This is a rich review of Joseph Chan’s important new book; the review is significant, in part, because it represents an engagement by someone from outside the Chinese philosophy world with contemporary Chinese thought. Wall is himself an advocate of perfectionism, which helps to explain why the cross-tradition engagement here is so fruitful.
Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
2014.08.16 View this Review Online View Other NDPR Reviews
Joseph Chan, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times, Princeton University Press, 2014, 256pp., $35.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780691158617.
Reviewed by Steven Wall, University of Arizona
This is an unusual book. It is partly an effort to reconstruct and revive an ancient tradition of political thought, partly an exercise in comparing that tradition to western liberalism and partly a contribution to contemporary political theory. It does not fit into any well-defined disciplinary niche. Its unusual aims, in turn, present a challenge to the reviewer. Should the success of the project be assessed in terms of its fidelity to a tradition of thought that has shaped Chinese culture for over two millennia, or should it be assessed in terms of its contribution to contemporary political thought? No doubt the right answer to this question is that it should be assessed along both dimensions, but this answer does not tell us how much weight to give to each measure of assessment. My own assessment will not grapple with this problem, since I am in no position to gauge its success in remaining faithful to traditional Confucian ideas. Accordingly, this review does not offer a verdict on how well Confucian Perfectionism succeeds in its aim of staying true to Confucian political thought (leaving that judgment to others who are better placed to make it). It focuses instead on how well the view of politics that it presents hangs together and how well it contributes to an understanding of the political topics that it addresses.
Continue reading “Review of Chan, Confucian Perfectionism”
Friday, April 4, 2:00 – 3:00 p.m.
Political Authority and Democracy: A Contemporary Confucian Perspective
Joseph Chan, Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong
Harvard Law School, The Morgan Courtroom, Austin Hall Room 308
Sponsored by East Asian Legal Studies, HLS
Sungmoon Kim’s new book, Confucian Democracy in East Asia: Theory and Practice has just been published by Cambridge University Press. According to my blurb on the back of the book:
Confucianism is neither ready-made for democracy nor inalterably opposed to it. As Sungmoon Kim shows in this important book, however, a Confucianism worth defending in the complex, multicultural East Asia of today both can and must incorporate a robust form of democracy. Kim deploys a wealth of careful arguments that draw from classical Confucianism, a wide range of Western political theorists, and the distinctive political culture of modern Korea. The result is a rich and provocative work that successfully bridges theory and practice. Anyone interested in the future possibilities for democracy and for Confucianism – whether conjoined or not – will have to take this book seriously.
Cambridge is offering a 20% discount to readers of this blog, though Amazon has the book discounted as well, and may be less expensive (depending on shipping options). In any event, congratulations, Sungmoon!
“Conceptions of Democracy on Taiwan and the Chinese Mainland”
Professor David Lorenzo, College of International Affairs, Chengchi National University, Taiwan and author of Concepts of Chinese Democracy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
Tuesday, February 4, 4:00 – 6:00 p.m.
Eilts Room, Department of International Relations | 154 Bay State Road, 2nd Floor
Boston University Center for the Study of Asia (BUCSA)
China Policy is an impressive commercial website that has been sending me teasers…and the most recent one contains a bit I thought I’d share: a fascinating essay by a contemporary Chinese political theorist critiquing the idea that China ought to pursue a form of “new authoritarianism” that will lead ultimately to democracy. Instead, says Rong Jian, it may well lead to fascism. I think this link will take you to the page with the essay.
Meritocratic Ruists make two basic claims: first, that meritocracy is more historically faithful to Ruist tradition, and second, that it makes for a more effective government. In particular, it can avoid the problems of democracy, among which the ignorance and short-sightedness of voters are prominent. The claim goes that since voters generally understand the issues poorly and are unwilling to sacrifice their immediate interests for future gains, democracies make bad decisions. Without getting into whether these criticisms are accurate for the moment, I’m curious what people think of this line of argument against democracy. If it were true that democracy inevitably has such problems and there were good reason to think meritocracy would do better, would you support meritocracy?
Continue reading “Meritocracy and Democracy”
Please see this site for more information, and a call for papers, concerning a conference to be held this summer in Japan on Human Development in Asia.
The essay “Reassessing Chinese Society’s ‘Rigid Stability’: Stability Preservation Through Pressure, Its Predicament and the Way Out,” by Chinese scholar Yu Jiangrong, introduced and translated at the China Story website, is well-worth a read.
This post proposes a book project, for anyone who wants it.
Two kinds of serious conversation
By “serious” conversations I mean conversations that work toward knowledge (at least for one party), or good decision (at least by one party), or designing something complex.
The serious conversations glimpsed in the Analects are mainly between a master and student. The Mencius is more concerned with how an adept should counsel a king. 1A7 looks like a handbook for that.
These two kinds of conversation get their shape and point from inequalities: unequal wisdom and unequal power. Between master and student, one side has the wisdom and the power. Between counselor and king, one side has the wisdom and the other has the power. The point of both conversations, as understood by all parties, is to transmit some wisdom from the wiser party to the other — within constraints imposed by the powerful party, such as limited time.
One could do a study of these two forms of conversation in Confucian literature: the varieties of each and the guidance on how to do them well. That’s not my main proposal here.
Is it fair to say that when early Confucianism thought about serious conversation, these two are the main kinds it thought about?
The Western tradition saliently values another kind of conversation, aiming more at discovering or creating than transmitting. Continue reading “"When two go together"”
Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell’s op-ed in the New York Times attracted a great deal of interest. Bell published another op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor a couple of days ago on the broader subject of meritocracy. This can illustrate how he differs from Jiang. I’m assuming he didn’t choose the headline (“What America’s flawed democracy could learn from China’s one-party rule”). The comments are also quite interesting.
Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell have written an Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times that may be of interest.
I’ve been giving some thought to this topic quite a bit, most recently spurred on by a response to an article by Daniel Bell that I’m writing for a Chinese journal. I won’t go into Bell’s argument in any detail, but I find significantly greater restrictions on speech accepted and even advocated by classical Ruists than in liberalism. On certain topics (criticizing the ruler/government) certain people (Ruists, or maybe the elite more generally) should speak out, though even here historically Ruists have generally accepted that they might be punished for doing so. On other topics, particularly those that might threaten social harmony and stability, they seem quite willing to ban certain kinds of expression. Continue reading “Ruism and free speech”
Picking up on something that Boram Lee very eloquently wrote in the Confucianism and Sexism string:
“… my impression is that at its heart Confucianism is neither autocratic nor authoritarian, as some modern Asian regimes like to claim.
It seems to me that one of the main defining features of Confucianism, at least on its political and economic dimensions, is its commitment to decentralization. Its ideal society is one consisting of small communities, each small community composed of persons governing themselves with ritual. The ideal government is not a centralized bureacracy, but self-government by each over themselves, where no coercion is involved, only voluntary control and participation in social activities, and leadership based on rational and emotional persuasion, not the use of laws and punishments. A centralized bureacracy following paternalistic policies towards uneducated peasants is only a second-best option.”
I think I understand most of the arguments for thinking of Confucianism as compatible with democratic ideals. They are some version of Boram’s point: the Confucian ideal of political community is of each person exercising moral self-scrutiny and self-cultivation; education of others and continuing self-education is an important ideal; persuasion and non-violent moral example are preferred to use of force and harsh legalism; hence, democracy is not far away as an ideal–what else would even seem appropriate for a community of junzi-like citizens but a democracy?
I think that would be great if it were true. And maybe there is some pragmatic value in making democracy seem continuous with a powerful self-conception (i.e. of being “Confucian” in some broad sense) that has traditionally been expressed only in non-democratic ways. But why does this kind of argument seem so strange to me? One thing that comes to mind very quickly is that it makes Confucianism’s ideals sound like those of Kant, or any of the other Enlightenment “autonomists.” The community of junzis sounds something like the “kingdom of ends,” a self-governing lot of moral agents who regard each other with respect for their personhoods.
Could I really complain about that? I’m not sure; but I feel like I should complain–Doesn’t it distort Confucianism? Isn’t it mistaken to think that the junzi ideal really lends itself to self-governance? What’s the connection exactly between self-cultivation and self-governance–doesn’t this rest on some conflation? And why has Confucianism only been used in the service of autocracy so far?
I’m not trying to make trouble here, just trying to scratch this itch.