Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Confucius on the family as model


Many hold that for Confucius the family is the model for organized political society in some sense; that Confucius regarded the norms for relations beyond the family as largely based on the norms for relations with kin.  Here I follow Joseph Chan in challenging that view.

Chan argued against the idea that for classical Confucianism generally, the state is modeled on the family, is “the family writ large.”  The differences are too deep to allow that reading. For example, in classical Confucianism, the reverence we owe to our lord is conditional upon his character and conduct, while the reverence we owe to our parents is not.  In the family the emphasis is on the duties of a son to his parents (a lower position relating upward), while in the state the emphasis is the duties of governors in relation to the people (an upper position relating downward, or at least displaying downward). Chan makes this case, and says much more of great interest, in “Exploring the Nonfamilial in Confucian Political Philosophy,” in H. Chaihark and D. Bell eds. The Politics of Affective Relations: East Asia and Beyond (2004), pp. 61-74.

Here I look at Confucius only.  The argument is in my prepared Comments below this post, in several Parts.  Part A tries to catalogue the similarities Confucius saw between family and state—looking mainly for similarities he actually notes or alludes to.  Of course, one should expect him to see major similarities even if he never thought of the family as a model for the state, because family and state must each reflect the general human condition.  Indeed, major similarities would be consistent with the idea that the family is modeled on the state.  Part B describes some major differences between Confucius’ view of the family and his view of the state. Part C explores what philosophical use Confucius may have made of the similarities, by looking critically at a detailed statement by P. J. Ivanhoe on that topic. Part D sums up.

I argue based on Confucius’ own statements in the Analects. I adopt the working hypothesis that his statements there, especially in Books 1-15, are mostly authentic and largely representative of his views.  A better study would consider other reliable ancient records of his words; I’m not sure what those would be.

I think the idea that Confucius’ statements in the Analects are representative of his views is more plausible insofar as the views expressed there are consistent—especially if the view we find in those statements differs from the recorded views of his successors, who are the main potential source of inauthentic sayings in the Analects, and differs from what we find in the general run of probably inauthentic statements elsewhere.

Even a general presumption of authenticity cannot justify our putting great interpretive weight on any one remark by Confucius, nor especially on a bold reading of one remark.  Even if we could be certain of the authenticity of every passage not bearing positive evidence of inauthenticity, nevertheless in most cases we do not know the context or addressee to which Confucius’ suggestive remarks may have been tailored.  We know that he sometimes tailored his remarks on filial piety to his interlocutor in ways that could potentially be very misleading about his general view of the relation between filial piety and broader aspiration (2.25, 11.22, 2.21).

One point commonly cited to show that Confucius saw family and state as similar or analogous is that his tradition saw them as similar or analogous. Indeed, power was held by families as much as by individuals: a point on which Confucius did not comment, and on which one can well imagine him having mixed feelings. Unfortunately, I am not competent to discuss such features of the tradition before Confucius; I must focus on the Analects.  Granted, Confucius broadly endorsed his tradition.  But surely we should not conclude that a certain idea has a certain leading role in Confucius’ thought if, say, we do not find Confucius himself alluding to that role nor even with certainty find him alluding to that idea, but do find him accepting a number of points that seem to oppose the idea.

As usual, I take all my Chinese texts, and Legge when I use him, from the Chinese Text Project (ctext.org).Hannah Pang detail


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