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Reviewed by:
  • Embodied Moral Psychology and Confucian Philosophy by Bongrae Seok
  • Nicholas S. Brasovan
Embodied Moral Psychology and Confucian Philosophy. By Bongrae Seok . Lanham, MD : Lexington Books , 2013 . Pp. xvi + 191 . Hardcover $60.00 , ISBN 978-0-739-14893-8 .

In Embodied Moral Psychology and Confucian Philosophy, Bongrae Seok shows that Confucianism is a cogent and relevant model of natural philosophical anthropology. The text advances Confucian studies by representing Confucianism from the perspective of contemporary cognitive science. It demonstrates that classical Confucianism is through and through a theory of embodied cognition, and cognitive science deepens our understanding of Confucian moral psychology.

The author is analytic in that he breaks down the complex concept of “embodied moral psychology” into clear and concise ideas. The text lucidly and comprehensively defines key terms, such as “embodiment” and “moral psychology” in terms of philosophy of mind and cognitive science. It likewise elucidates traditional Chinese philosophical concepts, such as xin 心 and qing 情, from a contemporary hermeneutic perspective. [End Page 1084]

The prose is clear. The argument is well organized. The author effectively supplements the main body of the text with tables and figures. Truly, the only criticisms that I have of the text are few, editorial, and insubstantial. For example, the text does not italicize terms in pinyin. Also, it misspells the pinyin for 君子: it is junzi, not “zunzi.”

Given the focus of Seok’s thesis, I believe that this book will be of particular interest to graduate students and advanced researchers in the areas of Confucian studies, philosophical anthropology, philosophy of biology, philosophy of ecology, philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and moral psychology. His research is well-grounded in contemporary cognitive science and classical Confucian texts. His extended analysis of Mencius is insightful and informative. Likewise, his briefer exegeses of the Liji 禮記, Xunzi 荀子, and Neo-Confucianism are clear, concise, correct, and creative. In this brief review, I would like to call attention to several of Seok’s central themes—followed by a few suggestions for developing or incorporating Seok’s work into subsequent studies.

Seok’s conceptual analysis distinguishes between many different senses of the term “embodied mind.” In one important sense, the mind is at least partially constituted by physiological processes. Seok provides useful complementary examples from both cognitive science and Confucianism to clarify this sense of constituted embodiment. In his substantial interpretation of the so-called “heart of commiseration” (ceyinzhixin 惻隱之心), the author shows how the body constitutes the moral experience of witnessing the suffering of others. The body constitutes the emotional experience of commiseration by simulating the physiological components of the other’s experience—for example, increased heart rate.

In another important sense, “embodied mind” means that cognitive and emotional experiences emerge within the interaction of lived bodies and their environments. Embodiment in this sense is interactive. Again, Seok connects this sense to the Confucian moral psychology suggested in Mencius’ parable of the child and the well (2A6). In this case, the moral judgment “I should help the child” is grounded on the embodied perception of another person in trouble—on a psycho-physical feeling of commiseration, which spontaneously emerges in the event of observing a child heading toward a well. The feeling, moreover, is not solely located within the insulated bounds of a subjective mind or lived body, for the feeling is an emergent quality of the interactions between the lived body and its environment. (The interactions can be characterized using the traditional Chinese category of feeling-and-response, ganying 感應.) The experience is a quality of the event. My reading of Seok along these lines is based in part on the resonance I find between his work and John Dewey’s Experience and Nature. Dewey makes the following claim, with which I believe Seok would wholeheartedly agree: Living is not an event that “goes on below the skin surface of organism; it is always an inclusive affair involving connection, interaction of what is within the organic body and what lies outside in space and time.”1

In my opinion, Seok does a fine job developing the interactive sense of embodiment into an ecological theory of embodied mind. He writes: [End Page 1085]

[T]he embodied approach often develops a holistic viewpoint...