The meaning of this year’s academy winner film The Shape of Water comes together in its carefully designed aesthetics. A striking example is an innocuous brown-greyish old wall, soaked with water stains – painted, layers and layers, over an image of the most iconic of Japanese woodblock prints: Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. The intertwined images of wall and water establish the phenomenological thickness, yet impermanence of the director’s aesthetic vision. This aesthetics resonates with my phenomenological approach to the Analects of Confucius, through an etymological analysis of key characters that are usually translated as “propriety” in a prescriptive sense. Through re-connecting the logograms with their original ideographic motivation, I derive concrete expressions of the concept that is referred to. As these haptic aspects become apparent, they acquire an aesthetic quality which emphasizes the role that aesthetics plays for our intuitive approach to ethics. Not only is the core of Confucian ethics demonstrated to be an immanent enabling restraint, but the true nature of such “restraint” is revealed: it is by its nature a personal choice of refinement that respects every single encounter without anticipating rewards; it is, by its nature, immanent, not imposed.

One of the central themes of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutic approach to canonical texts is the rehabilitation of “pre-judgement”, by which he describes an innate capacity of discernment that determines what can be seen. My phenomenological approach to the Analects echoes this hermeneutic horizon and expands it to the domains of ethics via aesthetics. Indeed, in Chinese paintings such as the masterpiece “Moon and Melon” by the 17th century painter and intellectual Bā Dà Shān Rén, one single brush stroke conveys an utmost sensibility towards life and death, with both ethical and aesthetic conviction. With the canvas as a proclamatory space, the painter expresses himself more through his idiosyncratic calligraphy than the semantic contents of the written characters. Such personal but not private approach, exemplified in the exegesis of a single aged wall soaked in water, the sub-lexical etymology of a single character in an ancient text, or even a single brushstroke, can reveal what is meaningful, as a phenomenon to the “pre-judiced” engaged reader.