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Finding the Sociobasis

At the end of Book 16 of the Analects of Confucius, a passage describes how a lord’s wife refers to herself, how she is to be referred to by her subjects, and by subjects abroad.[1] Due to its direct and ritual-focussed nature, apparently many commentators have taken this section as a later addition, taken from some ritual text and added to the end of Book 16. Yet the annotations in my copy point out that this analect is both present in early versions, and that it was taken as authentic by Han commentators. It is suggested that Confucius added this as a corrective to what he saw as the deterioration of ritual etiquette.

This struck me as interesting- to dedicate so much to the issue of how to utter the title of a noble, particularly from a modern mindset, seems unnecessary, and far too obsessed with manners and elitism. But perhaps, on closer reading, there is more to the purpose of this passage that can be excavated.

The non-sequitur taken by Confucius to correct this issue reminded me of the way I see the difference between my father and my grandfather. While my grandfather, with his stories of his time in the military and as a working man saw the solution to social ills as education and the measured execution of responsibility, for my father society is structured through action, revolution and legislation. They agreed on many different things, but growing up I consistently noticed how for my father politics and society were judged by built up power and the actions taken with it, whereas for my grandfather the first step was maintaining a solid foundation, upon which better social order could be built by people acting righteously and keeping others in check.

Thinking back on this difference made me consider what Confucius’ understanding of social change and maintenance was. That is- what is the mechanism by which conscious planning, morality and/or intention is translated into social reality? For Confucius, it is ritual and tradition. That is- that there is a certain proper and consistent way in which social relations must be conducted, and in striving to match these individuals create a peaceful and harmonious environment. Where Confucius draws the content of these rituals and traditions from is less relevant to me than the form of this way of thinking: that the continuous structuring of society is achieved through the equation of the imperative with the ritual. That is, that by convincing people of the necessity of trained, restrained, intentional and pre-coordinated action, one is able to structure society according to how it is fit to do so (whether or not those doing the structuring can explicitly state what ills are addressed through this method, and how).

Confucian emphasis on ritual, then, is what founds our understanding of action within the realm of social morality and governance. Before we talk about what structures, behaviours, obligations, identities etc. are relevant to a given society, we must at first understand what the realisation of these is. If we are to talk about equal income, we are presupposing a monetary economy with a means of compensation for work directed in some way. Similarly, if we talk about how a revolution is needed to create the necessary change in a system, we are already understanding social change and structuring as the collective issue of individuals with common interests and experiences. The issue of society is, this suggests, the satisfaction of relevant interests through the persuasion, forceful or otherwise, by the holders of these interests of other individuals and/or groups needed for their satisfaction, either negatively (the removal of an obstacle) or positively (the recruitment of labour and expertise).

This can, perhaps, be called the issue of sociobasis: what the basic mechanisms of social change and maintenance, as well as the interface between intentional action and social structure, are. An example is argument. Argumentation is oftentimes unintentionally taken as a sociobasis; that is, it is often thought that a convincing enough or well thought out enough idea, with some charismatic communication, is what drives social change and is the basis on which society is shaped. It being the most conducive to the artform, film and television push this understanding of society and politics- shows like The Newsroom and The West Wing are great examples. These depict fast-talking experts running rhetorical circles around their dishonest opponents, or giving impressive and heartfelt speeches, all as the main part of their jobs as politicians, the supposed administrators of government and through that the shapers of society. A different tack is celebrity- the “example” of high-exposure individuals, whether this is through “problematic” scripts in TV shows, or the fact of a visible office being filled by a person of one identity or another, are taken as both signs and drivers of change by many active on social media.

Confucius, as another example, takes tradition to be the sociobasis. For him, it is not the visibility of famous individuals, the persuasive appeals of a leader, or the interpretation of actions in public that matters as much as it is the consistency of action with a considerate set of norms and rules. Other modes of social influence exist, but these are chaotic and non-structuring. They may promote certain of the individual’s interests, but even this is to their and society’s ultimate detriment. The way that intention is fed into order is through repeated and ritualistic behaviour, which then brings forth the necessity for an individual hoping to positively influence society: the study of tradition and the training of the will. Flexibility, conniving, popularity, wealth, signs of success, confidence, a broad base of support- these are not the focus of a philosophy with ritual as its sociobasis.

What is valuable about the delineation of this concept is that it allows us to look at our actions and pursuits, and link them up with our social aspirations. The neglect of the sociobasis can both make views that differ on this point unintelligible to one another, and leave those adopting the conclusions without adopting the sociobasis feel powerless to realise the oughts they recognise must be enacted. In other words, the sociobasis sets the rules on how we are social agents with influence; recognition of the sociobasis is the only way to adding intentionality to our influence, at least as seen from the perspective of the philosophy holding the aforementioned sociobasis.

What this means is that the correct identification of the sociobasis is key to intentional participation in the structuring and/or maintenance of society. Understanding how actions and intentions of individuals filter into institutions, movements, structures- the general issues of society that are worth worrying about- is how we can move our ideas of how the world should be into ideas of how we should get there.

[1] Confucius, Analects, trans. Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003), 198.


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