Metaphysics of Goodness:

Harmony and Form, Beauty and Art, Obligation and Personhood, Flourishing and Civilization

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Robert Cummings Neville
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , October
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When considering goodness, many philosophers and other thinkers point to a bright line separating “facts” and “values.” Facts are objective; they are part and parcel of the world. Facts are, as the saying goes, just the facts. Values, in contrast, are subjective. They are expressions of the human will, the contingent achievements of history and power. Much argument has taken place over the problems posed by the fact-value dichotomy. Some philosophers (Hilary Putnam, for one) argue that this dichotomy is less a problem than a mere discussion-stopper. Philosophers are better served by letting go of this outdated positivist distinction and engaging questions of facts and values freely. Given space for free inquiry, we can raise questions such as what goodness in the world looks like absent the problems posed by the putative fact-value dichotomy. Robert Cummings Neville tells us that goodness in the world looks much like a Boston Confucian axiological cosmology, one characterized fundamentally by radical relationality. In Metaphysics of Goodness, Neville provides a bounty of arguments to support that claim.

Neville organizes his book according to four overarching theses. The first, which supplies the subject matter for part 1, claims that harmonies—determinate things—are inherently good. A harmony is, in Neville’s metaphysical system, the sheer fitting together of conditional and essential components. Conditional components relate determinate things to other determinate things. Essential components, in contrast, relate integrally to the thing itself. Harmonies are thus the forms or patterns to which the components fit together, both within and between determinate things, in an existential field. They are, to use the Daoist expression, the “ten thousand things,” as well as the processual field. Harmonies, importantly, are not achieved, as we would speak of an Aristotelian final cause. They are events in the same way that dancing is an event or happening. Neville specifies four ways in which harmonies dance, or relate components together: narrowness, width, vagueness, or triviality. These four ways of dancing explain the particular goodness inherent to any given harmony at an extremely abstract level of metaphysical determinacy. To be determinate is, in short, to be good.

Having established the inherent goodness of harmonies, Neville advances his second thesis: beauty is the good any harmony has in itself. Part 2 examines this thesis. Like harmony, beauty is not achieved. Dancing harmonies are beauty-making insofar as forms comport in terms of the four relations listed above. Beauty is not only ubiquitous; it is also an ultimate condition of existence. To lack beauty is to lack form. In the absence of form there is only indeterminacy, or nothing. Dancing ceases. Neville observes that in common experience we do not recognize everything as beautiful in itself. In the experiential domain of art, however, beauty is enjoyed or, put differently, appreciated in itself. Alongside religious life, art is the primary way human beings experience beauty-making in both its creative and appreciative modes. Neville’s argument in this section toggles back and forth between dialectically clarifying the metaphysics of beauty qua comportment and thickly describing the practical human experience of beauty qua wholeness. An example of the latter is provided by the Japanese ensō or “circular form” that, drawn in a single brushstroke, expresses the experiential coherence—the beauty—of artist, brush, and canvas in harmonic alignment.

Having established the metaphysics of goodness, Neville turns his attention to the human experience of engaging and living goodness. In part 3 he examines how persons relate to the world as creatures, or living harmonies, under obligation. As living harmonies, humans are characterized fundamentally by their obligation to comport or harmonize with the world. To do this rightly requires engaging, or interpreting, the world truly. Training in doing this is what the neo-Confucian tradition calls the education of the sage. Truth and rightness are two kinds of human goodness that serve as normative guides for sage interpreters. Interpretation is crucial for Neville because, like C. S. Peirce, he holds that all thinking is mediated through signs. Unlike many modernist or postmodernist thinkers, Neville does not confine thinking to a faculty (such as mind) or sign system (such as language). Thinking, rather, takes place in the interpreter’s situation. A situation is a kind of harmony, one whose components include history, biology, physical environment, semiotic systems, social structures, and purposes. It is organized according to perspective, which delimits the essential components of its form.

Put another way, perspectives are beauty-making for situations insofar as they promote true interpretations, which provide the way for human beings to exercise responsibly their obligation to harmonize with the world. That most human beings fail to be responsible in this way points to the paradox of universal human suffering amidst a world teeming with goodness.

While human beings qua living harmonies engage goodness through countless particular situations, the tools facilitating engagement are found in civilizations. Persons can be said to flourish when they exercise responsibly their obligation to align harmonically with their natural, social, and personal environment. Humans flourish when they live goodness, and civilizations are dynamic repositories of social structures conjoined to sacred canopies that provide normative practices of flourishing. Part 4 considers the goodness found in social relations, or the civilizational goods necessary for human flourishing. Like harmony, beauty, and obligation, flourishing is an activity, not an achieved state. To flourish is to dance emphatically, as a living harmony. Human beings flourish within civilizations qua social relations (that is, practices of social structures dialectically relating sacred canopies); they do so by engaging social structures rightly. (In practice this is, yet again, the practical obligation to align harmonically by means of responsible action.) Flourishing is accomplished, Neville argues, though rituals and creativity. Ritual allows for social structures to be performed responsibly; creativity allows for their ongoing maintenance. Both processes are symbiotic. Creativity, however, is the key in our time, Neville contends, because of globalization. Technological changes in travel, communications, and economics create ever-thickening networks of causal connections. These ersatz harmonies provide additional opportunities for sages to exercise their human obligation to find harmonious alignment.

In Metaphysics of Goodness, Neville shows yet again that Boston Confucianism is indeed a world philosophical tradition, one richer by far because of its dual engagement of the Chinese and Greek traditions from the situation of American pragmatism. Longtime readers of Neville will, of course, devour this book. But they aren’t the only ones. New readers, particularly those with interests in comparative philosophy, speculative metaphysics, and fresh, singular treatments of value theory, will find much to reflect on and ponder in these pages.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Dawson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Lynchburg.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Cummings Neville is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology and Dean Emeritus of the School of Theology at Boston University. He is the author of many books, including Defining Religion: Essays in Philosophy of Religion and The Good Is One, Its Manifestations Many: Confucian Essays on Metaphysics, Morals, Rituals, Institutions, and Genders, both also published by SUNY Press.


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