Writing a blog post about a YouTube video should strike you as an odd choice. Isn’t this what callout or ‘response’ videos are for? I’ve even chosen an appropriately clickbait-y title! Look! I’ve hooked you, at least. But making a YouTube video and a whole YouTube channel about philosophy should strike you as even more strange. Isn’t philosophy too self-serious and academic to set foot on YouTube? Isn’t it dirtying itself by kicking around down here with the philistines? Oliver Thorn, the actor responsible for Philosophy Tube, would undoubtably say no. Thorn has been at this for 7 years. He’s been making YouTube videos through several vast changes in the culture of the internet. He has gone from hanging out in front of a bookcase chatting about Descartes to riding horseback while discussing the British monarchy and performing Platonic dialogues dealing with the politics of climate change. Costumes, makeup, and lavish sets all lend Thorn’s work polish and a district charm. Somehow, he takes the thought he engages with very seriously, but with a dash of good-humor. Though so much has changed, it’s clear the one thing has stayed the same. Thorn still believes in the value of philosophy to everyone. He would not have invested so much time and energy into this project if he did not.
The point I want to advance about Philosophy Tube’s Confucius video is very simple, and I will try not to overshoot my target. I will not, for example, bring up how understanding Confucianism without Mengzi, who developed and spread his forebear’s thought, is to miss an important historical step. And I won’t try to give my own, inevitably shallow and misguided, explanation of Confucian thought. But where was I? Oliver Thorn cannot understand Confucius on his own terms. Only on the ground of Western philosophy can Thorn approach the Master. The video argues, in essence, that Confucius was a sort of liberal. Thorn likens Confucius’ concern for the maintenance of rituals and traditions to the liberal obsession with decorum, due process, and civil standards of discourse. Never mind that Confucius lived in a feudal society and would have been perplexed by the thought of liberalism’s inventors. Thorn is viciously aware of how occidental intellectuals have dismissed all streams of Chinese thought by distancing them from the Enlightenment, yet he performs the same banishment in reverse by bringing Confucius as close to the Enlightenment as possible. The end result is the shrugging off of a rich tradition. It’s a sad thing to see, especially from someone who is so committed to seeing the value of philosophy.
Honestly, digesting Confucius is difficult, but I think trying to untangle just how one can start to understand him shows us how all philosophy might be helped to climb down from its ivory tower. I was lucky enough to have a good instructor and a good text book (Sources of Chinese Tradition edited by De Bary and Bloom is sitting under my laptop as I write this), but the marginalization of Chinese philosophy in the Western academy means that most attempts to make Confucius legible to an audience unfamiliar with him usually fail. Tangentially, Thorn gets some things right. He points out, correctly, that the Master sees ethics and politics as the same thing. So, Confucius is not totally incomprehensible, but there is a level of understanding that is unattainable. The first step forward, I think, would be to realize that Confucius is not a philosopher.
My favorite of The Master’s analects is 5:19: “Ji Wenzi thought three times before acting. The Master heard of it and said, “Twice is Enough.’” The Ji in question was a minister who preceded Confucius but his practice of thinking is not appreciated by The Master. We see here a suspicion of thought in the thought of Confucius. Though he is skeptical, there is no complete rejection. Rather, Confucius cautions against over thinking. What, pray tell, is philosophy but over thinking? In a similar vein, one of the refrains of The Analects is that to become a humane person, one need only to reflect on themselves everyday and have a Master to guide them. The point is not that a student of Confucianism is to read saying after saying until they comprehend each one, but that they should actually go out and try to lead a good life. And that is only possible by developing a relationship with yourself and with a teacher. In contrast to Plato, who sees being just (and thus all those other tricky words: ethical, moral, right) as primarily a question of knowledge, Confucius believes being just is a process of striving towards just personhood. Where Plato believes knowing the good allows you to do good, Confucius sketches out a program for developing one’s capacity to act ethically.
My final point is that this very specific word, philosophy, refers to a tradition which Confucius does not take part in. In the 9th century Dar al-Islam, thinkers enamored with Aristotle called themselves falāsifa to denote that they were inheritors of the Greek philosophical tradition. The Master knows no such line of descent. To understand where Confucius in coming from and what he does requires that we detach philosophy from him, both as an activity descended from ancient Greece and as a broad category signifying detailed, exacting thinking.
If you made me choose, I’d say that the Data video is my favorite piece of Thorn’s work. It’s about a man arguing with a nightclub bouncer about having his ID scanned. It emulates the dialogue trees you find in video games, showing multiple responses (some comic, some sincere) to questions and comments. The video is aware of the philosophical concerns which lie behind a scene that’s as casual as a Friday night out and further aware of the improbability of engaging a bouncer in philosophical debate. Still, without naming any big thinkers or pivotal essays we get a sense of what’s at stake in the simple collection of data. We discover that this simple transaction might actually be very important, personally and socially. In other words, it is a very unphilosophical work of philosophy that, like Confucius, is concerned with the unity of the ethical and political. It takes an eye willing to turn away from the typical forms of philosophy to make and see this text and that is exactly the gaze which is best suited for reading The Master.
Tangentially, Thorn gets some things right. He points out, correctly, that the Master sees ethics and politics as the same thing. So, Confucius is not totally incomprehensible, but there is a level of understanding that is unattainable. The first step forward, I think, would be to realize that Confucius is not a philosopher.