The Confucian Conception of Persons Gordy Mower



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The Confucian Conception of Persons

Gordy Mower

Brigham Young University

2995 words


Nothing in the canon of early Confucians directly corresponds with the concept of a person.1 Yet, the philosophical content of their works seems to commit Confucius and those who followed in his wake to various implications about persons. Three recent thinkers have been especially important in trying to specify the features of a Confucian theory of the person. Herbert Fingarettes’s Confucius: The Secular as Sacred is roughly of the same vintage as John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and while it is a much more slender volume, it has had within its sphere a similarly far-reaching influence.2 In the wake of Fingarette’s work, two other important essays were produced in honor of Fingarette: “Rights-Bearing Individuals and Role-Bearing Persons,” by Henry Rosemont Jr., and “Reflections on the Confucian Self: A Response to Fingarette,” by Roger T. Ames.3 Each of these thinkers sees Confucius as offering an alternative understanding to the received Cartesian view of the person. In each case, the Confucian stance on the person is interpreted as being overwhelmingly social as opposed to the western view, which is characterized as being impossibly individualistic. Against these three currents, I will argue here that the Confucian understanding of a person is not so alien to western understandings, and I will use the seminal piece by P.F. Strawson on persons to demonstrate this.4 Since I will refer to it throughout the treatment of the other authors, I will begin by briefly specifying the general outline of Strawson’s approach to persons. I will then take up in some detail Rosemont and Fingarette. This will leave only a little room at the end for Ames. I close with a last look at Strawson.

Very briefly, a person on Strawson’s account is not a pure ego in the Cartesian sense, nor does he hold a “no ownership” view of the person in which psychological states are attributed to nothing but the body. Instead his conceives of a unified entity to which we ascribe both physical qualities and states of consciousness, and in this way he straddles the main positions in the western debate over the nature of persons since Descartes.

In some ways Rosemont has the most radical interpretation of Confucius on persons. In the first part of his essay the political theory of rights comes under strong attack. He thinks it is a bankrupt outlook that cannot and should not be exported to areas of the world unfamiliar with western individualism; nor is it adequate for settling our quarrels in the west. This political outlook is tied to the inadequate radically individualistic Cartesian theory of the person. The early Confucians offer an alternative.

Rosemont’s interpretation of the Confucian alternative can be analyzed in terms of attributing predicates. Strawson seems to intimates a question to be addressed by theories of persons: What kinds of predicates can we apply to an individually constant person? The answer on Rosemont’s account seems to be that the only person-making predicates that can be applied are two-place (or greater) predicates of human relation, and the application of one-place predicates of individual quality have no part in the makeup of a person. I will argue that the nature of the two-place predicates that we ascribe to a person are dependent on the application of one-place predicates to the individuals who constitute the relation. That would seem to indicate, then, that Rosemont’s anti-individualism is too severe and that we need room for individuals in order to make the relational aspect of personhood coherent.

The philosophical mistake that Rosemont makes is in thinking that the ascription of relational predicates alone is sufficient for understanding personhood. An interpretive error that accompanies the philosophical error is in thinking that the early Confucians held such a view. In lacking any capacity for accepting the ascription of individually instantiated predicates, the very notion of an individual becomes an empty place-holder. The individual place-holder remains empty until it is put into relation with some other place-holder (or network of place-holders), but once within a relation, both now become identified by the two-place predicate complex. The individual is no longer a mere place-holder but has become a person constituted by bearing a relational role.

This goes too far beyond both ordinary discourse and the philosophical discourse of early Confucianism. Confucius has no difficulty in ascribing non-relational predicates to individuals. His favorite disciple, Yan Hui, gets sick with an illness that can be ascribed to him without any relational reference.5 Moreover, the ascription of this one-place predicate, that of being ill, to Yan Hui, makes a social, moral, and relational difference. It is not the case that mere empty place-holders are brought into relation with each other and then personhood is fully constituted by that relation. Instead, one of the individuals who constitute a relation is the bearer of a one-place predicate, that of being ill, and now the relational roles have to be re-shaped in light of the ascription of this one-place predicate. These re-shaped relational roles can accord with li (禮), role-identifying ritual, or not, and so, as Philip J. Ivanhoe has pointed out, a normatively descriptive predicate must be applied to the individual role bearer, and this too is constitutive of the person.6 but in any case, the proper li-governed relational role cannot be activated until a specific one-place predicate is ascribed to an individual.

Rosemont says that his identity is fully constituted by the set of his relations. This seems a strange thing to say, for one of Rosemont’s other philosophical enthusiasms: Leibniz.7 Leibniz’s view is that persons are constituted of the set of all predicates that are ascribed to them, past, present, and future.8 Certainly Leibniz is on stronger ground here than Rosemont. What reason could we have for saying that of all the predicates that we normally seem to ascribe to a person, the only ones that count toward that individual’s personhood are the relational ones? Imagine asking Confucius, who in the Analects survives his major illness while Yan Hui does not, if he was the person who was sick at such and such a time in such and such a place. On Rosemont’s account, to do so amounts to an ascription error. Rosemont would have Confucius answer that that is not the kind of predicate that can be ascribed to his person. Confucius, however, would answer just like the rest of us, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending on whether or not the details of the situation had been identified correctly. At Analects 7.19 when the Duke of She asks one of Confucius’ disciples about him, the disciple makes no reply. When Confucius hears this he asks his disciple, “Why did you not just say: ‘He is the type of person who is so passionate that he forgets to eat, whose joy renders him free of worries, and who grows old without noticing the passage of the years.’” In describing his own person, Confucius ascribes a chain of one-place quality predicates to himself.

This stands in stark contrast to Rosemont. He imagines having a conversation with the shade of Confucius and asking him, “Who am I?” Instead of answering the way Confucius does about himself in the Analects, that is, ascribing one-place quality predicates, Rosemont has Confucius answer by listing all the two-place relational predicates of Rosemont’s life. He is the son of his parents, the husband to his wife, the father of his children, etc. Rosemont tells us that his identity is totality of this set of relational roles. This totality is affected by changes in any of the other relations; if he becomes a widower, for instance, his relational roles adjust accordingly. He says he is the father of Samantha to her teachers, to her future husband, to her future in-laws, etc. This last relational role, however, changes when some one-place predicate is assigned to one of the relational parties.9 To say, “I am the father of Samantha,” does not describe the full relational role articulated by saying, “I am the father of Samantha, who is sick.” True, there may be something embodied in the role of father pertaining to sick children, but this is not the same for every one-place predicate. Some daughters are criminals, some are traveling in Turkey, and some fathers are disabled. The father/daughter relational role must be calibrated in terms of the combination of these ascribed one-place predicates in their infinite variety. All of this is a matter of ordinary discourse and ordinary discourse as contained in the Analects; it is only by over-emphasizing our relational identities that we lose track of the commonplace notion that our individual characteristics have an affect on our relations.

Now Rosemont might respond by suggesting that he had never meant to eliminate the ascription of one-place predicates, although at least rhetorically he does this. He might say that, “What the early Confucian writings reflect, however, is that there are no disembodied minds, nor autonomous individuals,” and that these dimensions require predicates of internal subjective states. Fingarette takes the position that internal state predicates cannot be properly ascribed to persons and that the Confucian Analects do not do so. On both of these counts Fingarette is wrong.

Even though Fingarette’s conception might best be characterized as a behavioral interpretation of Confucius, his position remains important. While it seems to be directed at western Cartesianism, it was clear from the beginning that the interpretation of the Confucian metaphysical person was being used to advance an anti-western conception of the moral and political person. The Kantian transcendental self is the main target, and by the Kantian transcendental self I mean both that self which is the subject and unifying owner of conscious experience, and the noumenal self which is transcendent of all phenomenal experience and thus of cause and effect relations and therefore is an entity that can be a free and autonomous person. With the rise of communitarianism the Kantian political person has been under much attack,10 and Confucianism has come to be seen in some quarters as lending plausible support for communitarianism.11 So while the behaviorism may seem dated to some, Fingarette remains an important voice in the current work on classical Chinese philosophy.

Fingarette targets personal choice, doubt, guilt, and the emotional states associated with the premier Confucian virtue of ren (仁) and its opposite quality, yu (pinyin you, 憂). “The metaphor,” he says “of an inner psychic life in all its ramifications so familiar to us, simply isn’t present in the Analects, not even as a rejected possibility.”12 For Fingarette, internal subjective states are in no way constitutive of a person in Confucius’ philosophy. The individual person is not an ultimate atom,13 and the individualistic ego with all its Cartesian connotations is not the essence of a human.14 Instead, what it means to be a person is to establish human relationships15 and to participate with others in communal ceremonies,16 indeed, society itself is perceived as one vast ceremonial performance.17 The person, then, on Fingarette’s account of Confucius, is an entirely communal entity joined to others in ritual motions.

Fingarette locates his philosophical roots in Wittgenstein, Ryle, Austin, Wisdom, and in P.F. Strawson. This last source, however, seems unlikely since Strawson addresses why we ascribe to persons the kind of predicates that Fingarette denies are found in early Confucian discourse. According to Fingarette, questions of this type simply never occur to Confucius, and his philosophical sympathy is with the Confucius of his interpretation in not appealing to any such occult qualities. Ryle’s anti-Cartesianism is clearly the main guide for Fingarette.18

It should be recalled, however, that Descartes begins his Meditations leading to the primacy of the subjective self by considering dreams. If Confucius really invokes no inner psychic life of anything like the Cartesian ego, then we should expect no talk of dreams. In fact, though, there is a reference to dreams, and it is revelatory of more than the obviously subjective dream content. At Analects 7.5 Confucius says, “How seriously I have declined! It has been so long since I last dreamt of meeting the Duke of Zhou.” The Duke a Zhou was one of the ancient sages and was considered a preeminent model of virtue. Confucius’ statement obviously belies Fingarette’s declaration that there are no references to the inner psychic life in the Analects, but it is also tinged with another notion that Fingarette claims is absent: guilt. More on that in a minute, but for now to touch on the nature of dreams themselves. Dreams constitute an aspect of ordinary inner psychic experience. As Strawson has pointed out, if our expressions of such inner states are to make sense at all, they must be ascribable to a private owner, to an individual person. They cannot be experiences having no ‘owner’, nor can they be transferred to some other owner.19 And Confucius accords with all of this ordinary understanding. His dreams belong to him as a person without reference to any other person.

It is important to Fingarette’s project that there be no notion of guilt in the Analects because having it so undermines the western attributes associated with personhood: choice, autonomy, and responsibility. The closest Confucius gets to guilt, according to Fingarette, is in the concept of ch’ih, and ch’ih “looks ‘outward’ not ‘inward’.”20 Thus, ch’ih refers to shame rather than guilt. Other passages of the Analects where Confucius is commonly translated as making an internal reference are explained away by Fingarette21.Yet in the dream reference of 7.5 Confucius clearly takes himself to task for not measuring up to his own moral standards as they influence his dreams. This can only be understood internally because dreams are so private that no outward shame indictment could effectively be rendered. The dreamer could simply not give a public report of the dreams in question. The content of the dream is internal, and it is related to a sense of guilt in Confucius.

A careful reading of the Analects shows that Fingarette runs into similar difficulties with choice, doubt, and the internal states of joy and anxiety associated with the all encompassing Confucian virtue of ren and its opposite character trait of yu (you). For instance, at Analects 2.4 Confucius outlines his spiritual development, and this seems to have involved a choice for the life of learning that he made when he was fifteen. Moreover, at Analects 9.2 the choice for learning is presented as having associated opportunity costs; one who follows that path of learning cannot also be an expert archer or charioteer. Back again to 2.4, he says that in his course of development, after he had made the choice of a life of learning, he became free from doubts about that choice. On several occasions Confucius asks his disciples what they would do if they had the choice,22 and at the death of Yan Hui he says that he would have treated Hui as son at his funeral, but he was prevented from it by his disciples against his choice.23 These passages which identify possible alternative paths a person might take are unintelligible without a concept of choice. And since it is possible within the discourse of early Confucianism to make a choice, it is also possible to have doubts about the choices made, and to experience guilt as a result of choice. Similar findings can be advanced about the joy one feels when cultivating virtue and the anxiety one feels when one does not.

The corrective to Rosemont and Figarette is to reintroduce the need for the individual in the concept of a person. Ames recognizes this, and he moves in that direction, but his individual person is entirely idiosyncratic. He rightly recognizes that for Fingarette, and by extension Rosemont, “the self is an empty room.”24 For Ames, the Confucian self is inseparable from the person.25 The individual is unique in the sense of being “a single and unsubstitutable particular” artwork, but it is not unique in the sense of being an isolatable atom. It is the latter sense which gives rise to those despised characteristics of the western person: “autonomy, independence, equality, privacy, freedom, will, and so on.”26 The person is thus constituted of a unique individual, but this unique person is “irreducibly social.”27 Really, this unique being is identified as unique because of the unique set of relations to which it belongs, and it stands in stark contrast to “autonomous individuality” of the western person. While Ames takes a step in the right direction in correcting for the no-self views of Rosemont and Fingarette, he does not supply a rich enough layer of individuality to accommodate the personally internal states of the Analects. For Confucius the Analects reveal a whole range of rich private subjective experiences in addition to li-governed social roles.

Rosemont, Fingarette, and Ames have indeed identified a genuine weakness in the western concept of a person. The western approach has not given adequate attention to ascribing social relational predicates to the person. The resultant theoretical direction, however, has been extraordinarily reactionary in denying anything but social relational predicates. A better approach is the one of Strawson’s which already intimates the positive aspects identified by the three interpreters of Chinese philosophy. Strawson conceives of a person as an entity to which we ascribe both corporeal qualities and states of consciousness. This, however, does not satisfy the complaint of these Confucian interpreters. Human relations are not mere corporeal states. Strawson recognizes this. He states, “What I am suggesting is that it is easier to understand how we can see each other, and ourselves, as persons, if we think first of the fact that we act, and act on each other, and act in accordance with a common human nature.”28 We are, he thinks, “inextricably bound up with the others, interwoven with them.”29 A refinement of Strawson’s conception of a person could easily include this: A person is an entity to which we ascribe 1) corporeal predicates, 2) states of consciousness, and 3) interpersonal relational predicates.





1 By ‘Confucian’ I refer to Kongzi (Confucius), Mengzi (Mencius), and Xunzi as identified in the classical pre-Han writings the Analects, the Mengzi (or the Mencius) and the Xunzi respectively. The authors that I am commenting on for this topic are predominantly concerned with Confucius and that is how they refer to Kongzi. I follow them in both of these particulars. When I refer to the early Confucians, I have in mind shared features of all three of the iconic pre-Han figures, but again, in following the literature I am commenting on, I will glean textual support exclusively from the Analects. The discussion might be enhanced by extending more consideration to the writings of Mengzi and Xunzi.

2 Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1998).

3 Henry Rosemont, Jr., “Rights-Bearing Individuals and Role-Bearing Persons,” and Roger T Ames, “Reflections on the Confucian Self: A Response to Fingarette” in Mary I. Bockover, ed., Rules, Rituals, and Resposibility: Essays Dedicated to Herbert Fingarette (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1991).

4 P.F. Strawson, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (London: Methuen, 1959).

5 See Amy Olberding, “The Consumation of Sorrow: An Analysis of Confucius’ Grief for Yan Hui,” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 54, No. 3 (July 2004) 279 - 301.

6 See Philip J, Ivanhoe, “The Shade of Confucius: Social Roles, Ethical Theory, and the Self,” in Polishing the Chinese Mirror: Essays in Honor of Henry Rosemont, Jr. Chandler and Littlejohn, ed. (New York: Global Scholarly Publications, 2008) 38 – 39.

7 See Fred Dalmayr, “On the Natural Theology of the Chinese,” in Chandler and Littlejohn, 162 – 175.

8 See G.W. Leibniz, “Primary Truths,” Philosophical Essays, trans. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber (Indianapolis: Hackett 1989) 30.

9 Rosemont, 89 – 90.

10 See for instance Michael J. Sandel, “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self,” in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology, ed. Robert Goodin and Philip Pettit (Malden, MA: B;ackwell), 239 – 247.

11 See for instance Daniel Bell’s entry “Communitarianism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/communitarianism/.

12 Fingarette, 45.

13 Ibid., 76.

14 Ibid., 77.

15 Ibid., 76.

16 Ibid., 77.

17 Ibid., 76 – 77.

18 See Ivanhoe, 41 – 42.

19 Strawson, 95 – 98.

20 Fingarette, 30.

21 Ibid., 31 – 34.

22 See for example Analects 11.26.

23 Analects 11.11.

24 Ames, 105.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., 108.

27 Ibid., 109.

28 Strawson, 112.

29 Ibid.






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