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  • Stephen Angle’s Notion of Coherence
  • Yu Yihsoong (bio)

Rather than “Principle,” “Rule,” and “Law,” Stephen C. Angle takes “Coherence” to be the translation of the concept of Li 理 in Neo-Confucianism, which is often interpreted to mean “pattern of the cosmos.” Angle’s defense of his translation is mainly based on Brook Ziporyn’s illustration of the characteristics of Li in Chinese thought (Angle 2009, pp. 35, 40, 44, 49). Ziporyn considers that Li in its simplest sense is “how to divide things up so they fit together well” (Ziporyn 2013, p. 65). And Angle further modifies this such that Li is “the valuable, intelligible way that things fit together” (Angle 2009, p. 33). I oppose neither Angle’s nor Ziporyn’s translations since Coherence is better at expressing the together-ness of Li. However, I find that Angle’s usage of Coherence particularly serves his own philosophical project, and thus might perplex readers who are familiar with the source texts he reinterprets.

Angle endeavors to reinterpret Neo-Confucianism as being the ethics of virtue. In Angle’s account, all the ethics of virtue are agent-based; they essentially emphasize the development of the agent’s capacity to respond well to her circumstances (Angle 2009, p. 53). It seems to me that Angle’s account is influenced by Aristotelian ethics, which stresses the role of intellectual virtues to achieve happiness in ethical life. However, as Jiyuan Yu’s comparison has demonstrated, unlike in the Aristotelian ethics, intellectual virtues are neither independently desirable nor more important than ethical virtues in the Confucian ethics. All virtues in the Confucian ethics are subsumed under the content of “humaneness” (ren 仁), and in Confucius’ words the way to cultivate this is “to overcome oneself and to return to propriety” (ke ji fu li 克己复礼) (Analects 12.1). Essentially this means a spiritual exercise of paring away selfishness in regard to following the moral doctrines (Yu 1998, pp. 323–326).Simply put, traditional Confucian ethics rather stresses the virtues of following moral doctrines, and this inevitably conflicts with Angle’s project, as he intends to reinterpret Neo-Confucian ethics to be suggesting the virtues of responding well to one’s circumstances. As a result, Angle chooses to redefine the metaphysical meaning of Li, which is the key term of conveying the idea of moral doctrine in Confucianism. Furthermore, in the Confucian source texts, the expression “probe of Li” (qiong li 穷理) literally means the act of cultivating the virtues. [End Page 241]

Angle chooses to apply Coherence to translate and redefine Li; this allows him to reinterpret Li to be naturalistic rather than ontological. Angle refuses to admit Li as simply meaning moral principle; he reinterprets Li to be the dynamic patterns of numerous circumstances. And hence the “probe of Li” in his reinterpretation is directed at stressing humanity’s role in constituting Li (namely the suitable reaction) that applies to different circumstances, instead of holding fast to Li (namely the moral principle) without being moved by circumstances. Simply put, it is acceptable for Angle to reconstitute the theory of the cultivation of virtue in Neo-Confucianism as being pragmatic rather than immanent. Angle has clarified that his project “is not a strict interpretation of any one Neo-Confucian thinker” (Angle 2009, p. 43), but is rather to manifest “what the Neo-Confucian thinkers would have said” in facing current issues in ethics (p. 10). Certainly, it is unfair simply to allege that Angle’s reinterpretation departs from the original meaning in his source texts. Therefore, a revelation of how it does depart is worthwhile since such departures manifest Angle’s philosophical creativity.

Angle’s redefinition of Li shares virtually the same features of the Neo-Confucianist methodology in developing the theory. The ways in which Angle redefines Neo-Confucian Li in some respects mirror how the Neo-Confucians appropriated and redefined Li for their own purposes. Angle uses his interpretation of Li to make Neo-Confucianism more accessible to agent-based ethics; he has provided a particular account for how the spiritual exercise in the Neo-Confucian way could bring epistemological development. I cannot deny that in Neo-Confucian terms virtue means the capacity to perceive...


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pp. 241-259
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