The Vulnerability of Integrity in Early Confucian Thought

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Michael D. K. Ing
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michael D. K. Ing’s new book aims to integrate the world of early Chinese thought and literature in the global discourse of moral philosophy from a unique angle: the sense of moral loss, on the part of the exemplary agent, in the handling of irresolvable moral dilemmas, and, significantly, the measure of distress that comes with it in certain cases. This angle is unique not because the problem of conflicting values in Chinese intellectual history has not been discussed before, nor because the topic of negative emotions in Chinese thought and literature has not yet been broached. It is neither the case that the meeting of the two—that is, the role of negative emotions in handling moral dilemmas—has not been highlighted in the contemporary discourse of virtue ethics. (The bibliography for these three topics would be extremely long. Some of the relevant contributions appear in Ing’s bibliography, although not always duly acknowledged or accounted for in the main body.) Rather, the topic of Ing’s book is unique because many of his interlocutors in the field of Chinese philosophy, particularly those oriented towards its contemporary applications, have so far chosen to emphasize concepts of sagehood and focus on the theoretical possibility of harmonizing all values without moral remainder (see chapter 2, “The Invulnerability of Integrity: Contemporary Scholarship”). This scholarly tendency Ing calls the “harmony thesis”—the argument that “when confronted with complex situations, the imaginative moral agent is able to tend to all values at stake,” without overriding any one of them and generating feelings of guilt or regret (142, and chapter 2; compare to the use of the same term, and to the corresponding phenomenon, in Karen Stohr, “Moral Cacophony: When Continence Is a Virtue,” The Journal of Ethics 7 (2003): 339–363).

Ing does not historicize the “harmony thesis” or examine its place in a cross-cultural context, and that is regrettable. What he does, however, is stress the ubiquitous presence of what he identifies as “ontological” rather than merely “epistemic” irresolvable value conflicts (47 ff.) in the anecdotal, rhetorical, and historiographical literature of early China, while directing attention to the role of sorrow and regret over the ultimately overridden value. Building on his resistance to the “harmony thesis,” and sometimes taking it merely as a loose thematic framework, Ing advocates the ethical value of “vulnerability”—a term he uses throughout the book with much flexibility (and perhaps not enough self-reflection) to apply to different, even if not unrelated, notions: from moral excellence, through emotional resilience and personal welfare, up to all-too-stable world views. These and other applications of “vulnerability” all meet, without differentiation, in the final chapter, “Conclusion: The Value of Vulnerability.”

By slicing the cake of early Chinese literary traditions in this way, Ing presents a discussion that touches on various familiar themes, and draws them together in order to reconsider the relation between “vulnerability” (or vulnerabilities) and the very notion of moral perfection—whether that be conceived as a state or a process. Among the themes woven together in his discussions are the commitment of the social leader to the good of the group at the occasional price of his own moral purity, the recurring conflict between familial ties and political loyalties, and the constant negotiation of ritual propriety in light of changing circumstances. The range of cases examined is broad, and sometimes transcends the confines of irresolvable value conflicts, essentially moral conflicts, or even conflicts at all (especially if we take into consideration the cultural context that produced a given anecdote rather than the philosophical aspects later generations may or did identify in the text). While some readers would find these features distracting, others’ attention may be drawn by the main thrust of the book and its provocative framing. In addition, several of the discussion topics that crisscross throughout Ing’s book—like the culture-dependent value of emotional vulnerability, the function of ritual in managing this specific sense of vulnerability, and the modern reception of early Chinese ethical thought—will be of interest to readers of different backgrounds, even if they often do not gain systematic treatment.   

Of further interest is the place of The Vulnerability of Integrity in the growing field of Chinese philosophy. Facing the critique of experts in Euro-American philosophical traditions on the one hand, and historians of premodern China on the other hand, advocates of Chinese philosophy who insist on its relevance for contemporary lives and discourses have come to consciously contemplate their own intellectual commitments and methodological paths. These are often articulated by reference to the demands of a viable comparative framework, and to points on a scale that runs between (cultural) contextualization and decontextualization, (historical) reconstruction and (philosophical) construction, loyalty to the past and commitment to the present (see, e.g., several of the contributions in The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Chinese Philosophy Methodologies, edited by Sor-hoon Tan, Bloomsbury 2016). While some would argue against the false dichotomy that underlies the concept of such a scale, others would point to the tensions between the different commitments—especially when leaving the realm of theory to review the state of actual practice. In this respect, Ing walks a curious middle path that seems partly pre-contemplated (13–15) and partly an unintended reflection of a midpoint in an ongoing process of challenge and corresponding change that characterizes the field.

This middle path is apparent in different aspects of Ing’s methodology and interpretation. He laudably chooses to broaden the selection of textual sources beyond the few compilations that gain most attention from philosophers of early Chinese thought (i.e., the Lunyu, Mengzi, and Xunzi), in the stated purpose of representing the different voices that participated in past discourses rather than projecting backwards an over-defined tradition based on a single text and misperceptions of authorship and presumed orthodoxy (13–14). At the same time, however, he is not ready to give up the much debated label “Confucian/ism” (12–13), or propositions about what “early Confucians” presumably “believed” (e.g., 8, 143, 166), as if desiring for the book the appeal of a study of a single, continuous, ancient philosophical tradition—even though between the covers this assumption is clearly denied. Likewise, Ing commendably consults early Chinese texts of different literary forms, cultural contexts, and textual histories, yet insists on categorizing them according to a dubious taxonomy of “early Confucian texts,” “quasi-Confucian texts,” and “non-Confucian texts” (e.g., 13, 103, 177, 190). The fact that he does not neglect to consult and engage commentarial traditions is noteworthy, but the way he employs them is sometimes misguided. He is sensible to the peculiar semantic range of the Chinese terms he engages in his analyses, but some of the translation choices he makes represent the target discourse better than the source material (in general, concept terms that are central to Ing’s analysis, like “integrity” and “vulnerability,” are kept obscure by varying usage, whereas definitions of Chinese terms are often overdetermined). This amounts to significant fluctuation between what Ing refers to as “Sinological standards” and evident enthusiasm over “representing the texts in ways that are compelling to those living at this time” (15).

To conclude, Ing’s book does not equally accomplish all the goals it sets out to achieve, and readers’ responses will most likely vary as well. In any event, students of Chinese philosophy will benefit from considering its methodological stance, and readers of other academic as well as political and social circles would find in The Vulnerability of Integrity a culturally-unique reiteration of a plea, shared by several contemporary virtue ethicists, for the recognition of guilt and regret as markers not of moral failure but of moral stature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sharon Sanderovitch is a Thomas Arthur Arnold Postdoctoral Fellow at the Zvi Yavetz School of HIstorical Studies, Tel Aviv Univeristy.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael D.K. Ing is associate professor in the department of religious studies at Indiana University, and the author of The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism (Oxford University Press). He studies Confucianism with a particular emphasis on ethics and ritual from the 5th century BCE to 2nd century CE. He graduated from Harvard University with a PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations in 2011.

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