Li as cultural grammar: On the relation between li and ren in Confucius' Analects

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Philosophy and Religious Studies

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A major controversy in the study of the Analects has been over the relation between the two central concepts of li 禮 (rites, rituals of propriety) and ren 仁 (humanity, human excellence). Confucius seems to have said inconsistent things about this relation. Some passages appear to suggest that ren is more fundamental than li, while others seem to imply the contrary, and it is therefore not surprising that there have been different interpretations and characterizations. In this essay I will present an interpretation that I believe best characterizes the relation between li and ren. Using the analogy of language grammar and mastery of a language, I propose that we should understand li as a cultural grammar and ren as the mastery of a culture. In this account, society cultivates its members through li toward the goal of ren, and persons of ren manifest their human excellence through the practice of li.


This article was originally published in Philosophy East and West. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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Philosophy East and West


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