Michael Ing

Vulnerabilities of the Self in Confucian Thought

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Indiana University, Department of Religious Studies
Bloomington, Indiana; United States of America

Capstone Conference Talk

SUNDAY (8/6) 1:20-2:40PM

Vulnerabilities of the Self in Confucian Thought

My project is about the necessity and value of vulnerability in human experience. More specifically, I bring Confucian texts into dialogue with questions about the ways in which meaningful things are vulnerable to powers beyond our control. In today’s world vulnerability is often understood as an undesirable state; invulnerability is usually preferred. While recognizing the need to reduce vulnerability in some situations, I demonstrate that vulnerability is pervasive in human experience, and enables values such as morality, trust, and maturity. Vulnerability is also the source of the need for care for oneself and for others. .


Capstone Conference Research Laboratory

SATURDAY (8/5) 9:30-10:40AM

Discovering Strength In Vulnerability

The purpose of this Research Laboratory is to unfold a differentiated concept of vulnerability that takes seriously that vulnerability is, at the same time, both a resource and a risk. This conception challenges widespread beliefs that vulnerability is a condition that ought to be avoided by persons and communities. In order to clarify the importance of this nuanced concept of vulnerability, the laboratory seeks to demonstrate how individuals and communities can discover strength in vulnerability; address interdisciplinary approaches by bridging the sciences and humanities to explore and understand vulnerability in its diverse dimensions; and to highlight how vulnerable individuals and populations can counter hegemony and thereby envision a future of freedom and flourishing. 

Research Laboratories allow audience members to interact with a panel of ELP Scholars and Interlocutors in addressing a problem of public relevance. We invite active participation from audience members in the creation of new knowledge.

Academic Biography

Michael D.K. Ing studies Confucianism with a particular emphasis on ethics and ritual in the early period (5th century BCE to 2nd century CE). In a more general sense, he is interested in issues of vulnerability as they relate to religious accounts of the human condition, and attitudes toward the ability, or inability, of human beings to determine their own welfare. In 2012 he published The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism (Oxford University Press), which analyzes the ways in which early Confucians coped with the possibility that their rituals might fail to create an ordered world. His current research project, Vulnerabilities of the Self in Confucian Thought,focuses on the theme of vulnerability. Broadly speaking, it investigates the kinds of meaningful things that Confucians believed to be beyond their power to control—including life, integrity, and historical memory. More specifically, it analyzes these topics from the perspectives of several early Confucian texts to reveal a rich debate about the necessity and even value of vulnerability in human experience.

Michael earned a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School in 2005. In 2011 he graduated with a doctorate of philosophy from Harvard University’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. He is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University.

Project Executive Summary

This projectexplores how meaningful things are vulnerable to powers beyond our control. More specifically, it analyzes this question from the perspectives of several Confucian texts to reveal a rich debate about the necessity and even value of vulnerability in human experience. Confucians, for instance, believed that relationships were an essential part of self-development. Yet relationships are partially determined by others whom we cannot control. Numerous accounts in Confucian texts reveal that concern for others can, and even should, lead us to compromise our integrity, or the confidence we have in maintaining commitments that affirm our moral standing. In these cases we are compelled to do something transgressive for the sake of others; and in these situations our character is tarnished by our culpability in the transgressive act. These kinds of stories demonstrate that while on the one hand we, human beings, seek to shore up our vulnerability—attempting to render meaningful things invulnerable; on the other hand, we ought to realize that vulnerability enhances life by highlighting the need for care (care for oneself and for others). Vulnerabilities of the Self in Confucian Thought investigates how the possibility of harm highlights the difficulty of offering and receiving care, but also fosters compassion for others as we strive to care for each other. On a larger scale this project will broaden the study of enhancing life by bringing an alternative tradition to bear on the role of human need and human vulnerability in establishing forms of life necessary for human flourishing.