously right now it’s very eurocentric. I am interested in addressing that as well – particularly after recently reading Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak? – I’m still working out what a nice syllabus for post-colonial literature might look like, as well as on expanding my fiction list beyond the usual.

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.

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.