On the Historical Composition and Dating of Texts

I very much enjoyed and learned from the Northeast Conference on Chinese Thought, which was held at Wesleyan earlier this month.  This conference was much larger and more expertly organized than the first one at Vassar (where five of us got together, with only slightly more people in the audience, and ate fruit salad for lunch, with a dinner at a local Chinese restaurant that I think was Dutch treat).  The Wesleyan incarnation brought together scholars from a wide variety of disciplines with many different perspectives, including some from the West Coast and overseas, with the lovely Mansfield Freeman Center as its location, along with Continental breakfast, box lunches, and a delicious catered dinner hosted by Steve and his charming wife.  This sets the bar high for the next NECCT, which I hear may already be in the works.

One point that particularly interested me was the ongoing debate over the historical processes by which texts come into existence and are transmitted.  E. Bruce Brooks gave a talk on the historical composition of the Shijing, Michael Hunter of Yale presented his evidence that the Analects as we know it is almost exclusively a Han Dynasty creation, and A. Taeko Brooks applied a version of her (and Bruce’s) accretional theory of the Analects to the Mengzi.

Michael’s argument depends upon a statistical study of what percentage of quotations from the received Analects are found in early sources.  For example, many early sources attribute quotations to Kongzi that are not in the received Analects.  (I apologize in advance if I have not done justice to his argument.  I am reconstructing it from memory.)  Here is a question I had for Michael, though.  Just after getting back from the conference, I was teaching the Zhuangzi to my students. We looked at the extensive quotations of “Kongzi” in the Zhuangzi, and we discussed how that text seems to self-consciously use “Kongzi” as a literary character, putting into “Kongzi’s” mouth claims that are clearly intended to represent the perspective of the author of the passage, rather than what the author (or anyone else) thought was the historical Kongzi’s view.  See, for example, the long dialogue between “Kongzi” and “Yan Hui” that occurs in Chapter 4 of the Zhuangzi.  I don’t think any sensitive contemporary reader was supposed to think that this was historically accurate.  Rather, it is a rhetorical appropriation of a figure that both author and audience are aware of.  (This is similar to the way a contemporary show like South Park puts statements into the mouths of historical figures that self-evidently represent those of Matt Stone and Trey Parker.  Stone and Parker, having been raised in Utah, seem to take particular glee in ironically putting words in the mouth of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.)  Michael may be way of ahead of me here, and may have already excluded from his survey passages in the Zhuangzi.  But even if he did, I wonder how many  passages in other texts may be appropriating (more or less self-consciously) Kongzi as a spokesperson, or simply using “Kongzi” as a figure to represent what “those people” think, rather than “quoting” (as we understand it) a text.

In addition, my sense is that, by the Han, it was taken for granted that one should have something to say about human nature (性), qi (氣), the Five Phases (五行), yin/yang (陰陽), and other topics central to cosmology and philosophical psychology.  If the received Analects is largely a Han dynasty work, why are the preceding concepts either absent from, or very peripheral to, the discussions in the text?  I raised this concern with Michael, and he said something that was helpfully responsive, but I don’t think it is fair of me to try and paraphrase what he said here.

I also have a general suggestion that is relevant to the methodology that Bruce and Taeko employ, but I think it is most illuminating to approach it in a roundabout way.  Let’s consider two philosophical thinkers whose authentic corpus of works is largely undisputed:  Aristotle and Kant.  Those trained in the history of philosophy take for granted several things about their writings.

First, their writings are systematic and complex.  For example, if you want to fully understand Aristotle’s views in the Nicomachean Ethics, you should read what he has to say in De Anima, and if you want to fully understand what Aristotle says in De Anima, you need to read what he says in the Metaphysics.  Similarly, Kant’s epistemology and ethics are tailor-made for each other.  Because of the limitations on human knowledge that are sketched in the Critique of Pure Reason, it is possible for the moral philosophy of the Groundwork to be accurate, while other views of morality (like that of Hume) are ruled out.

Second, despite their best efforts to achieve systematicity, there are tensions in their works.  Famously, Aristotle seems torn in the Nicomachean Ethics between a conception of human flourishing as the exercise of theoretical rationality, and a conception of human flourishing as the exercise of practical rationality that is aimed at the well being of the community.  Turning to Kant, he seems to suggest sometimes that the noumenal realm is the cause of our experiences in the phenomenal realm, but this is inconsistent with his own claim that causality is a category that the mind imposes on experience, not a property of things-in-themselves.

Third, when we find a tension within their works, the methodology employed by a historian of philosophy is to try to construct an interpretation that reconciles the passages that are in tension.  For example, some have argued that Aristotle’s comments on the practical life are meant to be understood the way Aquinas would later understand them:  if humans were the most important thing in the universe, it would follow that the exercise of practical reason in human communities is the highest good; however, humans are not the most important thing in the universe, so the exercise of reason on humans cannot be the most complete form of human flourishing.  Regarding Kant, it is common to suggest that he had trouble shaking free of the earlier empiricist view of thinkers like Locke that there is an external physical world that causes our subjective experiences of secondary qualities.  While Kant sometimes unconsciously lapses into the earlier Lockean manner of speaking, the most charitable interpretation is that Kant’s considered view is that the noumenal realm is the “ground” of the phenomenal realm, but not in a causal sense.  (What it means for something to be a “ground” without being a “cause” is  a further issue.)

Of course, the situation we stand in with regard to the texts of Kant is very different from our situation with regard to Mengzi or Xunzi.  In the case of Kant, we have surviving copies of first-edition printings, copious correspondence between Kant and his contemporaries, and even manuscripts in autograph. Our link with Aristotle is more tenuous, and parallels in some ways our textual link with Warring States Texts.  For one thing, Aristotle did not write and edit his comments for publication the way that Kant did.  As the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on “Aristotle” explains:

Aristotle’s extant works read like what they very probably are: lecture notes, drafts first written and then reworked, ongoing records of continuing investigations, and, generally speaking, in-house compilations intended not for a general audience but for an inner circle of auditors.

Nonetheless, as the SEP article goes on to note, there is no serious scholarly dispute over the fact that the “thirty-one surviving works (that is, those contained in the ‘Corpus Aristotelicum’ of our medieval manuscripts that are judged to be authentic) all contain recognizably Aristotelian doctrine.”  Part of the reason for this confidence is that we can tell a persuasive story about the transmission of the Aristotelian corpus.  We know Aristotle’s texts were widely read and circulated in the Hellenistic world.  After the Roman Empire fell and the library at Alexandria burned down, Arab culture flourished.  While my ancestors bashed each other with clubs and cowered at lunar eclipses, Arab scholars admired, preserved, and translated the works of Aristotle.  As a result, a fairly reliable Aristotelian corpus was available when Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas reintroduced Aristotle to the West.

So although their texts followed very different paths to get to us, there is little doubt among informed scholars that they represent the views of Aristotle and Kant. However, suppose the situation were different.  Suppose, due to whatever accidents of history, we had considerably less independent reason to trust the historical transmission of the texts of Aristotle and Kant.  How would most philosophical historians read Aristotle and Kant?  Probably not too differently from the way they read them now.  But one can easily imagine thoughtful, serious, intellectually rigorous scholars who challenged what they would describe as the “naive reading of a text [that] naturally assumes that the text is simple and consistent.” Perhaps they would say things like the following:

  • “How do you explain the fact that we find one view of human flourishing in Book X of the received Nicomachean Ethics and another view in Book I? Surely, the theoretical tension between these portions of the received Nicomachean Ethics indicates that they were composed by two different authors.”
  • “You make a heroic effort to render consistent Aristotle’s views on human flourishing in Nicomachean Ethics I and X.  But Aristotle never explicitly says what you attribute to him.  Your interpretation is based on inference, whereas our attribution of multiple authorship is empirical:  it is based simply on what we directly observe in the text.”
  • “The received text of the Critique of Pure Reason displays unmistakeable evidence of editing.  Indeed, there are manuscripts that contain substantially different version of the Transcendental Deduction, one of the central arguments in that text.  Obviously, a later Kantian (perhaps Schopenhauer or his school of Kantians), was dissatisfied with Kant’s original formulation, and rewrote that portion of the text.”
  • “Not only are the A and B versions of the Transcendental Deduction by different authors, neither one is likely to be by Kant.  We know for a fact that Kant taught Aristotelian logic.  However, the Transcendental Deduction is not a ‘deduction’ in the sense Kant would have used when he taught Aristotelian logic.  The use of one term in multiple senses is definitive evidence of multiple authorship.”
  • “The writings attributed to Aristotle include works on ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, political philosophy, natural science (including biology, physics, and astronomy), and formal logic.  This is a remarkable heterogeneity in subject matter, which goes unchallenged only because of the unquestioned assumption that these works are by one author.  The most plausible explanation of the diversity in the received Aristotelian corpus is that later leaders of the Peripatetic School wrote works and attributed them to “the Philosopher” to legitimize their own interests.  In particular, after the death of Alexander the Great, the political influence of the Peripatetic School declined precipitously, which probably led them to change their focus from sensitive issues in ethics and political philosophy to more politically safe issues in aesthetics and metaphysics.”

What the preceding is intended to suggest is the following.  A certain methodological approach might lead us to attribute multiple authorship and accretional composition to texts that largely represent the views of one author over one lifetime.  In particular, it is not prima facie evidence that texts have multiple authorship if we find in them theoretical tensions, evidence of editing, the use of one word in multiple senses, or heterogeneity of subject matter. We should expect all of these things in works by profound, multifaceted thinkers. Furthermore, there is nothing illegitimate about making inferences or extrapolations in interpreting a text.  Indeed, one of the theses of my own presentation at the NECCT was that every interpretation requires theoretical claims that go beyond the bare empirical evidence in front of us.   For example, the claim that tensions in a text are due to unobserved manipulation of it by later members of a school might be true, but it is no more of an empirical claim than the suggestion that an author made an implicit assumption that reconciles two statements that seem to be in tension.

One might attempt the following reductio ad absurdum of my argument above. “But what if a text actually is by multiple authors?   Aren’t you ruling out a priori the very possibility of our discovering this?  That conclusion cannot be correct, so your argument must be wrong somewhere.”

In fact, I agree that there absolutely can be persuasive evidence that texts have multiple authors, and that we can sometimes identify interpolations in a text with a high degree of confidence.  For example, I have argued in print that the following passages are interpolations:  Analects 4.15 (“Unweaving the ‘One Thread’ of Analects 4.15″ in Confucius and the Analects:  New Essays), Analects 13:3 (Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, pp. 82-96), and both Mengzi 4A12 and 7A4.  Of course, my own arguments may not be convincing. In response to my 21-page article on the “one thread” passage, Paul Goldin provided a detailed refutation, which I here quote in full:

I do not see any reason to follow Van Norden’s argument that Analects 4.15 is an interpolation.(Goldin, Confucianism [Acumen Publishing, 2011], p. 125n18.)

Touché! 🙂

I would only insist upon the following.  We cannot start slicing and dicing a text into sections belonging to different authors or different eras simply we notice in it theoretical tensionsevidence of editing, the use of one word in multiple senses, or heterogeneity of subject matter.   I worry when I see what appears to me, at least, to be the quick jump to the conclusion that a text is historically composite before any substantial effort has been made to engage the plausibility of philosophical explanations of the text as a coherent whole.  In short, we intellectual historians are admittedly sometimes too quick to jump over textual issues in our excitement to get to systematic philosophical interpretation. However, you cannot address this problem by leaping to the conclusion that a text is historically composite every time you encounter a passage that you don’t immediately know how to reconcile with what you thought you understood before.

(I honestly meant this to be a one paragraph comment that I would dash off in 10 minutes.  I should know myself better by now.   If anyone cares to comment, I will likely not have the time to respond any time soon.  Perhaps this post can serve as a draft of my presentation at the next NECCT, and I can learn the error of  my ways then and there.)

About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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