An Interview with Dr. Richard Kim
Dr. Richard Kim is an assistant professor in the Philosophy department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on the nature of well-being and draws from East Asian and Ancient philosophy to address contemporary problems in ethics and moral psychology. Currently Dr. Kim is writing a book entitled Confucianism and the Philosophy of Well-Being, which examines Mencius, Xunxi and Confucius’ theories of well-being and their relationship to human flourishing. This semester, Dr. Kim is teaching Culture and Civilization: Classical Chinese Philosophy, a course which introduces students to Confucian, Daoist, and Mohist ideas regarding how to live well, what virtues are necessary for happiness, and how society ought to be organized. The following is the first interview in a series conducted by Ciaran Rhys, Ph.D. student in the Philosophy department.
Ciaran Rhys: Let’s begin with perhaps the most challenging and abstract question to answer: what do you believe the nature of philosophy is? What is philosophy’s value or purpose in your view?
Richard Kim: First of all thank you so much for this invitation!
There are various legitimate answers available, but I still like the classical way of thinking about philosophy as the love of wisdom. As I understand it, wisdom consists not only in the achievement of disparate facts, but an integrated understanding of the world, ourselves, and how we should live. Wisdom, in this sense, includes both the theoretical and practical: it requires an accurate grasp of reality and both the power and desire to do what is good.
CR: In your experience, what philosophical ideas or concepts are most important to teach? Why?
RK: Two philosophical concepts that I have found important in teaching, although for very different reasons, are logic and the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia (human flourishing). With logic, the students can appreciate the idea that there are standards for good and bad reasoning, which I think is incredibly important. With the notion of eudaimonia I think (or hope!) the students start to reflect on the kind of life they want to achieve and the various ends around which they want to organize their life. I think many students, quite understandably at their age, don’t really have a good sense of the sort of life they are after. Reflections on eudaimonia and their life as a whole can have practical value in providing them with some sense of purpose, which allows them to make reflective choices about their lives.
CR: This spring of 2019, I see that you are teaching Classical Chinese Philosophy at Loyola. What is the value of non-Western or cross-cultural approaches to philosophy?
RK: Since philosophy seeks answers on fundamental questions human beings tend to ask, it seems reasonable to believe that those questions were asked across different cultures and societies throughout history. The wisest minds across every culture and society have pondered over questions about how we should live and how we should organize society, as well as questions regarding what we owe to our parents, friends, and community. Since cultures and traditions vary widely, we ought to expect a variety of differing answers to such philosophical questions, which is exactly what we find when we turn to the study of non-Western philosophy. When we reflect on the philosophical traditions that arose in early China for example, we discover a range of competing philosophical schools (Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism) that offered different conceptions of human well-being and how best to organize society. And within these moral traditions we find distinct concepts and ideas that are not readily discussed in contemporary non-Western philosophy such as ritual practice (li), filiality (xiao), or effortless action (wu-wei). The study of non-Western philosophy not only helps us appreciate the serious reflections that have been going on in other cultures and societies for over two millennia, but also enriches our own contemporary discourse by offering stimulating possibilities that can move philosophical discussions forward.
Another clear benefit of studying non-Western cultures and traditions is that it can help us realize that the views of many in the academic world, sometimes called “WEIRD” values (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) is not and certainly has not been, the dominant set of values throughout the history of human civilization. This realization can help us reflect on values that we sometimes simply assume to be good because they seem so obviously good to us, even if they do not appear that way to others. Challenging our own assumptions and biases is and should always be a key part of doing philosophy and in this regard the study of non-Western philosophical traditions provides us with an indispensable resource.
CR: What articles and books have most influenced your philosophical work? Could you tell us a bit about the significance of each one?
RK: This is such a hard question because I have been deeply influenced by a variety of philosophical traditions over time and across cultures. Within the ancient Greek tradition it was Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which helped me appreciate the importance of the virtues, wisdom, and organizing one’s life as a whole. Along with the primary text, I owe much to the pioneering work of a number of terrific ancient Greek philosophers such as Julia Annas (The Morality of Happiness), Martha Nussbaum (The Therapy of Desire and “The Non-Relative Virtues”), and Sarah Broadie (Ethics with Aristotle), and Jonathan Lear (The Desire to Understand). These works helped me to appreciate the philosophical relevance of Aristotle. During my years as an undergraduate, my teachers Calvin Normore and Gavin Lawrence both helped me to appreciate the importance of St. Thomas Aquinas’s work on the virtues and his commentaries on Aristotle. Out of contemporary modern philosophers, the work of Philippa Foot (see her collection, Virtues and Vices) was very important for appreciating the need to frame ethical questions within a particular background and context. The works of Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue and Dependent Rational Animals) and Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self and the Ethics of Authenticity) were also rich sources of philosophical thought for me, especially during my years as a graduate student at Notre Dame. During my years in Hong Kong as a postdoctoral fellow, Philip Ivanhoe (an incredible mentor and scholar) taught me the importance and value of the Confucian moral tradition and important classical Chinese texts such as the Analects, Mengzi, and Xunzi. Sungmoon Kim, who is in my view the very best comparative political philosopher today introduced me to some key debates in Korean neo-Confucianism such as the “Four-Seven Debate” and the “Horak Debate” as well as the fascinating world of comparative political theory (see his outstanding book, Confucian Democracy in East Asia). Also, while in Hong Kong I met the great Owen Flanagan who really got me on the interdisciplinary trajectory and helped me to see how exciting philosophy can be when it’s integrated with disciplines like psychology and cognitive science. Flanagan’s Varieties of Moral Personality should be read by anybody interested in interdisciplinary work on moral psychology and ethics. Most recently my attention has been focused on philosophical issues about well-being and here Daniel Haybron’s book, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, has been deeply influential. Haybron’s book (like Flanagan’s) is also a model of interdisciplinary study, drawing on film, literature, and psychology to enrich philosophical ideas in rigorous and interesting ways.
CR: The ideas of wei and wu-wei are particularly important in Ancient Chinese thought. Simply put, wei is often translated as “conscious activity” and is important for philosophers in the Confucian tradition such as Xunzi. Wu-wei, on the other hand, is often translated as “unconscious skillfulness” and is important for philosophers in the Daoist tradition such as Zhuangzi. What do you think the role of wei (conscious activity) is in helping human beings live well? What role does wu-wei (unconscious skillfulness) play in human flourishing?
RK: Excellent question. Wei (偽), often translated as “conscious” or “deliberate” activity, marks out a special feature of human agency and the way that human beings are purposive, creatures who can intentionally act for ends. Xunzi, perhaps better than any other classical Chinese philosopher, keenly observed the human power to act purposively and to deliberately change ourselves and our environment. For Xunzi, morality takes an “outside-in” direction—it is through the values of culture and education implanted in us through constant ritual practice that we become good. For Xunzi we might be best described as cultural animals. Because Xunzi believed our nature tended toward badness and disorder, it was only through such external influences and conscious, deliberate actions that we could transform ourselves and become cultivated. So through the notion of wei, Xunzi highlights two important features of a good human life: the need to give moral shape to our lives through deliberate practice and the need to develop our culture and society (which can only be developed through deliberate engagement) in ways that are conducive to living ethically.
The concept of wu-wei (無為), often translated as “non-action” or “effortless action” as discussed by Daoist thinkers is a powerful idea that is interconnected with a variety of other central Daoist concepts such as ziran (自然 “naturalness”). Since human flourishing requires us to confront and deal with the inevitable challenges that we all must confront, we have to find ways of figuring out how to address them in healthy ways. In class I draw on the notion of wu-wei to discuss how we can effectively maneuver through life by adapting to our environment and reconfiguring our minds so that we can live with balance and harmony. One aspect of wu-wei is finding creative ways of meeting obstacles and challenges: instead of heading straight into a challenge with guns blazing, wu-wei suggests finding a less aggressive, tactful way of addressing the challenge, perhaps a way to work around a problem. I call this last methodology the “indirect approach” which is often a more effective strategy than a direct, heads-on approach. The attitude that is encapsulated in the notion of wu-wei helps us to learn how to step back from problems and find ways of addressing them in ways that require the least amount of force. By embodying the attitude of wu-wei one carries forward with passion and focus in a natural and unimpeded way, thereby achieving a flourishing human life.
CR: Your article “Human Nature and Moral Sprouts: Mencius on the Pollyanna Problem” develops Mencius or Mengzi’s account of human nature as oriented toward the good to provide support for Aristotelian naturalism. More specifically, you argue that Mencius’ attentiveness to the impact a person’s environment has on their capacity for virtuous living can help redeem naturalistic accounts of ethics from the objection that empirical evidence shows us that immoral or vicious acts help people thrive in some circumstances.
This is a somewhat speculative, but hopefully related question: what inclinations in U.S. culture today are most in need of normative reconfiguring in your view? Conversely, what does our culture succeed at, and how does it help each person develop their potential for goodness?
RK: This is a challenging question because I’m not entirely sure what the general inclinations are in U.S. culture, in part because U.S. culture is so complex and diverse. My parents are Korean immigrants who came to the U.S. in their 30s, and so I grew up in a Korean-speaking household, imbibing various strands of Korean, Confucian, and Catholic culture. Most people I’ve known also have this kind of mixed cultural heritage. So there is probably just an incredibly diverse range of inclinations and values in the U.S. that have developed out of a broad range of social, ethical, and religious backgrounds.
One idea we find in classical Chinese thought are the notions of yin and yang and the way that seemingly oppositional forces are both complementary and necessary to achieve a certain kind of balance and harmony in the world. While we all tend toward a particular kind of social-political, or ethical view, perhaps it would be more helpful in our current political climate to step back and see how different viewpoints, even those we see as deeply misguided, might have some deeply rooted, “core” value that is actually getting at something basically worthwhile and good. Such a perspective can help us to see things from a more holistic, less dualistic point of view. So perhaps one negative trend I have noticed over the years is the inclination to demonize oppositional views. I have found that we all too often mischaracterize the views of others, leading to unproductive discourse.
But despite the point I just made, one aspect of U.S. culture that I think is valuable is its openness to a diversity of viewpoints. I know that some will disagree here (and from different directions), but there is much more receptivity to different ideas and views in the U.S. than in many parts of the world. Of course, there are deep disagreements that are an inevitable feature of U.S. society, but there is a world of difference between disagreeing with someone and working to silence them. Just think about other parts of the world and the kind of oppressive force the government exerts on the people on a day-to-day basis. I think this openness to different ideas and thoughts is an important and positive feature of U.S. society.