Vassar in Chinese

While designing my new business cards, I discovered an interesting tidbit:  there is no standard Chinese name for Vassar.  I went with 瓦薩 Wǎsà because it seems to be the most common one on the web.  However, I have also found 瓦瑟 Wǎsè, 瓦莎 Wǎshā, and 瓦薩爾 Wǎsàěr.  In addition, one of my colleagues in the Department of Chinese & Japanese said he personally preferred 凡薩 Fánsà, because although there is nothing wrong with the individual meaning of 瓦 wǎ (“pottery”), it is also the character used in the expression 瓦斯 wǎsī, “poison gas.”

I also note that the full name (“Vassar College”) is sometimes written 瓦薩大學 or variants thereof.  However, a 大學 is often taken to be a university, rather than a college, so it is more correct to write 瓦薩學院.

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Can studying philosophy make you a better person?

One of the many people who is considerably smarter and more productive than I am is Eric Schwitzgebel, whose writes the blog, The Splintered Mind.  One of Eric’s many research interests is the question of whether there is any empirical connection between studying ethics in a contemporary college or university and the improvement of one’s character.  So far, the evidence is that the academic study of ethics does not make you a better person.  This is disappointing, but I wonder whether we should find it surprising.

Historically, the study of philosophy has been intended to make one a better person.  I am often surprised by how often people are surprised by this.  One frequently hears from Sinologists and philosophers — particularly those trained on volcanic archipelagos — that the difference between Chinese philosophy and Western philosophy is that the former emphasizes becoming a better person and solving social problems, while the latter is concerned only with purely theoretical truth.  This is perhaps true of what most of academic philosophy has become in the contemporary West, but it is certainly not true as a historic generalization.

In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is presented as asking questions such as “What is courage?” “What is justice?” because knowing the answer will make us better people.  In addition, Plato’s Seventh Letter makes clear the ethical motive behind his philosophizing:

And I was forced to say, when praising true philosophy that it is by this that men are enabled to see what justice in public and private life really is. Therefore, I said, there will be no cessation of evils for the sons of men, till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the States, or those in power in the States by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers. 

The authenticity of the Seventh Letter has been challenged, but even if it is not by Plato, it is by an ancient Platonist, and represents what must have been one common understanding of Plato’s project.

Turning from the pagan world, we find that the relationship between Christianity and philosophy has been complex.  St. Paul warned, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).  Paul obviously sees philosophy as potentially having a negative effect on one’s character  But as any careful reader can see, this statement is ambiguous.  Is Paul warning against all of philosophy, which is intrinsically “hollow and deceptive,” or is he warning against one degenerate kind of philosophy? Most Christians have thought it was something more like the latter.  Typical is the view of St. Anselm, whose motto was “Fides quaerens intellectum”:  Faith seeking understanding.  This, too, is subject to multiple readings, and no Christian could consistently hold that only those intelligent enough to understand philosophy could be saved.  However, the majority view has been that, since God created us as rational creatures, erroneous philosophical views have a bad influence on us and correct views have a good influence.

Of course, those knowledgeable about the Confucian tradition will be aware that it understands learning as having an ethical focus:  

Imagine someone who recognizes and admires worthiness and therefore changes his lustful nature, who is able to fully exhaust his strength in serving his parents and extend himself to the utmost in serving his lord, and who is trustworthy in speech when interacting with friends and associates.  Even if you said of such a person, “Oh, but he is not learned.”  I would still insist that it is precisely such qualities that make one worthy of being called “learned.”  (Confucius:  Analects 1.7, Edward Slingerland trans.)

Now, does Schwitzgebel’s research show (or at least suggest) that Platonists, Christians, Confucians and others have been wrong in thinking that philosophy can improve one’s character?

Consider how we teach philosophy in a contemporary college or university setting.  (1) Students are generally 18 to 22 years old.  (2) They are admitted to the class based largely on their own choice.  Professors cannot refuse students admission to the class if there are spaces available, nor can they eject students from the class for anything other than extremely disruptive behavior.  (3) The student’s personal life is none of the professor’s business, unless the student chooses to share information.  (When a student does share personal information, it is generally in the context of attempting to justify a request for a special favor, such as turning in an assignment late.)  (4) Professors are expected to grade students solely on their academic abilities, such as vocabulary, memory, logical reasoning skills, and writing style. 

Contrast the preceding with what advocates of ethical education recommend.  (1) In Book I of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes,

Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on social life; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit. (W.D. Ross, trans., slightly modified)

Plato agreed.  For both of them, one needs to be raised in the right habits, and have experience of real life problems, before one can appreciate the insights of philosophy.  Aquinas went as far as saying that one couldn’t really begin the study of philosophy seriously until one was 50.  (Ironically, that is the age at which he died.)  Confucius’s view initially seems very different.  He says of himself, “At fifteen, I set my heart upon learning.”  However, he describes the process of ethical education as continuing throughout one’s life:  “At thirty, I was firmly planted. At forty, I was free of doubts.”  And so on until, “At seventy, I followed what my heart desired without overstepping the bounds” (Analects 2.4, my trans.)  And remember that “learning” for Confucians is not in any way limited to the study of books and theories.  The later Confucian Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) made the process more explicit.  He proposed that at the age of eight students should begin the Lesser Learning, an education in basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic, along with training in good habits and etiquette.  Only the promising students would go on to the Greater Learning, where they would learn the philosophical basis of the values they had started to internalize:  “Lesser learning is the direct understanding of such-and-such and affair. Greater learning is the investigation of such-and-such a principle — the reason why the affair is as it is” (Chu Hsi, Learning to Be a Sage, trans. Daniel K. Gardner, p. 90).

(2)  In classical ethical education, a student was expected to make a commitment to become a better person, and held accountable for failure to live up to this commitment.  The ancient Confucian Mengzi (Mencius) said, “There are many techniques of instruction.  My scorning to instruct someone is also a means of instruction” (6B16).  In the Confucian tradition, the student learns from the instructor’s refusal to take him as a student that he is not sufficiently serious or committed.  If the potential student changes and becomes committed, the instructor will accept him.  If the potential student does not change, there is no point in trying to instruct him.  I don’t think this would fly with a contemporary Dean, though.

So why doesn’t the contemporary study of ethics improve character?  (1) The students are too young and inexperienced about life to benefit from the study of philosophy.  Philosophy is about the why, not the what, and college-aged students don’t know the what very well yet.  (2) Students take ethics classes without demonstrating any commitment to becoming a better person, and without any penalty for failing to manifest a commitment.  (3) The instructor is institutionally forbidden from inquiring into attempting to influence the student’s personal life, where most of his or her character will be manifest.

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Am I a good professor?

I think so, but even my own best evidence is of questionable reliability:

  • I get very high numerical evaluations by students in my classes.  These are on forms that are distributed only to students in my class, and the results are not reported unless a large percentage of students respond.  Again, this is good, but there is limited evidence that student satisfaction correlates with learning.  As I tell my colleagues ad nauseam, there is empirical evidence of a correlation between student learning and student responses to only two questions:  “Did the professor stimulate your interest in the topic?” and “Did the professor help you learn?”  (Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, p. 13.)  Neither question is on my school’s numerical evaluations.
  • I give out far fewer A’s and A-‘s in my classes than the school average.  In theory, this means that I am holding my students to a higher standard.  This is probably good in itself.  We don’t need half of our students assuming they are exceptionally talented at things they are merely slightly above average at.  But I succumb to institutional peer pressure in giving out far too many B’s and too few C’s.   Besides, even if I am more demanding in my grading, does that really show I am teaching students more, or giving them better skills?
  • I sincerely work to respond effectively to student reactions and feedback.  I put a lot of energy into class discussions and lectures:  I walk around the room, I gesticulate, I modulate my voice, I tell anecdotes, I write on the board, I make self-deprecating jokes, I try to invite shy students into the discussion.  I have also modified many aspects of the course to find what works.  For example, I used to assign only essays, but I added a final exam because I found that even some earnest students were not absorbing all the basic facts I wanted them to grasp by the end of the course.  Once again, the preceding earns me a pat on the head, but does it make me more than a “hard-working” professor?
  • I have had students tell me long after grades were handed in things like, “I found your course inspiring” or “Your course changed my life.”  Good, but there is a size of sample problem.  In addition, how do I know that I have influenced students in a good way?  Charles Manson’s disciples found him inspiring too.  (Quick disclaimer:  I am deeply grateful to and touched by the students who told me these things.  I’m just trying to look at what they reported dispassionately as evidence.)

Part of the difficulty in evaluating my teaching (or that of anyone in the humanities) is that the criteria for success are more nebulous.  If you try to teach students calculus, and they know how to use it after your class, you have taught them successfully.  If I try to teach students to write clearly and persuasively, to read texts with more attentiveness and insight, and to be more reflective about their lives and the world — it is very hard to know how to test whether I have succeeded.  However, the alternative is not to try to teach them those things, and it’s better to live with the uncertainty than not to try.

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Poker Is Potentially Profitable People!

First of all, I should warn readers of this blog (if there ever are any) that, as the title of this entry illustrates, I am overly fond of consonance.  But let’s move past the style to the substance.

I got an eye roll from one of my colleagues when I compared playing poker to investing in stocks.  His father was a compulsive gambler, which probably contributed to the reaction.  (I’m sure children of alcoholics are not interested to hear that a glass of wine with dinner is actually good for you.)  However, my colleague’s response reflects widespread ignorance about how poker differs from pure gambling.  An anecdotal illustration of the difference is the cautionary tale of Las Vegas legend Archie Karas. In the early 1990s, Karas won $40 million dollars beating people at poker and pool, games of skill, and then lost it all over a period of three weeks playing high stakes craps and baccarat, games of chance.  But let’s look more precisely at the difference.

Suppose you play roulette and wager $1 on number 13.  The numbers on an American roulette wheel are 1 to 36, along with both a 0 and a 00.  So the odds against you winning are 37:1.  If you do win, you will be paid $35 for every $1 you wagered.  So, on average, for every thirty eight $1 wagers you make, you will lose $37 and win $35 for a net of -$2 over 38 tries.  (Alternatively, your expected value for any one bet is 1/38*$35-37/38*$1=-$1/19.)  All house games are like this, which is why they cannot be beaten.  You will always lose in the long run.

In poker, though, you win or lose almost all your money from other players, not the casino.  The casino makes a profit by taking a “rake” from every pot, usually 10% and capped at a certain amount (e.g., never more than $4 per pot for low stakes).  This makes it sound like the casino doesn’t make very much from poker.  It doesn’t.  Most casinos would rather have slot machines in what are now their poker rooms.  However, customers who play poker are a cranky and insistent bunch, and believe it or not that can make a difference.  In addition, casinos count on the poker players (or their spouses) also stopping by the pit to lose money at games like craps and roulette.  In other words, poker is often what salesmen call a loss leader.

Of course, even if the house is taking very little out of the pot, that doesn’t prove by itself that any one player can win.  But there are two reasons why one can win money.

  1. Most players make mathematical errors in their betting.
  2. Most players are very predictable.

(1) Suppose it is the middle of a poker hand, with $2000 already in the pot.  (If you are completely ignorant of poker, the “pot” is the money that has already been wagered and will be taken by whoever wins the hand.)  Arnie and Brenda each have $1000 in their “stacks” (the money that each has not yet wagered).  Arnie has a pair of aces, while Brenda only has an inside straight draw.  Brenda will win if she successfully completes her straight, but will lose otherwise.   It is Arnie’s turn to act, and he wagers all of his remaining $1000, so the pot is now $3000.  Brenda has two choices:  she can fold, which means that she gives up any chance of winning the pot, but also risks no more money, or she can call by adding $1000 to the pot, which means that she still has a chance to win the pot, but can also lose the additional $1000.  So if Brenda calls she is risking $1000 to win $3000, giving her odds of 3:1.  Assuming that Brenda will get one more card, the odds are approximately 11:1 against her completing her straight.  So for every 12 times Brenda calls in a situation like this, she will win $3000 one time, and lose a total of -$11,000 for the other times, for an average net of -$8000 over every 12 hands.  (If you prefer, the expected value of her call is 1/12*$3000-11/12*$1000=-$667.)  Although Brenda should definitely fold, it is amazing how often players in similar situations call.

What about Arnie?  If he does not bet, he is giving Brenda a chance to beat him at no cost to her, so he should bet.  If he bets and Brenda folds, he wins $2000 at no cost to himself.  If he bets and Brenda calls, he will lose -$1000 one time out of 12 and win $22,000 the other 11 times, so the situation is immensely profitable for him on average.  However, many players in Archie’s situation either check (do not bet) or bet an amount small enough that Brenda actually does have the right odds to call.

An objection may occur:  “Your description of the situation ignores the fact that Brenda doesn’t know that Arnie has a pair of aces and Arnie doesn’t know that Brenda has an inside straight draw.”  This brings us to the second reason that you make money at poker.

(2) Most players are very predictable.  I’ll illustrate this with the Baluga Whale Theorem (BWT), a generalization well known among savvy poker players.  I should explain that BWT is not a “theorem” in the sense we talk about mathematical theorems.  Rather, it is a generalization about how people tend to play at low stakes.  BWT is also not a recommendation about how people should play.  However, it has implications for what the correct play is.  I’m going to give a very oversimplified version of it here simply to make a point.

BWT applies to small stakes hold’em poker.  In hold’em, each player is dealt two “hole cards” that only she sees.  There is then a round of betting.  Next three “community cards” (called the “flop”) are dealt face up in the middle of the table.  Each player can use any or all of these cards to make the best poker hand in combination with their two hole cards.  There is another round of betting after the flop.  Then a fourth card is dealt face up (called the “turn”) and there is another round of betting.  Finally, a fifth card is dealt face up (called the “river”) and there is the last round of betting.

Suppose you raise on the first round of betting and are called by one player.  The flop comes, you bet and are called by the same player.  The turn comes, and it is a card that would appear to most players to be a “blank” (a card that is unlikely to connect with anyone’s hole cards).  You bet, and the other player now raises you.  The Baluga Whale Theorem says that the opponent who raises you here, after calling pre-flop and on the flop, probably has a very strong hand.  Why?  Because that is the way that most small stakes players play when they make a big hand on the flop in this situation.  The reason this is so important is that, if you know BWT, you can figure out what kind of hole cards your opponent has, even though you can’t see them directly.  You can save money by folding what would normally be a strong hand in the face of a BWT-type raise on the turn, or if you have an exceptionally strong hand, you know that you can put in a big re-raise and get called.  This is just one example of a common pattern of play.

Since playing predictably allows thoughtful players to determine your hole cards, why not play unpredictably?  Part of the answer is that better plays do play unpredictably to a certain extent.  Good players will sometimes check with a hand you would expect them to bet, or raise a hand you would expect them to fold.  However, the only way to be absolutely unpredictable is to completely randomize one’s play:  check, bet, fold and raise without regard to the value of your hands.  But there is a high cost of complete randomization.  You will frequently wager a lot with weak hands, and wager little with strong hands.  This will be a mathematical error, and against even a moderately skilled player you will lose in the long run (remember our point 1).  Consequently, against a good player you have to partially randomize your play, and do so at points that are likely to be misleading to the particular player you are up against.

How much randomization?  And what kinds of randomizing will mislead your opponent?  There is no fixed rule about this.  Indeed, there cannot be a fixed rule about deceptive play, because there is a counter strategy for every deception.  Perhaps the most basic strategy in hold’em poker is to make a “continuation bet” on the flop, after raising pre-flop, regardless of whether the flop helped your hand.  The continuation bet is a sort of bluff bet, in which you pretend that either the flop made your hand stronger, or you already had such a strong hand that you didn’t need the flop to help you.  A continuation bet will often allow a player to win the pot with a weak hand.

However, since continuation betting is a basic strategy, almost everyone knows it, and many players will respond by calling your flop raise.  If you check on the turn, your opponent will guess that you were simply continuation betting the flop, and will bet the turn himself, winning the pot.  (This technique is called “floating.”)  Of course, many players know about floating, so they will continuation bet on the flop and then bet again on the turn, even if the turn did not help their hand either.  (This is called “double-barreling.”)  Of course, many players know about double-barreling, so…and the process goes on forever.  Truly great players have a skill that goes beyond any rules that allows them to win consistently in the long run.

Long ago, Aristotle recognized that there are skills like this.  One of his favorite examples was sailing a boat.  A boat captain knows many rules of thumb (“red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor take warning”).  He also knows some mathematical facts (“if the ship’s center of gravity is above the water line, it will begin to capsize”).  However, the complete set of rules underdetermines the correct action in any situation.  This is why sea captains are given both immense discretionary authority but also held very accountable for anything that goes wrong.  Aristotle thought that ethical wisdom, phronesis, is a similar kind of skill that is underdetermined by precise rules.   I think so too, and I think my knowledge of poker has helped me philosophically by giving me another example of a knowledge that is like Aristotelian practical wisdom.  In both poker and in ethics, there are right choices and wrong choices, despite the fact that there is no algorithm for the decision procedure.  And, in both, some people are demonstrably better at making the right choices. (I could go on:  going “on tilt” is one poker manifestation of Aristotelian akrasia, “weakness of will,” in which one knows, in some sense, the right choice but makes the wrong choice.)

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What Can You Do with a Philosophy Major?

I’m on the mailing list for the Vassar Venture Capitalists Club.  (Long story.)  Anyway, their “Entrepreneur of the Month” is a 2006 graduate who started her own business:  “Dapper Dog Training.”  Did she major in economics?  No.  She majored in philosophy.  Check out the Vassar Ventures Newsletter article about her.

I was curious about whether (and if so, how) her philosophy background helped in her career.  She replied and gave me permission to quote her:

I knew in my last year of High School that Philosophy was the obvious choice.  It seemed obvious because I thought it would expand my choices as a graduate. I think it did, and I am still pleased with the choice even though Psychology probably would have served dog training better.

I really enjoyed my later years at Vassar as a Philosophy major. I felt like I was getting to hone my craft. I think studying Philosophy in college was a lot like choosing to be an entrepreneur; the beginning was hard but when I pushed through I really found something special that I loved and made my own.  Majoring in Philosophy still helps me today because it gave me great analytic and writing skills. Most people assume philosophers cannot write! This helps me a great deal with writing my own materials for marketing as well as for clients.

In life philosophy taught me how to argue from any angle, and how to predict the other person’s argument, etc. It gives me confidence in most conversations / social situations. Maybe it’s my personality that I am not easily intimidated,  but class is great practice for taking a fledgling idea, and arguing for it. Lastly, studying Philosophy taught me to distance myself from depressing notions and to keep myself grounded. I could see that if people continued to delve deeper and deeper into questions outside of class, it really separated them from reality. I think it was the beginning of work-life balance for me. Philosophy Majors are seen as useless by plenty of parents, but actually it taught me not to get lost in thought.

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Advice to student contemplating a doctorate in Chinese philosophy

An undergraduate recently emailed me, asking for advice about getting a doctorate in Chinese philosophy.  The student explained that he was particularly interested in the comparative study of epistemology and the philosophy of language from an analytic perspective.  In addition to asking for general advice, he wondered about what field he should get his doctorate in, and what the job situation was like for recent PhD’s.  Here is part of what I said in reply (slightly rephrased to make sense without quoting his original letter):

Although there is much talk about multidisciplinary studies at the moment, a philosophy department will want you to have a PhD in philosophy, and a Chinese department will want you to have a PhD in Chinese.  In short, the doctoral program you pick determines what kind of department you will be able to teach in.  For what you are interested in studying, you will need a PhD in philosophy.  You will simply not get the right sort of training or support for your particular research interests in a Chinese department.  It is important, however, that you take courses in Chinese language (both modern Mandarin as well as Literary Chinese), literature, and history while you are pursuing your doctorate in philosophy.

Regarding employment opportunities, I must be honest with you here, even though it will be discouraging.  The job situation in philosophy right now is catastrophic.  There are massive cuts to higher education at both the federal and state levels.  As a result, many philosophy departments are under threat of being completely eliminated, and the ones that survive are being downsized, meaning that retiring faculty are not being replaced.  In addition, when someone specifically working in Chinese philosophy retires, even if the institution authorizes a replacement, that person is seldom replaced with a scholar who studies Chinese philosophy.  The University of Michigan, Stanford, Berkeley, and the U of Connecticut all had leading scholars of Chinese philosophy in their philosophy departments.  None of them were replaced when they retired or left the institution. I am less familiar with the job market in Chinese language and literature, but all departments are feeling the economic crunch.  In addition, my sense is that the trend in Chinese language programs is to hire more and more native speakers of Chinese.   (For example, our Chinese-Japanese Department has three native-Chinese speaking professors, one native-Japanese speaking professor, a number of native-Chinese or -Japanese speaking adjuncts, and me.)  Sorry for not having more encouraging news, but anyone who tells you anything more optimistic about the job situation is either not being realistic or not being honest.

Here are a couple of other points to consider.  I think that a broadly analytic approach to Chinese philosophy is very valuable, and is what I pursue myself.  What I mean by “broadly analytic” is that there is an emphasis on clarity of expression, disambiguation, and the careful formulation and critique of arguments.  However, in my opinion, there is little work to be done on the philosophy of language, per se, in traditional Chinese thought.  You would be working almost exclusively with the texts of the so-called “School of Names” and the Later Mohist writings.  I think these brief works have been picked over so much already that there is not too much more to say.  (See the chapter, “Language and Paradox in the ‘School of Names,'” in B.W.V.N., Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy.)  Similarly, the sorts of issues that engage analytic epistemology (e.g., “How do we know that the world presented to our senses is real?” “How do we know that other bodies have minds?” “How does induction work?”) were never central to early Chinese philosophy.  Admittedly, the Consciousness-Only School of Buddhism did engage some of these issues in the later Chinese tradition.  You might focus on this, but I am aware of only one competent book that has been done on this topic (Buddhist Phenomenology by Dan Lusthaus).  That means there is much potential for research, but also that you will have trouble finding anyone to guide you in your research.  This is a bigger problem than it might seem at first.

I am attaching a special issue of the APA Newsletter on “the crisis in Chinese philosophy.”  Obviously, I am partial to my own contribution to this newsletter, but it is worth reading all of them to get a broader perspective.  (Do keep in mind, though, that since the publication of this newsletter, the job market has gotten worse, and some people mentioned are no longer teaching Chinese philosophy.)

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Typos in Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Hackett)

  • p. 9, at the end of 1A7, change “Gentleman cannot bear” to “Gentlemen cannot bear”

More to come (I’m sure).

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Northeast Conference on Chinese Thought

Announcing the Northeast Conference on Chinese Thought, to be held at Wesleyan University on Friday and Saturday, November 8-9, 2013.

The goals of the Northeast Conference on Chinese Thought (NECCT) are twofold:

  1. To provide a regional forum for everyone from graduate students to established scholars to present work, learn from one another, and establish or strengthen mutual relationships; and
  2. To bring together scholars and students who approach Chinese thought from diverse disciplinary perspectives so as to foster understanding of our various objectives, perspectives, and constraints—the point not being to privilege one approach or hope for a grand synthesis, but simply to encourage each of us to be less insular and to find ways to learn from the approaches of others.

We will issue a call for abstracts later in the Spring, the submission deadline for which will be June 1. Papers will not be circulated in advance, there will be no pre-determined commentators, and we do not anticipate a conference volume. In short, this is intended to be an informal (though high-quality) discussion at which new ideas and work-in-progress are very welcome.

We anticipate that our budget will be able to cover up to two nights of lodging in Middletown for those whose papers are accepted, as well as meals during the conference for all registered participants. Everyone will be responsible for his or her own transportation to Middletown.

Please be in touch if you have any questions (see the conference organizer’s webpage here), and keep an eye open for the formal Call for Abstracts.


NECCT 2013 Advisory Board
Stephen Angle (Wesleyan, Philosophy and East Asian Studies)
Erin Cline (Georgetown, Theology)
David Elstein (SUNY New Paltz, Philosophy)
Paul Goldin (Penn, East Asian Languages and Civilizations)
Hagop Sarkissian (CUNY, Philosophy)
Bryan Van Norden (Vassar, Philosophy and Chinese-Japanese)

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Response to Stephen Angle, Susan Blake, and Jiyuan Yu



Jiyuan Yu generously organized a panel discussion at the 2009 Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association on my translation:  Mengzi:  With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2008).  The commentators were Yu himself, Stephen Angle and Susan Blake.  I am deeply indebted to all three commentators for their generous praise of my translation, and the care with which they have formulated their criticisms.  A version of their comments was published in 2010.[1]  However, it proved impractical for me to reply in that venue.  Consequently, I shall make my response available here.

I. Response to Angle

I sometimes use the language of obligations and prohibitions to explicate the virtues of benevolence and righteousness.  However, Angle notes that to focus on obligations is to turn our attention away from issues of character and virtue, which I claim are at the center of Mengzi’s ethics.  In addition, part of what is distinctive of most forms of virtue ethics is that they acknowledge degrees of human ethical development, and encourage us to aspire to ever higher levels.  Since obligation seems to be an all-or-nothing affair, it undercuts these features of virtue ethics.

One “cheap” answer to Angle is that I sometimes use an alternative formulation of the virtues that is more character-based, saying that benevolence is “the virtue that consists in having, and acting on, compassion for others; for Confucians it should extend to everyone but be strongest for close family members,” while righteousness is “the virtue that consists in avoiding what is shameful or dishonorable, even when one could acquire wealth or social prestige by doing so.”[2]  However, this is not an adequate response for two reasons.  First, I should pick one formulation and stick with it.  Second, my alternative formulations leave open the question of how compassion and disdain respond to features of the world.  What is it that makes it unrighteous to accept a bribe, but righteous to violate ritual by grabbing your sister-in-law to save her from drowning?  How does benevolence demand that King Xuan show kindness to his suffering subjects, yet also justify Shun’s giving a stipend and nominal government position to his corrupt brother?[3]

To some extent, the language of obligations and prohibitions may be appropriate as long as we add individual character to the ethical context.  I find helpful Angle’s invocation of Swanton, who argues that we are ethically limited by our current level of character, but required to continually aspire to higher levels.[4]  Consequently, it may be obligatory for Yu to stay away from home for years while he works to save China from flooding,[5] while all that is obligatory for me (right now) is to finish this reply instead of watching TV.  However, I am also obligated to aspire to become like Yu, as much as I can.

Angle suggests that a Confucian’s goal in ethical reflection is to find “a harmonious solution — one that will honor all the relevant aspects of this particular situation.”[6]  I find this congenial to my own views.[7]  The phrase “relevant aspects” might seem hopelessly vague.  But its use is simply an honest acknowledgement of the fact that we cannot determine what is ethically relevant without a particular context.  For me, as a 21st century father in the U.S. with two children on a rainy Saturday afternoon, to “honor all the relevant aspects of this particular situation” might be to spend some time playing video games with my son, some time drawing with my daughter, and some time sitting together quietly reading.  For a “sage” like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was a leader of the German anti-Nazi Resistance, the “relevant aspects” of his situation demanded something much more dramatic and heroic.

One might also object that “harmony” is pleasant-sounding but contentless.  Angle does a good job, though, of explicating what a commitment to harmony amounts to.[8]  He notes that Confucians are fond of examples drawn from music and cooking, in which we routinely evaluate “better” and “worse” without thinking there is some mechanical decision procedure that determines the answer.  This helps shed light on how ethics can lack the sort of objectivity found in mathematics, while not lapsing into full subjectivity.[9]

II. Response to Blake

For reasons of space, I can only address the second of Blake’s two lines of objection to my interpretation of Mengzi.[10]

I hold the unimaginative view that “impartial caring” means caring equally for the well-being of everyone.[11]  For the Mohists, this leads to a sort of consequentialism, in which actions or policies are judged by the extent to which they benefit humans overall.  In contrast, Confucians advocate “differentiated caring,” meaning that one should care more for, and has a greater obligation toward, those bound to one by ties such as kinship, friendship, etc.

Blake offers a “less ambitious” reading of impartial caring:  “we refrain from harming others for our own benefit, and…we provide material assistance as we can for some small group of people outside our family.”  Blake has two arguments for her interpretation:  (1) the “less ambitious” reading makes better sense out of what the Mohists say, and (2) Mengzi “does not explicitly attack the Mohists” on the doctrine of impartial caring.  I want to challenge both claims.

First, consider the following quotations from the Mohist essay “Impartial Caring (III)”:

  • If people regarded other people’s families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another?  For one would do for others as one would do for oneself.[12]
  • … in order to be a superior person in the world, one must regard the well-being of one’s friends as one regards one’s own well-being; one must regard the parents of one’s friends as one regards one’s own parents.[13]
  • …when Kings Wen and Wu ruled, they allocated everything equitably, rewarding the worthy and punishing the wicked without showing any partiality to their relatives or brothers.[14]

If all the Mohists meant to endorse was “refraining from harming others for one’s own benefit” (and the occasional act of charity) they picked a very misleading way of making their point.  To an audience that was well aware of the Confucian position, the Mohist statements above could not plausibly be interpreted as anything other than a rejection of differentiated care.[15]

Furthermore, a serious problem with the “less ambitious” reading of impartial caring is that it makes the “Practicability Argument” seem unmotivated. Why use an extreme example of behavior modification like soldiers marching onto burning ships to their certain deaths if all the Mohists are encouraging us to do is to not harm others and to provide minimal aid?  On the “less ambitious” reading the Mohists are using a grotesque, and hence less plausible, example to defend the practicality of a very minimal and inherently plausible behavioral change. However, if the Mohists did hold the “more ambitious” reading, we can see immediately why they need examples of radical behavior modification to defend the practicality of their position.[16]

However, not everything the Mohists say is so obviously in line with the “more ambitious” reading.  Blake is struck by the Mohists’ Filial Piety argument, which claims that filial children should be committed to impartial caring. If filiality involves greater concern for one’s own parents, and filiality entails “impartiality,” then impartiality cannot mean equal concern for all.  However, careful attention to the Filial Piety argument shows the intellectual sleight of hand that allows the Mohists to pull the impartial rabbit from the filial hat:

Does a filial son who seeks what is beneficial for his parents want other people to care for and benefit his parents or does he want other people to dislike and steal from his parents?  According to the very meaning of filial piety, he must want other people to care for and benefit his parents.  … Should one first (先) care for and benefit the parents of another, expecting that they in turn (然後) will respond by caring for and benefitting one’s own parents?  Or should one first dislike and steal from other people’s parents, expecting that they in turn will respond by caring for and benefiting one’s own parents?  Clearly one must first care for and benefit the parents of others in order to expect that they in turn will respond by caring for and benefitting one’s own parents.  And so for such mutually filial (交孝) sons to realize unlimited good results, must they not first care for and benefit other people’s parents?[17]

Look carefully at how the Mohists characterize filial piety in this passage.  To be filial is to seek to benefit one’s own parents; because of this, a filial child wants others to benefit his parents; the best way to achieve this is to first benefit the parents of others.  Now consider what the Mohists do not say.  They do not say that a filial child cares more for his own parents than the parents of others. They also do not say that we should benefit our own parents first and simply avoid harming the parents of others.   They say just the opposite:  we should not only benefit the parents of others, we should do it first, and then they will benefit our parents. This is a utopian vision in which the highest filial piety is ensuring that every elder is equally cared for; when we all take care of everybody, your own parents will be taken care of too.  The Mohists invent a new expression, “mutually filial,” to describe this unorthodox practice.  (This is as unconventional as “mutual parenthood.”)  For Confucians, rightly or wrongly, what this leaves out is the greater concern that a filial child has for her own parents.

Finally, Mengzi (a contemporary source who was at the center of philosophical debate in his era) does in fact attribute to the Mohists the “demanding reading” of impartial caring.  He asks the avowed Mohist Yi Zhi whether he truly holds “that one’s affection for one’s nephew is like one’s affection for a neighbor’s baby?”  (Note that Yi Zhi does not deny that this is an accurate representation of the Mohist position.)  Elsewhere, Mengzi says that “impartial caring…is to not have a father.”  Furthermore, in explaining what impartial caring means to Mozi, Mengzi says, “If scraping himself bare from head to heels would benefit the whole world, he would do it.”[18]  There is no hint here (or in the text of the Mozi) that such actions are regarded as supererogatory.

Dan Robins (whose work Blake identifies as an influence on her interpretation of the Mohists) states that the relevant passages from the Mengzi are simply “based on a misinterpretation” of the Mohist view.[19] But any quick dismissal like this violates the interpretive Principle of Humanity, because it leaves us with no explanation for Mengzi’s error.[20]  Such an explanation will be difficult to come by, because there is every reason to believe that Mengzi was well informed about Mohism.  Not only did he debate an avowed Mohist, he claims that “the doctrines of Yang Zhu and Mozi fill the world.”  There may be an element of hyperbole in this (as in Mengzi’s descriptions of Mohist doctrine), but even an exaggeration would not make sense unless its audience found an element of truth in it.  Furthermore, and I think this is very significant, Mengzi apparently had direct knowledge of converts from Mohism to Confucianism:  “Those who defect from the Mohists always turn toward Yang Zhu.  Those who defect from Yang Zhu always turn toward Confucianism.”[21]  It is, of course, possible that Mengzi has fundamentally misunderstood a major doctrine of his own era that he has discussed and debated with contemporaries.  However, if we want to go that route, we need an explanation of an extraordinary error.[22]

III. Reply to Yu

 Yu’s nuanced comments are a paradigm of the sort of thoughtful engagement that comes from a close reading of the original text, its commentarial tradition, the secondary literature and various translations.  I can disagree with him about little, and only explain some of the commitments that guided my choices as a translator.

It is important that readers can recognize terms across different translations.  Consequently, sometimes I stick with a less-than-satisfactory but fairly standard translation, like “righteousness” for yi 義.  In contrast, I think it is a weakness of Brook Ziporyn’s otherwise valuable Zhuangzi translation that he renders ren 仁, yi and dao 道 as “humanity,” “responsibility” and “Course.”  This makes it hard for non-specialist readers to recognize that Zhuangzi is challenging the conceptions of “benevolence,” “righteousness” and the “Way” that they have encountered in other texts.[23]

However, in the Confucian spirit of “discretion,” I do not hold to this as an inviolable rule.  Although “principle” has become the standard translation of li 理 in rendering Neo-Confucian texts, I think it is so fundamentally misleading that it should be avoided.  Instead, I recommend “Pattern” for Neo-Confucian texts.[24]

Furthermore, as Yu notes, even if “benevolence” is a common rendering for ren, it is not the universal favorite among translators, and it clearly handles the “specific” meaning of the Chinese term better than the “general” meaning.  “Humanity” or “humaneness” does the best translation for this latter sense. However, my preference was to, whenever possible, render the same word in the same way so that readers can trace for themselves the nuances of its meanings.  I would rather allow the reader to be occasionally puzzled by an incongruous use of a term than have her be complacent with a translation that elides all the complexity of the original work.  This is part of the reason that I render 7B16 as “Benevolence is simply being human.”

Of course, sometimes the uses of a Chinese term are so different that we cannot force-fit one translation into every context.  Ming 命, for example, refers to what Heaven decrees, including the general course of history and the appointment to legitimate Kingship.  I was tempted to consistently render it “decree,” which would have encouraged the reader to explore the connection between these two notions.  But I decided that in this case readability was more important.  So 7A2 reads, “Everything is fate (ming).  But one only accepts one’s proper fate.  For this reason, someone who understands fate does not stand beneath a crumbling wall.”  But in 5A5.4, a passage explaining legitimate succession to Kingship, we find, “Heaven does not speak, but simply reveals the Mandate (ming) through actions and affairs.”  I allow a similar divergence in rendering xin 心, which is usually “heart,” but sometimes “feeling.”  (You can see both uses in 2A6.3.)

Returning to “ren,” there is another, more controversial, reason why I consistently render it as “benevolence” in the Mengzi.  Zhu Xi suggests that benevolence (ren in the specific sense) is foundational to the other virtues.  There is actually textual evidence for this in parts of the Mengzi, such as 2A7.2-3:  “If one is not benevolent though nothing prevents it, this is to fail to be wise.  One fails to be benevolent and fails to be wise.  So one lacks propriety and righteousness.”  Zhu Xi comments, “Benevolence is the heart of Heaven and Earth in giving birth to things.  One gets it first of all, and it links all four virtues together.”  Although Zhu Xi’s interpretation here (as on many points) is clearly tinged by a metaphysics alien to Mengzi, he might be correct about the relationship between ren and the other virtues.

IV. Conclusion

It is significant that, in discussing a simple translation, we have engaged so many substantive issues in the thought of Mengzi and his contemporaries.  To translate is to interpret.  To interpret is to understand sympathetically.  To understand sympathetically is to bring the text into dialogue with ourselves.  To bring the text into dialogue is to make the context of the text part of our own context.   In the end, there is an interpretive Indra’s Net, in which every phrase of the original text reflects and is reflected by the meaning of our most mundane daily utterances.  Though it may sound grandiose, this is nothing more than basic hermeneutic practice.

[1] See Jiyuan Yu, “Translation of Ren,” Stephen Angle, “Translating (and Interpreting) the Mengzi,” and Susan Blake, “Mengzi and Its Philosophical Commitments,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 37:4 (December 2010):  660-683.

[2] B.W.V.N., trans., Mengzi:  With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2008), 199, 205.

[3] See Mengzi 6A10, 4A17, 1A7 and 5A3, respectively.

[4] David S. Nivison examined a similar suggestion for interpreting Mengzi.  While Swanton attributes her insight to Nietzsche, Nivison says he found inspiration in Iris Murdoch.  See David S. Nivison, The Ways of Confucianism (Chicago:  Open Court Press, 1996), 108-110.

[5] Mengzi 4B29.

[6] Stephen C. Angle, Sagehood (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009), 96.

[7] See my discussion of “ethical connoisseurs” in Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007), 54-59.

[8] Angle, Sagehood, 61-74.

[9] It is too much to respond here to those who regard taste in music or cooking as completely subjective.  I shall just note that no one I know of who is deeply interested in music or food acts like their judgments are subjective.  This suggests to me that subjectivism about these topics is a result of ignorance about them.

[10] Blake was an informal student of mine while I was in Taiwan in 2005.  Since the object of education is to produce students who are capable of intelligently disagreeing with their teacher, I take indirect pride in her critique of me.

[11] “Impartial caring” is jian ai 兼愛.  As A.C. Graham notes, the Later Mohist contrast between jian and ti 體 is equivalent to whole/part or collection/individual (Disputers of the Tao [Chicago:  Open Court Press, 1989], 145).  This confirms the hypothesis that jian ai is best understood as “collective caring” or “caring for the whole” (as opposed to caring for specific individuals or parts of the whole, such as one’s own family). For the details of my interpretation of Mohist impartial caring and Yi Zhi’s revisionist Mohism, see my Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, 179-98, 301-12.

[12] Philip J. Ivanhoe and B.W.V.N., eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2005), 69.

[13] Ivanhoe and B.W.V.N., 70.

[14] Ivanhoe and B.W.V.N., 74.

[15] The suggestion by Dan Robins that the Mohists were addressing their arguments to “rulers and other members of the nobility” as opposed to Confucians is based on a false dichotomy (“The Mohists and the Gentlemen of the World,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 35, no. 3 [2008]:  386).  Humans of any culture think and act against a background of intellectual presuppositions and alternatives.  We know from a variety of early texts that Kongzi and his disciples sought and often obtained government positions.  Consequently, whatever “elite” audience the Mohists were addressing would be incapable of understanding what the Mohists said in isolation from the doctrine of differentiated caring.

[16] Dan Robins writes that the “ambitious reading” “would commit the Mohists to a radical social revolution …  The Mohists are unlikely to have overlooked this consequence, because it would have been immediate and obvious.” (Robins, 386.)  Quite so!  This is why the extreme examples of the Practicability Argument are needed.

[17] Ivanhoe and B.W.V.N., 74-75.

[18] See Mengzi 3A5, 3B9.9 and 7A26.2, respectively.

[19] Robins, 400n17.

[20] On the hermeneutic Principle of Humanity, see Richard Grandy, “Reference, Meaning and Belief,” Journal of Philosophy 70, no. 14 (1973):  439-52.

[21] See Mengzi 3A5, 3B9.9 and 7B26.1, respectively.

[22] Robins’ article is part of a special issue of the Journal of Chinese Philosophy dedicated to Mohism.  Another provocative article in this collection was Chris Fraser’s, “Mohism and Self-interest,” in which he argues against the claim that, for Mohists, “self-interest amounts to people’s only significant source of motivation” (437).  Fraser is in good company, since A.C. Graham also made this very point:  “…the Mohist conceives of the primaeval war of all against all as a clash, not between interests, but between moralities.  We may conclude that he sees individuals, even at the extreme of competition, as always recognizing some code applicable both to themselves and to others….he has no conception of an absolute egoism…” (Disputers of the Tao, 63; cf. 45-6).  I made similar observations in my Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy:  “[The Mohist view] is different from the conception of Thomas Hobbes, according to which…humans are, by nature, purely self-interested.  In other words, the Mohists hold that humans are not, by nature, purely self-interested, but also hold that there is no natural tendency for humans to converge on a particular conception of righteousness” (195-196).  However, Fraser argues for this conclusion in much more detail than either Graham or I had.

[23] See also my review of Ziporyn’s Zhuangzi, in China Review International 16:1 (2009):  147-50.

[24] As Angle notes, “We are all familiar with ethical principles like ‘respect your parents.’ …[However] Neo-Confucian ethics is a virtue-based ethics, rather than a principle-based ethics…” (Sagehood, 33).  Angle and I disagree, though, over what alternative term to substitute for “principle.”  (See my review of Sagehood in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews [17 February 2010],

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Poker and Game Theory

In order to play your hand in poker, you have to follow a strategy (even if the strategy is unconscious).  For any strategy you use, there is a correct counter-strategy.  Winning players figure out what strategy their opponents are using and adopt the right counter-strategy.  This is one of the reasons that poker is a game of skill.

Here is an illustration.  (Experienced poker players should ignore the oversimplifications I am making.) In No Limit Texas Hold’em (the version of poker you are mostly likely to see on TV or be able to play in a casino), you are dealt two cards face down, your “hole cards.” There is only a small percentage of hands that are good enough for you to make the first bet with (“open”).  Your “opening range” includes pairs — like 22, 77, KK (king-king), and AA (ace-ace) — but it also includes high, unpaired cards — like AK (ace-king), KQ (king-queen), AQ.

Suppose you are dealt AK as your “hole cards.”  You bet and everyone folds except for one “caller” (a person who matches your bet to stay in contention to win the hand).

Now the “flop” is dealt (three cards put face up on the table, which anyone can combine with their own cards to make the best possible five-card hand).  Suppose the flop comes A72.  You “hit” this flop, because the ace in your hand and the ace on the flop combine to give you a pair of aces, which is probably now the best hand.  You should now “bet for value.”  In other words, you are betting in the hopes of getting called by a hand weaker than your own.  (Perhaps your opponent called you with A5, and now has a pair of aces, but with a weaker “kicker” than yours.  In other words, your five-card poker hand is AAK72, while his is AA572.  You both have a pair of aces, but your king-7-2 beats his 7-5-2.)

However, approximately 2/3 of the time, you will not make a pair with either your ace or your king.  So suppose the flop comes T72 (ten-seven-deuce), “rainbow” (of three different suits).  You “missed” this flop with your AK (i.e., your cards do not combine with the flop to make a pair or better).  What should you do?

You should employ one of the most basic game theoretic strategies in hold’em:  the “continuation bet.”  Bet, even though you missed the flop.  Why?  A continuation bet is a kind of “bluff,” a bet designed to get a better hand to fold. Your opponent doesn’t know that you missed the flop, and most of the time your opponent missed the flop too.  So if you bet, he will probably fold, because he assumes that you have a stronger hand.  For example, suppose your opponent called your pre-flop bet with 66.  He actually has the best hand now.  His T7662 has a pair while your AKT72 is only “high card.”  But it will be very hard for him to call your bet, because for all he knows, you could have started out with a higher pair than his (perhaps you have pocket jacks as your hole cards), or you could have raised with AT and hit the ten.  You have executed a strategy that beats your opponent the vast majority of the time.  When you hit the flop, you probably have the best hand, so your value bet wins you money when it is called, and doesn’t lose you anything when it is not.  When you don’t hit the flop, your continuation bet bluff wins the pot the majority of times, because the majority of times your opponent didn’t hit the flop either.

Suppose you keep continuation-betting. After a while, a smart and observant opponent will catch on to what you are doing.  How?  Statistically, there just aren’t enough good flops (flops favorable to your hand) for you to be hitting them as often as you are betting them.  Consequently, a good player will eventually “float” you.  To float is to call a bet on the flop, with the intention of betting on the turn to win the hand.  So eventually you find that your continuation bets are no longer working.  You bet pre-flop, get called, bet the flop, but then get called again.  When you don’t have anything (other than high card) you check the turn, your opponent bets, and you lose the hand.  Your opponent has developed an effective counter-strategy to your continuation-bet strategy.

But now suppose that YOU are smart and observant.  You realize that your opponent cannot have hit the flop as often as he is calling your flop bets:  he must be floating you, at least some of the time.  Consequently, you start “double-barreling”:  you continuation bet the flop as a bluff, and then bluff again on the turn.  Your opponent has observed that you often bluff on the flop, but has not seen you bet frequently on the turn, so he assumes that when you bet the turn you actually have a strong hand. Your opponent folds to your turn bets.  You have executed a successful counter-strategy to your opponent’s floating.

Of course, your observant opponent will eventually notice that you are now betting the flop AND the turn more often than you could reasonable have a strong hand.  He will start to call your turn bets with weak hands, to counter your double-barreling strategy.  You will eventually notice and start to “triple-barrel.”  Your opponent will then adopt the counter-strategy of “calling light” on the river, meaning he will call with fairly weak hands, on the assumption that you are bluffing for three streets now.

What should you do?  Stop triple-barreling.  But when you have a strong hand, you can bet the flop, the turn, and the river.  Your opponent will call with weak hands, because you have trained him that you normally have an even weaker hand when you call. As a result, you will make a huge profit.

Of course, your observant opponent will realize that you have stopped bluffing and are now only value-betting.  He will stop floating you.

And this is the occasion for you to start continuation-betting again.

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