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Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics (review)

Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics (review) BOOK REVIEWS Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics.By EricaFoxBrindley.Honolulu:UniversityofHawai`iPress,2010.Pp.xxx+207. ReviewedbyHagop Sarkissian CityUniversityofNewYork,BaruchCollege ItisoftenarguedthatConfucianvaluesoverwhelmindividualinterestsinChinese society, where one's duties to family and community seem to require subsuming one'spersonalconcernsforthegreatergood.Ifso,whatroleisthereforindividualism?Doesthetermevenapply?InIndividualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics,EricaFoxBrindleyarguesthatwhetherornotconceptssuchas`individualism' ithoriginsinWesternintellectualdiscourse an --w --c beusedtoexplicateChinesethoughtdependsnotonwheretheyarosebutinstead onwhethertheyareultimatelyuseful;afterall,why"cutofftheuseofaperfectly goodtermandanalyticdevice"(p.x)simplybecausethattermhasemergedinone culturalcontextandnotanother?ThemainprojectofBrindley'sbookistoarguethat Chinesehistorydoesconceiveoftheselfas`individual.'Ifso,thenshunningtheterm `individualism'canonlyhampertranslationandmaskhowtheselfisunderstoodin thetraditionitself. BrindleybeginsherexaminationwithtextsfromtheearlyWarringStatesperiod, whenchangesfromanoldkinship-basedpoliticalsystemtoonebasedonmeritprovidedfertilegroundtoreconceivetheindividualasasourceofagency,power,and authority.ThefirstkeysourceisthephilosophyoftheMohists,whoarguedthatindividualsoughttoconformtheirownconceptionsofrightnesstoaunifiedandultimate ethicalstandard eaven'swill.Howdoessuchconformityunderwriteindividual--H ism?TheMohistdoctrineof`conformingupward'reliesonindividualstoproperly decipherHeaven'swillandputitintoeffect;thispresupposesthatindividualshave certain cognitive faculties of appraisal and evaluation. Moreover, conformity to Heaven'swillmeritsrewards,whereasnonconformitywarrantspunishments,providingabasisforindividualresponsibility.Importantly,forBrindley,theentireMohist politicalsystemdependsonindividualsdowntothelowestrungsofthesocialladder toevaluateoneanother(includingtheirsuperiors)andactaccordingtoafixedstandard,underscoringnotionsofagency,authority,andchoice. Brindley then traces this conformism/individualism dialectic through various fourth-centurytexts.TheLaozi,forexample,advancesanideaBrindleycalls"bodily conformism."Throughmeditativepraxisasage-rulerisabletoemptyhimselfofselfishdesiresandbecomeavesselforthecosmicDao sourceofauthorityinthe --a world.However,becausethesage-rulerhastransformedintoavessel,Brindleyrefers tothesageruler's"self"inscarequotes.Indeed,itisnotclearhowtheLaozi helps enrichearlynotionsofindividualism,orwhyBrindleyadoptsanexplicitlypolitical readingofthetext(asamanualofrulership).WhilepartsoftheLaozi arenodoubt political,Brindleymighthavetakenamoreindividualisticorientationtothetextit- PhilosophyEast&WestVolume62,Number3July2012408­410 ©2012byUniversityofHawai`iPress self(asmanyothershavedone),inordertoexpanditsnotionofindividualagency beyondthesinglefigureoftheruler. In different ways, the Mozi and Laozi emphasize conformity to an external sandard eavenandDao,respectively.Brindleyarguesthatthecrucialmovelinkt --H ingconformismwithindividualisticviewsofagencyoccursinfourth-centurydiscussionsofxing(humannature),referringtoanidealizedagencythatinheresin nd --a ispartof ne'sself.TheZhuangzi,forexample,focusesontheindividual'sunique --o andpersonallinktothecosmos.Conformismisnottosomeexternalsource(w ether h HeavenortheDao)butinsteadtopowersandpotentialswithinindividualxing.The Zhuangzi does,ofcourse,advocatealossofone'ssenseofselfinordertoundermine oneself as a conventional actor in the world. Nonetheless, since each individual o cupiesauniquepositioninsociety(cook,wheelwright,scholar,etc.),howindic vidualswillconformtotheirnaturesanddevelopagencywillbedifferent;eachindividual is a unique manifestation of the Dao. Brindley asks a crucial question: "to whatextentdoesthismakeZhuangzi'sthoughts`individualistic'?"(p.62).Onthe one hand, successful `mental fasting' frees oneself from the world and marshals i minentpowersinthebody;ontheotherhand,one'semergentselfseemsamere m manifestationoftheDaointheworld(p.58). Notwithstanding such difficulties, Brindley sees the conception of individuals as conforming to something within themselves as a key development. Mencius sharesthisorientation,locatingsourcesofnormativitywithintheindividualasopposedtoanexternalstandard.Brindleyarguespersuasivelythatbyadvancingxing asaninternalresourcefornormativity,thesetextspresentanewoutlookonindividualagency.Totheextentthatoneisguidedbyone'sxing,onecandevelopintoa morally upright person; by contrast, http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Philosophy East and West University of Hawai'I Press

Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics (review)

Philosophy East and West , Volume 62 (3) – Aug 3, 2012

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Abstract

BOOK REVIEWS Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics.By EricaFoxBrindley.Honolulu:UniversityofHawai`iPress,2010.Pp.xxx+207. ReviewedbyHagop Sarkissian CityUniversityofNewYork,BaruchCollege ItisoftenarguedthatConfucianvaluesoverwhelmindividualinterestsinChinese society, where one's duties to family and community seem to require subsuming one'spersonalconcernsforthegreatergood.Ifso,whatroleisthereforindividualism?Doesthetermevenapply?InIndividualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics,EricaFoxBrindleyarguesthatwhetherornotconceptssuchas`individualism' ithoriginsinWesternintellectualdiscourse an --w --c beusedtoexplicateChinesethoughtdependsnotonwheretheyarosebutinstead onwhethertheyareultimatelyuseful;afterall,why"cutofftheuseofaperfectly goodtermandanalyticdevice"(p.x)simplybecausethattermhasemergedinone culturalcontextandnotanother?ThemainprojectofBrindley'sbookistoarguethat Chinesehistorydoesconceiveoftheselfas`individual.'Ifso,thenshunningtheterm `individualism'canonlyhampertranslationandmaskhowtheselfisunderstoodin thetraditionitself. BrindleybeginsherexaminationwithtextsfromtheearlyWarringStatesperiod, whenchangesfromanoldkinship-basedpoliticalsystemtoonebasedonmeritprovidedfertilegroundtoreconceivetheindividualasasourceofagency,power,and authority.ThefirstkeysourceisthephilosophyoftheMohists,whoarguedthatindividualsoughttoconformtheirownconceptionsofrightnesstoaunifiedandultimate ethicalstandard eaven'swill.Howdoessuchconformityunderwriteindividual--H ism?TheMohistdoctrineof`conformingupward'reliesonindividualstoproperly decipherHeaven'swillandputitintoeffect;thispresupposesthatindividualshave certain cognitive faculties of appraisal and evaluation. Moreover, conformity to Heaven'swillmeritsrewards,whereasnonconformitywarrantspunishments,providingabasisforindividualresponsibility.Importantly,forBrindley,theentireMohist politicalsystemdependsonindividualsdowntothelowestrungsofthesocialladder toevaluateoneanother(includingtheirsuperiors)andactaccordingtoafixedstandard,underscoringnotionsofagency,authority,andchoice. Brindley then traces this conformism/individualism dialectic through various fourth-centurytexts.TheLaozi,forexample,advancesanideaBrindleycalls"bodily conformism."Throughmeditativepraxisasage-rulerisabletoemptyhimselfofselfishdesiresandbecomeavesselforthecosmicDao sourceofauthorityinthe --a world.However,becausethesage-rulerhastransformedintoavessel,Brindleyrefers tothesageruler's"self"inscarequotes.Indeed,itisnotclearhowtheLaozi helps enrichearlynotionsofindividualism,orwhyBrindleyadoptsanexplicitlypolitical readingofthetext(asamanualofrulership).WhilepartsoftheLaozi arenodoubt political,Brindleymighthavetakenamoreindividualisticorientationtothetextit- PhilosophyEast&WestVolume62,Number3July2012408­410 ©2012byUniversityofHawai`iPress self(asmanyothershavedone),inordertoexpanditsnotionofindividualagency beyondthesinglefigureoftheruler. In different ways, the Mozi and Laozi emphasize conformity to an external sandard eavenandDao,respectively.Brindleyarguesthatthecrucialmovelinkt --H ingconformismwithindividualisticviewsofagencyoccursinfourth-centurydiscussionsofxing(humannature),referringtoanidealizedagencythatinheresin nd --a ispartof ne'sself.TheZhuangzi,forexample,focusesontheindividual'sunique --o andpersonallinktothecosmos.Conformismisnottosomeexternalsource(w ether h HeavenortheDao)butinsteadtopowersandpotentialswithinindividualxing.The Zhuangzi does,ofcourse,advocatealossofone'ssenseofselfinordertoundermine oneself as a conventional actor in the world. Nonetheless, since each individual o cupiesauniquepositioninsociety(cook,wheelwright,scholar,etc.),howindic vidualswillconformtotheirnaturesanddevelopagencywillbedifferent;eachindividual is a unique manifestation of the Dao. Brindley asks a crucial question: "to whatextentdoesthismakeZhuangzi'sthoughts`individualistic'?"(p.62).Onthe one hand, successful `mental fasting' frees oneself from the world and marshals i minentpowersinthebody;ontheotherhand,one'semergentselfseemsamere m manifestationoftheDaointheworld(p.58). Notwithstanding such difficulties, Brindley sees the conception of individuals as conforming to something within themselves as a key development. Mencius sharesthisorientation,locatingsourcesofnormativitywithintheindividualasopposedtoanexternalstandard.Brindleyarguespersuasivelythatbyadvancingxing asaninternalresourcefornormativity,thesetextspresentanewoutlookonindividualagency.Totheextentthatoneisguidedbyone'sxing,onecandevelopintoa morally upright person; by contrast,

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Philosophy East and WestUniversity of Hawai'I Press

Published: Aug 3, 2012

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