I'll be giving two lectures at National Cheng Chi University 國立政治大學 in Taiwan next week: "Zhuangzi and Normative Ethics" on Thursday, Nov. 8, and "Mind and World in Xunzi" on Friday, Nov. 9. The poster for the event is here. These are part of the Cross-cultural Philosophy lecture series 跨文化哲學講座系列 at the NCCU Research Center for Chinese Cultural Subjectivity 政大華人文化主體性研究中心. I'm looking forward to seeing old philosophy friends and meeting new ones in Taipei.
Here are abstracts of the two talks.
Lecture 1: Zhuangzi and Normative Ethics
University of Hong Kong
The various threads of discourse preserved in the Zhuāngzǐ present a radical challenge to prevailing ways of thinking about ethics. The dominant stance in the Zhuāngzǐ is to reject orthodox moral norms or values on grounds that they are ineffective guides to dào 道 (the way). In their place, Zhuangist writings focus directly on the concepts of dào and dé 德 (power, agency), along with interrelated conceptions of the well-lived life.
In previous work, I have explored one prominent such conception, by which the fulfilling or admirable life lies in applying our inherent capacity for adaptive, resilient agency to adroitly “wander” or “roam” along the variety of paths presented to us by changing circumstances. In this essay, I inquire into the attitudes and conduct toward other agents that go hand in hand with the admirable individual life, as depicted in the Zhuāngzǐ. How does the Zhuangist adept handle interpersonal relations? I suggest that on a broadly Zhuangist understanding, interpersonal ethics is simply a special case of competence or adroitness in applying dé (agency) and following dào (ways). The general ideal of exemplary activity is to employ our dé to find a fitting, free-flowing dào by which to navigate through contingent, changing circumstances. Interpersonal ethics is an application of this ideal to cases in which other agents and our relations with them are prominent features of our circumstances. The ethics of interacting with others is thus not a distinct subject area but one application of more general views about dào, dé, and exemplary activity. Instead of wandering the way on our own, interactions with others present us with situations in which we must find our way together.
On this approach, moral judgments are supplanted by judgments about the quality of our activity as a performance of dào—whether it is adept or clumsy, free-flowing or obstructed, in accordance with the situation or at odds with it. The Zhuangist approach is thus distinct from all familiar normative ethical theories, including consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, and contractualism. Zhuangist ethical discourse offers a striking alternative to prevailing ways of understanding and evaluating our actions and attitudes toward others—one that, Zhuangist writers would insist, better reflects the human condition, the realities of concrete practice, and the sources of normativity.
Lecture 2: Mind and World in Xúnzǐ 荀子
University of Hong Kong
Xúnzǐ’s metaethics, theory of names, and epistemology jointly present a view of mind and world on which the contents of thought are produced by norm-governed activity directed at fulfilling human interests. This activity, and thus what we say and think, is subject to constraints imposed by causal relations with the world that determine the success or failure of our activity. The result is a plausible conception of the content of talk and thought that leaves no space for a gap to open up between mind and world, since even failed activity engages with the world, while the diachronic nature of the causal constraints on activity presents repeated, ongoing opportunities to discover errors in our cognitive attitudes. In this talk, I sketch the Xunzian picture and highlight its distinctive features by comparing and contrasting it with the widely discussed “Naturalised Platonism” of John McDowell. I contend that the Xunzian approach is more plausible than McDowell’s. I conclude by suggesting that on a Xunzian approach, the focus of epistemology is likely to shift from concerns about justification and analysis of knowledge to concerns about judiciousness, epistemic conscientiousness, and epistemic reliability.