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  • “A Leg is not the Same as Walking”: Riding my Hobby-horse on Interpretive Context
  • Roger T. Ames (bio)

In his Introduction to The Encyclopaedia Logic, G.W.F. Hegel reflects at great length upon the question “Where does philosophy begin? Where does the inquiry start?” And in this reverie, he concludes that because philosophy [End Page 517] “does not have a beginning in the sense of the other sciences” it must be the case that “the beginning only has a relation to the subject who takes the decision to philosophise.”1 For Hegel himself, it is the ultimate project of such philosophizing to bring this person—the finite spirit, the single intellect, the philosopher—into identity with God as the object of pure thinking. And it is also for Hegel that, like Confucianism, persons are not facts (like legs) but achievements (like walking) that could not do what they do and become what they are without the structures of the human community. For Hegel, the person as an abstract fact does not do justice to the process of becoming a person.

In his monograph Theorizing Confucian Virtue Politics: The Political Philosophy of Mencius and Xunzi, Sungmoon Kim argues persuasively that Confucian ethics provides the basis for theorizing Confucian politics. In my reading of Kim’s substantial work, I want to embrace Hegel’s concern about the importance of understanding the starting point of our philosophical inquiry, and I also want to heed his injunction to begin from the subjects who take the decision to philosophize—that is, human persons—remembering that for Hegel, personhood is an irreducibly social achievement in the sense that identities emerge in and through difference, being at once affirmed by oneself and conferred on one by others.

As my starting point, I want to posit a contrast between a classical Greek ontological conception of human “beings” and a classical Yijing 易 經 or Book of Changes process conception of what I will call human “becomings,” a contrast between “on-tology” as “the science of being per se” and what I will call “zoe-tology” (shengshenglun 生生論) as “the art of living,” a contrast between a human being as a noun and human becomings as a gerund. I want to try to win over political theorist Kim to the dark side called Confucian role ethics by arguing that it is a holistic, narrative understanding of persons as human “becomings” that is best able to reconcile the erstwhile distinction between li as a moral virtue and li as an achieved civic virtuosity. In order to persuade him, I want to ask after what I take to be a residual dualism that arises in Kim’s theorizing of Confucian politics where he gives temporal and logical priority to the innately virtuous human “being,” and then treats the subsequent process of social and political transformation as a secondary, epiphenomenal affair in which a given virtuous nature is actualized in practice.

John Dewey, abjuring what he calls “the philosophical fallacy,” makes this same point in alerting us to our inveterate habit of decontextualizing and essentializing one element within the continuity of experience, and then, in our best efforts to overcome this post hoc diremption, of construing this same element as foundational and causal. As a concrete example of this habit, we achieve virtuosity in the process of our ongoing conduct, abstract something called “virtue” out of the complexity of this continuing [End Page 518] experience, and then make the abstraction antecedent to and causal of the process itself. For Dewey,

. . . the reality is the growth-process itself The real existence is the history in its entirety, the history just as what it is. The operations of splitting it up into two parts and then having to unite them again by appeal to causative power are equally arbitrary and gratuitous.2

The classical Greeks have given us a substance ontology grounded in “being qua being” or “being per se” (to on he on) that guarantees a permanent and unchanging subject as the substratum for the human experience. With the combination of eidos and telos as the formal and final cause of independent things such as persons, this “sub-stance” necessarily persists through change. This...


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