Lost things: a Daoist friend for Locke

The wonderful Department of Deviance has recently founded a DEPARTMENT OF LOST THINGS. Here’s the idea:

Philosophy, it seems to us, has contingent swerves, not unlike Lucretian atomic movement. A seemingly simple swerve in how a question is framed or in what question gets taken up or by whom, and the philosophical trajectory takes one shape rather than another. What sometimes fills our idle moments in the DoD is wondering how things might have shaped up if a swerve had gone some different way. And we get a touch of the wistful melancholy realizing we’ll likely never know. Some things are just lost.

So far there are two lost things: pregnant Roman women’s thoughts about death and Moral Motivation.

I love this idea, so here is another swerve that philosophy didn’t take.

The vast modern literature on moral personhood kicks off with Locke:

‘…we must consider what person stands for;—which, I think, is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive. When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so. Thus it is always as to our present sensations and perceptions: and by this every one is to himself that which he calls self’

– An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk II, Ch XXVII

If, instead of Michael Shen Fu-Tsung, some wandering Daoist had been Locke’s contemporary, and the two had somehow fallen into conversation, then would familiarity with the Daodejing –

Therefore the sage: puts himself in the background yet finds himself in the foreground; puts self-concern out of mind yet finds self-concern is preserved. Is it not because he has no self-interest that he is therefore able to realise his self-interest?

-7, (Henricks tranlation)

– have caused Locke to question his easy conflation of self and self-perception? Would that have derailed the swerve of Western ethics into framing moral personhood as primarily about psychology (contrast: Africa)?


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