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Friday, November 01, 2013

the morality of splashing water

When I was toiling away, learning philosophy back in Grad school, I pretty much focused on Western philosophy. That’s a vast amount of material there, bucko, and I figured that if – by the time I was doddering on the lip of the grave – I understood some of it, that would be enough of an achievement. 

But such projects belong to the long ago of academia. Since the, I’ve become a pirate intellectual – or, less boldly, a dilettante eclectist – or perhaps even less boldly, an an anonymous reader between the lines – I’ve come to operate under the proud slogan: fuck the context, show me the beef. Or something like that. 

Which brings me to Mencius’ marvelous question, which is quoted in Yi-Fu Tuan’s Dominance and Affection: the making of pets: “Mencisu asked, “Is it right to force water to leap up?” He was taking the position that human nature is inclined to act in certain ways and not others, using the movement of water as an analogy. “Water,” he said, “will flow indifferently to east or west, but it will not flow indifferently up and down.” Now of course, he added, “by striking water you can make it leap up over your forehead and by damming and leading it you may force it up a hill, but do such movements accord with the nature of water?”

It is one index of the fundamental disposition of modernity, over the last three hundred years, that this question simply has no discursive space in which it can be uttered. The discovery of the nature of water is a project we can all recognize, as part of science. But the idea of respecting the nature of water thus discovered forms no part of the world of ideas and actions we inhabit.
Water, I should say, has other ideas and tends, when forced to traverse deserts to grow crops, to leach up noxious metals, and when acidified, to kill fish and encourage jellyfish. But we don’t think of this as water thinking, or asserting its rights.
For us,  Mencius’ question is simply weird. We have so little sense that there might be a nature to be respected, there, that we can only view the question as an analogy for the one nature we do respect, human nature, as Yi-Fu Tuan says. Although – context alert -  the Sayings of Mencius make it clear that even Mencius considered his question a little weird and quickly analogized it to human nature. Rember, it was the Chinese invented the prototype of industrial power. 

Here’s the entire quote:

Kao Tzu said, ‘Human nature is like whirling water. Give it an outlet in the east and it will flow east; give it an outlet in the west and it will flow west. Human nature does not show any preference for either good or bad just as water does not show any preference for either east or west.’

‘It certainly is the case,’ said Mencius, ‘that water does not show any preference for wither east or west, but does it show the same indifference to high and low? Human nature is good just as water seeks low ground. There is no man who is not good; there is no water that does not flow downwards.

‘Now in the case of water, by splashing it one can make it shoot up higher than one’s forehead, and by forcing it one can make it stay on a hill. How can that be the nature of water? It is the circumstances being what they are. That man can be made bad shows that his nature is no different from that of water in this respect.’

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