What is Confucianism? continued

Let me follow up on the criteria for determing who is a Confucian, for which I gave a list of three approaches (see the original post “What is Confucianism?“):

  1. Allegiance to Confucius
  2. Advocating a Set of Uniquely Specifiable Ideals
  3. Rearing in a Particular Type of Society

The reason to specify these approaches is to try to disentangle the sources for some controversies surrounding Confucianism. There are a few issues I have in mind:

Confucians vs. Confucianologists – Despite the awkwardness of the latter term, this is an important distinction to make. There are those who are Confucians in the three ways specified above, and there are those who study Confucianism–the “Confucianologists,” if you will. I’m borrowing here from the “Buddhist-Buddhologist” distinction. The distinction–not, by the way, one that marks mutually exclusive categories–is between someone who is a “believer” in some sense and someone who is a scholar. Since someone could be both, it is important to see how one might be categorized as a “believer.” Hence, it is important to distinguish someone who has some allegiance to Confucius-construed-as-a-sage, someone who advocates the ideals of theories that they attribute to Confucian origins, and someone who is in the grips of norms that are culturally Confucian in some strong way.

Most Confucianologists prior to the modern era were also Confucians in all three ways, I would think. Here, I’m thinking of the traditional commentators (and philosophers in their own right), like Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) and Wang Yangming, and their ilk. It would be interesting to know what we ought to think of some recent and contemporary Confucianologists–scholars like Tu Weiming, Henry Rosemont, Antonio Cua, Philip Ivanhoe, Bryan Van Norden, and others who seem to advocate Confucian ideals to a greater or lesser extent (relative to one another). I think they are clearly Confucians in the second sense, but I’m not too sure about the first or third senses.

Let me be candid about myself: I’m a Confucianologist and just barely a Confucian in the third sense–I have some feelings and responses that are typical of Korean-Confucian culture, but I’ve been very Americanized in my upbringing despite my parents’ efforts. (It was actually kind of liberating for me to discover, late in college, what the source of those “Korean” feelings were.)

One need not be a Confucian in order to be a Confucianologist. The phrase “Confucian scholar” is ambiguous and people should be more careful using it.

Textual integrity and authorship – The difficult issue of dating and establishing authorship in early texts that are traditionally attributed to Confucius and others who are considered Confucians might or might not matter to a particular Confucianologist. Take the issue of authorship and dating in the Analects. Does it matter whether Confucius himself actually said any of the things that are attributed to him in that text? What if most or all of it represents different voices of different Confucius’ disciples or their disciples, or even the disciples of those disciples, etc.? This matters to greater or lesser extent, I think, for a Confucianologist depending on what he or she has at stake. If the ideas matter more than the sage-status of Confucius, then these issue only matter to the extent that they may help resolve interpretive problems about consistency within a single text. For example, if there are historical strata within the Analects or the Mencius, that no doubt helps in understanding why on some topics there is less than a single, coherent viewpoint within the text.

“Confucian” practices and institutions – Whether a practice (such as foot-binding) or an institution (such as a ministry of moral education) is Confucian or not will depend on issues similar to how individuals are identified as Confucian. Does the practice have seamless origins in devotion to Confucius as sage? Does the institution promote a set of ideals that arise from the tradition of Confucian teachings? Does the practice or institution have culturally central roles within historically Confucian societies? These are different ways in which to categorize. I think the most interesting issue relevant to such questions is about clearly sexist practices or institutions. Whether Confucianism harbors them and hence is to be faulted depends on exactly this issue of how Confucian practices and institutions are to be identified.

Questions and comments are welcome!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.