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  • A Reply to Stephen Angle
  • Thorian R. Harris

Stephen Angle understands one of our disagreements to concern the proper way to balance the subjective and objective elements of coherence (li). I am said to think he makes coherence far too objective, while he says that I make coherence far too subjective. According to Angle's own account of coherence, it is "objective" in that it is constituted by our reactions to certain objective features of our situations. We might be said to "articulate" or perhaps "discover" coherence in that we are responding to something that is there, independent of our individual wishes. Yet if coherence were purely objective, it might be thought to easily become nothing more than an abstract ideal without the power to motivate. To prevent this objection—which Angle attributes to me—he claims that coherence is not merely objective, but "subjective"1 as well. Coherence, he says, requires our individual reactions. Thus coherence affects us personally and is connected to our motivations. While coherence is thus partly subjective, were one to ignore the objective nature of coherence and think it purely subjective—a position he attributes to me—the normativity of coherence would be relative to the individual. In addition to the philosophical problems associated with individual ethical relativism, this position would also fail to represent adequately the normativity of Neo-Confucian ethics. [End Page 400]

I realize now that it was a mistake to express any of my objections in terms of the "subjective" or "objective." I would not like to be thought of as championing a subjectivist interpretation of coherence as the proper alternative to Angle's objectivist account, but rather as cautioning against the use of either term—"subjective" or "objective"—in our interpretation of coherence. To focus on an individual's contribution to coherence risks missing its communal dimension; to focus on the objective or "factual" dimension to coherence risks ignoring its cultural dimension. Each is potentially distorting in its own fashion since coherence is arguably more communal than individual, and more cultural than "factual."

Perhaps our disagreement can fruitfully be considered as akin to the debate within the philosophy of science over the influence of scientific paradigms on scientific observations. I think that the sages, by providing not just their own personal example and the example of a flourishing community but also a normative vocabulary, set up a "paradigm" in something like a Kuhnian sense: that, when regarded as sages, they provide a cultural and communal normative lens through which those under their influence will "observe" coherence.2 While a community may come under the influence of a different paradigm following a crisis in its normative culture, all seeing remains paradigm-seeing.3 And such seeing is neither subjective nor objective.

The way Angle talks about the objectivity of coherence suggests that it involves paradigm-free observation of the situation, and that such "objective" features supply the possibly global normativity that he attributes to "universal coherence" (tianli). This brings us to one of my main concerns with his account of sagehood: by rooting the normativity of coherence in the "objective" features of the situation, free from the paradigmatic influence of sages, Angle effectively strips the sages of what I take to be their unique contribution to normative culture.

As for my challenge regarding the applicability of virtue ethics to Neo-Confucian ethics, there is one thing I would like to try to clarify. Angle writes: "The idea that 'sage' really stands in for 'flourishing community' is a wild exaggeration that would make no sense of the texts. Sages are individual people, just like you or me." The first thing to say is that this was not intended, on my part, as a linguistic comment, but as a philosophical one. Second, while it is fair to say that Shun was an "individual person" (assuming he actually existed, and so long as we are talking about the mundane quality of having a human body and not using this phrase to construct a philosophical picture of personhood), Shun was also a sage—and this is something that is not true of individual persons in isolation (hence my distinction between "Shun" and "Shun-the-sage...


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pp. 400-402
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