Today, I am back in my rickety boat with all the gaping holes in the bottom, drifting into deep-- and for me-- very unchartered waters. I know I should turn back-- but it's this or go back to work. So I leave you this page, dear readers, asking for your understanding that I write in the spirit of questioning-- not answering.
Right off, many of you will notice the object of my desire-- at left. Imagine him here not as a victorious athlete, but rather as Meno's slave. We know that our man from Thessaly arrived on a trip to Athens with a large retinue of slaves. One of these slaves became forever after immortalized in Plato's Socratic dialogue, the Meno. Clever, he was perhaps also very handsome (that's how I like to imagine him, at least).
And so, during the course of a pleasant dialogue that occurred between Meno, and then his slave and Socrates, we learn that, according to Plato, the purpose of all dialogue-- indeed the aim of education itself-- is to recover the knowledge that already exists within us. Learning, then, is a kind of recollection; so that Truth, rather than being knowledge deducted empirically from the world around us, exists a priori within all of us and is knoweable through human reason.
As I mentioned here, I have been re-listening to Dreyfus' lectures on Kierkegaard. In the first lecture Dreyfus talks about the scene in the Meno in which Socrates teaches a foreign-born slave how to solve the Pythagorean Theorem. Socrates, by asking the slave a series of questions leads him to rationally come up with the solution to the theorem; thereby, declares Plato, proving that knowledge is innate. Dreyfus then goes on to explain that not only does Plato prove that truths are universal (not dependent on context) but also that Greek civilization and the heights of its cultural achievements (effective utilization of human reason) were in fact open to everyone (as long as they spoke Greek perhaps?) A slave yes, but even still participation in culture was open to him.
Now, fast forward 2500 years into the future. My buddy in Beijing and I are debating once again about Daniel Bell (disguised in the form of Samuel Huntington). I wanted to make the point (which I stand by) that universalist thinking is strongly inherent to Western philosophical and religious traditions. But again, this is not to say that 1) the Western tradition is exclusively or categorically universalist; nor is it to 2) deny universalist approaches that exist in other cultures. Still, I would argue that Western political and moral discourse tends to couch its principles as universal and objective truth.
My buddy in Beijing, however, urged me to not be so quick to discount strains of universalism in Chinese thought as well, and mentioned the famous Mencius episode where the philosopher argues for the innate goodness of humans.
Here is the wiki version:
To show innate goodness, Mencius used the example of a child falling down a well. Witnesses of this event immediately feel
“ alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child's parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor because they dislike the reputation [of lack of humanity if they did not rescue the child]...
The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.
Is this the same quality of universalism seen in the Meno, though?
That Mencius is positing that all human beings would feel a similar compassion for a child in mortal danger is "universalist" of course in the sense that he is saying that this is a trait which all humans share by virtue of our shared humanity. But are all shared human traits universalist in the philosophical sense (ie, a truth derived from human reason which can be universally applied despite context)?
That is my question.
I have no real answer, because I have not read enough Mencius. I will just briefly explain my concerns (with regard to this particular passage only) and then hope one of you will leave a comment to give me something to think about regarding this issue.
My first concern I have already stated above: aren't shared human traits (even universally shared human traits) somehow fundamentally different from Plato's innate knowledge as truth? This is really slippery to me.... because, of course, Mencius' position is based on an innate concept of virtue-- and that perhaps could fall under the aegis of innate knowledge. Except if I were to accept that Mencius' concept of innate virtue is a form of innate knowledge, I would want to make sure this can be differentiated from other shared human traits-- for example those derived from instinct or emotion. So, out first question should be to ask, what is Mencius' innate virtue based on?
Mencius makes it clear that he is basing his argument on feeling-- not rationally-derived a priori concepts. And, this is my problem. It's not that all people rationally know that having compassion for a child in mortal danger is virtuous. Rather it is something we all feel. It is a shared (ie "universal") human trait. The Chinese is 心 xin, which I assume is the same meaning as the Japanese (heart/mind) and it appears a lot! And what does the heart mind do? It feels or is thoughtful (思う）-- differentaited from sense perception (感覚→ 感觉）as well as from rational thinking 考.
Like sense perceptions and like rationality, however, feeling is something bequeathed to all humans by nature 天. And, it is through the functioning of feeling, or thoughtfulness, that one arrives at virtuous action 徳.
Is this knowledge?
I would argue (based on my reading of this passage as well as my understanding of the Japanese) that even if Mencius was referring to "knowing," that this "knowing" is based fundamentally on one's heart-felt/embodied (心）engagement （得） with the world (in contrast to Platonic a priori notions which are not based on knowledge obtained from the senses or feelings, etc.)
This, therefore, leads to the point of my question: Yes, the child in a well episode posits a human universalism, but my feeling is, being based on 1) human feeling and 2) engagement with the world-- that the universalism we see in this particular Mencius passage is not based on a priori concepts of Truth (as in Plato)-- but rather has more in common with other shared human traits (such as the universalism of falling in love). And, it is this linking of universal principles with truth via Greek rationality that we see in Plato and that characterizes the Western philosophical tradition, which would lead Dreyfus to state that
Plato proves that Greek civilization and the heights of its cultural achievements were in fact open to everyone; a slave yes, but even still participation in culture was open to him.
Indeed, I do not think Mencius' episode carries the same weight (for to say that, "you must do x, because it is something we all inherently feel" is an altogether different kettle of fish than to say, "you must do x because it is objectively Right." The former has a much stronger emphasis on dialogue and varying emphases depending on time and place, for example (as logically speaking, if something is true than it is so despite context).
Has everyone read Chris' really interesting post called Embracing Your Inner Elitist? I left a comment to his post trying to make a very similar point with regard to Bell's House of Scholars versus Plato's Philosopher-Kings. While at a glance Bell's advance of a "House of Scholars" is reminiscent of Plato's philosopher-kings, in fact, while Plato's ideas are derived ultimately from universal principles (expounded as truth) we do not see the same claims in Bell (disguised as Mencius); and being based in time (historicity) and location (culture), I really do think Bell's ideas are more fluid and open to various interpretations and applications than we are seeing in reviews etc.
Having said all this, I guess I had better explicitly state the following (otherwise Shunya is sure to call me on it): while I do think there is a significant difference between universally shared ethical traits versus universal principles which are "true in all possible contexts," this is not to say that I think Chinese culture is particularly exclusionary. Like any other cultures, I think Chinese culture is ever-changing and multi-faceted-- hence it remains flexible and indeed open. But, not unlike French civilization, I think access to it remains dependent on the acceptance (and acquisition) of language, values and cultural practices.
Finally, one last point, on East Meets West: Bell takes a huge risk by delivering his ideas in a Socratic dialogue. Some have felt a strong aversion to this format, but I think it should be remembered that a philosophical dialogue has different aims than literature and while the characters (Demo, Lo et al) are every bit as one-dimensional as Socrates, Meno and the slave, still the format is employed with a commitment to seeing truth as occurring in the dialectic. This is something that Chris has brought up several times (if I am understanding him correctly, that is). I think it is a great point-- and it one that I share.
If no one has read this book (Moral Foundations: Mencius versus Kant, Rousseau & Nietzshe) by Francois Jullien, I may try and get a copy in Japanese-- but I've got to tell you, I would much prefer to read it in English (has it not been translated?) The child in a well anecdote appears right on the cover and his other books look interesting.... any thoughts?