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Nunchi, Ritual, and Early Confucian Ethics


A central challenge for early Confucian ethics, which relies heavily on the moral rules, scripts, and instructions of ritual (li 禮), is to provide an account of how best to deviate from ritual when unexpected circumstances demand that one must do so. Many commentators have explored ways in which the Confucian tradition can meet this challenge, and one particularly interesting line of response to it focuses on “mind-reading”—the ability to infer others’ mental states from their behavior. In this article, I introduce nunchi 눈치, a Korean word meaning a keen social awareness and facility in dynamic social situations, and make the case that it represents a key component in a full account of how to best deviate from ritual.

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This essay has benefitted from discussions with Amy Olberding, Nancy Snow, Sula You, and Sungwoo Um. Parts of this essay have been improved by helpful comments from Michael Puett and questions from the audience at the Harvard East Asia Society Graduate Conference, as well as from questions from the audience and discussions at the International Society for Chinese Philosophy Conference in Singapore and comments from anonymous referees. This publication was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at The University of Oklahoma. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation, the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing, or The University of Oklahoma.

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Correspondence to Seth Robertson.

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Robertson, S. Nunchi, Ritual, and Early Confucian Ethics. Dao 18, 23–40 (2019).

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  • Confucianism
  • Ritual
  • Social intelligence
  • Nunchi 눈치
  • Confucian ethics