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The Confucian Conception Of Persons Essay

3417 words - 14 pages

Nothing in the canon of early Confucians directly corresponds with the concept of a person.[1] Yet, the philosophical content of their works seems to commit Confucius and those who followed in his wake to various implications about persons. Three recent thinkers have been especially important in trying to specify the features of a Confucian theory of the person. Herbert Fingarettes’s Confucius: The Secular as Sacred is roughly of the same vintage as John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and while it is a much more slender volume, it has had within its sphere a similarly far-reaching influence.[2] In the wake of Fingarette’s work, two other important essays were produced in honor of Fingarette: ...view middle of the document...

Instead his conceives of a unified entity to which we ascribe both physical qualities and states of consciousness, and in this way he straddles the main positions in the western debate over the nature of persons since Descartes.
In some ways Rosemont has the most radical interpretation of Confucius on persons. In the first part of his essay the political theory of rights comes under strong attack. He thinks it is a bankrupt outlook that cannot and should not be exported to areas of the world unfamiliar with western individualism; nor is it adequate for settling our quarrels in the west. This political outlook is tied to the inadequate radically individualistic Cartesian theory of the person. The early Confucians offer an alternative.
Rosemont’s interpretation of the Confucian alternative can be analyzed in terms of attributing predicates. Strawson seems to intimates a question to be addressed by theories of persons: What kinds of predicates can we apply to an individually constant person? The answer on Rosemont’s account seems to be that the only person-making predicates that can be applied are two-place (or greater) predicates of human relation, and the application of one-place predicates of individual quality have no part in the makeup of a person. I will argue that the nature of the two-place predicates that we ascribe to a person are dependent on the application of one-place predicates to the individuals who constitute the relation. That would seem to indicate, then, that Rosemont’s anti-individualism is too severe and that we need room for individuals in order to make the relational aspect of personhood coherent.
The philosophical mistake that Rosemont makes is in thinking that the ascription of relational predicates alone is sufficient for understanding personhood. An interpretive error that accompanies the philosophical error is in thinking that the early Confucians held such a view. In lacking any capacity for accepting the ascription of individually instantiated predicates, the very notion of an individual becomes an empty place-holder. The individual place-holder remains empty until it is put into relation with some other place-holder (or network of place-holders), but once within a relation, both now become identified by the two-place predicate complex. The individual is no longer a mere place-holder but has become a person constituted by bearing a relational role.
This goes too far beyond both ordinary discourse and the philosophical discourse of early Confucianism. Confucius has no difficulty in ascribing non-relational predicates to individuals. His favorite disciple, Yan Hui, gets sick with an illness that can be ascribed to him without any relational reference.[5] Moreover, the ascription of this one-place predicate, that of being ill, to Yan Hui, makes a social, moral, and relational difference. It is not the case that mere empty place-holders are brought into relation with each other and then personhood is fully...

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