Why are Singaporean students so silent in the classroom? And what can we do about it?

One of the amazing things about being both a teacher and a student for almost two years is that it has given me a privileged perspective to understand why students behave the way they do in class.

This became very apparent to me when I discuss issues with my teaching colleagues: when we’re so busy teaching or preparing for class, it’s so easy to forget how a student would perceive the things we do or say, or the reasons for certain behaviours.

One unique insight I gained from this privileged position of being simultaneously teacher-and-student, is the underlying cultural motivations for why students hold back from fully engaging in class. They do this by either remaining silent, not participating in any activity, or if they do, they would moderate and reduce the quality of their work/performance.

This presents a great challenge, at least here in Singapore, to efforts in engaging students in the classroom, or even in any attempts at successful student-teacher partnerships (a kind of pedagogical approach where students are not regarded merely as consumers of a lesson, but as co-creators who partake in the design and even teaching of the lesson itself).

Unlike the successful experiences reported by many teachers in the West, students here in Singapore appear to be quieter, and less participative. Many typically describe local students as passive or even conformist. But these do not get to the heart of why students behave this way.

Looking back at my own student experience, and from speaking personally to my students, I have come to realise that much of the lack of participation stem from issues surrounding the notion of “face” or pride/reputation. Singaporean students generally do not participate in class discussions or engage in teacher-student partnerships for the following reasons:

(1) Students are afraid that speaking up or volunteering might cause embarrassment to their peers, thereby making them “lose face.” Volunteering for something, or speaking out (especially if one speaks well) can make one appear outstanding. But at the same time, it creates a stark contrast with other students, thereby making them look bad by comparison. Those who volunteer or participate are usually labelled by their peers as “market spoilers” (i.e. those who raise the bar) or “extras.”

(2) Students are also afraid that speaking up or volunteering with the teacher may cause their peers to resent them, thereby leading to negative social consequences outside of class. It’s one thing to embarrass one’s peers by volunteering or participating in class. But it is another issue altogether if one does so repeatedly. Not only is the student repeatedly causing one’s peers to “lose face,” but the student is seen as someone who has raised the bar so much, that that student is showing off his/her abilities. This leads to a lot of resentment from one’s peers. Such students tend to receive harsh labels like “show off” or “smart aleck,” and be treated badly by their peers outside of class.

(3) Yet another motivation for silence or not volunteering is the fear that once one has done so, one has revealed one’s “true abilities” to one’s peers. It is worth noting that the phrase, “true abilities,” was mentioned multiple times by a few of my students when they explained reasons for disliking participation in class/online forum.

The fear of revealing one’s true abilities can come in two forms: (a) One is worse than one’s peers, in which case, revealing one’s ability causes one to immediately “lose face” and to embarrass one’s self in front of others. A more severe form being that one is afraid to discover that one is bad as a consequence of speaking out or volunteering, thereby “losing face” just by attempting.

(b) One is better than one’s peers, in which case, one now has to grapple with the stress of maintaining one’s reputation of having such a high ability, and not lose out to others (which would be highly embarrassing). This is driven largely by a desire for self-preservation. By not revealing one’s high ability, one does not draw attention from potential enemies, and can continue leisurely learning at one’s own pace without having to compete with someone else and risk losing.

These are the three key motivations for students remaining silent and not participating in class or for any extra activities organised by the teacher, including student-teacher partnerships.

Of course, a silent classroom is never tolerated, and there will always be moments where students are made to speak up or present. Here, the same motivations are manifested differently, and this is something we need to be aware of, especially when we involve students to present in front of class, or in any efforts at student-teacher partnerships.

As the lack of participation is motivated by issues of “face,” forced participation similarly compels students to reduce the quality of their work (or at least their outward performance) when they are required to present to the rest of the class. Again, this is to avoid embarrassing one’s peers, or to avoid being labeled as a show off and sanctioned by one’s peers, and also to avoid revealing one’s true abilities (especially if one has higher abilities). The way students do this is that they will use the first forced participant as the benchmark and mimic the quality of the materials and level of showmanship.

Of course, there will be students who are ignorant or do not abide by these rules at all. One good thing about this is that in doing so, hey help to reveal the dynamics of the benchmarking efforts that the others had been doing. Throughout my years as a student, whenever someone outperforms beyond the tacit benchmark, I often hear others complaining along the lines of: “If I knew he/she was going to present like this, I would have done more.” Such admissions of “would have done more,” are admissions of how one had scaled back in one’s work, indicative of a deliberate lowering of quality.

Clearly, for there to be any successful and unmoderated participation, especially with regards to student-teacher partnerships, more must be done in order to overcome such barriers. The teacher cannot just rely on the usual enthusiastic students who volunteer. There are students who are enthusiastic but have no regard for issues of “face,” and there are also enthusiastic students who are inhibited by their worries of “face.”

One thing I’ve learnt from my own discussions with students is that the teacher is an important facilitator in this regard, one who has the power to shape an environment: from a hostile and competitive environment to one that is friendly and relaxed.

The more friendly, uncompetitive, and relaxed the class environment is, the less worried students are about losing “face” or embarrassing themselves (and others) in class. Of course, the teacher does not have complete control over the classroom atmosphere. The presence of intimidating or highly competitive students can still cause other students to worry.

Since becoming aware of these motivations, I have made extra efforts in ensuring that the environment is as friendly and relaxed as possible, so that students are least worried about “face” and embarrassment in a classroom setting. One thing I’ve done and found much success with is introducing the element of role playing in class. When students are given roles to perform, they are given the opportunity to step out of who they are, to become someone else for a moment. That someone else (the assigned role) is then allowed to make embarrassing mistakes and even to embarrass others (involved in the role play), without consequence to one’s own personality and identity or social sanction. Role playing liberates students from concerns about “face” and allows them to engage each other in an uninhibited manner.

More importantly, role playing is a form of play, an uncompetitive play that by itself makes the environment less competitive and hostile, thereby creating a fun and relaxed environment in which students can engage, participate, and forge bonds with each other and with the teacher. This encourages students to take on an increased role in their involvement in class, and encourages them to take on an increased stake in their own learning in the classroom.

The Non-Theist Hiding in the Closet of Kierkegaard’s Philosophy

This paper, while flawed in a few ways, was a novel attempt in one of my Masters modules at proving that Kierkegaard hid a non-theistic conception behind his philosophical writings.


Søren Kierkegaard is widely regarded as a Christian philosopher. Many leading scholars tend to interpret his works through the lens of Christianity.[i] While some scholars have questioned whether Kierkegaard should be read as a Christian thinker, few have ventured further to question whether Kierkegaard even subscribed to a theistic conception of God at all. Yet this is the implicit assumption many scholars have taken by virtue of Kierkegaard’s apparent Christianity. Scholars such as C. Stephen Evans,[ii] and Zachary R. Manis,[iii] ground their ideas of a Divine Command Theory on the very assumption of a theistic conception underlying his philosophy. But Evans and Manis are not the only ones. Peter J. Mehl, too, assumes a theistic conception in Kierkegaard’s philosophy without justification:

“I am claiming … that Kierkegaard’s ideal of humanness is infiltrated by Christian theism even before he makes his case for the reality of God. The ideal of personhood as fully engaged autonomy, of complete rational responsible self-determination, is linked to Christian theism.”[iv]

And yet, it is this very assumption of theism that led Mehl to puzzle over Kierkegaard’s inability to see the connection between said personhood and theism. This is but one of many other examples of works presuming a theistic interpretation behind Kierkegaard’s Christianity, sometimes resulting in rather puzzling, and sometimes paradoxical consequences. However, the bigger problem, in my opinion, is that by assuming a theistic conception underlying Kierkergaard’s writings, many fail to appreciate or notice the non-theistic, non-Christian elements present in his philosophy.

In this paper, I argue that Kierkegaard does not subscribe to a theistic conception of God, but rather, to a non-theistic conception. By theism, I refer to the classical notion:

“God is the perfect being, which means or entails that God is, among other things, necessarily existent, eternal, changeless, almighty, all-knowing, supremely good, distinct from creation, and the creator of everything distinct from himself. God is also said to be absolutely simple, which means that the above-listed attributes are identical to God’s being and, more generally, that there is no ontological complexity in God.”[v]

I will begin this paper first, by casting doubts on a theistic interpretation, and then proceed to show evidence of a non-theistic conception in Kierkegaard’s writings. I will then proceed to outline two non-theistic notions that Kierkegaard might have possibly subscribed to: (1) atheism, and (2) panentheism. Due to the limits and scope of this paper, I will not be able to determine which of the two positions Kierkegaard might have held in his works. Nonetheless, I will discuss how atheism and panentheism might have possibly been related to each other. Along the way, I will anticipate possible objections and address them.


I. Theistic Silence

It is rather odd that Kierkegaard who writes in a Christian-like manner, makes absolutely no explicit mention about theism.[vi] This fact alone should give us pause. While it is indeed true that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence (which is not the point I am making here), the point I wish to highlight here is that one cannot simply assume theism in Kierkegaard’s works on the basis of his many references to Christianity.

Why is there no explicit mention of theism? Kierkegaard argues that God is beyond the limits of human reason, and it would be too presumptuous to assume that human reason is capable of discerning God’s nature, or that there is a necessary bond between God and Man that would allow us to discern by inspection, nor indirectly by means of analogy, of a theory of opposition and negation. Any form of speculation might seem to describe God, but it would instead describe “ourselves and our rational limitations.”[vii] Hence, we have no choice but to accept a God that would appear paradoxical and absurd to us. Since human reason cannot discern God’s nature in any way, we may postulate whatever qualities we like about God, such as the qualities of omnipotence or omniscience, or even the traditional Christian attributes. We could also postulate unconventional qualities to God, such as malicious hatred, and there would be no way we can use our reason to affirm or deny it.

Another reason for the silence is due to Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the subjective inwardness, which focuses on one’s own existence, on how the self “relates itself to itself.”[viii] Inwardness is concerned with the relations to objects, and not with the objects themselves. God is important to Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Without God, the individual would be in despair.[ix] However, it would be more accurate to say that it is not God per se that is of concern, but the God-relationship: “God is a subject to be related to, not an object to be studied or mediated on.”[x] It is not the absence of God in the individual’s life that would lead to his despair, but the failure of the individual to align himself with God, i.e. to relate himself to God, or to relate himself with God’s plan for the self: “The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself, which can be done only through the relationship to God.”[xi] Moreover, what gives the God-relationship its importance is not the objective existence of a God, but the possibility, the risk, of God’s non-existence (which, if true, despair is certain).[xii]

Given the strong emphasis on the importance of the God-relation, rather than on God, Kierkegaard’s philosophy would still hold up even if God does not objectively exist. It may seem strange to have a relationship with an objectively non-existent being, but as Kierkegaard explains, a relationship must have passion: “it is impossible in existing to think about existence without becoming passionate.”[xiii] For example, a hunter may falsely believe that there is a vicious beast behind the bushes. Objectively, there is no beast behind the bushes. But within the hunter’s subjectivity, the hunter has formed a relation with the beast, with a passionate fear of being attacked if he is not careful. And hence, the hunter lives and behaves as though there is a beast, for it is better for the hunter to assume a beast and act accordingly for his own safety. In the same way, the subjective belief of a God suffices to establish a God-relationship, for the self to relate itself to, for its own existential benefit.

Scholars presuming a theistic position in Kierkegaard would object to what I have said above, and usually argue that Kierkegaard does not dismiss the importance of the objective existence of God. Rather, he makes a distinction between the subjective truth that is “essentially related to existence” and the objective truth, and that he did not intend for the subjective truth to substitute or contend with objective truths.[xiv] This objection, however, misses the point. As I have mentioned earlier, God is beyond reason. We cannot rationally prove any quality of God’s nature, not even the existence of God![xv] And even if we accept that there can be objective truths about God, none of those truths of God would have any bearing on how the self relates to the God-relationship.


II. The Pantheism Problem

Interesting, despite the silence on theism, Kierkegaard has much to say about pantheism. His most significant passage on the issue involves a criticism he made on Schleiermacher:

“That pantheism constitutes a surmounted factor in religion, is the foundation for it, seems now to be acknowledged, and hereby also the error in Schleiermacher’s definition of religion as remaining in pantheism, in that he makes the extra-temporal fusion factor of the universal and the finite—into religion.”[xvi]

Here, it would seem that Kierkegaard is saying that pantheism is in fact “the foundation of religion,” but before we can conclude that Kierkegaard is indeed a pantheist, he adds the point that pantheism needs to be surmounted. To understand what this means, it would be useful to briefly outline what Kierkegaard was responding to when he criticised Schleiermacher in the passage above.

Schleiermacher was a strong supporter of Spinoza, a pantheist who argued that God is in all things, in the sense that God’s substance is in all that exists in nature. Schleiermacher took the argument further, defining religion in naturalistic terms. Since God’s substance is present in all things, “religion consists not primarily in knowledge of the divine or in actions that spring from duty, but in and through gefühl (feeling), the domain of pre-reflective, immediate experience.”[xvii] Religion, therefore, is “to know and have life in immediate feeling.”[xviii] In defining religion as such, Schleiermacher had transformed the understanding of religion from the ethical mode to the aesthetic mode.[xix]

Kierkegaard agreed with Schleiermacher that “immediate religious experience is the lifeblood of the various religions,”[xx] but he disagreed that faith belongs to the first immediacy: “that which Schleiermacher calls ‘religion’ … is at heart nothing other than the first immediate, the condition for everything—the vitale fluidum—the atmosphere that we, in spiritual sense, breathe in—and which, therefore, cannot be properly be indicated me with these words.”[xxi] The first immediacy is the basis of all experience. To equate faith or religious experience with it would be to pantheistically absorb everything into one.

This, according to Kierkegaard, is the error and the inevitable result of all – and not just Schleiermacher – who conceive of God purely in terms of eternity. In committing such an error, one would be under the “optical illusion” of pantheism,[xxii] dozing in “an oriental revery in the infinite, in which everything appears to be fiction – and one is reconciled as in a grand poem: the being of the whole world, the being of God, and my own being are poetry in which all the multiplicity, the wretch disparities of life, indigestible for human thought, are reconciled in a mistry, dreaming existence.”[xxiii] The other problem with dwelling in pantheism, was that by remaining within the view of eternity, pantheists like Spinoza, had evaded the difficulty of relating an eternal God outside of time, with a God that functions in time.[xxiv]

This is not to say that pantheism is wrong per se. Rather, when God is thought of in terms of eternity, God is regarded as the absolute standpoint, which happens to be the standpoint of pantheism.[xxv] But, this is not the error. Seeing God as the absolute standpoint is itself a crucial moment for understanding God: “The concept of Substance is the concept of the absolute Actuality, which contains all essence, all reality; if there were something outside God, different from God, God would indeed be limited. Therefore Ἓν καὶ Πᾶν (hen kai pan) [One and All]; only God is. Whatever in the world is reality, is only God.”[xxvi]

To remain here at this level, however, would be to dwell in pantheism – and that is the error committed by Schleiermacher and the other pantheists. It is thus essential to surmount pantheism. Not to reject pantheism completely, but to build on top of this conception and go beyond. What Schleiermacher got right, and what appealed strongly to Kierkegaard, was his approach to nature in wonder.[xxvii] If God is in all things, then one should be in wonder at being immersed in God’s presence, but not in the pantheistic sense of regarding religious experience within the realm of the first immediacy. Kierkegaard surmounts pantheism while preserving Schleiermacher’s wonder of God through nature, by arguing that it is in inwardness that one encounters God in all things. Writing under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard argues that faith is not the “first immediacy but a later one… [f]aith is not the esthetic or else faith has never existed because it has always existed.”[xxviii] The experience of God is not to be found in direct experience with the world, nor grasped through human understanding. It is through the inwardness of the subjectivity, that one is able to perceive God’s action in all things. Kierkegaard says:

“I observe nature in order to find God, and indeed I also see omnipotence and wisdom, but I see much else too that troubles and disturbs. The summa summarum of this is the objective uncertainty, but the inwardness becomes so great just because it embraces the objective uncertainty with all the passion of the infinite.”[xxix]

Schleiermacher had the passion, which Kierkegaard admired, but he lacked the inwardness to perceive both the light and the dark side of God in nature, the quintessential paradox required for exhausting reason in order to arrive at the higher immediacy of faith. “When reflection is totally exhausted, faith begins.”[xxx]

In brief, the aspects of pantheism which Kierkegaard agreed with are: (1) When one conceives of God from the viewpoint of eternity, one sees a God that exists in all things in a pantheistic manner. Consequently, (2) Kierkegaard grants that one can experience God in all things through immediate experience, but it would be incorrect to conclude with pantheists, like Schleiermacher, that God can be directly experienced in the first immediacy. God can only be encountered through the higher immediacy of faith, within the subjective inwardness.


III. God the Middle Term

In this section, I will discuss Kierkegaard’s conception of God as a “middle term,” a notion which explicitly demonstrates a non-theistic conception of God. This is highly significant especially since the idea is found in Works of Love, a work which Kierkegaard claims direct authorship, unlike his pseudonymous works where he could distance himself from the ideas expounded in those texts. And unlike the pseudonymous works where Kierkegaard felt a need for indirect communication, works with direct authorship were a means for him to communicate in a direct manner to “those who profess Christianity and know what it is but need to be encouraged or reassured.”[xxxi]

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard ascribes God the function of the middle term:

“Worldly wisdom is of the opinion that love is a relationship between person; Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between a person, God, a person, that is, that God is the middle term.”[xxxii]

There are two common ways of reading this passage. (1) The first way is to conceive of God as a third party in a love relationship. That means, in the case of A loves B, this relationship is parsed as:  A loves God, and God, in turn, loves B. But Kierkegaard shows that this is not the case:

“The merely human view of love can never go beyond mutuality: the lover is the beloved, and the beloved is the lover. Christianity teaches that such a love has not yet found its true object—God. The love relationship requires threeness: the lover, the beloved, the love—but the love is God. Therefore, to love another person is to help that person to love God, and to be loved is to be helped.”[xxxiii]

God is not a third party in the relationship, but love itself. (2) The second way is to conceive a love relationship in a relational manner. That means, in the case of A loves B, this relationship is parsed as: A relates to B, via God as the intermediary, i.e. A relates to God, and God relates to A. This, however, is problematic. For if we were to ask how A relates to God, we will have to answer the question by means of a fourth term, that A relates to God via M, i.e. A relates to M, and M relates to God. We can repeat the cycle ad nauseam, leading to an infinite regress.

What then, do we mean when we say that God is love? Kierkegaard seems to be suggesting a hermeneutical account,[xxxiv] where God/love as the middle term is to be understood as a logical metaphor. In logic, the middle term is the term occurring in both premises of a syllogistic argument, linking the two premises in order to arrive at a conclusion. But the middle term does not appear in the conclusion itself. The use of God as the middle term, provides a hermeneutical change of perspective, transforming a selfish love into a selfless love. In a selfish love, when I say, “I love you,” the “you” is conceived in my mind as a not-I, as another-I. So, when I say, “I love you,” I am essentially saying, “I love another-I,” that is, “I love I.” It is an I-I relationship. It is selfish for it leads me to express my love according to my understanding of myself. Whereas, by introducing God as the middle term of the relationship, I am, from God’s subjectivity, God’s you. So too is the person I am loving, for that person is also, in God’s subjectivity, God’s you. For the sake of illustration, if I were to parse it as a syllogistic argument, it might look something like this:

Premise 1: A loves God                       ->        You love God
Premise 2: God loves B                       ->        God loves you
Conclusion: Therefore, A loves B       ->        You love you

Parsed in this manner, the relationship is transformed into a selfless relationship, because it is now seen as a youyou relationship. But at the same time, with God as the reference point, it is not just a youyou relationship, but a (God’s-neighbour)-(God’s-neighbour) relationship. When I relate to my love relationship in this way, I subjectively perceive myself and the beloved as God’s neighbour, and thus express my love according to the understanding of myself (and the other) as God’s neighbour. As the middle term, God does not appear in the conclusion, yet, how one relates the self has been altered as a result of this mode of thinking.

However, when we begin to think of love in terms of actuality and possibility, we run into some interesting problems about the concept of God. Love is a possibility that can be actualised in this world. And all possibilities are grounded in some actuality, e.g. it is possible for A to love B, only if A and B are actualised in existence. Yet, all actual beings, and all possibilities can ultimately be traced back to the ultimate Actuality, God: “God is the actuality of the possible, and God’s actuality is the actuality of true love, the possibility of actual love is grounded in the actuality of true love.”[xxxv] So far, there are no problems when we conceive of God purely in terms of actuality outside of time. The problem begins when we try to conceive of the eternal God acting in time. In Works of Love, Kierkegaard goes on to elaborate that love hopes all things, and “to relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good is to hope… As soon, however, as the choice is made, the possible is changed, because the possibility of the good is the eternal.”[xxxvi] Yet, “when the eternal is in the temporal, it is in the future… or in possibility. The past is the actual, the future is the possible; eternally, the eternal is the eternal; in time, the eternal is the possible, the future.”[xxxvii] Here, we have “a modal and ontological gap between the necessary on the one hand, and the possible and actual on the other.”[xxxviii] God can never be actual, temporal, or existent! God can only be “that without whom nothing could or would be actual, temporal or existent.”[xxxix]

When Kierkegaard talked about God as a middle term, he was not just referring to the context of God as love. The implication of it has far reaching consequences. “God is neither a fact to be explained nor an explanation of facts.”[xl] For “nothing we can experience is God, but neither can we experience anything apart from God: there wouldn’t be anything to experience, or anyone to have an experience, without God.”[xli] This is reflected most clearly in Kierkegaard’s prayer at the beginning of Works of Love: “O Eternal Love, you who are everywhere present and never without witness where you are called upon.”[xlii]

God is therefore, in Kierkegaard’s conception, not a being, nor the first cause and explainer of facts, “but the infinite power of possibility,” the “eternal actuality of creative and transforming love,” and “the fundamental dynamic reality of love, without which nothing else could and would exist.”[xliii] As I had mentioned earlier, the problem with pantheism, was that by remaining within the viewpoint of eternity, it was unable to address the issue of an eternal God outside time, functioning within the temporal realm. God, as the middle term, could be seen as Kierkegaard’s solution to that problem, as a way in which an eternal God could operate in time. The consequence of such a solution, however, is that God ceases to be a being.

Yet, as a middle term, God is still the hermeneutical point of reference. In the context of love, we are to see ourselves and others as God’s neighbours, and relate ourselves as God’s neighbour to other neighbours of God. Similarly, all of creation, including ourselves, are not just mere facts of the world, but they too participate in God’s creative action, and thus we are to relate ourselves as a participant in God’s creative action, interacting with other participants of God’s creative action.

Thus far, I have shown that Kierkegaard subscribes, not to a theistic conception, but to a non-theistic conception of God, the question remains: what sort of non-theistic conception might Kierkegaard hold? I will discuss two possibilities: (1) atheism, and (2) panentheism. However, as it would be outside the scope of this paper to engage in extensive biographical research, I will not be able to determine whether Kierkegaard was indeed an atheist or panentheist.


IV. Kierkegaard the Atheist?

As I had mentioned earlier in Section I, since the God-relation is so essential to the existence of an individual, in the way one relates one’s self, to the point that God’s objective existence is inconsequential, it would be possible to interpret an atheistic conception in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, and consequently, a Kierkegaard’s atheistic approach to Christianity.

In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard writes, under the pseudonymous author of Johannes Climacus, that God is “a postulate, but not in the otiose manner in which this word is commonly understood… The postulate is so far from being arbitrary that it is precisely a life-necessity. It is then not so much that God is a postulate, as that the existing individual’s postulation of God is a necessity.”[xliv] God, then can be regarded as an ethical fiction, which “seeks to enhance man’s sense of responsibility and ultimately deepens the moral [and/or existential] dimension of his experience.[xlv] One can have a God-relation with which the self can relate to, just by simply postulating the existence of a God.

Christianity too can be regarded as an ethical fiction as well, serving the instrumental purpose of the individual’s desire for eternal happiness, or in other words, the subjectivity. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard professes subjectivity for its own sake, as the final end. Subjectivity is the absolute: it is not justified by anything, but instead justifies everything. “There are many arguments in the Postscript to demonstrate that only by being in total subjectivity is he not deceiving himself in his life affirmation. The rest of the Postscript is concerned with ways of attaining a fuller subjectivity.”[xlvi] Christianity is seen as instrumental to the service of the subjectivity as the paradox of Christianity “thrusts the understanding away in the interest of inwardness in existing”;[xlvii] it “proposes to intensify subjectivity to the utmost.”[xlviii]

Elsewhere in the Postscript, Kierkegaard writes:

“I, Johannes Climacus… assume that for me… there awaits a highest good called an eternal happiness. I have heard that Christianity contracts to provide one with that good. And now I ask how do I enter the relation with this doctrine?”[xlix]

Just as how it is essential for the self to develop a God-relation, Climacus talks about the need to “establish a proper relationship” to Christianity. Like the God-relation, the Christian-relation is essential to the subjective inwardness. The objective truth of Christianity, on the other hand, is just as inconsequential as the objective existence of God.

Yet a puzzling question remains. If one takes an atheistic position and does not believe in the objective existence of God nor in the objective truth of Christianity, how can one be a Christian, or even profess belief in it? Evans rightly pointed out that ethical fictions only have their power over people unaware of its fictional nature, and for those aware of its fictional nature, “if the individual does not care whether his belief is objectively correct, then the objective uncertainty will hardly generate much passion.”[l] This is most poignant for Kierkegaard, who would have been quite well-aware of the ethical fictions if he did indeed conceive of God and Christianity as ethical fictions. It would not be possible for him at all to generate the infinite passion in his pursuit of Christianity.

One solution would be to argue that Kierkegaard was indeed an atheist who meant everything religious in an ironic manner. Was Kierkegaard such an atheist? While it is certainly not impossible to imagine, it is, however, quite implausible. Kierkegaard wrote with religious fervour, not just in his published works, but also in his private journals. It is hard to imagine why one would be so consistently ironic, even in the privacy of one’s own journals.

I propose an alternative view, and one that there certainly more philosophically interesting, in which Kierkegaard the possible atheist might have embraced Christianity in a way that would address Evan’s insights. As I mentioned earlier, Climacus’ pursuit of Christianity, was done primarily for the sake of his own subjectivity, for his eternal happiness, and not because of the truths of Christianity or any objective proof of the existence of God. Yet, in pursuing Christianity in this way, he contradicts his insistence on the need for an infinite distance between man and God: “Precisely because there is an absolute difference between God and man, man will express his own nature most adequately when he expresses this difference absolutely.”[li] To use God as an instrument is to treat God with familiarity. In which case, God cannot be the Absolute Other.[lii] Climacus would thus relate to God not as Absolute Other, a relation essential to his inwardness, but as a familiar. Therefore, in pursuing Christianity and God in this manner, Climacus cannot come close to attaining eternal happiness. Moreover, as Evans pointed out, viewing Christianity purely as an instrumental aid to eternal happiness does not suffice to produce the infinite passion that Climacus desired.

The only way to resolve the two problems above, would be to deny the primacy of the subjectivity and paradoxically embrace Christianity not instrumentally, but as an end-in-itself. This way, God could be preserved as the Absolute Other, a necessary relation for the subjectivity, and more importantly, would generate the necessary passions required. Climacus’ failure was that he could not do precisely that, and it was what prevented him from understanding and making the final movement of faith. It might have been possible that Kierkegaard succeeded where Climacus had failed. For Kierkegaard himself acknowledged that the Postscript was “the turning-point in [his] whole work as an author.”[liii] Soon after the completion of the Postscript, Kierkegaard abandoned the pseudonym, abandoned the “primacy of subjectivity and moved to total Christianity.”[liv] This would have required Kierkegaard to exhaust reason on his part, put aside his atheism, and make that leap into the higher immediacy of faith. This might explain the religious fervour in his writings, and it does take Kierkegaard’s insistence that “subjectivity is truth” to the highest level, that despite the underlying atheism, Kierkegaard is still able to live as if he were a true believer of Christianity.


V. Kierkegaard the Panentheist?

As I have discussed earlier in Section II, Kierkegaard did not reject pantheism, but saw that religion had to surmount it. Pantheists like Spinoza, evaded the difficulty of relating an eternal God outside of time, with a God operating in time,[lv] by remaining in the viewpoint of eternity. Kierkegaard was concerned with reconciling the power of human freedom that exists in time, with the power of a God outside time, in a way that would allow the divine to empower a person in his freedom.

The other option that Kierkegaard might have held, is panentheism, which “takes a middle position between a naturalistic pantheism and a supernatural theism,” it is the view that “God is so immanent within the world that this divine interpenetration means that all things are within God, while, on the other hand, affirming with traditional theism, that God transcends the realm of finite realities. God so penetrated the universe that everything is in God; but God stands in a free relation to the universe.”[lvi] If pantheism had to be surmounted without a complete rejection of its tenets, panentheism therefore, is a likely position that Kierkegaard might have subscribed to. In discussing the relation of omnipotence and love, Kierkegaard seemed to have expressed a panentheistic stance:

“The whole question of the relation of God’s omnipotence and goodness to evil … is solved quite simply in the following way. The highest thing after all that can be done for a being, higher than anything else one could do for it, is to make it free. The ability for doing precisely this belongs to omnipotence. This seems strange, since precisely omnipotence is supposed to make dependent. But if one is willing to think about omnipotence, one will see that precisely in this must lie in addition the determination to be able to take oneself back again in the expression of omnipotence in such a way that precisely therefore that which has come into existence by omnipotence can be independent. That is why one human being cannot make another human being completely free, because the one who has the power is actually imprisoned in having it, and therefore always still has a wrong relation to the one this human wants to liberate. Furthermore, in all finite power (talent, etc.) there is a finite self-love. Only omnipotence can take itself back while it gives away, and this relation is indeed precisely the independence of the recipient. God’s omnipotence is therefore God’s goodness. For goodness is to give away completely, but in such a way that by omnipotently taking itself back one makes the recipient independent. … This is the incomprehensible, that omnipotence … is able to bring forth the most frail of all things: an independent being who is directly over against omnipotence.”[lvii]

A truly omnipotent God creates beings independent from himself, “precisely as the expression of divine power.”[lviii] At the same time, this freedom is itself an expression of God’s love. God’s power is God’s love. In that gift of freedom to human beings, “God enables the divine power of the eternal, present within the innermost chamber of the self, to be understood as loving and thereby as relevant to the struggles of existing as a free creature within temporality.”[lix] Here, pantheism is surmounted, as the pantheistic power of divine Substance is united with the power of human freedom in time.

This brings us back to an earlier point made in Section III, about God as the middle term. Kierkegaard conceived of God as the middle term, as a solution to explain how an eternal God outside of time, could operate within time. This is consistent with the discussion above on panentheism. God the eternal divine power, brings actuality into possibility, through the free human action occurring in temporality. As the middle term, God cannot be discerned through first immediacy, nor understood as a fact nor an explanation of facts. “Nothing we can experience is God.”[lx] Yet, God, as middle term, as the hermeneutical point of reference, allows the subjective inwardness to experience of God through faith in the higher immediacy. And “neither can we experience anything apart from God: there wouldn’t be anything to experience, or anyone to have an experience, without God.”[lxi]


VI. Conclusion

In Sections I and II, I pointed out three reasons for doubting a theistic conception underlying Kierkegaard’s philosophy: (1) from his silence on theism since finite human reason is unable to discern any quality of God; (2) to the great significance he gives to inwardness that only the God-relationship matters, while the objective existence of God is inconsequential to his philosophy; and lastly (3) to his conception of God’s relation to the world and humans, while not pantheistic per se, is strongly rooted in a pantheistic outlook. These three points, I believe, should cast some doubt on the possibility of Kierkegaard subscribing to a theistic conception. But even if they do not succeed in casting doubt, points (1) and (2) should have at least demonstrated just how insignificant a theistic conception is to Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

In Section III, I demonstrated how Kierkegaard, by regarded God as a middle term, does not hold a theistic conception of God. God is not a being but “the infinite power of possibility,” the “eternal actuality of creative and transforming love,” and “the fundamental dynamic reality of love, without which nothing else could and would exist.”[lxii] God is neither a fact to be explained nor an explanation of facts, hidden from plain sight only to be recognised in the subjective inwardness. And perhaps, this might have been Kierkegaard’s solution to addressing the problem of an eternal God outside of time, operating within time.

In Sections IV and V, I discussed two possible non-theistic position that Kierkegaard might hold: atheism and panentheism. I showed how each position is related and coherent with the points raised in Section I to III. However, as it would be beyond the scope of this paper to engage in extensive biographical research, I am unable to determine whether Kierkegaard was an atheist, panentheist, or both. Nonetheless, I wish to conclude this paper with a brief discussion about the relation of atheism and panentheism. Instead of assuming, in a binary manner, that Kierkegaard held either one of these positions throughout his life, atheism and panentheism are, in fact, not mutually exclusive. And there are three possible ways in which we could explain the relationship between these two non-theistic positions in Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

(1) Firstly, the atheism we observe underlying Kierkegaard’s early works might not reflect the position Kierkegaard took. Instead, the atheist perspective which we find, was largely expressed by the pseudonymous author, Johannes Climacus. Climacus, did declare that he was not a Christian.[lxiii] And it is important to bear in mind that Kierkegaard made use of the pseudonymous authors so that he could keep their views distinct from his. Thus, it might be possible that Kierkegaard did not hold an atheistic position at all, but instead subscribed to the panentheistic perspective all along.

(2) A second possibility is that it might be entirely possible that Kierkegaard may have transitioned from an atheistic position to a panentheistic perspective. In my earlier discussion in Section IV on Kierkegaard’s atheism, Kierkegaard might have started out an atheist, but arrived at the conclusion, through Johannes Climacus, that the only way to fully achieve eternal happiness in the subjectivity is – paradoxically – to negate the primacy of the subjectivity, and to pursue Christianity not as a means but as an end-in-itself. To re-iterate, Kierkegaard did mention that the Postscript was, for him a sort of turning point.[lxiv] This might have led Kierkegaard to adopt a modified position, i.e. panentheism, not too far from his original atheistic position. After all, as discussed in Section II, we know that Kierkegaard agreed with certain tenets within pantheism. Panentheism would not be too big a leap for him.

(3) The third and final possibility is that given how the objective existence of God is inconsequential to his philosophy, and how we can never be able to use reason to affirm or deny the properties of God, it might thus be possible for Kierkegaard to have subsumed the panentheistic conception under his own atheistic view. That panentheism, just like God and Christianity, are no more than ethical fiction, postulated more as a means to aid one’s subjective inwardness.

Of course, given how it is, for Kierkegaard, that the objective existence of God is inconsequential, and that we can never truly know the nature of God, the panentheistic conception could be subsumed under the atheistic conception. That is to say, panentheism might have been postulated more as a means for the individual (or for Kierkegaard, at the very least) to be able to best relate himself to God, within the ethical fiction of Christianity.

While I am unable to conclusively determine which of these possibilities might be true for Kierkegaard, we can be certain that Kierkegaard never expressed himself as a theist. This alone should suffice for us to rethink our interpretation and understanding of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. The atheistic and panentheistic positions, which I have outlined above, provide a starting point for new reinterpretations of Kierkegaard in a non-theistic perspective.



Dalferth, Ingolf U. 2013. “Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love.” Kierkegaard Studies 2013 (1): 159–79.

Dalferth, Ingolf U. 2015. “The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism.” Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook 20 (1): 14–15.

Evans, C. Stephen. 1976. “Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 7 (1): 288–99.

Garelick, Herbert M. 1965. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1939. The Point of View. Trans. Lowrie, Walter. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1941. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1968-70. Papirer. Ed. Niels Thulst. København: Gyldendal.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1980. The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1995. Journals and Papers. Trans. Hong, Howard V. & Hong, Edna H. Virginia: Indiania University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1999. Works of Love. Ed. Perkins, Robert L. Macon: Mercer University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2002. Provocations. Farmington: Bruderhof Foundation, Inc.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2006. Fear and Trembling. Trans. Walsh, Sylvia. Ed. Evans, C. Stephen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2009. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Ed. Hannay, Alastair. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, Chandler D. 2016. “Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 80 (3). Springer Netherlands: 259–78.

Runehov, Anne L. C., and Lluis Oviedo. 2013. Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Dordrecht: Springer 2013.

Teo, Wesley K. H. 1973. “Self-Responsibility in Existentialism and Buddhism.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4 (2): 80–91.

Thompson, Curtis L. 2002. “From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies.” The Journal of Religion 82 (2): 225–51.



[i] Barrett lists scholars such as C. Stephen Evans, Hugh Pyper, Bradley Dewey, Andrew Burgess, Robert C. Roberts, Timothy Polk, David Cain, Abraham Khan, David Gouwens, and himself as scholars who interpret Kierkegaard through a Christian lens. See Barrett, C. Lee. 2013. “Kierkegaard as Theologian: A History of Countervailing Interpretations” in The Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard. Eds. Lippitt, John & Pattison, George. New York: Oxford University Press.

[ii] See Evans, C. Stephen. 2004. Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands & Moral Obligations. New York: Oxford University Press.

[iii] See Manis, Zachary R. 2009. “Kierkegaard and Divine-Command Theory: Replies to Quinn and Evans.” Religious Studies 45 (3): 289-307.

[iv] Mehl, Peter J. 1992. “Despair’s Demand: An Appraisal of Kierkegaard’s Argument for God.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 32 (3): 167–82. p. 179.

[v] Anders, Kraal. 2013. “Theism, Classical.” In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Eds. Runehov, Anne L. C., & Lluis Oviedo. Dordrecht: Springer. p. 2239.

[vi] This was researched by searching for the terms, “theism” and “theist” in all of Kierkegaard’s works on my computer.

[vii] Cf. Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 47.

[viii] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. p. 13.

[ix] Ibid., p.16

[x] Kierkegaard, Søren. Provocations. p. 60.

[xi] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. pp. 29-30.

[xii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay p. 171.

[xiii] Ibid. p. 293.

[xiv] Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction? p. 292.

[xv] Kierkegaard argues, in Section III of Philosophical Fragments, that it is impossible to demonstrate the existence of God, if God does not exist, but on the other hand, it would be foolish to want to demonstrate the existence of God if God does exist. For a full treatment of the subject, see Stern, Kenneth. 1990. “Kierkegaard on Theistic Proof.” Religious Studies 26 (2): 219–26.

[xvi] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 4. II A 91 n.d., 1837. #3849. p. 13.

[xvii] Rogers, Chandler D. Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy. p. 262.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid. pp. 264-265.

[xxi] Ibid. p. 260. Translation modified from Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. I A 273 n.d., 1836. #1096. p. 3.

[xxii] Kierkegaard, Søren. 1995. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. VIII A 482 n.d., 1847. #2004. p. 402.

[xxiii] Ibid. Vol. 1. II A 125 n.d., 1837. #1019. p. 448.

[xxiv] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies p. 239.

[xxv] Kierkegaard, Søren. Papirer. XIII, II C 26-28. 5, n.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Rogers, Chandler D. Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy. p. 275.

[xxviii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. pp. 71-72.

[xxix] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay. p. 171.

[xxx] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 1. V A 28 n.d., 1844. #49. p. 20.

[xxxi] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 162.

[xxxii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. pp. 106-107.

[xxxiii] Ibid. p. 121.

[xxxiv] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 173.

[xxxv] Ibid. p. 176.

[xxxvi] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. p. 249.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 178.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. p. 86.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. p. 4.

[xliii] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. pp. 88-89.

[xliv] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 179, footnote.

[xlv] Teo, Wesley K. H. Self-Responsibility in Existentialism and Buddhism. p. 90.

[xlvi] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 62.

[xlvii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 195.

[xlviii] Ibid. p. 55.

[xlix] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay, Alastair. pp. 16-17.

[l] Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction? p. 294.

[li] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 369.

[lii] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 65.

[liii] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Point of View. p. 41.

[liv] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 66.

[lv] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies. p. 239.

[lvi] Ibid. p. 234.

[lvii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. VII A 181 n.d., 1846. #1251. pp. 62-63.

[lviii] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies. p. 240.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. p. 86.

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 88-89.

[lxiii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. pp. 16-17.

[lxiv] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Point of View. p. 41.

Philosophy in the Real World

This is the transcript of a talk I gave to Secondary 4 students at Raffles’ Institution on 30 Sep 2016.


Hi, my name is Jonathan Sim. I am a philosopher and I work at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Let’s discuss this question today: how is philosophy relevant in the real world?

You’ve taken classes in philosophy. And you might probably be wondering: what’s the point?

Some of you may say: “Sure, ethics might be useful, as it can help me decide what is right or wrong.” Or some of you may say: “Some aspects of logic might be useful: it helps me develop good reasoning skills.” Some of you may say: “Philosophy is really interesting but it won’t be able to feed me, or help me make money.” And some of you may even say: “I think it’s rubbish, I don’t need this.”

So, what practical use is philosophy in the real world?

What’s the point of asking whether or not I live inside a simulation, or whether human nature is good or bad? What’s the point of asking whether what I know is true, or whether the table in front of me exists?

How are all these relevant to the real world?

Sure, the philosophers in the past several centuries were able to contribute a lot to the world, but that’s because back then, the only subject taught in school was philosophy! But what about now? We have the sciences, and engineering, we have practical disciplines that train you to make a difference in the world. So why philosophy?

So let me share with you my experience working as a philosopher in NTU over the past three years. Allow me to share with you the many interesting ways that I’ve seen philosophy and philosophers in action in the real world.

My main project involves creating online videos on Chinese philosophy. Aside from that, I work very closely with a research centre, known as Para Limes (which means Beyond Boundaries). It was a special project initiated by the President of the University, the Nobel laureate, Prof. Bertil Anderson. The centre is driven very strongly by the conviction (which Prof. Anderson and many other Nobel laureates share) that the next world-changing breakthrough is to be found at the interface of disciplines, of academia, government and industries.

In other words, the next major breakthrough is to be found where various academic disciplines, government and industries meet and interact. This is a serious conviction, and the university makes it a point to bring in the top scientists, mathematicians, doctors, policy-makers, civil servants, ambassadors, Nobel laureates, and, philosophers. In fact, some of these people are on Time Magazine’s List of the 100 Most Influential People of the World.

I have had the honour to sit at table with them, to discuss many of these important issues. And it has been very insightful.

It’s very interesting how the latest scientific discoveries have opened up so many philosophical questions. Let me give you one example.

Recent medical research has found that our gut bacteria have an incredible influence on our neuro circuitry, on our thoughts, desires, and consequently, out actions. What we eat not only changes our gut bacteria for better or for worse, but it also changes who we are. Literally, we are what we eat! More interestingly, research has even found that you can cure a person with severe autism by transplanting bacteria through faeces. That’s right, human poop, from a healthy individual to one with autism, and voila, autism cured. That’s how much the bacteria inside us influences us as a person!

This has led many scientists to begin asking very philosophical questions as a result of their findings. Are we our gut bacteria? (Or how much of the gut bacteria counts as us?) Can we affect who we are by changing our diets? If so, then shouldn’t the issue of what we eat also count as a moral problem? This is where philosophers enter into many of these scientific research, helping them to make sense of the questions that arise from this.

Beyond the research, science can only tell us what is, it can only tell us facts about ourselves and of the world. But facts alone cannot directly translate into action. Science lacks the tools to prescribe what we should do in most situations.

In the example of gut bacteria, it forces us to really think hard about who we are and what we are. If diets change the way we behave and act, should we punish people who don’t eat properly as a way to prevent crime? Is it fair that wealthy people can afford to properly nourish their children? Should we create a class of super humans through a diet that will best enrich their gut bacteria? Should there be government policies to control what we eat?

This is where policy-makers turn to philosophers to answer the philosophical questions that arise from such scientific research. Do we have this going on here in Singapore? Yes. We have philosophers in the Centre for Biomedical Ethics, where philosophers and other specialists help to answer questions like this. Ok, they’re not working on that now, but they do deal with philosophical problems that arise in the course of research. The same is true elsewhere in the world.

Ethics aside, there are other important questions. What does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be me? How do I understand myself?

How we understand ourselves will affect a lot of how we live and interact with other human beings. To put it simply, there will be drastic changes to our lifestyles depending on how we answer these questions. Who’s interested in these answers? It’s not just the government, but businesses who want to sell the next big thing when the next cultural wave takes over. And they are seeking insights from philosophers to help them make the next business decision.

But perhaps, one of the more interesting revelations I had was to see many of these brilliant minds come to the agreement that the sciences and social sciences have hit their limits, that these disciplines have hit a brick wall. And that the problems they are dealing with require philosophical inputs to aid in their search for solutions. They echo: Science can only explain and describe, but it cannot prescribe action.

Scarily, in some areas of science, scientists are finding that their models have great powers of predictability, yet no one understands these computer models or why it works – it just does. There are many top academics and policy-makers who are very worried about that. How can we use what we don’t understand?

On top of that, the top economists, central bankers, and even government officials I’ve met are saying: all the economic theories that are taught at university are wrong, and we’re making too many false assumptions, we’re making too many bad policies!

In some of these discussions, they would turn to me, and half-jokingly ask: What does the philosopher have to say? They know that I’m quite new and wouldn’t have much to contribute, but they are indeed serious that philosophy is required to rise out of the difficulties they face.

So, what are philosophers doing elsewhere in the world?

I met the former director (now retired) of the Rathanal Institute, in the Netherlands, a political research think-tank. He was very proud to boast of his team of philosophers whom he employed to solve a variety of problems in the Netherlands, such as migration, unemployment, etc.

He recounted how his team of philosophers came to the aid in a legal trial against a man with mental illness who had been charged with murder. The philosophers argued in court about just how much responsibility he had for the crime. It was their philosophical input that helped the court decide just how culpable the man is.

I also had the opportunity to interact with people from the UN. They were interested in learning more about Chinese philosophy, so one of them spoke to me about it. Turns out, to my surprise, they publish and circulate official papers on philosophy to stimulate new ideas for policy and governance within the organisation. Yes, philosophy still plays a big role in influencing the ideas of policy-makers even today.

And I think we live in very interesting times. Our own civil service is starting to recognise this, and they are embracing philosophy and philosophers in their decisions now.

I met a philosopher from Germany who has been coming in and out of Singapore because the top ranks of our civil service have been consulting him. He is by far the most interesting person I have ever met. He has been using his research on space and time, and his other philosophical works to consult and advice world leaders. In fact, he was personally involved in carrying out the negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union, and facilitated the very process of nuclear disarmament between the two sides. He was also the personal advisor to Nelson Mandela after Mandela was freed from prison.

Here is a philosopher who means business and is actually using his research and philosophy to change the world and Singapore too.

Now, I’ve also met some civil servants here – with some background on philosophy exploring the different conceptions of time and space, on the metaphysics of the relations of economic entities, and more. All these with the purpose of rethinking and crafting better policies.


It is through these experiences that I’ve had with so many interesting people in my years at NTU that has left me a deep impression of just how important a role philosophy still has to play in society.

How will all these technologies change the way we think and perceive the world? How will all these advancementschange the way we behave towards one another? Will we change the way we think about ourselves? How will our society change? Is this a good change or a bad change?

Business people want inputs to these philosophical questions, not just because they’re unsure whether a technology is good or bad for society, but also to help them better understand the conceptual changes that will impact them and the work they do.

One example. Insurance has, from the very beginning, dealt with physical objects. From houses, to cars, to cargo, to horses and cows. If it means a lot to you and your business, you can insure it. But the insurance industry has a new problem, a philosophical problem. How do you insure digital content? If I copy a file from a computer to a hard disk, the file is still in the computer. There is no loss of data, maybe just a loss of earnings (and even that is debatable). It’s not like the traditional form of insurance where there’s an actual loss of something physical. So how do you conceive of non-physical goods in a way that is sensible to insure? Till now, the insurance industry has problems figuring out how best to insure digital content because they simply haven’t solved the philosophical problem of the ontological status of digital goods.

Let me give you another example. I met a director of an IT company. He says that he often encounters problems with making certain decisions. How do you choose if you none of the options are the best, and for that matter, they’re all just as bad?

Iney, menee, miney, moe? Or do you just flip a coin?

These issues may not require philosophical content, but they do require a certain amount of philosophical training to help you come to a sound conclusion. And this is the kind of skills that employers are looking for to help solve the tough problems they face. The director of the IT company? He told me: I wished I had philosophers in my team. We deal with these kinds of problems almost every day.

He’s not the only one who wants philosophers. Consulting firms like Cognizant, recognise the value of philosophical training to solve difficult problems. They specifically ask for philosophy graduates.

Now, to be clear, I’m not here to tell you to go study philosophy and pursue a philosophical career. I’m just telling you about the role of philosophers and philosophy in action out there in the real world, in government and politics.

It’s fine if you tell me: “Mr. Sim, I think philosophy is too abstract. I don’t like it.”

I’m cool with that. You are free to choose. It’s your life, not mine.

But don’t throw philosophy away, or dismiss it as something silly and useless just because it is too abstract for you, or if the things you learn seem to have no application to the world. Many of the things we study in school seem to have no application, but that’s only because we lack the creativity and imagination to see how they are relevant.

Many of us may not have the opportunity to see philosophy in action, but we shouldn’t mistake that to mean that it’s nont making a real impact on the world today. Philosophy is in action, often behind the scenes.

Let me end the discussion with something very real. So far we’ve talked about philosophy in governance and the private sector. What about one’s personal life?

As it is now, I am 29 years old and married. And I can tell you that as we get older, we carry more responsibilities. And sometimes this leads us to difficult situations, where we have to choose between options that are not ideal at all. These options may affect only you, or it may affect other people in your life, e.g. your parents, your partner, your children.

Soon, you will have to ask yourself difficult questions: what should I study after I graduate from Raffles Institution? What should I do with my life?

When you go out to work, you will have to deal with the same question: what should I do with my life? Maybe you have to ask questions like, should I leave this high paying job that’s making me miserable for a low paying job that might make me happier? Soon you’ll be confronted with questions like: what do I do with my time and my money?

These are real questions and they can be very painful and difficult to answer. Sometimes we don’t even know the answers, and that can be incredibly frustrating.

The philosophers themselves have tried and are still trying to answer these kinds of questions. I can tell you that their answers don’t always work for me. Nonetheless, the value lies in nlearning about their thoughts. These thinkers have given me a broader perspective to problems, and they have certainly helped me make better decisions. Moreover, my philosophical training has helped me to make painfully difficult yet sound decisions from time to time.

I have friends who appreciate the fact that I can think through these problems clearly for them, and they come to me to help clarify their thoughts and problems.

It’s fine if you don’t intend to do great things to change the world. It’s fine if you are passionate about other things in life and you’d rather focus your energy on them.

But the point I want to make is this: be sure to have a good dose of philosophy in your life. Whether it’s a big dose or a small dose, take it seriously. It will help you in your personal life and in your work.

And if you hope to do great things in the future, good for you. Philosophy will provide you with the skills and content to help you achieve it.

Insights on the Dynamic Digital Revolution: Hashtags and Personal Identity

This is the first of several scripts I have prepared for my upcoming panel discussion for the Asia Business Summit organised by the Institute of Asian Consumer Insight and Channel News Asia.

Question: The dynamic landscape of digital revolution is set to change a very large aspect of consumer lives, especially in Asia where consumers love technology and are quick to adapt to new gadgets. What are some trends and issue you can foresee happening in 5 years’ time?

One online trend that I’ve observed over the past few years is that a rapidly increasing number of us have started to hashtag our lives: our feelings, our experiences, our personal thoughts. But as we do this, one emerging phenomenon is that we too are beginning to describe ourselves with hashtags. We are beginning to hashtag our own identity, and we are thinking about ourselves in those terms and acting on such an understanding.

In the past, people described themselves with a certain richness. “I am so-and-so, I like to do this and that, my favourite colour, blah blah blah…”

Today, if you check out the many social media profiles on Instagram for example, people describe themselves with hashtags: Writer, blogger, traveller, foodie, photographer, etc. They don’t even bother starting the sentence with “I am a…” No, they go right straight into it.

There is a problem when hashtag ourselves.

Let me start by illustrating the problem with a question: When I say the sky is cloudy, what colour is the sky? Grey? I think most of you will say that. But can the sky be white or blue? Yes!

That’s the problem with language: it says too little and too much at the same time.

As we move into a hashtag mode of self-understanding, of self-identification, we lose track of the richness of understanding and defining who we really are. On its own, this hashtag identification is a minor issue. However, when we begin to measure our worth and success on social media, as defined by those hashtags, based on the number of likes and followers, we fall prey to the terrors of performativity.

When you impose performance measures on people, what happens? We change our behaviours and our perceptions. Performance measures were designed precisely to engineer specific behavioural outcomes, or performance outcomes. Yet, one of the unintended effects is that it can and does change the way we behave in ways beyond the performance goals. James G. March, the sociologist and founder of organisational theory, notes that such performance indicators can produce a culture of distrust and competition rather than cooperation. People, at the mercy of such performance indicators, can live entire lives just working to achieve those goals annd neglect every other aspect that’s as important (but not defined in those performance measures).

The more obsess we are by those metrics, the more we think of ourselves solely in those terms. This makes us behave no differently from a machine.

As we think increasingly of ourselves as hashtags, we come to a reduced, and impoverished understanding of who we are. And this is further reinforced by the very fact that social media platforms are the means by which we present ourselves to the digital world. The likes and follows we receive are a measure of how the world responds to us. It’s our performance measure. And many young people (and not so young ones too) are falling prey to the terrors of such online performance measures.

If I define and present myself online as a foodie, for example, the online reactions I receive are a measure of how good a foodie I am. This traps us in the awful terror of performativity that forces us to work harder at whatever hashtag we used in our identification.

And it doesn’t help that social media services, in their bit to recommend related posts, will aid in reinforcing those hashtags, those perceptions of what we like, and who we are.

But am I more than a foodie, or a photographer, or writer, etc.? Yes.

I am a human being with a myriad passions and interests, likes and dislikes, and more. But it’s easy for us to forget all that when we’ve reduced our identities into a few hashtags.

Thoughts About the Ethical and Societal Implications of Hi-Tech Development

Tomorrow is a big day for me. I’ve been invited to speak for a conference jointly organised by the Financial Times and Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Institute on Asian Consumer Insight.

More information about the event can be found here: https://live.ft.com/Events/2015/FT-ACI-Smarter-World-Summit

I’ve been asked specifically to talk about philosophical issues related to artificial intelligence, robots, home automation, and other emerging technologies of the future.

Screenshot of the panel discussion I’m in. The event description says: “As we move into an era of driverless cars, virtual financial advisers, and robo-waiters and waitresses, the business environment – and more broadly, society in general – is changing at an incredible pace. What will the jobs of the future look like, and how should firms be preparing to adapt? For B2C firms, how do different customer segments generally react to adopting new technologies? Is there an optimum way to phase in technological changes? What can be done to minimise any adverse impacts new technological developments might have on society?”

I’m really excited, but I’m also very nervous because it’s a panel discussion with questions thrown at me. I’d be a lot less nervous if it were a talk, where I can prepare and plan in advance all that I want to say.

I can only anticipate what people will ask me. So, in this blog post, I’ll write all the things that I’ve prepared to say for tomorrow. I can only hope, with fingers crossed, that they will ask me questions along these lines. (This post is very raw, but I will come back to edit it after the event)

1. What is technology?

It’s easy to forget that technology is a tool that humans use as a means to fulfill a human purpose. It is designed by humans ultimately for humans, by exploiting either natural or social phenomena to achieve that function. There are two sides to technology: the “hardware,” referring to the physical things that will exploit the phenomena; and there’s the “software,” or the concept/logic that arranges and organises the “hardware” to fulfil that particular purpose. On the most basic level, it is the humans and our minds that function as the “software” of technology, manually controlling these tools to achieve what we want. On the more sophisticated level, it is the computer code that controls the computer system(s) to achieve a desired human effect.

On another level, we can understand technology as the collection of devices and practices that shape our culture. Technology is pervasive. It is present in our homes and in our work. It is what we use nowadays to get from place to place, and it is what we use to communicate with people. It is involved in giving us the food we eat, and the water we drink. Technology is everywhere, used in almost every single aspect of our lives to fulfil our human purposes. Technology is an essential component of human society and culture. We create the technologies that shape our culture. And it is this culture, which in turn, shapes the way we think, perceive, value, act, and respond to the people around us. Technology changes lives, for better or for worse, whether big or small. The very introduction of any piece of technology into a community will forever alter the path by which the community’s culture develops.

Technology is a tool which has the power, not only to help us achieve our needs and wants, but it has the power to shape our needs and wants, and how we understand ourselves and our role in the world. There is always a feedback loop between technology and humans.

2. Can technology save the world?

(I’m using the term, “save the world,” in particular because of the salvation narrative used to portray technology by some organisations or peoples. By saving the world, I’m referring to complex human/societal problems, or global challenges that confront nations from East to West, e.g. solving global warming, famine, political crisis, wars, etc.)

It’s interesting how many proponents of technology speak about technology as if technology (in the broadest sense of modern technology) can save the world, can solve some of the most pressing problems of the world, can make the world a better place for ourselves and for our future generations.

Some may cite the example of the atomic bomb as both a tool useful for international peace. It was what made Japan surrender, and it is what keeps the balance of power around the world. But some historians have pointed out that this is not true. It was other human factors, other human concerns, that led Japan to surrender. The Japanese were still more than ready to continue fighting even after the atomic bomb was dropped on them. This is one of many other examples of history where technology, no matter how great or horrifying it may be, does not save the world.

And of course, technology cannot and will not save the world. It is but a tool. And as tools, its effectiveness is dependent on the people using it. Tools are only instrumental to solving problems. Human problems, with all its complexities and complications, will remain human problems regardless of the amount of technology we throw at it. It would be naive to assume that technology – as a tool – will save the world.

But if we consider the impact technology has on culture, with its power to transform cultures, perceptions, thinking, and values, we may get a glimpse by which technology is the facilitator to “saving the world,’ or more accurately, in playing an instrumental and effective role for humans to resolve human/societal problems.

Let us consider the example of a bridge. We can build a bridge to connect one town to another town separated by a river. But in doing so, the bridge – like a catalyst – generates new means and opportunities for human interaction and for the exchange of ideas and cultures. The bridge is an instrumental means that becomes part of other human objectives. Over time, the interaction between the two towns will lead to transformations of their communities, transformations of their overall cultural outlook, ideas, production and economy.

Other influential technologies have the power to transform cultures as well. Of course, technology can transform culture for better or for worse, depending on how and what the technology facilitates and is instrumental for. But this is perhaps, for us, a clue by which we can understand the world-saving potential of technology – of its impact on culture as a whole, as an indirect means for achieving a “world-saving” effect.

3. Problems arising from technology are mainly human problems

One of the things we don’t expect from technology is that it generates more human problems than technical problems.

Why is it that more human problems come about? It goes back to the impact technology has on culture. As mentioned earlier, depending on how a piece of technology functions as an instrumental means for other broader human purposes, that technology can transform culture for better or for worse. Of course, this is seeing the situation too simply. The changes are better in some ways, and worse in other ways. Smartphones have created opportunities for us to interact with one another in so many wonderful ways, but it has also facilitated human laziness in so many other ways.

We need to recognise that many of the technological problems people are complaining about are actually human problems underlying these complaints. These are problems that will not be solved with more technology. A lazy person, for example, will continue to be lazy and exercise his laziness over all the technological tools in his possession (this I speak from experience). No amount of productivity tools will solve the problem.

The solutions are to be found in social, political and even ethical means. But perhaps part of the difficulty that we are facing now is that the rate of technological development is so fast, that our cultures are transforming faster than we can make sense of it, or to even identify the set of problems and solutions to them. This is perhaps something that we need to be aware of as a first step towards a more tangible solution.

4. Technology changes expectations

If we look at the history of technology, inventions like the cleaning appliances and computers promised to free up our time to pursue leisure or other meaningful activities. Instead, the complete opposite happened.

Appliances like the vacuum cleaner were supposed to reduce the time and effort required to clean the house. But it led to increased expectations of cleanliness. If you have a cleaning machine that cleans more effectively, how is it that your house is dirty? And with greater advances in cleaning technologies, the expectations continued to rise. What is interesting is that the concept of the housewife as one who looks after all the cooking and cleaning of the house, is a very modern conception born as a result of such cleaning appliances. Before that, women were working from their homes, involved in farming or textiles, while they tended to cooking, cleaning and child raising. But it was the increased expectation of a clean house, that made them so busy with cleaning, so busy trying to live up to the new expectations of a clean house, that they became too busy to work.

The same thing goes with computers. Before computers became the mainstream tool of productivity, they were marketed as a more efficient and productive means for work. You could save time working, so that you can devote more time for leisure or other meaningful activity. In fact, John M. Keynes predicted that in the future, we would only work 15 hours a week because technological advancements would have made our work easier. But all these didn’t happen. Why? Because our expectations of work had changed. If one employee could do the same amount of work in the less amount of time, it didn’t make sense for the employer to hire 3 employees. He could fire the other two, and let that one employee do the work of 3 people. And of course, if you could do the same work in a shorter time, you could also do the same work at a much higher quality in a short time too.

Machines are, of course, almost flawless in its operation and highly efficient, able to work long hours (or 24/7 even) without needing time to rest. That we use these systems so regularly at work and at home, it’s easy for such machine-thinking to leak into the way we perceive ourselves and others. Not only are we expecting people to do more work in the same amount of time, we have a tendency to demand that we work like machines.

This thinking is so prevalent that we find ourselves expressing it in our conversations from time to time. Here’s one:

“It’s so easy to forget that we’re not machines, that we need to rest.”

Sounds familiar?

We see this machine-like requirement present sometimes in our hiring processes. We want people who are productive, efficient, least prone to error, etc. In short, we want someone as perfect as a machine!

It is interesting that future, emerging technologies are promising the same promises as the technologies before them – that we will be more productive and save time, that we will have more time for leisure and other meaningful activity. But history has shown time and again, that this is not the case because our expectations change, what we expect of ourselves and others have changed.

The real issue we need to consider is how AI, automation, etc., will change our expectations. Will it become more and more unrealistic? Has our society, perhaps, increased expectations more than our technology and people can currently support it? I’m saying this because in many big cities, and big organisations, the expectation to work long overtime hours has increased tremendously.

More importantly, we will humans expect ourselves to behave more and more like machines, and have less room for us to express our humanity? No room for error, for slowness, etc.? Are we creating a meritocracy based on machine-like perfection?

So, the issue we need to consider is: when we introduce new efficient and time-saving technologies, do we need to be aware of the way we market them? Is our marketing changing expectations faster than what is sustainable by technological progress and human capacity? Should we consider tampering expectations?

5. If all you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as nails

Abraham Maslow wrote:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

It is tempting to assume that every problem has a technological solution. And just as how hammering non-nails can be damaging to those non-nail issues, there are problems that arise from such an approach.

Part of the problem stems from the whole problem-solving approach. While it is useful for developing technologies to solve physical problems, it is trickier when it comes to human problems, to social problems. Human problems are complex and multi-dimensional. To solve the problem in a way that can be addressed by technology requires, first of all, that the problem be defined in a way that can suit a technological solution. This approach by reduces the complexity and richness of human problems. So while technology can be developed to addressed the defined problem, it ignores all related issues.

Here is an analogy to highlight another problem. A plumper is able to repair my toilet plumping because he has an idea/understanding of what a working plumping is. But what about societal/human issues? Can one develop a comprehensive idea/understanding of what the end solution is or should be? It is not possible. What we can envision is limited, and while we may develop a solution in that direction, it once again ignores everything else. This can and will lead to a lot of unforeseen consequences.

The problem of course, is that with this attitude of treating everything as nails, when things go wrong, the temptation is to invest more money on more technological solutions.

The underlying issue is this: Technology cannot save the world, nor can it solve all problems. It is a tool. The narrative we have about technology’s potential is highly problematic. Human problems must still be resolved by humans, by communities, and by a rich understanding of what it means to be human and the ways humans can flourish where they are.

We should reframe our problem-solving narrative to: humans can make a difference with the assistance of technology. It is not technology alone as if it has super miraculous powers, but humanity assisted by technology, humans using technology to bring out the best of other humans.

I think, it is essential to ponder on the complexities of humanity with close collaboration with the humanities and social sciences. This can and will lead us to richer understandings of what problems are, and how we can go about resolving them, and where applicable, with technology.

6. How far does the technological/robotic revolution have to go?

I will make a very provocative claim here, the point of which is to make you pause to ponder the extreme opposite view, so that we might find a balance in your own way.

Technological/robotic revolution can take a rest. There’s no need for it to go any further.

Bertrand Russell, after his long tenure of teaching in China, returned to the UK with a deep reflection about the problems of the West. He wrote – and this really resonates with me:

Our Western civilization is built upon assumptions, which, to a psychologist, are rationalizings of excessive energy. Our industrialism, our militarism, our love of progress, our missionary zeal, our imperialism, our passion for dominating and organizing, all spring from a superflux of the itch for activity. The creed of efficiency for its own sake, without regard for the ends to which it is directed, has become somewhat discredited in Europe since the war, which would have never taken place if the Western nations had been slightly more indolent. But in America this creed is still almost universally accepted; so it is in Japan, and so it is by the Bolsheviks, who have been aiming fundamentally at the Americanization of Russia. Russia, like China, may be described as an artist nation; but unlike China it has been governed, since the time of Peter the Great, by men who wished to introduce all the good and evil of the West. In former days, I might have had no doubt that such men were in the right. Some (though not many) of the Chinese returned students resemble them in the belief that Western push and hustle are the most desirable things on earth. I cannot now take this view. The evils produced in China by indolence seem to me far less disastrous, from the point of view of mankind at large, than those produced throughout the world by the domineering cocksureness of Europe and America. The Great War showed that something is wrong with our civilization; experience of Russia and China has made me believe that those countries can help to show us what it is that is wrong. The Chinese have discovered, and have practised for many centuries, a way of life which, if it could be adopted by all the world, would make all the world happy. We Europeans have not. Our way of life demands strife, exploitation, restless change, discontent and destruction. Efficiency directed to destruction can only end in annihilation, and it is to this consummation that our civilization is tending, if it cannot learn some of that wisdom for which it despises the East.

(Bertrand Russell, The Problem of China, Ch. 1)

From a philosophical point of view, it is precisely because we have a linear conception of time and a linear narrative of progress in understanding and control of nature/universe that we assume that there should be a need for greater progress and development in our technologies.

Should things get better? Sure, why not. Should things be more convenient? Sure, why not. But why do we need things to get better, to be more convenient?

Why the discontent? Why do we not learn to accept things the way they are? I’m not saying this is what we should be doing, but I’m saying we should at least stop and ponder on this question.

Modern science and technology has given us the facade that we are in full control of our lives and destinies, and as long as we can arrange live in a certain way, we can achieve happiness. But it is interesting that this is a view that is fairly recent! But if you go back a few more centuries, you’d find that the philosophers of East and West have said that happiness/contentment can be achieved anytime, even now.

7. What is the potential of AI to replace jobs that we currently consider could never be done by a machine or an algorithm?

The way AI is progressing, I believe AI could very soon replace many low-level jobs.

But of course, the issue is whether companies are willing to invest huge sums of money on these AI systems. In some sectors, mass foreign labour is still cheaper than investing in new technologies that require far less manpower. There is just little or no incentive to switch over.

In this respect, the technology may be there, but there are other social/economic/political factors that would stand in the way of such adoption.

8. Who is responsible if a driverless car kills someone? What if an investment decision by a virtual financial adviser goes wrong?How can humans best adapt to ensure that machines are serving them and not the other way around?

One problem with the way the question is framed (“How can humans best adapt to ensure that machines are serving them and not the other way around?”) is that we speak of machines as if they have agency to control us. This in itself highlights a particular outlook that we have. It’s always so easy to push all responsibility to the machines.

In the recent Volkswagon robot accident that killed one man, the prevalent discourse was that the man was killed by a machine, the time has come where the machines are out to get us.

We can also talk about simple day-to-day activities. You try to do make a special arrangement with a particular organisation, and the first thing y0u hear is: “Sorry, I can’t do that, the system won’t allow it.”

Surprisingly, many of us are willing to accept this excuse, as if machines have full control. Or rather, it’s because we have difficulty taming these machines that we feel that the machines are in control.

It is precisely because we are so ready to give up all responsibility to the machines that we feel this way.

It is also this narrative that makes us feel that there isn’t anyone responsible if a driverless car kills someone, or if a virtual adviser gives the wrong financial advice.

What I want is to turn our attention to the developers. I’m not saying that we should hold them all accountable for everything.

Rather, these debates are problem today because of the way we have framed it. I think we need to have a more design-oriented, design-focused conception of safety and responsibility.

It’s not yet in our culture to develop responsible coding or responsible developing. I think what is essential is a paradigm of ethical design and ethical development, one that ensures not only that safety is given priority in development, but that the technologies are empowering. There are a good number of badly designed technologies that are so dehumanising, too focused on the function that it strips/robs the person of his/her humanity, and it leaves them feeling alienated or disenfranchised. And of course, in many ways, this leaves us feeling enslaved by technology because there isn’t much that we can do. It’s really about the design. Good design is humanising, and leaves people feeling empowered to embrace human goods. This includes robots too. We can design robots in ways that can be empowering and humanising to humans. It’s a question of whether or not we include these considerations into the design process, rather than focusing purely on function.

9. Is some of the Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking stuff about machines killing us etc., overdone?

For context, Elon Musk said:

“I don’t think anyone realizes how quickly artificial intelligence is advancing. Particularly if [the machine is] involved in recursive self-improvement . . . and its utility function is something that’s detrimental to humanity, then it will have a very bad effect. … If its [function] is just something like getting rid of e-mail spam and it determines the best way of getting rid of spam is getting rid of humans…

(Read more here)

Stephen Hawking said:

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race… It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate… Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

(Read more here)

A joke question that we should ponder is: If full self-improving AI technology is so scary, why are we even developing it? Why not spare the human race by not doing it?

I don’t have much to say in answer to this question. Here’s what I’ll say:

Of course, it is natural to fear what we do not know. After all, we will not be in control of self-improving AI technology, so we cannot predict what it’ll do to us, either directly or indirectly.

A few things underlying Musk’s view of AI (and that of many Hollywood movies). (1) One, is that humans are so bad that a more intelligent AI would need to eliminate us. And (2), that a more intelligent AI would see that we are a threat to its existence or to the survival of the planet, and thus must be eliminated.

I think a lot of these are projections of our insecurities. That someone or something better than us will take over and get rid of us. It is not necessarily the case, and it might be possible to forge friendships with them. Of course, some of us may prefer to see the whole thing as a power struggle. In which case, the Chinese perspective might be worthwhile: always keep your friends close, but always keep your enemies closer. A friendship and cooperation, even with the most intelligent being will always be worthwhile.

Hawking’s concern is more credible as he presents such AI beings as competition to our own evolution. If this is how AI materialises in the future, then it is a credible threat. Of course, this assumes that AI would compete with us and our niche for the same things, thereby competition would lead to our elimination.

But above and beyond all these, we really need to turn our attention to the design and development phase. That a large aspect missing from this is a concept of ethical/responsible development and design. Safety has never been a top priority in the history of inventions, until accidents occur. Perhaps it’s time we factor such considerations in our development stages.

10. How should we organise our working lives if lots of work we currently do is taken care of by machines? Will there always be new work created just as old work is destroyed, will we have to work shorter hours, or will it mean that some people work long hours (and are paid well) and others struggle to find work at all. In other words, will increasing mechanisation increase inequality?

I once attended a talk where the projection is that 15 years from now, if nothing changes, unemployment will be very high because the rate of technological development is so rapid, that people will not only lose their jobs because they are replaced by machines, but also because people do not have the time to learn new skills in such a short period of time to operate the new systems. Possibly the younger generation will have a better edge in learning these new systems much faster than us.

Of course, there are many other political, economic and social factors at play, that could prevent the widespread adoption of such automation, as evident in some sectors today, that still rely on mass labour because its still significantly cheaper.

But let’s assume that there is widespread adoption. As I mentioned earlier, expectations will increase, and so if history is a good gauge of what the future might be like, there will be new work created, but expectations of work will be greater than before. People will be expected to do the work of yet more people in a short period of time.

What does Xunzi have to say about rituals and social justice?

This post will be a follow up to my previous post (see Investigating the Relationship between Ritual Propriety and Social Justice in the Early Confucian Tradition), where I will explore the relationship between li (ritual/ritual propriety) and social justice as found in the works of Xunzi, another pre-Qin Confucian philosopher.

I begin my exploration by focusing on Chapter 19 of The Xunzi (yes, the text is named after the author).

The chapter starts with an exposition on the origins of li:

How did ritual principles arise? I say that men are born with desires which, if not satisfied, cannot but lead men to seek to satisfy them. If in seeking to satisfy their desires men observe no measure and apportion things without limits, then it would be impossible for them not to contend over the means to satisfy their desires. Such contention leads to disorder. Disorder leads to poverty. The Ancient Kings abhorred such disorder; so they established the regulations contained within ritual and moral principles in order to apportion things, to nurture the desires of men, and to supply the means for their satisfaction. They so fashioned their regulations that desires should not want for the things which satisfy them and good would not be exhausted by the desires. In this way the two of them, desires and goods, sustained each other over the course of time. This is the origin of ritual principles. (Xunzi 19.1a, trans. John Knoblock)

One of the requirements for a just society is a well-ordered society. In the case of Xunzi and the other early Confucian thinkers, society is ordered and regulated by means of rituals (li).

The passage above describes three major purposes of rituals:

  1. Apportion things
  2. Nuture the desires of men
  3. Supply the means for their satisfaction

So, not only do rituals work in deciding who gets how much, rituals also ensure that people are able to receive the resources they need. But more importantly, rituals function to regulate (and educate) the desires of the people so that they do not desire more than they require. In not desiring more than they need, they will not place a strain on the limited resources meant for others. It seems, therefore, that this would guarantee that everyone receives a fair share of the necessary goods they require. Of course, an interesting question to ask is: would this actually guarantee that everyone will receive a fair share of goods, or sufficient resources to live decently?

To this question, Xunzi says:

Rites employ valuables and ordinary objects to make offerings, use distinctions between noble and base to create forms, vary the quantity according to differences of station, and elaborate or simplify to render each its due. (Xunzi 19.3, trans. Knoblock)

Those of higher rank, like rulers and ministers, should receive not just more resources, but also more elaborate and refined goods. It is interesting that the punchline of this statement is that it is the ritually appropriate way “to render each its due.” This is something that may make some people feel uncomfortable. Why should people of higher rank deserve more than those of lower rank? What is the basis for them to receive a greater share?

There are two reasons for this. (1) These are people who hold office and thus shoulder the burden of looking after the state. While they may be working as hard as everyone else, the responsibility is greater, and thus they deserve a greater share. (2) The second reason is more interesting. Xunzi recognises the pedagogical powers in the visual display of li in teaching the people to distinguish those with power and rank. People behave very differently towards a person wearing t-shirt and shorts, compared to a person wearing a suit and a tie. The outward appearances matter. If a person of authority were to dress in a very undignified manner, he would not receive the same respect or be able to exercise his authority effectively. If instead, such a person of authority were to dress in a way more refined than the masses, or be publicly conferred elaborate/refined goods, people will see and learn that this is an important person, whose respect is due by virtue of his position and the authority and burden he shoulders on behalf of the people. Hence, what is due to people of authority isn’t so much the material goods per se. No, the material goods are instrumental to aiding such people to effectively exercise their authority. What is due to them is the respect.

And if you are worried about abuses of power and authority, Xunzi has this to say:

Thus, the gentleman could make the elaborate forms of ritual more florid or make its simplified forms leaner, but he dwells in the mean of its mean course. Whether he walks or runs, dashes after or hurries about, moves with urgency or runs quickly hither and thither, he does not depart from ritual, for it is “the outer boundary of his proper dwelling.” (Xunzi 19.3, trans. Knoblock)

If necessary, rituals should vary in elaborateness or simplicity depending on the circumstances. While some elaborate and refined goods are required for those of high rank, it does not mean that they indulge in these things. Rather, the amount of what they have should be adjusted accordingly (to the economic situation), always following the principle of moderation, of staying within the middle way proper to their rank and position.

Is there a way to ensure this moderation in people? According to Xunzi, yes there is!

Rites trim what is too long, stretch out what is too short, eliminate excess, remedy deficiency, and extend cultivated forms that express love and respect so that they increase and complete the beauty of conduct according to one’s duty. … Elegant adornment, music, and happiness are what sustain tranquility and serve auspicious occasions. Gross ugliness, weeping, and sorrow are what sustain anxiety and serve inauspicious occasions. Hence, their utilization of elegant adornment does not go so far as to be sensuous or seductive, nor gross ugliness so far as to produce emaciation or self-neglect. Their use of music and happiness does not go so far as to be wayward and abandoned or indolent and rude, nor do weeping and sorrow go so far as to produce despondency or injury to life. Such is the middle course of ritual.

Thus, the changes of emotion and of manner should be sufficient to distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious and to make clear that the rank is high or low and that the relation is near or distant, but with this they stop. Any practice that exceeds these goals is evil, and although such practices may be difficult to accomplish, the gentleman disdains them. (Xunzi 19.5b, trans. Knoblock)

The various rituals, in the form of ceremonies or etiquette, are meant to teach us how to appropriately express our emotions and intentions. They are meant to teach us what is the appropriate use of materials, and how much of it to use in various circumstances. In this way, we learn to render the respect and resources/goods due to others, never shortchanging them. Or if one is the recipient, to know how much to expect so as not to be shortchanged by others.

And of course, social relations aren’t just merely about showing respect, expressing emotions, and redistributing material goods. No. There’s more. Though the context for this passage is about funerals, what Xunzi says is relevant to li in all social interactions:

Use of these [ritual] forms ornaments social relations. (Xunzi 19.4a, trans. Knoblock)

There is a certain aesthetic quality in social relations!

Sure, you may drink coffee simply because you need to stay awake, but you can enjoy coffee for its aesthetic qualities, savouring its acidic and nutty qualities with every sip. You can do the same with tea and wine too. There is a certain aesthetic appreciation and enjoyment in one’s interaction, in one’s tasting of the beverage. In the same way, social relations aren’t just there to be engaged with on a purely functional level. In our daily life, we can enjoy friendship, or the company of colleagues or strangers.

Rituals add form which emphasize the aesthetic value of social relations, informing us to enjoy, or at the very least, to appreciate, the relationship we have with the other when engaged in social interaction. Hence, when dealing with those higher and lower than us, wealthy or less well-off than us, the rites give us structure and form by which we are able to “ornament” the relation, to arrive at that enjoyment of the relationship.

While this may not be directly related to social justice per se, I think this is valuable in the sense that at the very least, li compels us (or rather, requires us) to treat the other with greater respect and appreciation. We aren’t just dealing with “the poor” or “the disadvantaged” as if they are an abstract concept, devoid of real personhood or character. To be engaged in social justice with those who are less well-off in a ritually-appropriate manner means that we have to enter into an aesthetic social relation.

Doil Kim, in his PhD Dissertation, on Xunzi’s Ethical Thought and Moral Psychology (2011), wrote about the significance of discrimination (辨 bian). According to Xunzi, humans have the advanced capacity for discrimination that goes beyond basic sensory capabilities (p.89), able to differentiate between the different types of relationships we can have with others, to the extent that we can even distinguish the different relationships we may have with the same person (e.g. the same person could be both your colleague and best friend).

Discrimination is essential because it helps us to determine different modes of responding to people. How intimate should our response be? We treat people around with with different degrees of love, intimacy and respect. To be able to distinguish who’s who in relation to you is essential in picking out the right mode of interaction and engagement. More importantly for Xunzi, is whether “we can develop love and respect on the basis of the capacity in ways that enable them to interact with one another in accordance with the spirit of ren (benevolence) and yi (rightness)” (p.96). The relationship determines how we respond to a person. The rites give us structure not only for interacting with that person, but also the structure to develop love and respect in an appropriate manner. It is not about simply helping the disadvantaged. There are some who help the disadvantaged in ways that make the less well-off feel undignified or ashamed of who they are, thus stripping them of whatever remaining human dignity they may have. Good intentions, benevolence, and compassion must be expressed through a structure that respects, dignifies, and empowers them. Rituals provide that form, thus ornamenting the social relationship between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged.

There are another two interesting concepts in the Xunzi that’s both relevant and interesting in bringing out the richness of rituals in the context of social justice. The two concepts are: rang (讓 deference) and ci (辭 declination), and they are both present in many rituals.

Rang refers to “the action of offering honor or something desirable to other people” (p.98). It is not any kind of offering, but an offering of something that the recipient also desires to attain (p.102). As there is a desire in us often to desire more (goods or honour), the principle of rang compels us to defer the desire for more to the other, so that the other may share or have more of we desire. The ruler should defer his own desires so as not to frustrate the people and deprive them of their dues; and similarly the people should defer their own desires so as to give to the ruler more of what is due to him. Ritual propriety demands that the principle of rang be practised by both parties so that both may exercise self-moderation. It is never a one-sided requirement, unless propriety has been violated.

Ci on the other hand, refers to “the act of declining an offer or a treatment that would be suitable only for a person of a higher social status,” or “inappropriate to one’s social status” (p.108). It can be properly understood as “the kind of deferential declination based on a proper self-recognition of one’s own social status” (p.108). In the context of rituals, ci demands that we recognise that we may not be so worthy of whatever it is that we receive. This is not to be confused with humility. Humility would be to say that one is too unworthy to receive this (for reasons of moral failing or otherwise). Rather, in this case, ci is about recognising that it may not be appropriate for us to receive, for doing so would be pretending to be someone we are not. The appropriate recipient may be someone of a higher status, but it may also be for someone of a lower status. This is important because it brings to mind the recognition that we are not entitled to it, nor do we deserved; instead calling us to ponder on who might be the more deserving recipient. Once again, ritual propriety demands that the principle of ci be practised by both sides, so that both parties will think less of themselves as being entitled to something, and instead think who might be the more worthy, deserving recipient.

These are the two principles at play in many rituals.

In Chapter 20 of the Xunzi, there is a description of a village wine ceremony:

With the exchange of three bows between host and guest, they reach the steps, and after the guest has thrice deferred, the host takes the guest up to his place. Bowing deeply, he presents the wine up in pledge. There follow many episodes of polite refusals and deferring between host and chief guest… (Xunzi 20.5, trans. Knoblock)

In this ritual, both the host and chief guest are expected “to offer to give way to the other (rang) three times, so that the other will go ahead and step up to the main hall first”, and they are also simultaneously expected “to show their reluctance or hesitation to immediately accept the other’s offer by making polite verbal refusals (ci) and giving way to the other (rang) three times” (p.114).

By means of rang (deference), both parties are required to focus on the social status of the other, acknowledging the other to be better than one’s self either in terms of rank, social standing, or moral achievement. This prevents one from being distracted by one’s superiority of the other, and so be willing to give way, and offer the best to that other.

By means of ci (declination), both parties are required to consider that they may be treated inappropriately, in the sense that they are receiving treatment that is far too good for one’s own position/status (to be treated like a king, when one is not, and thus to decline it) At the same time, it compels each party to consider if they are also treating the other inappropriately too. If one is not worthy of such grand treatment, perhaps the other is the one who truly deserves such grand treatment, thus one must not disrespect the other and instead treat the other grandly as well.

Kim concludes:

[This] code of conduct presents the vision of an ideal society in which every person tries to deal with the other person in a transaction by habitually focusing on a higher or better social status that may be ascribed to the person; and, ever person is always careful about a possible overestimation of his or her own social status. In these ways, everyone can be treated properly, and there is no need to make a demand to others for one’s own due. (p.115)

Since the principles of rang and ci are present in the concept of li, what we have here are the dynamics embedded within rituals for social justice. In which case, a ritually-ordered state, i.e. a state governed by li, would compel people, both rich and poor, young and old, superior or inferior, to look out for each other, to constantly ponder on the needs of others, and to distribute it to those who are in need.

Yet, it seems that this sort of utopia might work only for a family or a small community, like a village. In a small community, it is still relatively easy to look out for one another and their needs. On the surface, this doesn’t seem possible to implement in a big city. One can only act in this way towards one’s small network of friends and family in the city. This might even be impossible to implement on a state level.

If this is the case, then maybe we will need to adapt the principles of rang and ci within li, and reconstruct it to fit a contemporary theory of Confucian social justice.

Another interesting question is: if a modern reconstruction is possible, how do proceed to the next stage, to frame this as policy, stirring the people to action?

Well, it’s something I’ll need to contemplate further, but I think it is, nonetheless, a very interesting idea!

Investigating the Relationship between Ritual Propriety and Social Justice in the Early Confucian Tradition

Here is a draft proposal for a paper I wish to write.

In the book, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times, Joseph Chan argues that there are three principles of a Confucian perspective on social justice. The three principles are: (1) sufficiency for all, where “each household should have an amount of resources sufficient to live a materially secured and ethical life”; (2) priority to the badly off, where “people who fall below the threshold of sufficiency – those who have special needs and are badly off – should have priority in being taken care of”; and (3) merit and contribution, where “offices and emolument should be distributed according to an individual’s merits and contributions; any subsequent inequality of income is not illegitimate.” (pp.175-176)

Yet it is interesting to note that the concept of li (禮 rites/ritual/ritual propriety) – a key concept central to Confucian thinking – is not mentioned in Chan’s reconstruction of a Confucian perspective of social justice. The Liji (禮記), also known as The Book of Rites, strongly suggests that li plays a key role in supporting the Confucian perspective on social justice. One such example can be found in the first chapter of the Liji, which praises li for its ability to guarantee a condition of security:

In the highest antiquity they prized (simply conferring) good; in the time next to this, giving and repaying was the thing attended to. And what the rules of propriety (li) value is that reciprocity. If I give a gift and nothing comes in return, that is contrary to propriety (li); if the thing comes to me, and I give nothing in return, that also is contrary to propriety (li). If a man observe the rules of propriety (li), he is in a condition of security; if he do not, he is in one of danger. Hence there is the saying, ‘The rules of propriety (li) should by no means be left unlearned.’ (Liji, Chapter 1 “Qu Li Part 1”, 10, trans. James Legge)

Do rituals really play such a key role in supporting social justice? I propose to further investigate the concept of li and its relation to social justice. As the early Chinese thinkers had no concepts of social justice, it is not possible to directly derive a theory of social justice from their thoughts. Instead, I will follow the methods employed by Joseph Chan: instead of asking if the early thinkers had a theory of social justice, I would look at how the early thinkers approached specific problems that are linked to our modern understanding of social justice. How did these early Confucian thinkers try to resolve problems of inequality, poverty, and the distribution of material goods? However, I will go a step further and examine how li was employed to resolve these social justice problems: Was it used to establish certain societal norms (and attitudes) to motivate the regular redistribution of goods? Or was it employed in a more regulatory way to guarantee certain layers of protection for disadvantaged classes in society? Did li establish a certain worldview that shaped the way people perceived themselves and their relations with others in ways that would lead to a more socially just society? Lastly, I will explore how we might be able to adapt li into contemporary discourses on social justice, and how we might strengthen modern Confucian reconstructions of political philosophy with this newfound understanding of li.


Some Initial Thoughts

Well, I’ve read quite a few papers and books so far, and I thought it’d be worthwhile to share some of my initial thoughts on the above topic.

Having read the Liji, there seems to be several interesting components in li that may help to contribute towards a theory on social justice.

Firstly, the function of li is to create discrimination of people of different roles. I’m hesitant to call it class distinctions because it’s not just about class. People can belong to the same class yet hold different roles, some of which hold greater importance over others. Apart from making clear the roles, the other function of li is to form certain attitudes and sympathies of one role towards other roles. Some rites require both rich and poor to be present, so that the rich will receive first-hand exposure of the poor, and through the ceremonies, educate them on the need for greater sympathy and benevolence towards people who are not as well off as they are. In this way, the rich will imbued with sympathy and motivation to share their goods with those who are less fortunate. There are other rites that function to bring a community together for the main purpose of distributing goods. Some ceremonies employ the sacrifice of animals. At the end of the sacrifice, the meat is shared, as a way to provide the necessary nutrition to those who cannot afford meat.

It is also interesting to note that the Liji talks about li as having “definite regulations … to serve as dykes for the people.” (Liji, Chapter 30 “Fang Ji”, 2) There are certain elements codified within some (or all?) rituals to protect certain classes of people who are in a potentially disadvantageous position, depending on the type of interaction they engage in with others. The rituals are formulated such that the potentially disadvantaged are protected from exploitation. Here is an example:

The Master said, ‘According to the rules of marriage, the son-in-law should go in person to meet the bride. When he is introduced to her father and mother, they bring her forward, and give her to him’ – being afraid things should go contrary to what is right. In this way a dyke is raised in the interest of the people; and yet there are cases in which the wife will not go (to her husband’s).’ (Liji, Chapter 30 “Fang Ji”, 39)

These are some of the many ways in which the rites offer protection to the disadvantaged. Of course, in ancient times, laws then weren’t like the laws of today. They were coercive laws of punishment, rather than regulation. It was left up to li to govern and regulate the masses. What is worth exploring in this paper is whether (and how) the context of ritual opens up a new dimension of effectiveness not found in modern-day regulatory laws and policies.

Going beyond this, I get the sense that the Liji seems to describe an expansion of the family-relation template onto the broader society as a whole. In a family, the parents look after and provide for their children (and reciprocity requires that the children do their part in the family too, of course); elder siblings look out for and care for their younger siblings. These two familial relations seem to form the basis of the way in which materials are distributed from the rich to the poor. The community is the family. Neighbours are like siblings who look out for and help each other, and so the rich assist the poor in ways just like how elder sibling helps the younger sibling. Where the elder sibling is unable to help, the parents come in. The analogous equivalent would be the state, providing the necessary assistance in the form of public/state rituals involving the community. Rituals are the way by which the state exercises its parental role to all its “children”.

Ritual ensures that relational connections are established in a community, it facilitates a means, an event, a place, an action, to draw people together and interact in a certain way. Ritual is the tool by which people come to understand how their familial relationships are expanded to a broader society.

Let me now introduce a certain religious dimension into this picture. The power of rituals is that it imposes an as-if ideal world onto a less-than-perfection as-is world. Rituals – whether it’s something as grand as a state sacrifice, or something as simple as bowing between two persons – by its very performance, juxtaposes a certain ideal onto the world.

Take for example, the liturgy of the Eucharist celebrated by Christians. While the as-is reality is that of people sitting/standing/kneeling in pews as they are led in prayer by a priest/pastor, there is an as-if world that comes into play: the ideal Christian society as that mimicking the communion of saints in heaven. This worldview encompasses ideals of how one is to interact with each other in so many different ways.

Here’s another example, but on a more secular level. Let’s think about the ritual of high-fiving: when you and I perform a high-five, what are we communicating? Friendship? Camaraderie? Brotherhood? The celebration of success? Or perhaps there is something more? Whatever it is, it communicates a certain ideal relationship between us. (If you are wondering how that is possible, imagine a situation (or better yet, experience it yourself) where you try to high-five someone, but that person refuses to reciprocate back – you immediately begin to experience certain inadequacies about the relationship just from the failure to execute the reciprocal relation.) There is a certain vision of that relationship encapsulated in that high-five action. While our relationship is far from perfect in real life, that as-if world comes into existence, juxtaposing with the reality of our as-is world, whenever we perform the high-five.

Similarly, the performance of rituals brings into play an ideal world, that reminds constantly the participants about the ideal forms of interaction, and the ideal type of community. We see an illustration of this ideal society, described once again in the Liji:

When the Grand course was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled all under the sky; they chose men of talents, virtue, and ability; their words were sincere, and what they cultivated was harmony. Thus men did not love their parents only, nor treat as children only their own sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means of growing up to the young. They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently maintained. Males had their proper work, and females had their homes. (They accumulated) articles (of value), disliking that they should be thrown away upon the ground, but not wishing to keep them for their own gratification. (They laboured) with their strength, disliking that it should not be exerted, but not exerting it (only) with a view to their own advantage. In this way (selfish) schemings were repressed and found no development. Robbers, thieves, and rebellious traitors did not show themselves, and hence the outer doors remained open, and were not shut. This was (the period of) what we call the Grand Union. (Liji, Chapter 9 “Li Yun”, 1, trans. James Legge)

While having a utopian vision of society doesn’t instantly lead to social justice, it nonetheless provides a goal towards what might be conceived of as a just society, an ideal society for its people to strive for.

Well, these are some of my initial comments. I’ll have more to say when I begin researching deeper on this.



Chan, Joseph, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Chan, Joseph, “Is There a Confucian Perspective on Social Justice?” in eds. Takashi Shogimen & Cary J. Nederman, Western Political Thought in Dialogue with Asia (Lanhan MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), pp. 261-277.

Chan, Joseph, “Confucianism and Social Justice: Historical Setting,” in eds. Michael D. Palmer & Stanley M. Burgess, Companion to Religion and Social Justice  (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012), pp. 77-92.

Puett, Michael, “Ritual and the Subjunctive” in eds. Seligman A, Weller R, Simon B, Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008). pp. 17-42.

Puett, Michael, “Innovation as Ritualization: The Fractured Cosmology of Early China,” Cardozo Law Review, 2006: 28 (1).

Puett, Michael, To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Centre, 2002).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, Confucian Democracy – A Deweyan Reconstruction of Confucianism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “The Dao of Politics: Rites and Laws as Pragmatic Tools of Government,” Philosophy East and West, 2011: 61 (3).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “The Concept of Yi (义) in the Mencius and Problems of Distributive Justice,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 2014: 92 (3).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “Ritual and Deference: Extending Chinese Philosophy in a Comparative Context,” Philosophy East and West 2012: 62(1).

The Concept of Harmony in the Medical Context of the Zhou Dynasty

[This is a draft of a paper that I am in the midst of writing]

Medicine in the Zhou Dynasty is particularly interesting in the history of Chinese medicine as it was the period where the first attempts were made to describe the phenomena of illness and disease in naturalistic terms, primarily, in terms of the flow of qi (氣 vapour). At its infancy, Zhou medical theory was still simple and was not complicated by the incorporation of Yin-Yang and Five Phases Theory – concepts that we strongly associate with Chinese medicine today. During the Shang Dynasty (just before the Zhou Dynasty), the phenomenon of illnesses and diseases was understood in terms of punishments met out by ancestral spirits (or evil spirits) who were offended or upset by the inflicted person. Diagnosis, therefore, consisted of determining which ancestor (or evil spirit) had been offended, and the reason for the offence. Similarly, treatment was done and understood in terms of appeasing the offended ancestral spirit or exorcising an evil spirit.

Nonetheless, the medical worldview in the Zhou dynasty was still in its primitive form and had not developed into the familiar complex medical theories that we find in the Huangdi Neijing Suwen. [The Huangdi Neijing Suwen is a medical text compiled during the early part of the Han dynasty. Some scholars have claimed that parts of the text were written during the late Zhou period. This may be true, but it does not change the fact that much of the Zhou dynasty’s worldview of medicine was still in its primitive form.] Moreover, the medical worldview during the Zhou was still very much influenced by the medical worldview of the Shang. Much of the Zhou’s medical ideas and practice, therefore, involved magico-religious elements, including the use of spells, incantations, and magical/tantric arts for treatment: a far cry from the traditional Chinese medical treatments found from the Han period till our contemporary times.

In this post, I will reconstruct the philosophical concept of harmony underlying the Zhou Dynasty medical worldview. To do this, I will first outline the historical understanding of how medical harmony is achieved, based primarily on the Neiye (The Inner Traning), but supported by content from excavated medical texts from the Mawangdui tomb and minor medical prescriptions by Mozi. I have intentionally refrained from making references to the Huangdi Neijing Suwen as I wish to avoid imposing later Han (and post-Han) Dynasty categories and ideas on what is essentially a Zhou medical worldview.

Before I begin, I would like to draw a distinction between the state of harmony, and the process of harmonising. Often, harmony is understood more as a state that one arrives at. However, due to the unique nature of classical Chinese where the same word can be used both as a noun or as a verb, harmony as it appears in the form of 和 he in classical texts, is used both as a state (noun) as well as a process (verb).

The Neiye defines medical harmony as the harmony between qi (氣 vital essence) and xing (形 body/bodily form) (Neiye21). When a state of harmony is achieved, such a person will have vitality (生 sheng, or life). But how is this harmony achieved? The Neiye tells us that if we try to “examine the Way of harmonising” qi and xing, the “essentials are not visible, its signs are not numerous.” (Neiye 21)

Why are there no clear indicators for harmony? I argue that harmony, as a state, is a moving target that varies from individual to individual. It is not an independent, objective state that can be clearly defined. To further complicate matters, it is not easy to pick out clear signs as the process itself involves an interaction between qi and xing, both of which mutually interact and mutually affect each other.

The medical texts excavated from the Mawangdui tomb tells us that bodily health is dependent upon the flow and direction of qi. Qi “should flow in a downward direction,” and it is most beneficial to the lower part of the body. Since qi“follows warmth and departs from coolness,” the sage, as a “model of good hygiene,” thus keeps his head cold and his feet warm to ensure that qi flows in the right direction. However, this also means that the rate qi flow and its direction/movement is sensitive to changes in the weather and the seasons. If one is not cautious, one may fall ill as a result of the irregular flow of qi within the body, either in the form of a surplus flow or a deficient flow of qi, or qi flowing in the wrong direction.

To help regulate the influence of the external environment on the body, just as how the sage makes the effort to keep his head cold and his feet warm, philosophers such as Mozi, have prescribed having adequate shelter and wearing seasonal-appropriate clothes to alter the effects of the external environment to be in harmony with the body. [Mozi Chapter 1] But should such preventive methods fail, medical treatment acts so as to regulate the flow and direction of qi within to body, by redistributing qi using “therapies designed to remove surplus and correct insufficiency.” (Harper, 1998)

The body too has the ability to control the flow of qi within it. What we do with our bodies – in eating, acting, and even with our mental states – will have an effect on qi and its flow within the body. “Over-filling yourself with food will impair your vital energy and cause your body to deteriorate,” while “over-restricting your consumption causes the bones to wither and the blood to congeal.” (Neiye 23)

Fortunately, one can do something with one’s body (both the physical body and the heart-mind) to correct this imbalance:

“When full, move quickly; when hungry, neglect your thoughts; when old, forget worry. If when full you don’t move quickly, vital energy will not circulate to your limbs. If when hungry you don’t neglect your thoughts of food, when you finally eat you will not stop. If when old you don’t forget your worries, the fount of your vital energy will rapidly drain out.” (Neiye 23)

The Neiye places a great emphasis on the role of the xin (heart-mind) in regulating qi in the body. The xin (心 heart-mind),when disturbed or disrupted by strong emotions or desires, such as “sorrow, happiness, joy, anger, desire, and profit-seeking” (Neiye 3), can ruin the delicate harmony between the body and qi. It is for this reason that the Neiye strongly prescribes the use of breathing exercises (or meditation) to help maintain calmness and keep one’s desires and emotions in check. It is in such a state of calm and serenity that “harmony will naturally develop.” (Neiye 3) [Personally, I prefer to translate the phrase “和乃自成” as: harmony will come to its completion by its own accord.]

As I have shown above, both qi and the body mutally affect and mutually influence each other. The point where both qiand the body are said to be in the state of harmony, is therefore constantly moving depending on the external conditions affecting the body, and what one does with the body. In the context of life, health and vitality, it is simply not enough to just acquire the state of harmony once, as this state can easily be lost through changes in the weather, or changes in one’s mood or activity. A true state of medical harmony, in this case, would involve a constant process of harmonising these two variables. The sage would be one who has cultivated himself/herself in such a way whereby this process is almost self-maintained. But this process of harmonising is a delicate one. Doing something to (and/or with) the body will affect the flow of qi within the body, and doing something externally to manipulate the internal flow of qi will also affect the body. Monitoring the changes and trying to balance these two constantly changing variables is not easy.

Thankfully, there are some signs that help to indicate that a harmony between qi flow and the body has been attained: “their skin will be ample and smooth, their eyes and ears will be acute and clear, their muscles will be supple and their bones will be strong”, they will “perceive things with great clarity,” (Neiye 16) and their minds and senses will be calmed and well-ordered (Neiye 14), and thus will well-ordered words issue forth from their mouths (Neiye 10).

I will now attempt to reconstruct the philosophical concept of harmony in the Zhou Dynasty medical context.

This concept of harmony can be likened to a game of tug-of-war, where the two variables, qi flow and the body, are like two players standing at each end of the rope. As both players pull, they will inevitably move each other. But there will be a point where both are pulling each other with the same amount of force that there is no resultant movement between the two. This state would be the state of harmony as it was understood in the Zhou medical context: where the total (resultant) sum of the two vector forces (i.e. the variables, qi flow and the body) is zero. It is important to highlight here that the two variables are still active, just like how the two players playing tug-of-war are still pulling each other. The person performing the act of harmonising is still at work, monitoring and regulating both the external conditions that affect qi flow and the body. Conceivably, this model of harmony could accommodate more than two variables/forces, as long as the point of harmony is that point where the total (resultant) force is zero.

However, this model of harmony is very delicate and fragile. A slight change in (or to) just one variable is enough to destroy the entire state of harmony. The total (resultant) sum of the forces will cease to be zero, and one must attempt to re-harmonise the variables at play. In which case, a long-term state of harmony is, in fact, a continual process of harmonising: it is a continual process of monitoring and regulating the variables involves to ensure that the opposing forces are made to result in a zero-sum sitaution.

As a final note, I should point out that, I have deliberately refrained from describing concept of harmony as an “equilibrium,” even though it is very tempting to refer to it as such. The problem with the term, “equilibrium,” is that it is ambiguous and vague as the term, “harmony.” We think we know what it means, and in some ways we do have a general sense of it, however, just like the term, “harmony,” the term “equilibrium” can be construed and understood in many ways. For example, equilibrium can be construed to refer to a zero-sum state where the two variables/forces cease to exert a force/influence/reaction on each other (e.g. chemical equilibrium in titration). The concept of medical harmony, which I have explained above, does not fit this type of equilibrium. Another example of equilibrium is one that refers to a zero-sum state where the two variables/forces are still continually exerting a force/influence on each other (e.g. equilibrium of forces in physics). This type of equilibrium, on the surface, seems to be a good match with the concept of medical harmony, as the variables (qi and the body), are still continually acting and influencing each other.


  • The Nei-Yeh (Inner Training), trans. Harold Roth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)
  • Motse: The Neglected Rival of Confucius, trans. Yi-pao Mei (London: Probsthain, 1934)
  • Paul Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Ideas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010)
  • Donald Harper, Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts (London: Kegan Paul International, 1998)

Complexity Science and Chinese Philosophy

I’m currently involved in a project that is attempting to bridge Complexity Science with Chinese Philosophy. I’m really excited about it!

When I first heard about “Complexity Science”, I was quite puzzled. What on earth is that? Well, complexity science is a relatively new field in the sciences that attempts to study complex systems and phenomena from a non-reductionist manner. It acknowledges that many things are not as simple as a linear, one-cause to one-effect, kind of picture, and attempts to study phenomena in its complexity, as something that is embedded and therefore, related to many other complex processes.

The standard reductionist approach in the sciences are incapable of allowing us to really understand what is going on because such an approach abstracts – takes the subject out of its context – and studies the subject in isolation. This is a huge problem. Certain phenomena arise only because a variety of conditions happen to be in a particular way at that point in time. If you were to tweak just one of these conditions, another type of phenomenon would arise (or maybe even nothing at all). And to complicate matters further, some of these conditions are inter-dependent on each other and on other complex conditions as well.

It is therefore not so easy as to simply change one or two conditions in order to get the desired effect.

Thus far, much of science has been studying such complexities from a reductionist approach. But the linear casual findings are strictly limited to the subject (and experimenters) operating under a fixed set of conditions. Such theories are incapable of saying (or for that matter, predicting) anything more about the subject in a different set of conditions. And hence the need for the study of complexity to try to resolve these issues.

Though this field is still relatively new, attempts have already been made at trying to study complex systems and their phenomena in the fields of physics, engineering, life science, economics, sociology and psychology.

So… How does Chinese Philosophy come into play here?

The problem that science encounters with the study of complexity is this: as a discipline that is deeply rooted in a Western philosophical framework, which is too firmly grounded in the concepts of linear causality and truth as an abstract universal, research in complexity cannot help but tend towards the very problems of reductionism that it is trying very hard to stay away from.

The Chinese philosophical framework, on the other hand, has been comfortable with complexity. In fact, the kind of proto-science that the Chinese has had for thousands of years, has been operating on the very model of complexity itself, with minimal reduction required (or even none at all). The concept of how everything is contextual, inter-dependent and inter-related to everything else has been present even before Confucius, and it has been the very framework by which ancient Chinese thinkers, both the philosophers and naturalists, have been operating on for a long time. It is certainly not essential or primary for such philosophers and naturalists to study phenomena in an abstracted manner. No, rather, their approach has been to study phenomena as they are: embedded within larger complex systems.

But perhaps what allows the Chinese to engage in complexity well is that since the earliest of times, they have acknowledged their proto-scientific abilities as a craft – an art that must be cultivated over a long period of time. For example, in Chinese medicine, the medical theories are many, complex, and inter-related. But what allows the physician to properly diagnose and treat his patients is the fact that the physician has mastered the art of dealing with complexity, of understanding how each factor is related to every other factor, how changing one factor affects many others, and how to counter-balance the unintended effects that arise when doing just one thing, while at the same time seeing the patient and his/her illness in the context of his/her environment. And for that matter, how to deal with one or many factors in order to get results in one or many other areas.

The physician regards the patient as a patient in the context of his environment, family, work, life, etc. Illness is a phenomenon that arises due to a combination of several factors, and thus treatment is not simply in terms of administering A to cure B. Rather, because every action results in several other effects (that also have an effect on other aspects of the body), the physician prescribes several remedies – each ingredient or method with its own effects, some of which are meant to counter-act the unintended effects due to other ingredients/methods, some of which are meant to counter-act with the external environment in which the patient is embedded in, and the rest of which are meant to deal directly with the problem.

The ability to understand and manage such a level of complexity is itself, an art/craft/skill.

Of course, science as an art/craft/skill has always been present in the Western tradition of science. But, perhaps because of the primacy of truth and reason above other things in the Western tradition, science as a craft is rarely talked about in modern science. The focus has been on scientific principles, theories, laws, and methods: as if the ability to diagnose problems, hypothesize or perform successful experiments would fall nicely into place once the scientist understands these things well. But if we were to take all things being equal, what makes one scientist better than another would really fall upon the scientist’s art/craft to hypothesize, craft the experiment, and even to do it. It takes years of laboratory experience to slowly and silently acquire such skills, but little is said about it, as if these skills were unimportant. But at the heart of these skills is the ability to balance complex situations in such a way as to acquire a fixed and constant environment for which the subject operates. This is the focus that is often forgotten.

There are two primary objectives to this project to bridge complexity science with Chinese Philosophy:

(1) To develop a lexicon (based, hopefully on the language of existing complexity theory) that can bridge modern (complexity) science with other cultures (perhaps Chinese thought as the initial starting point). When I say, “home,” for example, people from different cultures may have different conceptions of what counts as a home, and yet there is still a basic understanding common to all these various conceptions that allow these people to still effectively communicate with one another. This is the kind of lexicon that we are looking to develop – a common language that can bridge East and West, as well as to bridge modern science and other philosophical/cultural frameworks so as to shed new light on potentially new approaches to the study of complexity.

More importantly, this lexicon is meant to be action-guiding. It is meant to prescribe how research in complexity should be undertaken: its methods, assumptions, goals, ideals, etc., but in a way broad enough to give researchers the room to freely explore and proceed as they deem fit. Yet, just specific enough to guide and instruct researchers on new means and practices (inspired/borrowed from other philosophical/cultural frameworks, starting with Chinese philosophy) to study and manage complexity and complex phenomena in a non-reductionist manner.

(2) To document practices/exercises/methods useful for developing the very art/craft/skill necessary for dealing with complexity from a modern scientific approach, drawing ideas and inspiration from a Chinese perspective (philosophical/medicinal/proto-scientific). The art/craft/skill of dealing with complexity is one that will probably be taught and cultivated in ways similar to martial arts or even the training of physicians of Chinese medicine. It is a kind of training that will teach the researcher, first of all, how to think and perceive phenomena in a non-reductionist manner, and how to weigh several inter-related, inter-dependent factors at the same time when attempting to analyse or theorise on complex systems.

On the surface, this objective may sound like an attempt at developing a martial arts school for complexity researchers. But really, what this objective aims to do is to draw light on the importance of cultivating a high degree of ability in scientific research/experimentation as an art/craft/skill, as this aspect is often neglected. In addition to drawing inspiration from a Chinese perspective, we should also aim at collecting the best practices from complexity researchers, who from their own experience have already developed some kind of art/craft/skill at handling such complexities. These practices (from both East and West) should then be promoted among other complexity researchers as means for forming in them the ability to perceive and analyse complex systems from a non-reductionist manner.

In this way, the second objective links us back to the first objective. For in the end, the practices/exercises/methods that are documented should use the common lexicon that will be able to best guide researchers from across cultures.

This is a really exciting project. I wonder how far we can go with this.

The Consistency of the Life of Contemplation with the Rest of the “Nicomachean Ethics” and its Usefulness in Morality

This paper was written for my philosophy module on Aristotle. It concerns my favourite activity – contemplation. I hope that you will find this paper enriching.

Aristotle argues that the life of contemplation is more excellent than the life of political excellence. Yet, in doing so, he appears to be inconsistent with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics. In this paper, I argue that this apparent inconsistency arises because of interpretative issues related to the meaning of happiness (eudaimonia). Aristotle maintains an ambiguity over the term “happiness” so as to preserve two notions of the word: (1) happiness as living well, and (2) happiness as acting well. The apparent inconsistency comes about when these two notions of happiness are collapsed into one.

In Section I, I will summarise Aristotle’s argument in favour of the contemplative life over the political life. In Section II, I will then elaborate on the dual notions of happiness which Aristotle uses, and, in Section III, demonstrate how the use of only a single notion will result in inconsistencies. Using the dual notions of happiness, I shall then clarify what Aristotle meant in his discussion of contemplation, by highlighting a distinction between the contemplative life and contemplative activity, in Section IV. Last but not least, in Section V, I shall then anticipate an objection against the consistency of contemplation with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics, on the grounds that contemplation has nothing to do with morality, and respond to it by showing that contemplation is useful to morality, thereby maintaining its consistency. This will be done by showing how contemplation enriches the life of the contemplative person in a way useful to morality, and that it can lead the individual to right action.

I. The Excellence of the Life of Contemplation

It is necessary to first understand the reasons why Aristotle argues that the life of contemplation is more excellent than the life of political excellence.
Aristotle defines happiness as consisting in (1) “action conformable to virtue, and if there are a number of virtues, action conformable to the best and most perfect of them.” [1] As the end of all human actions, happiness is (2) the “perfect self-sufficient good” [2], that is (3) “always desirable for itself and never for anything beyond itself.” [3]

Contemplation fits this definition perfectly as it is (1) “the highest operation, since the intellect is the best element in us and the objects of the intellect are the best of the things that can be known.” [4] It is also (2) self-sufficient as the contemplative man can contemplate by himself [5], since contemplation requires no external goods for its practice. On the other hand, external goods are needed for the life of political excellence for such a man will need them for the exercise of morally virtuous activity. Contemplation is also (3) desired for its own sake since “nothing is produced by it apart from the act of contemplation”, while practical activities (which pertain primarily to the life of political excellence) are pursued instrumentally for something apart from the action itself [6]. Furthermore, contemplation is the perfect activity as it is also the most continuous activity for “we can contemplate truth more continuously than we can carry on any other activity.” [7]

It is for these reasons that Aristotle considers the life of contemplation the happiest life, while the life of political excellence is “happy only in a secondary degree.” [8]

II. The Dual Notions of Happiness (Eudaimonia)

Throughout the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle switches between two notions of happiness as (1) living well and (2) acting well. Though they may be the “popular sense of happiness” [9] as understood by the “common people and the educated” [10], these two notions of happiness are nonetheless closely related to each other since “happiness as living well is characterised by acting well.” [11]

Happiness, according to Aristotle, is “the activity of the soul according to reason” [12], which is to say that happiness consists in acting well. Yet, it is interesting that Aristotle arrives at this conclusion even though he sets out at the beginning to investigate happiness as the best life to live (living well). Aristotle did not forget about happiness as living well. In fact, his investigation of happiness from living well to acting well was meant to show that happiness (in the form of living well) consists in virtuous activities [13]. And so, a well-performed activity according to reason (virtuous activity) is not just an ingredient for happiness (as living well), but also happiness itself (as acting well).

III. The Inconsistencies that Result from using a Single Notion of Happiness

Unfortunately, Aristotle fails to explicitly spell out these two notions of happiness [14]. As such, confusion arises especially with regards to his discussion on the life of contemplation, as most people would read it understanding happiness as either living well only or acting well only. In this section, I will show how using only one of the two notions will result in consistencies with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics, when used to interpret a portion of the discussion on contemplation:

Contemplation seems to have self-sufficiency, leisureliness, freedom from labour (as far as humanly possible), and all other activities usually assigned to the happy man. Therefore, man’s perfect happiness will consist in this activity of the intellect, is a long span of life be added (as nothing belonging to happiness should be incomplete). Such a life is higher than the human level; and it is not lived by man according to the human mode but according to something divine in him. [15]

If one were to interpret this passage using the notion of happiness as living well only, the inconsistency arises as it seems that since the life of contemplation is so self-sufficient, there is no need for practical wisdom and the moral virtues, external goods, and even friendship. Such a life is so self-sufficient that a well-lived life of happiness can simply be attained by engaging only in contemplation. This seems to be inconsistent with so many portions of the Nicomachean Ethics, namely the areas that deal with practical wisdom, the moral virtues, external goods, and even friendship. This interpretation, therefore, leaves many protesting that this life of contemplation is a life that “humans cannot live” [16].

Or if one were to interpret this passage using the notion of happiness as acting well only, the inconsistency arises as such a reading seems to suggest that contemplation is the best and most perfect activity of the soul, such that all other activities (especially morally virtuous activities) need not be pursued. If happiness consists of only acting well, then one can be happy simply by engaging in only contemplation. Were this really the case, the earlier books of the Nicomachean Ethics can be forgotten since one does not need to cultivate moral virtues within him.

IV. Clarifications on the Contemplative Life and Contemplative Activity

The problems of inconsistency do not arise if one was aware of the dual notions of happiness employed by Aristotle. In fact, he makes a distinction between the contemplative life and contemplative activity:

For action, many things are required and the more so the greater and nobler the deeds are; but for the activity of the contemplative man, nothing of the kind is needed. In fact, it can be said that external goods are obstacles to contemplation. But the contemplative person, insofar as he is man and lives with others chooses to perform virtuous acts. Hence he will need external goods to live a human life. [17]

In describing contemplation as having “self-sufficiency, leisureliness, freedom from labour, and all other activities usually assigned to the happy man” [18], Aristotle meant to describe contemplative activity as the best activity that any human person can pursue. As mentioned in Section II, virtuous activity is not just an ingredient for happiness (as living well), but also happiness itself (as acting well). Likewise, contemplative activity is not just an ingredient for happiness (as living well), but it is also happiness itself (as acting well). Though the activity of contemplation is central to the contemplative life, the contemplative life does not consist in contemplative activity alone. While contemplation is the best activity, it cannot be the only activity of a human life. Aristotle recognised that it is not possible to live a life which consists solely in contemplation. Anaxagoras and Thales are cited as examples of people who sought to do nothing but engage in contemplation, but they are criticised for their lack of practical wisdom because they did not “seek human goods” [19].

Therefore, the person who wishes to embrace the contemplative life must not only seek to act well by engaging in the highest activity of contemplation, he must not forget the other aspect of happiness, which is the notion of living well. As it was mentioned earlier, happiness (as living well) consists in virtuous activities (contemplation being the best amongst them) and external goods. Since happiness (living well) is an end “altogether perfect in every respect” [20], insofar as the contemplative person is a human being and lives with others [21]; he cannot neglect his biological needs nor neglect his nature as a social animal [22]. As such, he must not be lacking in virtue nor must he be lacking in the external goods necessary for his survival and for the exercise of virtue. The contemplative person will also need friends as “what is desirable for the happy man, he must have, or else he will be in want” [23]. Since happiness is an end perfect in every respect, the contemplative person must not be left in want, or he will not be fully happy.

It has thus been demonstrated that a correct reading of the discussion on contemplation will reveal that there is no inconsistency with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics.

V. Objection and Response

However, one way in which the discussion of contemplation seems to be inconsistent with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics is that contemplation does not seem relevant to morality at all. Many contemporary virtue ethicists “embrace Aristotle’s theory of moral virtue and practical wisdom”, but they do “not judge the theory of contemplation well.” [24] Because of this, contemplation is left out of their moral theories.

Contemplation is an “activity in accordance with theoretical wisdom (sophia)” [25], which involves science (episteme) which is the theoretical knowledge of unchanging demonstrable principles [26]; and rational intuition (nous) which is the knowledge of undemonstrable first principles [27]. Practical wisdom (phronesis), on the other hand, deals with “human goods which we deliberate”, as it considers universals and knows particulars (since action is concerned with particulars) [28]. Matters of morality are particular matters which are dealt with by practical wisdom. As such, it appears that contemplation has nothing to do with matters of morality, and is thus inconsistent with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Nevertheless, Rorty argues that since wisdom is able to contemplate “the unchanging form of what does change” [29], wisdom should be able to contemplate on “humanity and its proper ends” [30] since it is “a pattern of temporal life” which “can be comprehended in one timeless whole” [31], so as to come to a deeper knowledge of “our general ends” which “are the actualisation and exercise of the basic activities that define us.” [32]

Rorty speaks of the prudent man (phronimos) who “knows what to do and how to do it” as he has an “implicit knowledge of human ends” [33]. The prudent man possesses practical wisdom which is able to “grasp the general ends of actions” [34], and therefore “virtue and knowledge are fused” within him [35]. But he “does not necessarily know why his virtues are virtues” [36], since he lacks the theoretical wisdom to understand the purpose and meaning of his actions in the grand scheme of human life.

When Aristotle argued that theoretical wisdom is not applicable to practical matters [37], his intention was to resist its assimilation into practical wisdom, so as to clearly distinguish one from the other. Though theoretical wisdom does not deal with particulars, nor substitute for the development of virtue, it can nonetheless contemplate on “humanity and its proper ends” [38], thereby analysing the ends of human life so as to determine the activities and processes that constitute a well-lived life. Though contemplation does not help to create a “better decision procedure” for the prudent man, it would nonetheless “perfect his knowledge” [39].

Earlier, it was mentioned that the prudent man “knows what to do and how to do it” [40] but not the reasons for it, for he lacks the theoretical wisdom to understand “humanity and its proper ends” [41]. Because of this, he does not understand why he acts virtuously, nor is he aware of how he should order his life, nor be able to fully actualise his potential as a human person for he is unaware of these things. While such a person may indeed be happy (acting well) from the exercise of virtuous activity, he would not be able to achieve the fullness of happiness (in terms of living well), for Aristotle describes happiness (living well) as an end that is “altogether perfect in every respect” [42].

The greatest benefit that contemplation brings is that by contemplating on one’s actualities, the individual comes to realise his formal identity as a human person. This paves the way for the individual to realise his potential as a human person, and to recognise his actions in relation to the larger whole.

It was also mentioned earlier that Aristotle argued that theoretical wisdom is not applicable to practical matters [43] so as to resist its assimilation into practical wisdom. This however, does not mean that theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom cannot communicate with each other. The contemplation of “humanity and its proper ends” [44] provides clarity on the potentialities of a human person that wait to be actualise, and his actions with regards to a larger whole. Such insight into life is able to direct the contemplative man to action, for it allows him to order his life and actions towards that greater end. This way, every virtuous activity is not just a random act of goodness, but is ordered towards a grand scheme of things. Moreover, as contemplation has made clear his ends, the individual is therefore able to deliberate on the means to attain it.

It is here that one finds practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom working together. The principles that have been made clear to theoretical wisdom, through contemplation, are applied by practical wisdom to the daily necessities of life. It is also applied to the overall ordering of one’s life, as one would require practical wisdom in order to deliberate on the means to attain his ends in life, now made clear to him through contemplation.

This is hugely significant for morality, because it gives meaning and order to each and every single moral act. As such, one does not do acts of goodness and avoid acts of evil simply because morality requires it, but one can perform moral actions in a way that is part of a larger “plan”, and which will guide the individual to fully actualise his potentialities as a human person (in addition to the exercise of virtuous activities) in such a way that he may come to live the good life, and not neglect any aspect of his life out of ignorance. Furthermore, because the end of humanity is the same for all people, a person may, as a politician, teacher, or parent, guide others in a way that will enable them to fully actualise their potentialities as human persons, so as to live a rich and meaningful life, rather than merely doing good and avoiding evil without knowing the reasons why.

And so, contemplation is useful to morality for it not only enriches the life of the contemplative person, but it provides him with clearer principles on his end as a human person, which practical wisdom uses for the deliberation of the means for action. Contemplation, therefore, is not inconsistent with the rest of Aristotle’s account of morality in the Nicomachean Ethics, since it provides an enriched account of morality, endowing it with purpose and meaning in the grand scheme of life and of the end of humanity.

VI. Concluding Remarks

Throughout this paper, it has been demonstrated that contemplation does not conflict with the Nicomachean Ethics in any way. The life of contemplation is hailed as the most choiceworthy, excellent life, because it involves the activity of contemplation – the best and highest activity of the human soul – and every other virtuous activity and external goods which a person requires as a human being living with others. It is more excellent than the political life because the contemplative life can incorporate elements of the political life, such as the practice of virtuous activity and external goods, in a far richer way since contemplation helps to provide clarity on humanity and its proper ends, thereby enabling one to attain happiness (both living well and acting well) in a manner that fully actualises one’s potentiality that is in line with his proper end.


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a17-20
[2] Ibid., 1097b20-21
[3] Ibid., 1097a32-35
[4] Ibid., 1177a19-21. The soul can be divided into two parts – the rational part and the irrational part. The rational part is superior to the irrational part is the excellence of the irrational part is to be subordinate to the rational part, i.e. obeying reason. Within the rational part, the two intellectual virtues are theoretical wisdom (sophia) and practical wisdom (phronesis). Theoretical wisdom deals with necessary things that are unchanging, while practical wisdom deals with contingent things. Aristotle concludes that theoretical wisdom is superior and the best. Therefore, the activity of theoretical wisdom, contemplation, is the highest operation of the human person and the best activity of the soul.
[5] Ibid., 1177a27-b1
[6] Ibid., 1177b1-4
[7] Ibid., 1177a21-22
[8] Ibid., 1178a8
[9] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.173
[10] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a19-20
[11] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.173
[12] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a16-17
[13] Cf. Ibid., 1099a30-31
[14] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.173
[15] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1177b22-28
[16] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.197
[17] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1178b1-7. Emphasis mine
[18] Ibid., 1177b22-24
[19] Ibid., 1141b3-7
[20] Ibid., 1101a19-20
[21] Cf. Ibid., 1178b5-6
[22] Aristotle, Politics, 1253a9
[23] Ibid., 1170b17-19
[24] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.219
[25] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a25-26
[26] Cf. Ibid., 1139b18-36
[27] Cf. Ibid., 1140b31-1141a8
[28] Ibid., 1141b14-15
[29] Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p.344
[30] Ibid., p.346
[31] Ibid., p.345
[32] Ibid., p.346
[33] Ibid., p.349
[34] Ibid., p.349
[35] Ibid., p.347
[36] Ibid., p.350
[37] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1140a31-b4
[38] Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p.346
[39] Ibid., p.350
[40] Ibid., p.349
[41] Ibid., p.346
[42] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a19-20
[43] Ibid., 1140a31-b4
[44] Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p.346


Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Mind, New Series 87 (Jul. 1978): pp.343-368

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, in Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, trans. C. J. Litzinger, O.P. (Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1993)

Aristotle, Politics, in Aristotle: Introductory Readings, trans. Terence Irwin and Gail Fine. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996)

Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue. (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp.169-221

A Stronger Interpretation of Nozick’s Experience Machine

This essay was written for an assignment on Normative Ethical Theory. I hope that this paper will be enriching for you as it was for me.

Nozick’s experience machine has been widely understood to show that there are more than just subjective states of affairs that matter to us. However, in this essay, I argue that Nozick was successful in attempting to prove that pleasure is not the only intrinsic good. This can be seen through a closer examination and reflection of the thought experiment, which I shall lay out in the course of this essay.

Imagine an experience machine that could stimulate the brain, thereby providing the user with all the experiences that he could ever want. The machine is so well-designed that the user is unable to distinguish reality from experiences fed from the machine.

There is, however, one condition in choosing to be plugged in – the user must be plugged in for the rest of his life, while his body is left floating in a tank. Nozick assures those concerned about missing out on certain experiences that they can be unplugged every two years so as to choose a new set of experiences.

You do not actually live your own life. The machine “lives” your life for you, and feeds you with experiences as you float in the tank. What you do, who you are, and how you interact with others, are not done by you, but by the machine.
Nozick invites us to reflect on this question: Would you want to be plugged into such a machine for the rest of your life?

One mistake is to imagine one’s self already in it, and then, recognising that one cannot tell the difference between reality and the machine-simulation, conclude that it is alright to spend the rest of one’s life plugged in.

Rather, the focus should be on the process deliberation: Do I want my body to remain floating in a tank for the rest of my life while a machine “lives” my life for me and feeds me with blissful experiences?

If one believes that pleasure is the only good, pleasurable subjective experiences will be enough to satisfy. How real the experiences are, is irrelevant. One should have no qualms in choosing to be plugged in.

If in the process of deliberation, one encounters distress (regardless of whether one has chosen to be plugged in), or if one refuses to be plugged in, Nozick has successfully demonstrated that there are other things that matter apart from just subjective experiences.

Nozick proceeds to highlight three key points as to what else matters: We want (1) to do certain things; (2) to be a certain sort of person; and (3) to actually interact with the real world, with real people.[1]

One could easily conclude that people do not just merely desire to experience something, but to actually satisfy it. Yet, Nozick, unsatisfied with this conclusion, upgrades the experience machine by inviting us to imagine a machine that would “fill lacks suggested for the earlier machine”[2], thereby addressing the three key points.

This new machine will not only feed the user with experiences. It will also actualise (1) what the user wants to do (i.e. the machine will move the user’s body to actualise the works); (2) transform the user to be the somebody whom he wants to be (i.e. he will be programmed with the personality and skills, and maybe even have his body transformed to match whatever he experienced); and (3) to have interaction with actual people outside of the machine (i.e. experiences of talking to someone will be actualised in the real world). In short, the machine will do things such that the physical world corresponds to one’s subjective experiences.

Now, the conditions of reality and of being plugged in to the machine are more or less the same. The only differences between being inside and outside of the machine are: (1) just as how one is possessed by an external entity, the machine will “live” your life for you; and (2) being in the machine will be more pleasurable.

If it is merely the case that people do not desire experiences but to have them satisfied, then plugging in to the machine will be the choice-worthy act. While I may desire to be a pilot, not only do I have experiences that satisfy them, but the machine satisfies my desire by making me into one, and provides many blissful experiences.

And yet, despite what awaits the user, by refusing to be plugged in, one has consciously chosen to sacrifice the satisfaction of desires and the experience of pleasure for the sake of actually being able to live one’s life. One recognises that even if desires are satisfied or pleasures are experienced, they do not matter.

After all, it is not me who is living my life; it is the machine “living” it for me.

This way, Nozick successfully demonstrates how one seeks the good of actually living one’s own life, for its own sake, pursuing it as an intrinsic good.

An objection might be that since the enjoyment of pleasure is worthwhile only if one is actually living his life, the good of living of one’s life is merely instrumental for the pursuit of pleasure. Nozick seems to have failed in proving his point.

The objection raises a valid point, and yet, is not inconsistent with Nozick’s argument. An intrinsic good can also be an instrumental good. Actually living one’s life is indeed instrumental towards the worthwhile enjoyment of pleasure. What Nozick tried to demonstrate with the upgraded experience machine was to put us in a situation where we have to choose between (1) actually living one’s life and (2) letting the machine live one’s life in exchange for the experience pleasure and the satisfaction of desires. If pleasure is the only intrinsic good, we would not mind sacrificing the actual living of our lives for it. However, the refusal to plug in to the machine shows that one would rather give up pleasure for the sake of actually living one’s life, thereby demonstrating that one seeks the living of one’s life in itself, and not instrumentally.

Nozick has therefore successfully shown how pleasure is not the only intrinsic good by bringing to light the point that the actual living of one’s live is desired for its own sake.



[1] Cf. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p.43; John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics, p.38-41

[2] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p.44



Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp.42-45

John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1983), pp.37-42



After submitting this essay, I realised that an easier explanation of the upgraded experience machine can be stated.

What Norzick was trying to get at in upgrading the machine is the equivalent of asking: If you could tell a ghost what experiences you want to have, and later be possessed by it – such that the ghost will be in full control of your entire being as your consciously live it and soak in the pleasurable experiences, thereby actually being who you want to be, doing what you want to do, and interacting with the people whom you want to – would you want to be possessed by such a ghost?

Probably, your answer would be no. If that is the case, you have proven Norzick right by showing that there really is more to life than just pleasure.

The Existence of Evil: A Justification of God’s Goodness

This paper was written for my Philosophy of Religion module in 2010.

In considering the problem of evil, a great difficulty arises. One may argue that God only permits evil for the sake of bringing about a greater good. However, in the face of tremendous evils – such as the terrible death of innocent children or of the masses in a natural disaster, but especially what seems like pointless sufferings, e.g. the death of a fawn in the middle of a forest – such arguments do not satisfy, but casts doubt on the goodness of God. It is argued that a good God would have brought about greater good in a more efficient and less painful manner. And even for the seemingly pointless evil, where suffering is so bad, how could any goodness come out of that? It appears that the very existence of evil seems to be proof in negating the benevolence of God.

In this paper, I argue that the existence of evil – even the seemingly pointless ones – do not negate the benevolence of God, but instead, are justifications of God’s goodness. Due to limited constraints in this paper, an assumption is made that God possesses the three properties of omniscience, omnipotence, and omni-benevolence. The argument shall be demonstrated by defining evil as a non-entity, and that wherever evil may be found, good is always present. Following which, an explanation as to how this world, where evil exists, is the only possible world that God could have created. Lastly, a consideration that all pointless evils have been prevented, and that deep beneath the mask of evil, one can discover the goodness and beauty of God.

Something is said to be evil in two ways: (1) absolutely, for it consists of something being deprived of a particular good required for its perfection, e.g. the massive loss of blood is evil as the creature is deprived of bodily fluids necessary for its own perfection, namely, to continue existing; and (2) in a particular respect for what is not evil as such, but what befalls something because it is deprived of a good required for the perfection of something else rather than for its own perfection, e.g. fire is evil for wood, not absolutely, but rather, for fire to attain its own perfection, wood must be deprived of its perfection by ceasing to exist.[1]

God permits evil, “not because it is evil, but because it is good, absolutely speaking, and evil in a particular respect.”[2] While we may encounter what seems to be evil, absolutely, they are in fact evil in a particular respect. From a deer’s perspective, to be hunted and mauled to death by a lion seems like an evil, absolutely. Yet, for us, who understand the bigger picture of things, i.e. the ecology and the necessity of the food chain, we accept this as part of nature for there is a recognition that the death of the deer is evil in a particular respect, but good, absolutely, for it not only contributes to the perfection of the lion, but also towards the preservation of the entire ecosystem. In like manner, even in the most intense suffering, or even apparently pointless evil, such evils, are evil in a particular respect, but contribute to the perfection of something else. (More to be explained later)

But what exactly is evil? Blindness is not an entity that exists on its own. Rather, the eye (an entity) can be said to have this blindness.[3] Likewise, evil is not an entity but an entity that may be said to have it, since evil is only the privation of a good within that entity.[4] According to St. Augustine, “there cannot be evil except in good.”[5] Evil may be likened to a hole in the wall. Without the wall, there can be no hole. There must be something good for the privation of goodness (evil) to occur, just as how there must be a wall for a hole to be made in the first place. Evil lessens the good that a subject is made of, and of its proper functioning insofar as the perfection is removed, but the subject still remains.[6] Furthermore, “evil can only originate from good”.[7] Herbert McCabe elaborates:

You can’t have badness unless there is some goodness, whereas you can have goodness without any badness. The two are not symmetrical, so to say. I mean that if a washing machine is to be a bad one it must be at least good enough at being a washing machine for us to call it one. If I produce a cup and saucer and complain that is a useless washing machine because it never gets the clothes clean, you will gently correct me and explain that what I have is not a washing machine at all. So even the worst washing machine must be a little good, otherwise it is not even a washing machine and cannot therefore be a bad one.[8]

The good of a wood is in its firmness and strength. This property is the reason why it is used as support beams in construction. Yet, the very same property is the reason for misuse, as the wooden beam may be used to clobber a person and injure him.[9] For such evil to occur, the weapon of injury must be good enough to inflict it, while the person must be “good enough” to acquire the injury. Therefore, the person must be good enough to sustain an injury in order to be injured. Otherwise, the evil of incurring an injury will not happen in the first place. Though this may be odd, it serves to demonstrate an important point:  Whenever there is evil, one may also find good. It is not as if there is some great evil that overwhelms and affects a being. But things have been made good by a benevolent God in such a way that the good of one acts with the good of another in such a way that the good of one being privates goodness from the other. This is what we would call evil.

But surely, if God is all powerful and good, it would be within His power to create a world where evils of any form, like in the above example, would not occur. One could conceive of a world made by God, whereby the same piece of wood, when used for violence would become as soft as a cushion, thereby not injuring anyone. While it may seem like a beautiful place to be in, such a world would mean that wrong actions would not be possible: the exercise of free will is thus not possible. Furthermore, there would be no stability in that world. “Fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any life is possible.”[10] This is not the “best of all possible universes,” but perhaps “the only possible one.”[11]

St. Therese of Lisieux, wrote about the unseen goodness of God:

The father, aware that a dangerous stone lies in his son’s path, is beforehand with the danger and removes it, unseen by anyone. The son, thus tenderly cared for, not knowing of the mishap from which his father’s hand has saved him, naturally will not show him any gratitude, and will love him less than if he had cured him of a grievous wound. But suppose he heard the whole truth, would he not in that case love him still more?[12]

Considering the complexities of nature and of human society, there is already a very high chance of evil occurring just by accidental causes or by the misuse of free will to exercise evil. Yet, many rarely pause to consider just how many evils, trials, and sufferings could have actualised in our very lives, but did not. Just as how a loving parent would remove all harmful obstacles in the path of an infant learning how to walk, but would permit the child to fall as it plays an essential part in the process of learning, so too does a benevolent God remove all harmful and pointless evils from our paths, but allow only certain evils to befall on us for a greater good.

Kindness, according to C.S. Lewis, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, but only that it escapes suffering.[13] Love is more than kindness whereby, while there may be rebukes or even condemnation, as would a parent to a naughty child, there is no contempt, but only a wish to make the child into the sort of human being God wants him to be, according to the superior divine wisdom.[14] By understanding love in this light, the existence of evil, especially as suffering, and the benevolence of God can be reconciled.

Moreover, there is a special relationship between God and Man. Much like military training, or kung-fu training, the trainee allows himself to undergo evils – and sometimes even “pointless evils”, such as having to carry out training/exercises in the harshest of conditions without any seemingly rational reason for it – with the firm trust that these are provided for one’s own perfection. In such cases, the trainer/master puts the trainee through instances of evil, not because it is evil, but because it is good, absolutely, for it aids the trainee to attain the perfection required, despite evil in a particular respect, e.g. exhaustion and pain from the intensive training. Hence, it is through suffering that God seeks to aid Man in attaining his due perfection.

However, there is still one issue left to resolve. In the face of tremendous sufferings or seemingly pointless sufferings, the image of God as a compassionate and loving father evaporates away, leaving behind what seems to be an image of a cruel and wicked tyrant, who delights in the death and torture of many helpless victims. How can one still say that God is all-loving, all-compassionate, all-merciful, and all-good? The problem with having a hole in the wall is that the hole – even if it is just a very small one – draws much attention to itself. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and cannot be easily ignored. In looking at the wall, one cannot help but notice that hole. In the same way, all attention on the wall of goodness is drawn to the hole of evil. And yet, it is essential to remember that without the wall, there cannot be a hole. Without goodness, there can be no evil: no privation of good. Where evil exist, good may be found. Though difficult, one must try to recognise the wall around the hole – the good surrounding the bad. Only in contemplating the goodness that surrounds the evil can one then recognise the benevolence of God, and recognise that such evil occurred not because it is evil, but because it is good, absolutely speaking, but evil in a particular respect.


[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, Q1, A1. p.63
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] St. Augustine, Enchiridion, 11, cited in St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, Q1, A1. p.57
[5] St. Augustine, Enchiridion, 14, cited in St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, Q1, A2. p.73
[6] St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, Q1, A2. p.67
[7] St. Augustine, Enchiridion, 14, cited in St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, Q1, A3. p.85
[8] Herbert McCabe, God Matters, p.30, cited in the Introduction by Brian Davies in St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, pp.24-25
[9] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Chapter 2, p.24
[10] Ibid, p.25
[11] Ibid, p.26
[12] St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of the Soul, p.63
[13] Ibid, Chapter 3, p.37
[14] Ibid.


C.S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain”. (New York: HarperOne, 2001)

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “The Story of the Soul”, translated by Thomas N. Taylor. (New York: Cosimo Inc., 2007)

St. Thomas Aquinas, “De Malo”, translated by Richard Regan. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)

A Study of Chinese Landscape Art – Snow in the Early Spring at Guanshan (關山春雪圖) by Kuo Hsi (郭熙)


Introduction: The Need for Hermeneutics

Let me begin with a true story. When I first went to Australia, a friend (male) who stayed there brought me around Sydney. When we arrived at a shopping mall, he asked, “Would you like to buy some thongs?”

I was shocked!

“Why on earth would I ever want to buy thongs?” I asked.

“Well, don’t you need it when you go to the beach?”

“What’s wrong with you? Why do I need to wear thongs to the beach?! I’m a guy for crying out loud!”

At that point, my friend realised that we both understood the word, “thongs”, very differently.

For most people in Singapore, “thongs” refer to bikinis.

But for the Australians, “thongs” refer to slippers.

Though we belong to the same era, the 21st century, we belong to two different cultures, and we thus have different conceptions and understandings of the same thing.

Hence, the importance of hermeneutics: the art of interpretation.

When it comes to interpretation (of art, literature, a speech, or a movie), it is necessary that we interpret the subject in the right context.

There is a tendency to take it for granted that people of different cultures and eras see the world the same way that we do. The issue of interpretation may not be a major issue in the past because culture back then did not change as rapidly as the culture of today.

As we have learnt from the earlier story, the same word has different meanings in different cultures. And so, what more can we expect if we were to attempt to interpret Chinese landscape art, which is not only from a different culture, but also from a different era?

The way we perceive and understand the various elements may differ. If we are interested in an authentic interpretation, if we are interested in knowing how the Chinese then understood the work of art, we will thus need to (figuratively) re-focus our lenses, so that we may be able to look at it with the same interpretive lens as the Chinese in that culture and era.

Taken out of context, we can still derive an interpretation. But what I hope to do, in addition to providing an interpretation, is to help you to appreciate Chinese landscape art the same way as the artists and lovers of art then, had appreciated it.

Cultural-Historical Points

What do we know about art in the Song (宋) Dynasty?

In that period, Taoist philosophy (not the same as the Taoist religion) greatly influenced art. It was the influence of Taoist philosophy that inspired many artists to paint nature rather than people.

But what is the Tao (道)?

Take a look at this photograph. Is it beautiful?


Now, try to express that beauty in words. Are you able to do so?

In the words of the Chinese poet, T’ao Ch’ien (陶潛), when we are faced with the beauty of nature:

Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.


T’ao Ch’ien (陶潛), Drinking Wine (飲酒)

From the Tao Te Ching (道德經), we are told:

The way that can be spoken of is not The Way. The name that can be named is not The Name.


Lao Tzu (老子), Tao Te Ching (道德經), n.1

And elsewhere:

There was something formless yet complete that existed before heaven and earth, without sound, without substance, dependent on nothing, unchanging, all-pervading, unfailing. One may think of it as the mother of all things under heaven. Its true name I do not know. Tao is the by-name that I give it.


Lao Tzu (老子), Tao Te Ching (道德經), n.25

When we come face to face with nature and its beauty, we experience something wonderful, something mystical. It’s a real experience, and yet, we are not able to properly define it. That is the Tao (道).

And it is this Tao (道) that was central in Chinese painting, especially in the Song (宋) Dynasty, and it affected the creative imagination, the creator and the created, the animate and the inanimate, the human and the non-human. It affected the subject matter and even its interpretation. So much so that in the Song (宋) Dynasty, the aim of the painter was to capture not just the outer appearance of a subject, but its inner essence as well – it’s energy, life, force, and spirit. In short, the painter tries to capture the Tao (道) in his artwork.

But why landscape art?

Back then, it was the view that the good man has a deep need to cultivate his mind, to nourish in himself his original nature in its simplicity. For someone who lives in the world, nature alone permits man to return to that oneness.

For many of us who live in the city, we can identify with that. Every day, we are faced with the non-stop hustle and bustle of activity. To just take a step back and take a stroll in a garden or forest, we find ourselves refreshed, renewed. What do we find when we are having that nice relaxing stroll in the park?

Peace. Serenity. Harmony.

Away from the city, Man finds himself in harmony with nature. No one is the master nor is any one the slave. Both Man and nature meet each other on equal terms. For the Chinese, real communion (oneness) can only exist between equals.

And so, the living representation of a landscape may give the mind the necessary means of escape, and provides one with a chance to commune with nature despite his inability to be there physically.

These principles are true for most painters in the Song (宋) Dynasty. From the writings of Kuo Hsi (郭熙), the painter of the art work we will be looking at today, we can be certain that he subscribes to all these as the foundational elements in his works.


1_202716_1I would like to focus mainly on the role of space and time in this painting. We live in the confines of space and time. Our thoughts are mostly structured in terms of space and time. When we look at art, we look at it in a particular space and in a particular moment in time.

But when it comes to paintings, people often think of space as being two-dimensional, though sometimes creating a feel of it being three-dimensional. And unless an art-work takes on the form of a narrative, the concept of time does not seem to apply.

And yet, in Chinese landscape art, the artist tries to situate the viewer within space and time.

With reference to this particular painting, I would like to show how Chinese landscape art tries to create a sense of traversing a three-dimensional space, while simultaneously embodying the movement of time in a non-narrative still image. After which, I hope to be your guide, and bring you through this beautiful landscape, and at the same time to experience the progression of space and time in a painting like this. I hope that in the process, you may also be able to commune with nature and come face to face with the Tao (道).

Formal Properties

This painting, entitled, “Snow in the Early Spring at Guanshan” (關山春雪圖), is painted on silk, measuring 197.1cm by 51.2cm.

Notice how there is a cliff at the bottom. Kuo Hsi (郭熙) painted it to give the viewer the illusion of standing at the edge of a cliff to admire the scenery before him. Keeping in mind that this painting is about two metres tall, Kuo Hsi (郭熙) invites us, the viewer, to first situate ourselves there and to admire the rest of the painting with him.

Look away and now, look back at the picture again. What is the first thing that captures your attention? It will be the sky. Kuo Hsi (郭熙) cleverly painted it to contrast it from the rest of the snow-covered mountains.

This would be the first thing in which we have been invited to look at and contemplate (默觀 moguan). Its Chinese meaning is very deep. 默 (mo) refers to being silent and still. 觀 (guan) refers to studying, observing, and at the same time, refers to looking with one’s eyes. These two words come together to form a beautiful understanding of contemplation: To contemplate is to be still and silently study and observe the Tao (道).

Let us return to the painting. The darkness of the sky sets the mood for us. On a cloudy day, or even at night, if one were to be by himself in such a setting, one naturally gets a sense of the serenity. There is no else but me, and I am as such, led into a contemplative mood.

Notice how Kuo Hsi (郭熙) first gives us a sense of vastness by darkening the sky, so as to contrast the snow-covered mountains. Had the sky been the same colour as the mountains, the immense ridges would not stand out, nor would we be able to perceive the dark area at the top, and the area of white at the bottom. This creates the impression that what is before us is an immense space of sky and mountains. Despite the thin narrow frame of the artwork, what is before us is a landscape both far and wide.

Having thus admired the sky, we lower our gaze down to the tall mountain peaks that decorate the distant space (backdrop) of the scenery before us.

Notice how these peaks have been painted with smooth brush strokes, with angles that are not so sharp. The tension-free strokes of Kuo Hsi (郭熙), creates a calming effect. In the early Spring, where the snow has not yet melted away, all is but calm. Life has not sprung into its full bloom, and so the activity of nature has not reached its peak.

Let us now lower our gaze just a little. Notice how in the region just above the trees and the peaks (in the distant space), and the region between the trees above the houses and the presiding hill behind it, there is what seems to be a white mist.

This technique is known as “atmospheric perspective”. It is a method Kuo Hsi (郭熙) used to create the illusion of space and distance by depicting objects in progressively lighter tone as they recede into the depths. These areas of mists obscure the top of trees and increase the sense of height by masking the bases of these cliffs. Look very carefully at the painting and you would notice that the bases of the hills are absent. As such, we are left to imagine just how high up in the heavens we are, as we picture ourselves moving around in the landscape.

Let us lower our gaze once more, now focusing on the presiding hill that is crowned with the lush vegetation on its top, and just in front of it at the bottom, a hut, designed rather simplistically. Notice how the simplicity of the hut contrasts with the complexity of the lush vegetation that surrounds it, both around and above. And below the hut, we find a stream of water flowing down a small waterfall, into the murmuring river.

Notice how all these “activity” converges around the hut. Notice how this activity adds life to the still serenity of the entire painting. And notice how the hut contrasts with its surroundings by displaying a kind of stillness. This stillness dissipates the surrounding tension. Even in the midst of the serenity and activity of nature, Man is still quite capable of achieving that contemplative serenity within him. He remains a person unperturbed by his surrounding.

This hut is the only presence of human activity in the painting. This is significant on several levels. Human activity is depicted to draw the viewer to a new awareness of the relationship which one has with nature.

But what is this new awareness of the relationship about?

Just as how we find trees and rocks in nature, the hut is made up of trees and rocks (soil included). Earlier I spoke about how Man seeks communion with nature. Here, we see the hut surrounded by nature and its activity, and yet the hut does not stand out like a sore thumb. Here we see that Man is one with nature. Man complements nature, and is in turn, complemented by nature.

The Symbolic Meaning

So far, I have said very little about space and almost nothing about time. How then do these elements come into play?

As I had mentioned earlier, the purpose of Chinese landscape art is to invite the viewer to roam around freely in the landscape as a way of experiencing and communing with nature.

Let us begin traversing the painting.

As I mentioned earlier, when we first stand before this beautiful work of art, it is as if we are standing at the edge of a cliff, admiring the view before us. We begin our gaze of admiration from the top and move downwards, slowly, admiring every fine detail before us as a lover of nature would.

When our eyes have reached the hut, we re-position ourselves as if we are standing in the hut, peering out of the window to admire the vast scenery before us. Here and now, we are in the heart of nature, communing with nature as the elements converge into the middle space in which the hut occupies.

Eventually, we find a little walkway on the hill, towards the right, inviting us to leave the house and walk through that path. And so we walk. Notice that as you ascend that little hill, your gaze begins to rise higher and higher.

And so, slowly yet steadily, you ascend the path up the hill. And finally, you have reached the top of the presiding hill, on a sort of plateau, surrounded now by the lush greenery around you. And again, you pause to walk around and soak in the atmosphere, to soak in the beautiful scenery that stands before you, of the trees, of the mists separating you from the mountain peaks, and of the snow-covered mountain peaks.

No one else is with you. You are alone, but yet, you are not alone. Nature surrounds you and is your company and friend.

Now, look up. Admire those tall peaks that stand so solemnly as if deep in thought. Join them in their contemplation of nature. Raise your head a little higher now, and admire the rich blue sky. Peer into the heavens and, like a bird, let your gaze and your thoughts sore through the sky.

When you are done, you may now begin your slow descend of the hills and return back to the hut, and eventually back to the world.

Notice how, as I guided you through the landscape, you have experienced a sense of space and time?

Though the art work is still, notice how we have nonetheless moved through space by moving in and out, up and down the various portions of the landscape. Notice how we have also moved through time. Even though the painting is a still image, its individual parts come alive as we move through it, as if we were watching a video documentary of Guanshan Mountains. Or, better still, it is as if we had actually been there, walking in the midst of it, admiring its beautiful scenery, and communing with nature.

If you have tried your best to follow me on that journey, are you left in wonder? Are you amazed at its beauty? If so, are you able to express that beauty and wonder in words? Or does it fail you?

If words are not sufficient to express what you have experienced, you have come face to face with the Tao (道).


Fung Yu-Lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York: Free Press, 1948), pp.16-29

George Rowley, Principles of Chinese Painting (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1959), 2nd ed, pp.3-22

James Cahill, Chinese Painting (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), pp.2-63

Nicole Vandier-Nicolas, Chinese Painting: An Expression of a Civilisation (New York: Rizzoli, 1983), Translated by Janet Seligman, pp.99-108.

“宋郭熙关山春雪图”, 百度百科, accessed 7 September 2010, http://baike.baidu.com/view/621756.htm