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Mencius on the Mind: Experiments in Multiple Definition

This text prompts three directions of inquiry – first as a comparative study of Mencius’s conception of mind or psychology; second as an examination of either the perspective of Richards, his rhetorical methods for articulating the ideas in this work, or both; and third as a proposition for a comparative methodology.



For Mencius, human psychology is innately, primarily, or naturally “good” though the influences of society can corrupt that goodness. Comparing the four basic virtues to “sprouts,” he sites reverence, shame, empathy/commiseration, and “the mind of right and wrong” as the beginnings of wisdom that may be cultivated into a state of sagehood in some people (20). The main argument of Mencius is that “the mind which cannot endure the suffering of others” is that with which it is easiest to rule the world, if Rule and Mind be combined as a form of governance (19). Though the term “heart-mind” is not used in this interpretation of this text, it is later noted that “there is no officially recognized war in the Chinese mind between the Soul and the Body, between will and desire,” thus in the view of Mencius, to live in harmony with one’s true nature would be to effortlessly and naturally practice the principles of compassion (74-5). Additionally, this “Righteousness” is “definitely social” in nature, complying with or fitting into already established mores and values within his society (21).

Mencius also attempts to describe nondiscursive states, or unmoving mind, cautioning his disciple to not attempt to put into words that which is either not ready to be formulated verbally or cannot be (32-3). This attention to the non-verbal or inarticulatable actions of the mind reach toward or point to a psychology that is beyond the framework of psychology that is extant (still) in Western traditions, and yet is dealt with frequently in the texts we have read that originate from within non-Hellenistic epistemologies.

Richards’s positionality within or to the work under analysis is somewhat problematic, as it is neither described explicitly nor articulated. In a comparison to both Western psychology and philosophy, Richards discusses how very different this stance and presentation appear, so much so that he at times seems apologetic for, or judgmental of, the different type of logic presented by Mencius. It is difficult to ascertain if this is/was his actual view of these ideas, or if he, so aware of rhetorical techniques and the expectations of his audience, purposefully frames or speaks in these ways in order to persuade the intended readers (Western academics) through his comparative text. At times, his exposition takes on a decidedly Western-centric bent, attempting to compare Mencius to Plato or Aristotle (45), wondering why it does not occur to Chinese commentators to “further” their inquiry with analytic logic (47), deeming analogy as a less sophisticated form of argument (47), equating “modern” and “Western” as synonymous (48, 57), labeling explanatory schemas “fictional” (64), calling an interconnected worldview a “magical frame” that “we must stretch our modern seriousness to grasp” (76-8), and offering “proof that our cultural sources are more varied and that our psychology attempts therefore to describe a larger range of the mind’s possibilities” (80). All of these stances either arise from a very Western-centric worldview or are directed toward an audience that purportedly holds that worldview – it is difficult for me, as a reader many years after this book was published, to discern the reasons for these assumptions.

At the same time, Richards does appear to take on an etic/emig (to use Mao’s terminology) approach to studying this text and may be attempting to walk his audience through a very different way of approaching psychology, mind, and human nature. He states that “it will plainly be best to start from the passage which seems nearest to the forms of discourse familiar to us in Western meaning,” which implies that he is aware of, and includes himself in, his audience’s perspective (44). Because of this stated awareness of what is familiar to his audience, I feel willing to give him a more charitable reading when it comes to his apparently Western-based biases. Additionally, from his other work, I am aware that he was often trying to debunk or argue against the empiricists (Locke, Bacon, Hume, etc.) and believed that language shaped knowledge, rather than language being an unproblematic tool with which to transparently expound upon experiential knowledge. Because of his other work and stated stances on rhetorical practices where “Rhetoric… should be a study of misunderstanding and its remedies,” I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as it pertains to his, at times, apparently Western-centric biases. Largely, I choose to interpret it, along with his stated modesty and nods towards his own inadequacy as a researcher, as carefully designed rhetorical moves that work to lead his audience from a place of familiarity toward a stance of curiosity and openness to new ideas without having to confront their own egoic or cultural shortcomings.

In this work, Richards both enacts a methodology and suggests one for future use in comparative work. What is interesting is that he first shows this methodology in action as he applies it to the work of Mencius, specifically in the areas where Mencius discusses the nature of mind. Then, after carefully giving multiple definitions and discussing the issues in translation, Richards offers “A Technique for Comparative Studies,” which he labels a method or habit of “Multiple Definition” (86-131). What is interesting to note is that he has already in this work discussed the propensity of Western thinkers to value the abstract over the concrete, whereas Mencius uses the concrete in all of his examples. Richards, likewise, begins from the concrete by showing how the method of multiple definitions works as applied to a non-Western text before discussing the abstract system that he has already used.

This approach of multiple definition is very reminiscent of other more current theorists in the field that we have read, and I wonder how much of these contemporary ideas owe their foundations, at least in some part, to Richards. For instance, Richards, in asking whether we “can maintain two systems of thinking in our minds without reciprocal infection and yet in some way mediate between them,” offers the idea of a “third system of thought” as a possible way of negotiating the difficulties in cross-cultural comparative analysis, which reminded me of Mao’s tertium quid. Richards also discusses how a method of multiple definitions, which offers both the “senses and the gestures of a word,” leads to “vaguer senses…. cloudy senses out of which reflective analysis may crystallize (99, 102). This is reminiscent of the idea of “productive vagueness” advocated by Hall and Ames that seeks to expand understanding, not through deciding once and for all what a word or concept “means,” but rather to allow for the constellations of meaning to coalesce, providing at once more, and yet more unstable, conceptualizations. Though Richards discusses some of the challenges with this method, he also notes that “there is at least a chance that a persistent study of the general forms of ambiguity…might give us a greatly increased control over our thinking and provide – in an expanded ‘logic’ – the general technique that we need” (129-30). Like Hall and Ames, Richards does not believe that a reductive approach to language and meaning will serve the purpose of comparative analysis, and though some may balk at the idea of this type of approach, Richards shows how, even with

Interpretative Triangle

Interpretative Triangle

familiar words (e.g. Truth, Beauty, Order, etc.) meaning is difficult to pin down. He calls, instead, for a “word-consciousness” that takes the ambiguity in language into account, works with it, and uses it to expand, rather than solidify, meaning. This approach, consistent with is idea of the relationship between thought, symbol, and referent as a way that language and usage combine to create meaning, offers a beginning for comparative work from more than eighty years ago, much of which remains relevant methodologically today.

Work Cited:

Richards, I.A. Mencius on the Mind: Experiments in Multiple Definitions. London: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1932. Print.


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