Li and Change
Wong Yew Leong
This essay is an attempt to understand the concept of li (commonly translated by commentators as "rituals", "rites", "customs", or "conventions") as elucidated in the Analects within the context of social change. Particular attention will be paid to how the Confucian understands li practices to function in a society, and how changes in li practices are effected. Thus, in what follows, I shall take seriously the notion of Confucianism as a practicable way of life.
I take the concept of li (as it occurs in the Analects) to refer to the social conventions governing various aspects of human conduct (Analects, 1.12, 2.3, 2.5, 3.19, 4.13, 11.26, 12.1). As I understand it, li functions primarily as a social regulator in the realisation of the Confucian objectives namely, the perfection of the self, the establishment of order within ones family (which the Confucian understood as the basic unit of a society), and the restoration and preservation of social order.
Each li practice consists of a set of actions, with detailed descriptions regarding ones attire, stance, and expressions (Book 10). Participation in li involves the skilful execution of the set of actions demanded by each li practice, accompanied by the appropriate dispositions and attitudes. Yet, these practices are not to be followed blindly. In the face of changing social patterns, existing li practices must undergo continual evaluation and revision so that they remain efficacious in realising the Confucian objectives. The Analects does demonstrate a concern for the evaluation of li practices and of the observance of these practices: for example, (3.4) concerns the comparative evaluation of two kinds of deviations from li, and (9.3) concerns an evaluative judgement of certain deviations from li among the majority. Both (3.4) and (9.3) suggest that there is an evaluative standard against which deviations from, and revisions of, existing li practices are judged. We may infer from this that the evaluative standard in question would also both guide and justify revisions of li practices in novel situations. Yet, there is clearly a commitment to preserve the inherited tradition. Changes in li practices are never radical: they take place against a background of established social conventions inherited from the past (2.23) so as to avoid destabilising the society.
But, just how are changes in li practices effected in a fundamentally conservative society? This question may be broken down into two further questions. Firstly, how are we to critically evaluate existent li practices what goes on in the evaluative process? Call this the evaluative problem of li. Secondly, an evaluative standard may, on certain occasions, underdetermine how a li practice is to be revised in the face of new circumstances. What is the course of action in such situations? This is complicated by the realisation that if the community fail to settle on a consistent course of action in such situations, social disorder is the more likely outcome. Call this the problem of evaluative underdetermination.
2. The Confucian Society
The Ideal Society
In order to deal with the questions just raised, it is useful to begin with a description of how li is envisaged to function in the ideal Confucian society. This is the society the Confucian deem as ideal ¾ one in which every member is properly motivated to actively engage in self-cultivation, and the establishment and preservation of order in ones family and society through participation in li practices. No member of this society regards the attainment of these objectives as a means to further any form of personal gain.
Each member of this society recognises the society as a natural, integrated, hierarchical structure of human relationships there are no isolated individuals in the society. The society consists of a complex system of interconnected roles and relationships, and each member of the society recognises that it is through the performance of these roles that one cultivates oneself. This requires a complete and competent knowledge of the specific li practices that govern ones roles.
When one performs ones roles well through participation in li practices, one is simultaneously engaged in self-cultivation and an attempt to preserve order in ones family and the society. The Confucian objectives are intimately linked to one another. They are achieved concurrently rather than in a step-wise process. The Confucian insight that we essentially exist in a natural social hierarchy implies that each individuals project of self-cultivation is conducted within the social context: it is through establishing oneself as a member of the society that one cultivates oneself. The participation of each individual in self-cultivation is the key to the establishment and preservation of order in the family and the society. Yet, it is an orderly society that provides a conducive environment for ones participation in self-cultivation if the society is in disorder, people are likely to spend most (if not all) of their time trying to survive in the hostile environment.
Thus, li practices play an extremely crucial functional role in the society. It is the medium through which the Confucian objectives are realised. It is then not surprising to observe the strong emphasis on the learning (xue) of, and reflection (si) upon, li practices among other things (16.13, 20.3). One must be knowledgeable about the specific li practices that govern ones roles in society and the situations one is likely to encounter in ones dealings with others. One is also required to reflect upon ones actions those one has performed and those one considers performing in a manner informed by what one has learned (2.15, 5.20). Armed with such knowledge, each member of the ideal Confucian society would then be able to perform her roles correctly and competently. In this way, one would avoid mistakes in ones actions, and therefore be successful in achieving ones aims. This explains the claim that a man who participates in li and is "observant and sensitive to what others are saying and the expressions on their faces, and [is] always mindful to be modest [ ] is bound to be successful whether he is attending to affairs of the state or to affairs of the family " (12.20, read together with 8.2).
There is then a sense in which each member is implicitly taking part in a joint attempt to preserve order by participating in li. Each considers their counterparts in the same situation what their respective roles is, which li govern those roles, and the extent of their understanding of the situation. Since all members of the ideal Confucian society are willing participants in li, and all are well-versed in the particular li practices that govern their respective roles, one easily identifies the appropriate li practice that applies to oneself, and does ones part in performing that li practice, confident that ones counterparts in the same situation would respond in the appropriate manner. Social order is just a matter of course.
It is interesting to note how the power of li to induce shame comes into play here. Our potential for conventional social exchanges depends upon our developing a sense of shame (which causes us to spontaneously conform to convention). Li encourages the development of this sense of shame. The feeling of shame in front of others is the consequence of ones failure to participate in li. It therefore develops our inclination towards social conformity, leading to the spontaneous establishment of a natural order in the society.
When the Dao has Fallen into Disuse
The society that Confucius lived in was one in which social chaos was the order of the day, and in which there were many who lacked an adequate knowledge of li, or who failed to understand and participate in li (3.17, 3.22, 8.9, 12.19). It is a society in which the Dao (Way) had fallen into disuse.
The Dao falls into disuse when li has been discarded, due either to a lack of proper motivation among the members of the society when participating in li; or a lack of knowledge regarding li practices, or a failure on the part of the members of the society to perform li practices correctly, or a lack of willing participants in li. Such situations occur largely due to a lack of learning among the members of the society (16.13, 17.8, 17.9). Without li practices to regulate social exchanges, disagreements occur more frequently, ultimately leading to confusion and disorder (8.2, 13.3, 17.8).
It is useful here to look at the passage (13.3) in some detail:
The first few lines of (13.3) suggest that it is the duty of a ruler (or a chief minister) to rectify names. In other words, the rectification of names is one of the things prescribed by the li that applies to a ruler. Therefore, if a ruler fails to rectify names, he has in fact failed to participate in the li of a ruler. Read this way, the rest of (13.3) suggest that li fails to flourish because the ruler has abandoned it in the first place. It is the ruler who is supposed to initiate the participation in li practices (16.2). The source of social confusion and disorder is the discarding of li, first by the ruler and subsequently the commoners.
It is a puzzle what one should do when the Dao falls into disuse. The Analects appears ambiguous on this issue. On the one hand, it suggests that one should "hide" oneself either by going out to sea, or by appearing stupid so as to avoid "the humiliation of punishment" (presumably incurred by obstinately trying to preach the Confucian Dao to the rulers) (5.2, 5.7, 5.21, 8.13, 15.7). On the other hand, it suggests that when the Dao falls into disuse, one must do something to save the situation by educating the misguided so as to restore order whenever it is within ones power to do so (3.24).
The puzzle dissolves once we realise that each li practice require at least two participant, for each li practice govern some aspect of social exchange. However, in a situation where there are no willing co-participants, all a willing participant can do (and should do) is to hold herself ready to participate in case the situation improves. She offers herself for office whenever the opportunity arises. However, this does not mean that she offers her service whenever and wherever there is a vacant official position. She offers her service only to those rulers who are willing to listen and who are likely to accept her opinions. However, in the absence of such opportunities, and when the situation is too hostile, she "hides" herself, saving herself for the future. So, what a Confucian does when the Dao has fallen into disuse is determined by the particular features of the situation she is in and the likely outcome of each option she has, all the while aiming at realising the Confucian objectives.
3. Changes in Li Practices
The Evaluative Problem of Li
The essentially functional character of li suggests that li practices are evaluated in terms of their efficacy in realising the Confucian objectives. Li is constitutive of the Confucian objectives in the sense that, within a particular community, general participation in li practices (with the appropriate attendant dispositions and attitudes) is both necessary and sufficient for the realisation of the Confucian objectives. We cannot conceive of one obtaining without the other (1.2 together with 2.5, 12.1, 12.2). This does not mean that the Confucian objectives are defined in terms of general participation in the existing li practices of the community, for the objectives can be realised in other communities with a different set of conventional practices. In this sense, the Confucian objectives transcend participation in the actually existing li practices, and participation in li is a means to the full realisation of the Confucian objectives (2.3, 3.3, 4.13, 15.8).
Since the realisation of the Confucian objectives transcends the participation in li, they provide a perspective from which existing li practices can be evaluated and revised. The full realisation of the Confucian objectives is not required for evaluation of existing li practices to take place. Speaking in general terms, what is required to inform an evaluative process involving li is an understanding of what the objectives are and what the realisation of these objectives involved (this understanding is acquired through Confucian education). In specific terms, one also needs an adequate understanding of the structure of the particular situation that necessitated the evaluation, the roles of each individual involved in the situation, and the relevant li practices that govern the situation. Members of the community may propose revisions in these practices on the basis of economic or other considerations, provided that this does not affect their efficacy in realising the Confucian objectives fully (2.23, 3.4, 3.9, 3.14, 9.3). More importantly, revision in li practices is based on improving the efficacy of these practices in realising the Confucian objectives. It is in this sense that we may build on the li practices of the previous generations (2.23), and thereby "broaden the Dao" (15.29).
However, revision of existing li practices has to proceed against the background of a general acceptance of these practices, for it is the existing practices which make available to members of the community the objectives under consideration. There is then reason to oppose any change initiated without good justification; the relevant practices have to be relatively stable to perform their function.
The Problem of Evaluative Underdetermination
What if considerations for the efficacy in realising the Confucian objectives underdetermine how a li practice is to be revised? In such situations, considerations for the efficacy in realising the Confucian objectives determine at least two possible ways of revising a li practice, but leaves it undetermined which revision is the better one. Even the junzi is not immune to this problem "the junzi agrees [in principle] with other junzis, but may differ in opinion with them [with respect to the particulars]" (13.23). It does not help to suggest that we choose the revision that is closest to the existing set of li practices, thus maintaining the conservative Confucian attitude. This only pushes the problem back a step. What are we to do when the conservative attitude also leaves it open which revision to adopt, bearing in mind that if the community moves in different directions in such situations, social chaos is the likely outcome.
Recall that a properly motivated member of the Confucian society (whether it is the ideal or the chaotic society) would have made a committed effort to learn li. Such a person would be well-versed in the specific li practices that govern her roles and the situations she is in. The properly motivated member of the society observes the cues available to determine dispositions and attitudes of her counterparts in the same situation, and thereby determine the best course of action in such situations. The properly motivated member of the Confucian society deals with each situation with flexibility and fluidity, and she is able to do this because she is well-versed in li. These remarks are vague and ambiguous, but necessarily so. Cases of evaluative underdetermination are often complex, and no hard and fast rule can encapsulate the various ways these complexities may manifest themselves. Ones ability to handle such situations depends on ones body of knowledge (zhi) and wisdom (zhi) (hence the importance of learning), and the stage of ones progress in self-cultivation.
4. Concluding Remarks
Li plays an essentially functional role in the Confucian society. Participation in li is both necessary and sufficient for the realisation of the Confucian objectives. Yet, the Confucian objectives transcend li practices, allowing members of the society to evaluate li practices in terms of their continued efficacy in realising the Confucian objectives in the face of changing social patterns and circumstances, and thereby effect the relevant changes in li practices. It is an adequate understanding of what the Confucian objectives entail and the structure of the situations one find oneself in that inform ones evaluation of existing li practices. However, changes in li practices take place against a conservative attitude towards inherited social conventions, and it is this conservative attitude that provide stability and continuity despite the changes. Changes in li practices are therefore gradual, and do not disrupt social order.
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