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said, "If a man has no Jen what can his propriety be like? If a man has
no Jen what can his music be like?”
This short paper seeks to examine the above oft-quoted
statements of Confucius (henceforward ‘JJ’) and
argues that it presupposes a theory of human nature, that which is captured in
the notion of ‘Jen’, as a transcendental condition of ‘Lib’, or ‘propriety’ and ‘Yue’c, or music. In order to establish the validity of such an
argument, it starts to answer the question why JJ can be taken as a case of
transcendental argument (henceforward ‘TA’). The first step of this task consists in an exploration
of the meaning of TA, to see how it can be characterized. Then it moves on to
argue for the claim that JJ here implicitly contains a TA. Once these two
steps are completed, this paper assigns itself a second task, namely, to
investigate the inherent weaknesses of TA. One of the corollaries of this
which concerns JJ is that unless a theory of human nature is provided, the
strength of JJ will be greatly undermined. The paper then concludes that
historically it is Mencius who was able to realize the importance of a theory
of human nature for Confucius’ famous assertion, i.e. JJ,
and strived to argue for one espoused in his equally famous ‘child falling into the well’ argument.
Was Confucius making JJ in terms of a TA?
An issue of translation first. In another translation, JJ is rendered
“The Master said, ‘If a man be without the virtues
proper to humanity, what has he to do with the rites of propriety? If a man be
without the virtues proper to humanity, what has he to do with music?’”
Here, Jen is rendered as ‘virtues proper to humanity’. It
seems intuitous that virtue proper to humanity is different from humanity
itself. We are obliged therefore to offer our explanation why we opted for JJ
instead of this translation. The reason is twofold: first because JJ is
obviously more in accord with the Chinese original (Jen) taken
literally; second, on our interpretation, Confucius here was relating
not to the importance of virtuous acts (or acts out of virtues), presumably
manifested and acquired, a person can issue in but rather to the very inner
attribute, presumably innate, of a virtuous person. Our understanding is
echoed in the version of JJ whose translator hastens to add his comment that “Jen is the
essence [mine italics] of …human
attributes” We take ‘essence’ here
to refer to the same thing as ‘inner
attribute’ which albeit sometimes is
not necessarily the same as the former. One of the main reasons for our taking
it this way is influenced by Mencius who maintained that what differentiates
man from beast, i.e. his ‘essence’ or ‘defining
characteristics’, is his innate possession
of the four beginnings of virtue which for him means the same thing as Jen
What exactly is the relation of Jen with Li and Yue
according to JJ? Taken literally, it seems to be saying that without Jen,
Li and Yue cannot truly operate. When someone says without X,
there cannot be Y, he is asserting a logical relation of the two that the
former is a necessary condition of the latter. There are at least two kinds of
necessary conditions. One is the kind typical of, for instance, driving skill
as a necessary condition of a driving license. Although without a driving
license, a person may still steer a vehicle with good skill (for he may be
driving it illegally or he has not yet attended a licensing test), he can in
no way, unless through crooked means, be issued a driving license without
proper driving skill. It is in this sense that the first kind of necessary
condition is intended. It is different from another kind of necessary
condition in which the notion of existence is involved. This second kind of
necessary condition is known to philosophers as a transcendental condition. An
argument that purports to prove that a transcendental condition exists is
called a transcendental argument (TA). TA can be roughly characterized as one
which starts from some accepted experience of fact to prove that there must be
something which is beyond experience (this is one of the reasons why a
driving license is not a transcendental condition) but which is a necessary
condition for making the accepted experience of fact possible. The goal of a
TA is to establish the truth of this precondition. If there is something Y of
which X is a necessary condition, then, according to TA, X must be true.
in JJ, Confucius is implicitly saying that ‘having Jen’ is a precondition of having genuine Li and from
the fact that there is ample evidence that he thought that there was genuine Li
as, for example, exemplified by the Duke of Chou of whom he used to
dream, it seems to follow that he was asserting that the fact that we are
capable, at least potentially, of genuine Li presupposes that there is Jen.
Reformulated along the line of the foregoing discussion, JJ can be rendered
“Without Jen, there can be
no Li nor Yue. Since there are Li and Yue, there
is Jen.” (R1)
Thus taken, Confucius was
uttering JJ in terms of a TA, though, it goes without saying, unconsciously.
characterization of TA
In order to fully appreciate the nature of JJ before we can examine its
strength and weaknesses, it is beneficial to seek for a better understanding
of TA in the light of the analytical works of modern philosophers.
TA is initially invoked to answer skepticism by showing that the things
doubted by a skeptic are in fact preconditions for skepticism to make sense.
Hence skepticism is either meaningless or plainly false. Specifically, they
argue that the skeptical doubts upon the truth of propositions concerning the
possibility of experience or language are themselves doubtful by showing that
there are some conceptual conditions without which no experience or language
is possible. TA first became prominent in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where he argued that the
existence of some fundamental a priori concepts, namely the categories,
and of space and time as pure form of sensibility is necessary for making
experience possible. In contemporary philosophy TAs are widely proposed as
a way of refuting skepticism as well. Wittgenstein used this form of argument
to reject the possibility of a private language which only the speaker could
understand. Strawson employed as a TA to prove the existence of material
particulars independent of our perception and to reject a skeptical attitude
toward the existence of other minds. Davidson cited a necessary condition
for thought, to wit, we can only ascribe beliefs to an agent if they are by
and large true. Putnam in a similar fashion claimed that condition for
inquiring about knowledge of the empirical world is that such a world
Despite being differently formulated, these arguments generally start
with some phenomenon with which even the skeptic does not dispute and from
there follows, as they claim, that there is some condition necessary for
skepticism itself to make sense. The skeptic’s argument is refuted by making explicit the condition
otherwise unknown to the skeptic. As Nozick puts it, “A transcendental argument attempts to prove q by proving
it is part of any correct explanation of p, by proving it a precondition of p’s possibility. All TAs share a common structure:
∴p presupposes q,
p presupposes q
As Fung argues, (i) is an
invalid argument form, and while (ii) is valid, it is not sound. But
perhaps TA can also be formulated as,
Some undisputed phenomenon is
possible only if some disputed phenomenon is actual.
The undisputed phenomenon is
Therefore, the disputed
phenomenon is actual.
In line of this, (R1) can be reformulated as,
and Yue are possible only if Jen is actual.
and Yue are actual.
Thus validly formulated, the soundness of the argument lies in the truth
of the first premise for if it is true, some transcendental condition, and in
our case, Jen, can be proved – at
least allegedly. And it is to this first premise that we shall immediately
Weaknesses of TA
This section is concerned with the justification of TA.
Most of the critiques focus on its capacity to deal with skepticism. Given
the nature of the present paper, it is not our concern here. What we are
going to see is the inability of TA to prove that the transcendental condition
it purports to prove necessarily exists. If such an understanding can be
legitimately arrived at, the strength of JJ will be greatly undermined.
4.1 One of the
major reasons why we do not accept TA can be captured in the following
question: is TA a demonstration of some necessary existence or is it merely an
exposition of the way that our language or thought works, or should work? If
it were the former, then it could give us very important knowledge about the
reality. But if it were the latter, as we shall argue, it would be at best a
desired form of language or thought that may not insure any relation to the
reality. That is, whether we like it or not, what we have is a Hobson’s choice if we are to operate our thought in the medium of our
language. But that does not mean how things really are. Phrased in a
paradoxical tone, perhaps we may say that necessary conditions are not
This understanding of ours comes from a reading of Barry
Stroud’s widely discussed article, “Transcendental Arguments”.
For Stroud, what TA amounts to is an application of some version of
verificationism, that it demands a verification principle in the first place
to prove that some precondition does exist before the structure of the
argument can take effect. However, what we are more interested in is
different from, but not unrelated to, verificationism, namely, his attack on
the inability of TA to address anything substantial with respect to what the
4.2.1His strategy consists of two steps. First he distinguished
a class of propositions “which
it is impossible for one particular person ever to assert truly.” An example of this is I cannot say that I do not
exist because precisely when I am saying this, I am affirming my own existence
thereby rendering my denial a falsity. But there is no contradiction for
anybody else saying so, just as my parents saying it, and rightly so, before I
was born. Or for the Cretans, they cannot say that they are lying, although it
is perfectly alright for us to charge them as lying. In the first example, ‘I’
belongs to a class with itself being the only member; where in the second, the
Cretans themselves form a class of their own. These ‘privileged classes’, as
Stroud called them, are distinguishable from other non-privileged ones in that
the denial by each of their members amounts to an absurdity. That is, they
cannot be wrong. They are different from foundational propositions advocated
by foundationalists partly in that they are not generalizable. This is
explained by the fact that their truth depends exclusively on language. It is
language that makes it impossible for any member in the class to assert truly
4.2.2. The second step is to point
out the fact that the sense of necessity with regard to these privileged
propositions is used in a very peculiar way. To illustrate this, consider the
following example. In one of the most popular ancient novels in Chinese
history, A Journey to the West, the Monkey King possesses 81 powerful
magical tricks with which he had almost, but for Buddha, turned the Heavenly
Palace upside down. The Monkey King is otherwise a mere ordinary monkey if not
under the auspices of his magical power. Given this scenario, we can therefore
construct a TA such that the possession of magical power is a precondition of
this monkey being the Monkey King.
But it is more than obvious that the Monkey King is a fictitious being.
The validity of TA, no matter how attractive a proving technique it is, can in
no way prove the existence of the Monkey King. Now the lesson we can learn
from this example is clear: TA plays little role in relating language to
reality. The magical power of the Monkey King is necessitated by the
plot of the novel, not by reality (or, shall we say, by the ‘reality’ of the novel?). It is one
thing to recount every feature of the object, in our case the Monkey King,
under review, but it is quite another to demonstrate its substantiation in the
actual world. In like manner, the so-called precondition in a TA is necessary
only by virtue of the structure of our language. Our language necessitates our
belief in the existence of such conditions. But a belief remains a belief and
does not necessarily have anything to do with how things really are.
Transcendentally necessary conditions are still contingent upon the actual
world which can well be construed differently from what it is now. It is in
this sense that we said earlier, quite boldly, that necessary conditions
are not necessarily necessary.
5. Concluding Remarks
In view of the analysis above, we can see that even
granted that the existence of genuine Li or Yue presupposes the
existence of Jen, it does not necessarily follow that human beings
necessarily have Jen. For it is not contradictory to assert the
conjunction of the proposition about the existence of human beings and the
proposition that they don’t have Jen.
That human beings have Jen is contingent upon how the world actually
is. If the actual world were to be different from what it is now, the
conception of human nature would very probably be totally different. Seen
under this light, Confucius’ reflection upon the
pre-condition of genuine Li and Yue is, contrary to what most
think, rather an incomplete understanding of human being. The upshot of
all this is in order for Confucian followers to legitimately claim that human
beings are virtuous and have Jen by nature, there is much more to do
than just make an assertion that they are and they do. Conscious of the
significance of this work, Mencius took the endeavor and tried to argue for a
virtuous theory of human nature in his ‘child falling into the well’
argument such that the theoretical vacuum, as it were, left by Confucius can
be filled. As this goes beyond the scope of the present paper, we opt to stop
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b) Li 禮
c) Yue 樂
The Analect, chapter 3-3, http://www.human.toyogakuen-u.ac.jp/~acmuller/contao/analects.htm.
The Chinese original is子曰：人而不仁，如禮何！人而不仁，如樂何！
It seems that ‘virtues
proper to Humanity’ should better be reserved for
translating Jen-De (仁德).
See Mencius, Chap. 6. The Chinese original is
In 7:5, Confucius said: "I am really going down the drain. I have
not dreamt of the Duke of Chou for a long time now." The Chinese original
Cf. for instance, Grayling, 1985, introduction.
 Kant, 1929.
Wittgenstein, 1953, section 43.
 Strawson, 1959, chapter 1 in particular.
 Davidson, 1985.
Nozick, 1981, p.15.
See Fung, p.142.
John Greco, 2000, p.73.
 See above, p.4.
 See, for example, Greco, Ibid., Wilkerson, 1970, gram, 1971,
Stroud 1984, Cassam, 1987, Maker, 1991, Long 1992, Bosley 1993, Brueckner,
Anthony., 1993, Weintraub 1997, ,.
 For others which discuss TA in general, see Fung, Ibid.
 Barry Stroud, 1968, pp.252-54.
 Ibid., pp. 246-48; also see Fung, p.145.
 op.cit. p.253.
 This, however, does not imply any incompetence on the part of Confucius, who, as a matter of fact, was uninterested in pursuing a complete theory of human nature.