Karyn Lai

Confucian personhood and the weight of tradition: developing one’s own repertoire


Confucian philosophy’s emphasis on behavioural propriety (li禮) comes at a cost.  On the one hand, behavioural norms contribute to our wellbeing as they acquaint us to prevailing practices (e.g. how to greet others; how to refuse an invitation).  Familiarisation with such practices is an important part of how we might feel at ease, or otherwise, when we interact with others.  On the other hand, there can be immense pressure to conform to entrenched practices, even if one sees through their futility or, worse, disagrees with the values that underlie some of them.  One way to get around this problem is to emphasise another key term in Confucian philosophy, benevolence (ren 仁).  In Anglophone scholarship to date, ren has primary carriage in recommending Confucianism to a contemporary audience.  Ren seems well suited to the task for, after all, the widespread interpretation of ren as Confucian value or virtue aligns quite readily with dominant conceptions of ethics in western philosophy.  I contend that this selective approach imposes a conceptual overlay that is not necessarily present in the early Confucian texts.

I suggest instead a practice-based approach that examines the problem of tradition from the perspective of lived, concrete lives.  I consider what it takes for a person to be familiarised with existing practices.  I propose that it is only through first-hand practice that a person is able to develop actions they call their own.  Over time, a person’s development of a repertory of actions come to characterise her as an individual.  A repertoire of reliably exemplary actions, I contend, are what make exemplary persons exemplary.

Reading 1

Karyn L. Lai (2012) “Knowing to Act in the Moment: Examples from Confucius’ Analects”, Asian Philosophy, 22:4, 347-364, https://doi.org/10.1080/09552367.2012.729324 

Abstract: Many scholars note that the Analects, and Confucian philosophy more generally, hold a conception of knowing that more closely approximates ‘knowing-how’ than ‘knowing-that’. However, I argue that this description is not sufficiently sensitive to the concerns of the early Confucians and their focus on self-cultivation. I propose that a particular conception of knowing—knowing to act in the moment—is better suited to capturing the Analects’ emphasis on exemplary lives in actual contexts. These investigations might also contribute to discussions on know-how in epistemology in western philosophy.

Reading 2

Karyn L. Lai (2018) “Learning to Be Reliable: Confucius’ Analects”, in Karyn Lai, et al., eds., Cultivating a Good Life in Early Chinese and Ancient Greek Philosophy: Perspectives and Reverberations, London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, pp. 193-207.

Abstract: In the Analects, Confucius remarks on the implausibility—or impossibility—of a life lacking in xin 信, reliability (2.22).  In existing discussions of Confucian philosophy, more attention is given to the Confucian value orientation, with less detail provided on the cultivation processes that underpin the successful realisation of values.  My discussion addresses this imbalance by focusing on reliability.  In doing so, I focus on the longer-term consistency in a person’s actions and behaviours in different circumstances across time.  This also allows me to bring out some fundamental elements of agency in Confucian thought, including knowledge qua practice as well as the place of tradition in developing reliability.

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