Why Mencius was a Philosopher

There’s a debate, of sorts, raging about whether the likes of Confucius should be considered ‘philosophy’. The debate was occasioned by a piece in Aeon, which was itself a response to a widely discussed NYT op ed by Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield. To be blunt, I think the Aeon article is pretty bad, and the idea that nothing worth calling philosophy exists outside the tradition begun by Plato (who inherited a tradition, actually) rather obviously silly. The piece’s flaws have been amply demonstrated by others, so I won’t belabor that particular point. The debate has raised some interesting questions though.

Is it worth asking what makes something ‘philosophy’ and trying to answer in such a way that we have clear identity conditions? I doubt it, and I doubt it can be done in any interesting and non-question begging way. Still, the Aeon article is right about one thing: not everything wise and good is philosophy. I think there’s a lot of wisdom—and philosophical insight—to be found in The Godfather films. So why would I not count those as philosophy while I will count Mencius, for example?

The answers has to do with the immediacy and explicitness with which Mencius—and the long tradition of interpreting, criticizing, expanding, and applying his thought that has carried on for 2000 plus years—addresses recognizably philosophical issues. I published a paper in the, ahem, Journal of Chinese Philosophy where I draw on Mencius and Martha Nussbaum to consider some questions regarding human nature and morality. That Mencius is Chinese and Nussbaum American is not unimportant, but it is largely incidental to the philosophical argument I’m trying to make—I draw on two thinkers with a lot to say on the matter, and that’s about it. If Nussbaum is a philosopher in talking about these things how can we not count Mencius as a philosopher as well?

One more point: what makes drawing on Mencius worth while is not diversity for its own sake, but the very interesting fact that Mencius and Nussbaum draw on sets of conceptual resources that only partly overlap—the space of possible philosophical moves is expanded when we look beyond Plato’s heirs. Hence the value of comparative philosophy.

On Poverty and Fancy Cars

So here’s an argument we’ve all heard:

It would be wrong of me to choose not to help a child in peril in order protect some kind of material good—a fancy car, expensive clothes, etc. Each of us, however, is in a morally comparable position every day, able to help a needy child at the cost of relatively modest amount of money. Specifically, modulo some plausible calculations, by donating $200 or so to an effective charity we can extend the life of a child living in extreme poverty. So, by choosing not to donate the $200, each of us who are in a position to do so are as morally culpable as the person who allows a child to perish for the sake of a car.

Now, versions of this argument—offered most famously by Peter Unger and Peter Singer in various places over the years—have probably done a whole lot of good, certainly more than most philosophical arguments. And I would hardly want to discourage people from donating to the likes of Oxfam. Still, it is a transparently bad argument, or so it seems to me. Keep Reading…

Metaethical Musings II

It seems “a bit” by my blog’s standards isn’t a particularly brief amount of time. Apologies if anyone was waiting on pins and needles for this follow up.

What I am playing around with is something like this. We’re supposing that in the first instance a moral judgment to the effect ‘x is wrong’ is a statement of a social fact. Specifically it points to the fact that x violates a norm recognized by the relevant community and incorporated into its practices. As noted in the previous post, one way to avoid the worry of ethical relativism is to appeal to a trans-cultural good which can be used to adjudicate competing such norms accepted by different communities. If we define what counts as human flourishing in a way that doesn’t depend on the particular values of any one community, or which can be recognized and accepted across diverse communities, we can use that to judge how conducive a given community’s norms are of human flourishing. In a rough way this would capture the strategies of Aristotelian virtue ethics and the Natural Law Theory as understood by Aquinas, but in a way that acknowledges and accommodates the fundamentally social nature of morality as well as the fact of moral diversity. Together these point in the direction of the less metaphysically loaded but still Aristotelianish Capabilities Approach of Martha Nussbaum….Continue

Metaethical Musings

I’ve been reading a book of essays by a legal theorist who draws a lot from philosophy. He supports legal positivism position by appeal to a generic kind of non-cognitivist metaethical position, which he contrasts with moral realism. What interests me is that he defines the latter as holding to some versions of the claim that moral judgments are true or false and this in a way that is “mind independent.”  This is to say he conflates “objective” and “mind independent.” As typical as this is, it strikes me, and has for a long time, as odd. Keep reading…

Tony Bruckner 1953-2014

Tony Bruckner, who died a couple of weeks ago, was my thesis advisor, having overseen my dissertation on Jerry Fodor and naturalized semantics. I also took a number of courses with him as a graduate student at UCSB. Tony was 61 and doubtless at the hight of his powers—this one of those untimely deaths that just seem particularly unfair. Though my philosophical interests have kind of drifted away from the close, rigorous analytic philosophy he excelled at, I’d like to think I acquired at least some small measure of his truly remarkable ability to work through an argument with exacting care, precision and detail. I’d also like to acknowledge a particularly good bit advice he offered when I began working on my dissertation, which was something to the effect that “you’ve read enough—start writing.” And so I did. One last thing has to be said in any remembrance of Dr. Bruckner: as anyone who knew or worked with him will tell you, he was an uncommonly generous and kind person.

More on Gender Roles

Why would we want gender roles? What good can they serve or further? The answer I want to consider is diversity understood in a specific way. For this I’ll rely on Peter Hershock’s gloss in his book Valuing DiversityDrawing on a particularly intriguing reading of the Buddhist idea of Interdependent Arising, Hershock distinguishes diversity from variation:

Variation is a means-to and has the meaning-of generating novel incidents of nonidentity—a process of increasing the quantity of individual things present. Diversity is a function of relational dynamics that are conducive to the production and sustained presence of a particular quality of interaction: a distinctive complexion of interdependence. Diversification is a means-to and has the meaning-of generating creatively enriching patterns of mutual contribution to sustainably shared welfare. It marks the advent of a distinctive qualitative shift in how things are present. (48-49) Keep reading…

Xunzi on Language III

One last bit on Xunzi and language. I think Xunzi holds to neither a realist nor a nominalist metaphysics—I don’t see that this question would have occurred to him either. Rather his view seems really rather straightforward. We should draw pragmatically valuable distinctions between things according to their type (lei), and we do this by looking at things to discover genuine similarities…continue.

Xunzi on Language II

I think a lot of the apparent inconsistencies in Xunzi, as well as a lot of the arguments his remarks on language have occasioned, are due to some confusions that can cleared up if we make more use of some modern analytic philosophy of language. In particular I’m inclined to argue:

1)       Xunzi does hold to an externalist account of reference in the neighborhood of those defended by Hilary Putnum or Tyler Burge. Read more…

Meta-Ethical Musings

There are things we know about the world because of the achievements of the physical sciences and that are the bases for widely held beliefs. I have in mind things like the fact that the water is H20. It’s safe to say few people come to believe these scientific claims by way of scientific investigation of the world. Rather, most people–I would guess a vast majority of people–who believe water is H20 do so because they were taught to believe this rather than as a result of their own rigorous empirical explorations of chemistry. Consequently we can readily distinguish two kinds of questions here. One kind would concern the nature of a scientific claim like “water is H20”, and another would concern the processes by which people come to believe a claim like water is H20. At first glance anyway, it would be odd to think that we could learn much about scientific claims–whether they’re true or false, what makes them true or false, the basic nature of the world they try to describe–by looking at the processes by which people typically arrive at their scientific beliefs, the accuracy of those beliefs, the level understanding of science or the natural world evinced, and so on. Surely the burden would be on the person–a certain kind of scientific anti-realist–who thinks we can connect these two kinds of questions to make the case. Keep reading…