Paronomasia in the Mengzi


Mengzi in script and character
“Mencius (Mengzi)” in seal script (top) and regular (bottom) Chinese characters

Week 9, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Define dao
  2. Discuss the role of paronomasia in the Ruist tradition (li 禮, li 利, li 里; ren 人, ren 仁, ren 訒)

Dao 道 can be rendered as “path,” or “the way,” or “road,” but we should consider the metaphysical implications of the use of the definite article “the.” The English language requires us to include an article, whether “the” or “a” and we do recognize there is a difference between “the way” and “a way,” don’t we? In the Ruist context to this point we see dao 道 has come to mean “the proper way to do something” giving the term a sense of an artistry.

The character is composed of two elements: shu 疋 (foot) and shou 首 (head, hair and eyes). Ames and Hall read these elements as indicating a “passing over” or “leading through on foot” (shu) with what is “foremost” and “to give a heading” and therefore “to lead.” Dao 道 in this last sense is found in the ancient Book of Documents where the term is used to describe the “leading” of cutting a channel in order to lead a river away and thereby prevent its future flooding. (Ames & Hall, Daodejing, 57)

Recall that in our last lecture we discussed fatalism. We see this expressed in Analects 20.3:

Kongzi said, “One who does not understand fate (ming 命) lacks the means to become a gentleman (junzi 君子). One who does not understand ritual (li 禮) lacks the means to take his place [as in, they don’t know where to be in the world]. One who does not understand words lacks the means to evaluate others.”

Roger Ames tells us, “In fact, according to the Analects, not only do we need to understand how to use language in general, we are exhorted to realize what is at risk in the choice of every word.” Indeed, these are the last words in the “collected sayings,” the meaning of the term Analects. (“Paronomasia: A Confucian Way of Making Meaning,” 37)

Today I’d like for you to be able to define the term, “paronomasia,” a play on words; puns. It is a technical term for a semantic device. This is critical for our appreciation of the Ruist philosophies.

Ames helps us understand the utility of this technique in the following passage:

“The technical term for defining, and in fact, redefining, expressions using words that sound alike or that have a similar meaning is ‘paronomasia.’ Significantly, in this paronomastic process, the expectation is that we are not just ‘discovering’ definitions about an existing world, but actively delineating a world and bringing it into being.” (“Paronomasia: A Confucian Way of Making Meaning,” 38)

To illustrate this point, let’s look at Analects 12.3 where a student has asked Confucius about demonstrating authoritative conduct (ren 仁).

Kongzi replies, “Authoritative persons (ren 仁)are cautious in what they say (ren 訒).”

Ren 訒 means, “to speak with caution and modesty.” This second term, combines a word for knife/blade ren刃 with the character yan 言 “proposal, word, speak.” Yan is composed of a radical for “lid” (亠)with the number two (er 二) and a mouth (ko 口).

In other words, Kongzi is suggesting to us that the person of consummate character, this authoritative person, is that person who knows the value of measuring their words before committing others to a fight.

The first thing that I would like for you to note about our reading from Mengzi is that it begins with a series of puns.

Temple to Mencius
Yasheng Dian (“Hall of the Second Sage”, i.e. Mencius), the main sanctuary of the Temple of Mencius in Zoucheng.

King Hui of Liang greets Mengzi:

Mengzi 1A1
“Sir, you have come, not regarding one thousand li 里 as too far. Surely you will have something to profit (li 利) my state?” (Van Norden translation)

Note li 里 which is a unit of measurement (gongli 公里 is “kilometer” today) and li 利 “profit” are in this passage. The reason these words appear here is not only to set the stage for the effort Mengzi has made to help a king who is clearly struggling, but also because the reader familiar with Chinese should, after hearing or reading li 里 and li 利 should also associate another critical term: li 禮, “ritual propriety.”

Mengzi and the Ruist school of philosophy are marked by their excellence in transmitting and refining ritual technology, li 禮. It is through proper attention to ritual performances, the Ruists argue, that true kings can protect themselves against civil unrest in their kingdoms as well as rectify the preponderances of the cosmos at large so that the human community can flourish.

Mengzi replies to King Hui saying he would rather the king focused less on li 利 (profit) and instead focused on “righteousness” (yi 義). Let’s look at this character and how it is composed. It features the word for “I, me, my” (wo 我) with the word for “sheep” (yang 羊).

Why do you think these two go together?

We see this character, yang 羊 come up again when we use the second-century lexicon Shuowenjiezi to try and define the word jun 君 of junzi 君子. The Shuowenjiezi tells us that jun 君 is defined as qun 群, “gathering.” Ames states that that this association of jun 君 and qun 群 is made “because of the underlying assumption that people will gather round and defer to exemplary persons.” (“Paronomasia: A Confucian Way of Making Meaning,” 38)

Paronomasia is a useful tool for aiding in memorization of long passages of text (which is a significant technique for illiterate folks), and it is also a useful tool for stimulating the moral imagination of the listener and reader.

I’ve created this simple app to help you practice memorizing some of the Chinese philosophical terms in our class:

Now that we’ve spent some time with these sheep, let’s look at King Xuan’s decision to spare the ox when consecrating the bell, in Mengzi 1A7 shall we?

We are told that Xuan is not considered to be a true king because he does not rule with virtue (de 德). Xuan says that he couldn’t bear to see the terror in the ox’s eyes as it was led to the sacrifice and so commanded that the ritual be stopped and that a sheep be substituted in its place.

Because Xuan had the ritual interrupted and then broke away from the prescribed way that this ritual is supposed to be performed, the people came to believe that Xuan had made this substitution out of miserliness. To this accusation Xuan replies, “What was this feeling really?! It’s not the case that I grudged its value and exchanged it for a sheep. But it makes sense that the commoners would say that I was stingy.”

Mengzi replies to that it makes sense that Xuan would have his heart moved by the ox’s fear of death. And it is because Xuan has this capacity to have his heart moved by others that there is hope for Xuan to become a true king (a king who reigns with virtue, de 德). The trouble for Xuan, though, is that his kindness has been extended to this particular ox, but his kindness is not being extended to the common people in his kingdom. Mengzi tells Xuan, “For the old to wear silk and the black-haired people to be neither hungry nor cold, yet for their ruler not to become a king—such a thing has never happened.”

Mohist Rejection of Ruist Fatalism

We’ve just reviewed the way in which Ruists (like Kongzi and Mengzi) understand the concept tianming 天命 and how this supports their understanding of moral actions. Here we will consider the ways in which Mozi rejects the Ruist project and insists on a consequentialist lens for deciding moral actions.

Previously we pointed out that Kongzi looked to the Zhou dynasty as the exemplars for how his contemporaries ought to constitute future governments. And we noted that the Mohists point to the example given to us by the Xia dynasty. The differences between these two examples can be seen in how the Mohists interpret their relationship with Heaven’s will.

The Ruists argue that tianming 天命 is an impersonal force, unconcerned with human affairs, and ultimately it is the role of king—as the intermediary between the human community and the cosmos—to consummate the relationship between us, thus the character for king (wang 王) shows the king in the middle, between heaven and earth. The king can bring about this harmonization between the differences of the heavens, humans, and earth by observing ritual propriety (li 禮) and maintaining the right kind of actions (ren 仁) that promote the flourishing of the human community.

The Mohists argue that what Heaven tian 天 is an anthropomorphic figure who is very much concerned with human actions and regularly condemns us when we fail to meet the appropriate standards. Rather than discussing the mandate of Heaven, 天命, Mozi argues that tian 天wills (zhi 志) things to be as they are. Crucially, this willing (zhi 志) is a predictable inclination, rather than the capricious and ineffable propensity (ming 命) that the Ruists maintain.

It is tianzhi  天志 that underwrites the central ethical principle for the Mohists: yi 義 (righteousness). For the Mohists  it is Heaven that determines everything and so yi 義 (righteousness) is the will of Heaven. Wing-tsit Chan has argued that, “In teaching obedience to the will of Heaven, [Mozi] was the most religious of the ancient Chinese philosophers. No one else relied on religious sanction as much as he did.” (A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, 220–221)

A.C. Graham states the difference this way,
“The Confucian thinks of the right as done for its own sake, and frees himself from the temptation to do wrong for the sake of gain by saying that wealth and poverty, long life and early death, are decreed for him by Heaven and outside his control. He can therefore act rightly with an untroubled mind, leaving the consequences to Heaven. For the Mohist on the other hand, judging all conduct in terms of benefit and harm, there can be no meaning in a morality detached from consequences. He is in a position to discard the fiction that material welfare is unaffected by how one acts, and he sees a fatalism which clings to it as not encouraging but undermining morality. At the same time he is driven in the direction of another moralising fiction, that if you behave rightly you can be sure of your reward.” (Disputers of the Tao, 50)

The Mohists level four critiques against the Ruists:

  1. The Ruists do not believe in ghosts—this leads the ghosts to be upset and this creates chaos.
  2. The Ruists argue that everyone should have elaborate funeral ceremonies for their dead parents, lasting three years, and this costs too much money and other resources.
  3. The Ruists overemphasize the role of musical performances in cultivating good personhood and this has the result of wasting everyone’s resources.
  4. The Ruists have the wrong idea about tian 天, believing that tianming 天命 is an impersonal force that predetermines one’s outcomes. This leads people to accept poverty and misfortune when these outcomes could be avoided by doing the right actions.

Mozi doesn’t disagree with the emphases that the Ruists place on ren 仁 (humaneness, authoritative or consummate conduct) and yi 義 (righteousness or appropriateness). Rather, Mozi argues, in his “Impartial Caring,” that the person who is ren 仁 and yi 義 is the person who shares their concern for others equitably.

If someone is overly committed to their filial networks (which is what Mozi argues that the Ruists are encouraging), the result is often times nepotism or worse, cronyism. Mozi argues that the people rise or fall together and therefore folks should work together to make the greater good better.

Ruist and Mohist Interpretations of Tianming 天命

Week 8, Lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Define utilitarian ethics.
  2. Discuss consequentialism and fatalism found in Mohist and Ruist philosophies.

Utilitarianism: the right action is that which produces the overall greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Happiness is understood to be the same thing as pleasure. The overall pursuit is to structure society in a manner that motivates people who are self-motivated by their self-interest, to work toward maximizing general happiness.

Utilitarianism is a mode of a branch of ethics called consequentialism. Consequentialism holds that the consequences of our actions are what determine whether or not our actions are justifiable or not. The common expression “the ends justify the means” is the spirit of consequentialism.

Against consequentialism we may productively contrast fatalism. Fatalism is that body of thought that argues that resistance to the inevitable is futile. A chain of events prior to our birth has set the stage such that there is little one can do to alter the future—it is our fate or destiny.

When contemplating what course of action we should take from a consequentialist perspective, we ask ourselves about the outcome that we are about to generate and whether or not the results of our action generates the appropriate outcome we desire. This, then, is the rubric for determining whether our action is good or bad.

When contemplating what course of action we should take from a fatalist perspective we recognize that our actions do not generate the outcome because the outcome is predetermined by our fate. So, we must assess whether or not our actions are good or bad by a metric different from that used by the consequentialist. Our actions are deemed good or bad not by the effects of our actions but rather because our actions are good or bad actions in-themselves.

Kongzi is a good model for us to understand this fatalist position because he did not achieve what he set-out to achieve before his death. As FUNG Yu-lan states:

“Confucius’ own life is certainly a good example of this teaching. Living in an age of great social and political disorder, he tried his best to reform the world. He traveled everywhere and, like Socrates, talked to everybody. Although his efforts were in vain, he was never disappointed. He knew that he could not succeed, but kept on trying.” (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, 45)

We can get a more robust sense of what is meant by fate or destiny by discussing the concept of tianming 天命, which is often translated as “the mandate of heaven.”

Let’s look at the Book of Songs, number 267:

The Mandate of Heaven [tianming 天之命],
How beautiful and unceasing!
Oh, how glorious
Was the purity of King Wen’s virtue!
With blessings he overwhelms us.
We will receive the blessings.
They are a great favor from our King Wen.
May his descendants hold fast to them.
(from Wing-tsit Chan’s A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, 6)

What we see with this Book of Songs example above is an ancient documentation of a strong cultural belief in China, tianming 天命.  Tianming 天命 is here presented as an anthropomorphic force that exerts its will in the affairs of the human community. The kings of ancient China can secure the favor of tianming 天命 by observing proper ritual conduct and this includes practicing sincere veneration of one’s ancestors.

Kongzi looked to the Zhou dynasty (1111–770 BCE) as the exemplars whose model all future kings ought to aspire. The Duke of Zhou argued that it was because the Yin dynasty (1384–1112 BCE) had lost the Mandate of Heaven tianming 天命 that it was now possible for the Zhou dynasty to ascend to a position of primacy in the region. From earliest records we see that tianming 天命 has long served as an explanatory principle for rationalizing why political change occurs in the region.

While Kongzi encouraged his students to observe the model created by the Zhou dynasty, Mozi, on the other hand, looked to the Xia dynasty (2183–1752 BCE). The difference is significant because we see that what tianming 天命 means changes fundamentally between these two models.

For the Ruists, tianming 天命 comes to mean the way (dao 道) or moral order that cosmos itself observes, independent of human concerns. The role of sage king is to foster and enhance the relationship between the human community and the greater cosmos. Indeed, one way we can understand the character for “king” (wang, 王) is that the king is the intermediary between heaven and earth.

What tianming 天命 dictates, or what fate tianming 天命 has in store for us, is beyond our control, as we see expressed in Analects 14.36:

“The Master said, ‘Whether or not the Way (dao 道) is to be put into action is a matter of ming 命, fate. Whether or not the Way (dao 道) is to be discarded is also a matter of fate.” (Slingerland translation)

We see also that, because tianming 天命 is beyond our control, that the proper way for the Ruist is to do nothing that would disturb the way tianming 天命 is unfolding:

Analects 16.2
Kongzi said [….] “In a world world which follows the Way, political initiative does not belong to the ministers; in a world which follows the Way, there is no need for commoners to dispute over politics.” (Simon Leys translation)

The people do not debate the affairs of the state because there is no need for them to debate the way the state is operating: the people are flush with crops, the elderly are cared for, the young are being raised in the appropriate manner, etc. In short, when the way guides human affairs, the human community flourishes.

Analects 20.3 argues that if we do not learn how to harmonize ourselves with the what tianming 天命 intends, then we will not be able to become an exemplary person (junzi 君子), “One who does not understand the Heavenly Mandate lacks the means to become a [junzi 君子].” (Slingerland translation)

Fung argues that, “to know ming 命 means to acknowledge the inevitability of the world as it exists [rather than how we wish it existed], and so to disregard one’s external success or failure. If we can act in this way, we can, in a sense, never fail. For if we do our duty, that duty through our very act is morally done, regardless of the external success or failure of our action.” (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, 45)

This embrace of fatalism is in part what Mozi despised about the Ruist project. Click here to continue our lecture and learn more about the Mohist position.

Kongzi’s “Golden Rule”

Bloch's "The Sermon on the Mount"
The Sermon on the Mount
Carl Bloch, 1890

Harmony is the chief accomplishment of human activities in the Analects. We look to 2.14 and 15.22 for discussion of the culinary nature of the term rendered commonly as “harmony” (he 和).

Rosemont, Jr. and Ames state, that “harmony is the art of combining and blending two or more foodstuffs so that they come together with mutual benefit and enhancement without losing their separate and particular identities.” (Philosophical Translation of the Analects, 254—258)

Identity here is a matter of negotiating one’s situation in the filial context. “Who we are” is the sum of the roles we perform in a meaning-generating and enforcing network of communal living. We become “this-particular-son” or “this-particular-teacher” by individuating ourselves in our wholehearted engagement with the rituals of our stations.

Rather than seeking to achieve a unity through sameness—as we see in the sameness of voice in the Händel chorus above—or sameness of dimension—as we see in the felloes above—which are indicative of what is meant by harmonia, in pursuing he (和) what is sought is a dynamic balancing of differences.

A note on terminology

Without these differences, the kind of harmony that is sought by the Ruists (儒學) isn’t possible. The term ru (儒) means “erudite” or “classicist,” and is the term that folks who observe the teachings and practices of Confucius.

The name “Confucius” is a Latinization of the Chinese name Kongfuzi (孔夫子), we will refer to him in this class as Kongzi (孔子, “Master Kong”).

Golden Rules and Translation Differences

Those of you familiar with the Christian tradition will likely know the “Golden Rule” to be something like what we see in Matthew 7:12 or Luke 6:31, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

We see something similar when we look at Analects 15.24:

Zigong asked, “Is there one teaching that can serve as a guide for one’s entire life?
The Master [Kongzi] answered, “Is it not shu [恕], ‘sympathetic understanding?’ Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire.”

The concept shu 恕 which Slingerland translates above as “sympathetic understanding,” is critical to our ability to comprehend Kongzi’s “Golden Rule.” Shu is elaborated upon in Analects 4.15:

The Master said, “Zengzi! All that I teach is unified by one guiding principle.”
Zengzi answered, “Yes.”
After the Master left, the other disciples asked, “What did he mean by that?”
Zengzi said, “All of what the Master teaches amounts to nothing more than zhong 忠, ‘loyalty,’ tempered by shu 恕, ‘sympathetic understanding.'”

Slingerland emphasizes in his footnote to the above translation that, “To be zhong 忠 ‘loyal’ or ‘dutiful’ involves fulfilling the duties and obligations proper to one’s ritually defined role.” This sense of obligation—which can be quite cold if we reflect on what we tend to think about the concept of duty—must be tempered by putting ourselves into another person’s shoes.

Because “duty” is such a cold concept for many of us, I prefer the way Ames and Rosemont translate zhong 忠 here as “doing one’s utmost.”

Kongzi reiterates his “Golden Rule” in several other places as well.

Analects 5.12
Zigong said, “What I do not wish others to do unto me, I also wish not to do unto others.”
The Master said, “Ah, Zigong! That is something quite beyond you.”

We get the sense that Zigong, one of Kongzi’s students, is working persistently to fully comprehend an important lesson from his teacher.

Analects 6.30
Zigong said, “If there were one able to universally extend his benevolence to the people and bring succor to the multitudes, what would you make of him? Could such a person be called ren [仁, “one of consummate character”]?
The Master said, “Why stop at ren 仁? Such a person should surely be called a sage! Even someone like Yao or Shun [legendary kings of antiquity] would find such a task daunting.
“Desiring to take his stand, one who is ren 仁 helps others to take their stand; wanting to realize himself, he helps others to realize themselves. Being able to take what is near at hand as an example could perhaps be called the method of ren 仁.”

Slingerland comments in his translation that “taking what is near at hand as an example,” sounds like a formula for performing what is intimated by the term shu 恕 as in Analects 4.15.

Analects 12.2
Zhong Gong asked about ren 仁.
The Master said, “When in public, comport yourself as if you were receiving an important guest; in your management of the people, behave as if you were overseeing a great sacrifice. Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire. In this way, you will encounter no resentment in your state or in your family.”
Zhong Gong replied, “Although I am not quick to understand, I ask permission to devote myself to this teaching.”

Kongzi’s “Golden Rule” and he 和

With the Christian formulation of the “Golden Rule” we get the sense that other people are like us and want what we want. We should do unto others what we want done to us. In part, I suspect, this is because the assumption in the Christian perspective is that there is one True way to be and one True thing to desire that we all hold in common.

But this is not at all the assumption in the Ruist perspective. Other people are different and they will likely want different things. So, we are advised to do our utmost and seek ways to understand others from their own perspective before we try to act on their behalf.

This is a radical difference between these two traditions.

Two Kinds of Harmony

Week 8, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss differences between harmonia (αρμονία) and he (和)
  2. Explain Kongzi’s “golden rule”

Harmonia, from which we derive our word “harmony” is another critical term for the ancient Greeks. In our current usage, harmony indicates a state of being well-blended, a mode of unity in which each element is properly-apportioned in relation to one another.

Think of a choir wherein the altos aren’t overpowering the sopranos, nor are the tenors overly loud to the bass, and all to one another. Let’s look at this example from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

There are hundreds of people on this stage, and yet what is produced is a singular voice. This is what harmonia seeks to achieve.

It’s important that we recognize just how significantly our cultural inheritance biases us towards understanding the world around us. Our cultures orient us in the world.

Contrast the performance of Händel’s Messiah above with the following example of Gagaku (雅楽), the traditional music of the Japanese imperial court (this is arguably the oldest orchestra in the world):

In the ancient Greek context, harmonia indicated a joining together, an organizing principle of unity that assumed, as was the thinking from Heraclitus, that the universe is the site of constant enmity between forces and agents. (Anna Afonasina, “The Birth of Harmony out of Tekhe”)

Prior to Heraclitus we get the sense of harmonia as a “felloe,” the inner rim of a wheel where the spokes intersect with the outer rim. (Petar Ilievski, “The Origin and Semantic Development of the Term Harmony”)

Felloes illustrated
This image shows the assembling of a wooden wheel using felloes.

The felloe was an early technical innovation. The initial wheels were solid disks with an axle, but these solid wheels were both heavy and fragile. With the use of a hollow wheel supported by spokes around an axle it was possible to move more materials and potentially further and over rougher terrain. The initial wheels used wood that had been bent through heat or were naturally occurring such as those in use at Thebes ca. 1435 BCE. By the time of Homer and Hesiod a chariot wheel features light spokes that intersect at four felloes to create a circle.

Try to imagine how important it would be that each of these felloes be fitted well. It is for this reason that we talk about “truing” a wheel: the parts must fit accurately and steadfastly.

Check-out this handy webpage that discusses and presents how to make wooden wheels.

Wood is critical, obviously, in making the earliest light-spoked wheels, and so was truth in fitting the joints. So crucial is this relationship that in Old English the term treow means both “tree” and “loyalty.” (Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, 740)

Harmonia refers to the felloe of a light-spoked wheel. Hyle (ὕλη “carved wood”) refers to matter, it would then be translated into the Latin term materia from which we get in English “material” and “matter.” In the Chinese context, and throughout East Asia this distinction is resonant, “harmony” is of a different matter.

Click here to continue the lecture, here we’ll discuss Kongzi’s “Golden Rule.”

Final Questions about Arendt’s “Auschwitz on Trial”

This is the final installment of frequent questions raised by my students when reading Hannah Arendt’s essay “Auschwitz on Trial,” my responses follow.

For Questions 1–5; for Questions 6–10.

Question 11:
Is it possible that the defendants denied the truth because they didn’t want to accept the truth of the crimes they committed in Auschwitz? Or did they simply take advantage of the late proceedings of the trial?

Part of what is so terrible about the Holocaust is that at seemingly every opportunity for failure to occur, it did. Even in pursuing justice at the trials there is great harm done, to our sense of stability through law. Law seems to be reduced to the will of those in power rather than something more rarified and good. Even though the prosecution is trying to make things right, by pursuing these “intolerable cases,” the result is to reveal a broken system.

Perhaps it is the case that justice is something that doesn’t always happen through the machinations of the criminal justice system.

Would justice for the crimes of the Nazi regime and the society that supported it mean that all the people of Germany would also die like their victims? Is justice simply delivering an eye for an eye?

Or is justice something different?

Something that can arise through the bearing witness to harms caused and from this witnessing there might be generated a sense of mutual obligation and mutual concern that these harms will not happen again?

Perhaps when folks like us read and discuss what happened at Auschwitz, look at what the Bogers did, we become something like agents for justice?

In reading and discussing what happened at Auschwitz, do we not become obligated to warn our friends and family and children that people are capable of doing these things if we don’t pay attention and if we don’t hold one another to a higher standard?

Question 12:
To the question of Nazi suicides and leaving the “small frys” in a lurch.

Socrates is ready to die because he has been practicing philosophy and this practice, he thought, purified his soul (psyche) and prepared his soul for a smooth transition to the best place for his soul.

The Nazi war criminal kills himself or herself, it would seem, because they see no value in living (nor the value of anyone’s life). Death is of no consequence and nothing matters beyond the exertion of one’s will onto others. That was the ethos of the Nazis.

Question 13:
To the question of Jewish resistance.

To be clear: there were Jews who rebelled.

And, to be truthful there were Jews who agreed to assist in the functioning of the camps.

And, there have been trials and convictions of some of the Kapos, in some instances for crimes against humanity.

Question 14:
To the question of whether people need hierarchies of dominance.

To your ultimate question about a psychological dependence on hierarchies of dominance: I’m not sure. I think that people seek relationships of reciprocity where they feel they have meaningful ways of effecting changes they’d like to see.

Further, there have been studies that suggest that both non-human primates and humans are inclined toward equitable distribution of resources and when they sense that there has been a grossly unbalanced distribution of resources, both non-human primates and humans react against that person not fairly sharing.

My experience suggests that leadership is not so much about making the decisions no one else wants to make, but orchestrating the best options given what the folks around us have the moral courage to do.

Question 15:
What about Dr. Lucas?

Part of what Arendt points out here is that the world has gone topsy-turvy, perhaps because of the madness of genocide.

Dr. Lucas is clearly the only person at this trial who demonstrates and testifies to remorse. But he goes out of his way to avoid accepting that he was somehow less culpable for his participation in genocide.

He is on trial for two different offenses: “The prosecution had indicted for ‘murder and complicity in murder of individuals,’ together with ‘mass murder and complicity in mass murder.'”(242) He is guilty of being complicit. He will not deny that he helped the camps do what they were designed to do. He could have made other choices.

Further Discussion of Hannah Arendt’s “Auschwitz on Trial”

For ease of reading I have split the “Frequent Reactions to Arendt’s “Auschwitz on Trial” into several sections. You can read the first  (questions 1–5) responses here.

Question 6:
Didn’t the people on trial know better?

It seems to be the case that the people on trial didn’t think about whether or not it was wrong to do these things. See page 237 where Arendt states that these folks didn’t appear to give the matter a second thought.

Can we imagine living in a society where the apparent majority, or the popular sentiment, seems to believe that their political system’s laws may have problems but they’re not criminal?

Maybe folks in Nazi Germany thought that some laws were bad, but not the laws that made being Jewish a crime.

These are both speculations and speculating can be easier than grappling with the text at hand.

It seems to me that Arendt is arguing that what is truly dangerous is not only that a government can enact laws that require its citizens to do what would be considered criminal acts in other comparable political contexts, but also that this situation can manifest when enough people cease to think about the matters.

If we look at page 253 we’ll see that Arendt faults the men on trial for ceasing to think and thereby allow their moods to dictate how they will behave. “[W]hat is left of the humanity of a man who has completely yielded up to [their moods]?” she asks.

Question 7:
What about this “little man” theory?

Among the defenses put forward for the men on trial in this essay there is the argument that the “desk murders” are the real villains. If these higher-ups had not created the orders, these “small frys” would not have done these things.

The Bogers of this trial are arguing that they were simply following orders, but as we read (especially from page 250 forward) we learn that the things that these men did were not simply following orders.

In addition to following the orders that required them to exterminate these people, the men on trial also began to do as they pleased with the people they were about to exterminate. The trial here is not simply about their participation in genocide, but also for the criminal acts they performed while performing their duties.

What is truly frustrating is that it is not clear whether or not there were existing laws, during the time period when these heinous acts occurred, that these men could be held accountable for breaking. In part, the crimes committed at Auschwitz—and wherever the Final Solution was effected—were unprecedented. Is there something to be said for reaching a moment when technologies make the execution of existing laws obsolete because the unforeseen technologies are now capable of creating effects that the original law makers could not possibly imagine?

Question 8:
The question of whether or not the “desk murderers” are guiltier than the “small frys”?

On 241 Arendt is quoting what the court in Jerusalem, during the Eichmann trial, stated about the execution of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” And suggests one could be inclined to agree with that decision based on what we see at the Auschwitz trial.

But a little further down the page is a significant passage:

“What stands revealed in these trials is not only the complicated issue of personal responsibility but naked criminal guilt; and the faces of the those who best […] to obey criminal orders are still very different from those who […] did not so much obey orders as do with their doomed victims as they pleased.”

It seems Arendt is pointing out that “guiltier” doesn’t make sense: one is either guilty of committing a crime or they are not. The severity of the crime may be different but the convicted are guilty regardless of the amplitude of the crime committed.

Question 9:
The question of the truth in the trial (page 242)

Arendt begins that paragraph by stating that at the end of the trial we realize “how much damage to justice was done […] because the distinctive line between the two different offenses had become blurred.”
She’s pointing out (at the top of 242) that the folks on trial here are faced with two different offenses: “The prosecution had indicted for ‘murder and complicity in murder of individuals,’ together with ‘mass murder and complicity in mass murder.'”

The problem all these Nazi trials reveal is that there are no laws that we can point to and state that the person charged is guilty of these infractions against the law. Until these trials there had never been a law against citizens performing murder as agents of a government and there had never been a situation where an officer of the government had to perform mass murder as part of their daily functions.

On the one hand, these people are clearly guilty of something, but on the other hand, these same people can’t be found guilty of breaking a law that didn’t exist before they committed the crime. It was literally not a crime to commit mass murder.

Arendt states on 243, “What is most difficult to imagine in retrospect is the ever-present atmosphere of violent death [at Auschwitz]; not even on the battlefield is death such a certainty and life so completely dependent on the miraculous.”

She then writes that the lower ranking officers who ran the death camps were also reasonably afraid that they would also be murdered in the camps in order to cover-up the crimes they had been ordered to commit.

Sure, they had that reasonable fear, but, “they must have reckoned this danger less formidable than what they might face on the Eastern Front [i.e., they could have volunteered to fight the Soviets on the battlefield], for hardly any doubt remains that many of them could have voluntarily transferred from the camp to front-line duty.”

Because of these unprecedented realities of living in the contemporary world (remember, the penal code was written in 1871), “the old penal code had utterly failed to take into account […] the everyday reality of Nazi Germany in general and of Auschwitz in particular.”

Question 10:
To the objection that resistance from the German people and Auschwitz camp agents would mean death to the resistors.

If you’re suggesting that the folks on trial here were unable to act for fear of death, consider the case of Erwin Schulz (page 239). Schulz told his superiors that he couldn’t handle this kind of work and was reassigned elsewhere and promoted.

Allow me to quote Arendt’s longtime friend, Mary McCarthy, “If somebody points a gun at you and says, ‘Kill your friend or I will kill you,’ he is tempting you, that is all.”

Click here for Questions 11–15.

Frequent Reactions to Arendt’s “Auschwitz on Trial”

Hannah ArendtWeek 6, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the arguments made by men on trial in Arendt’s essay “Auschwitz on Trial.”
  2. Evaluate these arguments.

Here I will present some of the questions I’ve received from students who’ve read Hannah Arendt’s essay “Auschwitz on Trial.” I follow their questions (I’ve anonymized my interlocutors) with my own thoughts on the matters they’ve raised.

By assigning Arendt’s essay I am asking you to put to work your critical evaluation skills. I think these trials illustrate effectively the difference between having reasons and doing the work of reasoning.

Question 1: 
Were the trials corrupt since there were obvious discrepancies in witness testimonies?

What Arendt is pointing out here (230) is that German witnesses said one thing before the trial but in the courtroom are now saying something different.

Arendt seems to be suggesting that the witnesses have changed their tune because the mood of the country as a whole has shifted.

Popular opinion holds, apparently at the time of this trial, that the real criminals were the people that gave the orders for the camps to exist and operate.

The people on trial here have committed crimes, but they’ve had twenty years or so to move on with their lives. They’ve become neighbors and colleagues of their fellow Germans, just like many of the Nazi officials went on to maintain positions in the German government after the war.

It appears that the popular opinion is that there is no need for this trial because focusing on that horrible time means that the country cannot move forward.

So, the corruption appears to be in the people themselves, not in the courtroom.

Some of what makes the question (public opinion and the role of the media) slippery is that it’s not clear what “the media” means here.

Until the last thirty years or so, what we today call “the media” meant outlets of publications that reported on the facts around events and situations. Investigative journalism is not the same thing as an opinion column.

Since the mid-1980s there has been this trend to reduce “the media” to the presentation of entertaining “hot takes” on what celebrities think you should think.

See Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves To Death.

Question 2:
Why does Arendt uses negative language to characterize the people on trial, doesn’t that diminish her position?

I see what you mean and I agree with you in so far as, typically, when we are presented with these kinds of ad hominem attacks, the person issuing such attacks loses validity in their argument.

That said, we’re talking about people who have confessed to committing horrible crimes. On one register I can understand the impulse to “call a spade, a spade.” Recall that, as Arendt reports, the people on trial are often sneering or laughing at the proceedings, even demanding that apologies be issued to them for besmirching their character.

There are other times, however, where Arendt describes some of these folks in ways that are diminutive, but it is not precisely to insult the person but to illustrate how unremarkable these people were. They were not monsters, they were typical people who did horrific things.

Question 3:
There were no laws against the extermination of the Jews. Can the Nazis be held responsible for committing a crime if the laws don’t exist?

I think you’ve landed on the heart of the matter: what are a citizen’s obligations to their fellow citizens (and others) when the law obliges its citizens to commit evil acts? Does a citizen have an obligation to then do evil, or does the citizen have an obligation to become an outlaw?

Part of what makes this specific situation (the Holocaust) is that during the Nazi regime years there were trials prosecuting Nazis who committed crimes like these.

But, yes, ultimately, it was illegal to be Jewish in Germany and the only legal way to be Jewish in the Reich was to be exterminated, thereby adhering to the “Final Solution” that the Nazis had developed for the “Jewish Problem.”

Arendt is presenting these trials (the Auschwitz one here, the Eichmann one as well) because, as a philosopher, she is compelled to ask questions like yours.

Question 4:
Why were the trials so late and were the guards forced to work in the camps?

To the question of whether the people running the camps were forced, it would appear that they were not (see page 237).

It is often the case that in military matters, especially after wars, there simply isn’t the ability to prosecute criminal activities.

In the case of Germany after the end of WWII, the Allies were trying to fight the Soviet Union. The Soviets had lost millions and millions of soldiers and citizens to the war against Germany and the Soviets wanted to lay claim to the territories they had acquired through those sacrifices.
So, the Soviets claimed Czechoslavakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and took the eastern portion of Germany. This was called the “Iron Curtain,” which was established to act as a buffer against the imperialist capitalism and its agents.

The Allied powers raced to stabilize the government and society of western Germany and so– even though everyone was aware that many of the Nazis who had been in positions of power and so responsible for the atrocities of the Holocaust–trials like these were very slow to happen.

Some of the difficulty is that, if the Allies were to put all the responsible parties on trial, there wouldn’t be anyone left with enough experience to effectively govern Germany. This would mean that the Allies would have to, effectively, colonize Germany, and this would be totally unacceptable for the common German citizen.

If the Allies were to install their own government and put to trial all the folks complicit in the Holocaust (keep in mind it was a combination of government, military, and commercial interests who did this evil work), the common German citizen would see this as the actions of conquerors taking their spoils of war and the Allies would be in violation of the conventions of how wars are supposed to be prosecuted (these had been formalized after the first world war).

Question 5:
What do we make of Dürmayer’s suggestion that the accused be considered guilty until proven innocent?

While we’ve grown up with the term “genocide” the term itself did not exist as we mean it until 1945 and had to be coined to describe the acts committed by the Nazis. What the Nazi government required of its citizens and officers was, technically speaking, not illegal. They were obeying the laws of their country. Europe had not recognized a government to that point that mandated the elimination of an entire ethnic group.

Because of these acts were unprecedented, new laws and new ways of conducting trials had to be established.

The doctrine of the presumption of innocence can be found in Roman criminal law from the first century of the common era. During the middle ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe it was much more common for oath-helpers to testify that the accused could not possibly have committed the crime.

In thirteenth century France the doctrine was revisited and began to be exercised again in some localities.

Germany did not adopt the presumption of innocence into its legal proceedings until after the second world war and the country signed onto the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. This convention was itself the direct result of what was being discovered in the wake of the Holocaust.

So, Dürmayer’s proposition was, in a sense, a call to return to the former mode of conducting trials, but his suggestion flew in the face of what the country was trying to establish.

Click here for Questions 6–10.

Defining Reason

Definitions of "logos"Week 4, Lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Define reason
  2. Discuss the cultural context of the term “reason”

In our previous lectures we’ve been discussing the methods used by science and religion to understand the world.

The scientific method gathers its evidence through experimentation and uses this kind of evidence to refine hypotheses. These hypotheses are developed to predict future observable phenomena. The results of this testing protocol are communicated with others so that those other folks can recreate the conditions of the experiment in order to see how reliably the experiments validate the hypothesis.

In the religious context personal revelation is an admissible form of evidence that can be used to support an argument. Frequently there are sacred texts that can be relied upon to support one’s claims or to aid one in deciding what to do. Because the core of religious practice is being guided by and trusting the truth of one’s faith, faith requires at some point a leap away from reason.

I’ve previously said that philosophy is the pursuit of reason by tracing its residue found in arguments. I then began to define what an argument means in this context and to provide the structure that gives shape to an argument.

The foundation of an argument is called a “premise” and premises are observations of the world. From these observations one can arrive at conclusions. When we give our conclusions logical support, we have ourselves an argument. What does “logical support” entail? This is where we present the reasons why our premises are true and by presenting these premises as true we are imploring the listener to believe that our conclusions are also true.

At this point, or perhaps last week, even, you may have said, “Okay, so philosophy pursues reason by evaluating and analyzing arguments. Got it.

But how can you pursue reason through analyzing and evaluating arguments if your definition of an argument rests on ‘giving reasons’ to support an argument?” Right? It looks like I’ve defined a word by using the word being defined.

That is called a tautology. A tautology is an argument that repeats a word but slightly varies the phrasing in such a way that the argument seems obvious and undeniable, and yet the argument has been presented in such a way that it’s hard to tell that there is a lack of evidence or valid reasoning to support the argument.

So what is reason?
1. a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event.
2. the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.

1. to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.

The English language acquired the word “reason” from the French word raison and it means pretty much what we think “reason” means. Where did the French language acquire raison?

From Latin where the term borrowed was ratio, which had several connotations, including “explanation, method or manner, and calculation or accounting.”

Ancient Roman culture absorbed and innovated upon a lot of ancient Greek culture, especially the methods and techniques developed by Greek philosophers. A central concept for the ancient Greeks was the term logos λόγος (which we discussed is the root of our term “logic”).

Logos in the ancient Greek context had several meanings: “that which is said” (a sentence, a speech, a story, etc.), “that which is thought” (consideration, reckoning, computation), “an account or story,” and “causation.”

It’s because logos refers to not only to an account in the sense of a story but also in the sense of the work an accountant does, we can get the sense of how our word “ratio” (from the Latin above) makes sense for the ancient Romans: logos refers to the units (words and numbers). And, crucially, we can start to sniff out the cosmic reverence the ancient Greeks had for understanding numbers. Here we return to our friend Pythagoras.

We’ve been reading and discussing Plato’s Phaedo over the last several days and you may recall from the introductory comments made by our editor that Phaedo’s conversation here is between some Pythagoreans who’ve fled from Italy to Greece. Among the core tenets of the followers of Pythagoras is the transmigration of the soul. That humans have souls and that these elements of us continue to exist and experience beyond the grave.

In Plato’s Phaedo we are introduced to his theory of knowing which requires that there be a dimension of our being which is undying (psyche, soul) and this part of us apprehends the noumenal dimension of the world. Our hands can hold the phenomenal world, our souls grasp the noumenal world.

We have ideas because eidos (εἶδος) is a dimension of our experience. For example, we have an intuitive sense of what a horse is, but we do not have a full biological sense of what a horse is (and so we cannot, say, locate all the vessicles and arteries of any particular horse that is presented to us, but we understand the shape—eidos—of horses).

Let’s consider what contemporary Japanese philosopher, Koujin Karatani, tells us about the relationship between eidos and noumena.

“That is to say, the task and concern of the philosopher are the liberation and separation of the soul from the flesh. However, this bears no resemblance to the thought of Socrates in the Apology. This line of thinking rather recalls that of the Pythagoreans.

Further, in addition to the idea of the immortality of the soul, Plato brings out in Phaedo the idea that things such as beauty, the good, size,  and so forth exist in themselves. That is to say, in contrast to the objects of the senses, which are ceaselessly changing, the eternal and unchangeable exist as ideas. Sensory objects only participate in the idea (eidos). It was Aristotle who observed that this kind of thinking was inherited from Pythagoras. ‘Only the name “participation” was new; for the Pythagoreans say that things exist by “imitation” of numbers and Plato says they exist by participation, changing [only] the name.’

Plato’s theory of ideas, of course, differed from Pythagorean thought. Aristotle continues, ‘Further, besides sensible things and Forms [eidos] [Plato] says there are the objects of mathematics, which occupy an intermediate position, differing from sensible things in being eternal and unchangeable, from Forms in that there are many alike, while the Form itself is in each case unique.’

In Pythagoras’s case, since his thought proceeds from number as its basis, sensible and suprasensible things are indissolubly linked. In Plato’s case, however, the ideas (forms or eidos) exist in a realm separate from sensible things and ideas, Pythagorean thought, where the two are inextricably linked from the start, provides no resources. Plato discerned the key to understanding the combination and division of the sensible and the ideal in the death of Socrates. Here he recognized the drama of the liberation of the idealistic object caught up in sensible things. In this way, the death of Socrates became the indispensable axis of Plato’s philosophical system.” (Karatani, Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy, 125–126)

Informal Fallacies

Logical Fallacies Poster“Fallacies are unsound arguments that are often persuasive because they usually appeal to our emotions and prejudices and because they support conclusions that we want to believe.” (Chaffee, The Philosopher’s Way, 24)

Let’s consider three species of fallacies: those of false generalization, causal fallacies, and fallacies of relevance.

I.  Fallacies of False Generalization

Previously I presented the inductive reasoning technique called empirical generalization, in which our broad conclusions are drawn from the reasoning we’ve made based on observations of a limited sample. This group of fallacies spring up when this technique is not done appropriately or in an irresponsible manner.

Hasty generalization: these occur when we make general conclusions too quickly and without sufficient data points to sustain our conclusion.

E.g. My boyfriends have never shown any real concern for my feelings. I conclude that all men are insensitive, selfish, and emotionally superficial.

Sweeping generalization: in this instance we fail to take into account that there are exceptions to the rule and thereby sweep these exceptions that don’t fit our conclusion into the generalized pool.

E.g. Vigorous exercise contributes to overall good health.
Therefore, vigorous exercise should be practiced by recent heart attack victims, people who are out of shape, and women who are about to give birth.

False dilemma: This is also called an “either/or fallacy” or a “black-or-white fallacy.” These occur when we are asked to choose between two extreme alternatives without being able to consider another option.

E.g. Either we are completely free to make choices or everything we do is determined by factors outside our control and we have no freedom whatsoever; there is nothing in between.

II.  Causal Fallacies
These occur when we fail to identify the appropriate cause.

Questionable cause: these occur when we present a causal relationship for which no evidence exists.

E.g. Astrology. Superstitions about walking under ladders, or breaking mirrors.

Misidentification of the cause: it is often the case that we aren’t clear on what has caused something.

E.g. Drug dependence and emotional difficulties. Or, failure in school and personal problems. Which causes which?

Post hoc ergo propter hoc: the translation of this phrase from Latin is “after it, therefore because of it.” This points to situations where two things occur close to one another and we assume that there is a causal relationship between the two things.

E.g. You grow a beard during baseball season and your favorite team wins the World Series.

Slippery Slope: this one gets deployed frequently and sometimes tag teams with the false dilemma maneuver. With the slippery slope fallacy we are told that one undesirable outcome is inevitably going to lead to a worse outcome, which will in turn lead to an even worse outcome. While this outcome may indeed occur, there is no causal guarantee that it will happen.

E.g. You don’t do your homework and you bomb the test, and you fail out of high school, and you can’t get a decent-paying job, and you can’t quite shake the feeling of being a failure and so over time no one wants to hang out with you and so stop going outside until you get kicked out of your apartment and you’re homeless and you die alone and without anyone aware you’d ever lived.

III.  Fallacies of Relevance
Very frequently fallacious arguments make appeals to factors that have nothing to do with the merits of the arguments being offered. Instead of presenting strong evidence, we substitute these false appeals.

Appeal to authority: In these instances we are asked to agree with an argument because an authority figure has said it must be so.

Appeal to tradition: similar to the above, here we are asked to maintain a previous position simply because it is the status quo.

Bandwagonism: this is also called peer pressure. Just because it’s popular, it doesn’t mean it’s accurate or true.

Appeal to emotion: There is a whole family of arguments here.
Appeals to pity, “give me an A or I’ll lose my scholarship,”
Appeals to fear, “vote for me or ISIS is going to kill Grama,”
Appeals to vanity, “only someone as smart as you can see the wisdom of my point.”

Personal attacks: These are often very effective because folks hearing them ignore the issues at hand and instead focus on the personal qualities of the opponent.
These are also called

  • Ad hominem: arguments that are “to the man” rather than the issue discussed.
  • Poisoning the well: wherein we try to ensure that any water (argument) drawn from our opponent’s well (mind) will be treated as undrinkable (unsound).

Red herring: This is also called a “smokescreen” or “a wild goose chase.” In this fallacy we divert attention away from the relevant matters by committing to and introducing irrelevant matters.

E.g. I don’t think grade inflation is a problem in education. Everybody wants to be liked and teachers are just trying to get students to like them.

Tu quoque: This is also called “whataboutism.” This is an appeal to hypocrisy and is like the red herring strategy in that it commits to irrelevant information

E.g. What about Hillary’s emails? What about Obama’s drone policy?

Attacking a Straw Man:  This is a common form used that is based on giving the impression of having overturned an opponent’s argument, while actually overturning an argument that was not presented by one’s opponent.