Learning to See: Literature, Moral Perception and Early Confucian Virtue Ethics
Department of Comparative Literature
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
Department of Philosophy
Department of Religious Studies
518 Memorial Way, Stanford, CA 94305
Iris Murdoch famously extolled the role of art—particularly literature—in breaking the individual out of the prison of the self, allowing them to properly attend to the social and physical world around them. Informed by Murdoch, this paper presents the Analects of Confucius as both a strong advocate of literature as a tool for virtue ethical self-cultivation and as itself, qua text, a guide to becoming a moral-perceptual adept.
Though quite distant from us in time, ancient Chinese philosophical traditions can nonetheless make important contributions to contemporary philosophical and psychological debate. Modern cognitive science has reinforced Murdoch’s dim view of deontology and utilitarianism as psychologically plausible models of ethics, which makes the task of reimagining traditional virtue ethics a particularly important one for contemporary ethical theorists. At the same time, an increasingly large body of empirical work in the science of perception has weighed in decisively on some philosophical debates concerning the possibility and nature of moral perception, providing an excellent perspective for assessing the psychological plausibility of the early Confucian strategy. The early Confucian emphasis on embodied, multi-media cultural training also goes some way toward answering the question of how, specifically, moral perceptional expertise can be acquired, refined and evaluated by others.
One aspect in which we now confront a novel challenge, vis-à-vis the ancients, has to do with the authority of our cultural traditions. As moderns, most of us function outside the context of the sort of realist faith that motivated Confucius or even Murdoch. This presents us with unique challenges when it comes to determining which art, and what literature, could be our teachers in this task of learning to (morally and aesthetically) see. This is where models of connoisseurship, developed by ancient virtue ethicists and reinforced by modern reflections on taste and acculturation, may be able to play a helpful role.
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About the speaker:
Edward Slingerland is Distinguished University Scholar and Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. His research specialties and teaching interests include Warring States (5th-3rd c. B.C.E.) Chinese thought, religious studies, cognitive linguistics, ethics, and the relationship between the humanities and the natural sciences. His publications include several academic monographs and edited volumes, approximately fifty refereed articles in top journals in a wide variety of fields, and two trade books, Trying Not Try: Modern Science, Ancient China and the Power of Spontaneity (Crown 2014) and Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization (Little, Brown 2021). He is also Director of the Database of Religious History (DRH; religiondatabase.org).