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Jena , and Transcendental Arguments

Kwan Sui-chi

PhD Student, Humanities, HKUST; Tutor, OUHK

Confucius 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?”[1]

1.  Introduction

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 Yuec, 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.


2.  Was Confucius making JJ in terms of a TA?

2.1    An issue of translation first. In another translation, JJ is rendered as,

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?’”[2]

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[3]; 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[4] 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 for Confucius.[5]

2.2    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.

Now 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 [6]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 as,

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.


3.  A further characterization of TA

3.1       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.

3.1.1. 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. [7]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 Kants 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[8]. 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.[9] 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.[10] Davidson cited a necessary condition for thought, to wit, we can only ascribe beliefs to an agent if they are by and large true.[11] Putnam in a similar fashion claimed that condition for inquiring about knowledge of the empirical world is that such a world exists.[12]

3.1.2. 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 skeptics 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 ps possibility.[13] All TAs share a common structure:

(i)    p


       ∴p presupposes q,


(ii)      p

       p presupposes q


   ∴q [14]

As Fung argues, (i) is an invalid argument form, and while (ii) is valid, it is not sound.[15] But perhaps TA can also be formulated as,

1. Some undisputed phenomenon is possible only if some disputed phenomenon is actual.

2. The undisputed phenomenon is actual.

3. Therefore, the disputed phenomenon is actual.[16]

In line of this, (R1)[17] can be reformulated as,

1.    Genuine Li and Yue are possible only if Jen is actual.

2.    Genuine Li and Yue are actual.

3.    Therefore, Jen is actual.               (R2)

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 turn.


4.  Weaknesses of TA

This section is concerned with the justification of TA. Most of the critiques focus on its capacity to deal with skepticism.[18] Given the nature of the present paper, it is not our concern here.[19] 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 Hobsons 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 necessarily necessary.

4.2 This understanding of ours comes from a reading of Barry Strouds widely discussed article, Transcendental Arguments.[20] 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.[21] 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 reality is.

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.[22] 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 a denial.


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 dont 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.[23] 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 here.


Works Cited

Bosley, Richard. (1993). On Knowing that One Knows, The Logic of Skepticism and Theory. Peter Lang.

Brueckner, Anthony. (1993). One More Failed Transcendental Argument. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol. 53, Issue 3, 633-636.

Cassam, Quassim. (1987). Transcendental Arguments, Transcendental Synthesis and Transcendental Idealism. Philosophical Quarterly. Vol. 37, Issue 149, 355-78.

Davidson, Donald. (1985). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fung, Yiu Ming. Transcendental Analysis and Logical Analysis: the Methodological Issue of Contemporary Neo-Confucianism. Forthcoming.

Grayling, A. C. (1985). The Refutation of Scepticism. La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company.

Gram, Moltke. (1971). Transcendental Arguments. Nous. Vol. 5, Issue 1, 15-26.

Greco, John. (2000). Putting Skeptics in Their Place. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. (1929) (1781/1787). Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. N. Kemp Smith. London: Macmillan.

Long, Douglas. (1992). The Self-defeating Character of Skepticism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol. 52, Issue 1, 67-84.

Maker, William. (1991) Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol. 51, Issue 2, 345-360.

Nozick, Robert. (1981). Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Putnam, Hilary. (1981). Reason, Truth and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Strawson, Peter. (1959). Individuals. London: University Paperback.

Stroud, Barry. (1968). Transcendental Arguments. The Journal of Philosophy. Vol 65, Issue 9, 241-256.

---- (1984). The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Weintraub, Ruth. (1997). The Sceptical Challenge. London & New York: Routledge.

Wilkerson, T. E. (1970). Transcendental Arguments. Philosophical Quarterly. Vol. 20, Issue 80, Special Review Number, 200-12.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.



a)  Jen      

b)  Li   

c)  Yue      


[1]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


[3]It seems that virtues proper to Humanity should better be reserved for translating Jen-De (仁德).


[5]See Mencius, Chap. 6. The Chinese original is 人之異於禽獸者幾希.

[6]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 is 甚矣吾衰也久矣吾不復夢見周公

[7]Cf. for instance, Grayling, 1985, introduction.

[8] Kant, 1929.

[9]Wittgenstein, 1953, section 43.

[10] Strawson, 1959, chapter 1 in particular.

[11] Davidson, 1985.

[12]Putman, 1981.

[13]Nozick, 1981, p.15.

[14]See Fung, p.142.

[15]Ibid, p.143.

[16]John Greco, 2000, p.73.

[17] See above, p.4.

[18] See, for example, Greco, Ibid., Wilkerson, 1970, gram, 1971, Stroud 1984, Cassam, 1987, Maker, 1991, Long 1992, Bosley 1993, Brueckner, Anthony., 1993, Weintraub 1997, ,.

[19] For others which discuss TA in general, see Fung, Ibid. 142-46.

[20] Barry Stroud, 1968, pp.252-54.

[21] Ibid., pp. 246-48; also see Fung, p.145.

[22] op.cit. p.253.

[23] 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.