The understanding of human nature (renxing 人性) in the Korean philosophical narrative has its background in and has evolved from the classical Chinese debate on this most fundamental theme. We must go back to this beginning in the Mencius in order to appreciate what is persistent and what is distinctive about this idea as it has been revisioned by Korean philosophers. In spite of Mencius’s rejection of tautological naturalism in 6A3—that is, humans are good because they are good—it is just such an impoverished reading of Mencius—xing is an unlearned given that makes us good—that not only persists but in fact prevails among commentators even today. Xingshan 性善 is a claim that in the contemporary interpretive literature on Mencius—both Western and Chinese alike—has almost ubiquitously been understood as “human nature is good.” Indeed, the uncritical assumption is that for Mencius xing references a universal, inborn, fixed, self-sufficient endowment that is defining of all human beings and that programs us naturally as human beings to be good in what we do. In this essay, I want to celebrate the attempt by our teacher, colleague, and friend, Angus Graham, to save Mencius from the familiar essentialist misreadings of xing—both the discovery and the developmental models—by pointing the commentarial tradition in the direction of a third position. Graham offers us what we would call a “narrative” understanding of xing in which person and world evolve together in a dynamic, contrapuntal relationship. The identities of persons are certainly grounded in the native beginnings of family, community, and environing relationships that need to be both nurtured and protected from loss or injury, but such identities only emerge in the process of these relationships achieving thick resolution as they are cultivated, grown, and consummated over their lifetimes. Their potential far from being a given, in fact emerges contrapuntally in the always transactional events that in sum constitute lives lived in the world.
SETTING THE PROBLEM
THE PERFECT STORM
SANDEL’S CHALLENGE : THEORIZING THE INTRASUBJECTIVE PERSON
A PRELUDE : A CONFUCIAN CONCEPTION OF HUMAN CULTURE
A CONFUCIAN CONCEPTION OF HUMAN NATURE
THE CONFUCIAN “INTRASUBJECTIVE” PERSON