- A Response to Thorian Harris
Philosophy is best conducted face-to-face, because it is in the continual back-and-forth of learning and teaching that takes place in conversation that we make the most progress. The opportunity to reply to a charitable and yet challenging review of one's book, I have now discovered, is a surprisingly close approximation to face-to-face philosophy. This is all the more true when I have already learned from the reviewer's teachers and was responding (in part) to them in my book; and now Thorian Harris offers his own perspective. I hope that my response here, and Harris' subsequent rejoinder, can help make the conversation that much more constructive. I will focus on two points: the issue of whether concrete exemplars drop out of my account in favor of an abstract ideal of sagehood, and the question of whether my account is too individualist, perhaps because of my drawing too much on a "virtue ethics" framework.
Striving to be a sage, in my account, means striving to realize Coherence or harmony (which are fundamentally the same thing). Harris worries that in order to [End Page 397] balance out the subjective or particularlist aspect of perceiving Coherence, I lean too far in an objectivist direction, with the result that "the norm of sagehood will lose much of its content, abstracted as it is from particular narratives, contexts, and personalities." Instead of modeling on exemplars, Harris suggests that I may be left with such an abstract ideal of sagehood that a vague notion of "natural patterns" is doing the actual normative work, and he implies that this impoverished, remote abstraction would lose much of the power of Confucian ethical teaching.
Harris is right to see that the balance between the objective and subjective dimensions of Coherence is an important fulcrum in my account of Neo-Confucianism, and I appreciate his challenges around the issue. Coherence depends in important ways on us. It is, I have argued, the valuable and intelligible way that things fit together, and it is we who find things to be "valuable" and "intelligible." Coherence is not something abstract and disconnected from us and from our reactions to the world, but rather is partly constituted by these reactions. On the other hand, I think Harris goes slightly too far in a subjectivist direction when he says that humans "create" Coherence in response to changing contexts. It all depends on what, exactly, one means by "create," but I think that a word such as "articulate" would be more precise. To say that we find and articulate Coherence better honors the objective dimension of Coherence, which all Neo-Confucians recognize. To illustrate: Harris says that "warfare has its own coherence and yet can be horrific and normatively bankrupt." How do we know what to make of a given war? Is it simply up to those involved and their reactions? No: one of the fundamental points about Coherence is the way that any given pattern of Coherence both contains smaller sub-patterns and is nested in larger ones. Choosing to ignore these relationships, or being ignorant of them, does not mean that a war of conquest suddenly counts as Coherent. The Coherence of a specific pattern of international relations depends on how it fits within these broader patterns, all the way up to Universal Coherence (tianli, the harmony of everything). This is how Zhu Xi explains that certain punitive expeditions undertaken by ancient sages were proper, while most wars are wrong.
Two more points about Coherence, objectivity, and exemplars. First, I go some way toward answering Harris' objection about relying on an abstract theory of Coherence on pages 58-59. I contrast the Neo-Confucian position with that of Francis Hutcheson, the eighteenth-century sentimentalist moral philosopher. Since Hutcheson believed that our moral sense directed us toward those actions that produce "the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers," it was possible for subsequent philosophers to abstract away from the reactions of the moral sense—on which Hutcheson himself had placed great weight—and simply use an objective notion of the "greatest happiness" as their ethical standard. Even if the resulting...