I’ve written a review of Paul Goldin’s book, Confucianism, for Dao. I don’t know when it (the review, that is) will come out, but I’ve posted roughly the first half of it below. [Addendum (1/19/12): some general discussion of the book by Bill Haines and others starts at comment 17.]
In this lively, concise and erudite volume on Confucianism, Paul Goldin aims to provide an introduction to its core concepts and ideas. Roughly half of the original sources on which Goldin draws comes from what, after Zhu Xi, are called the Four Books of Confucianism. He draws on the Analects to extract his discussion of “Confucius and his disciples” (the title of Chapter One), includes brief discussion of the Great Learning, and provides overview of Mencius’s teachings through the Mencius. The fourth of the Four, the Zhongyong (Application of Equlibrium in Goldin’s translation), is “cited at the appropriate junctures” (p. 6). The other half of the book draws on the Canon of Filial Piety, the Xunzi, and very briefly on some relevant sources from the Song Dynasty to the recent present.
Concision about Confucianism is difficult. It seems to have been mandated in this case by the Ancient Philosophies series of the publisher which exists “especially for students” and “offers a clear yet rigorous presentation of core ideas,” according to the publisher website description (http://www.ucpress.edu/series.php?ser=aph). Part of the difficulty is identification of Confucianism’s “core” from a scholarly point of view. The publisher’s description of the series establishes parameters that may be problematic in identifying such a core. For example, the emphasis on Confucianism’s ancient origins may excessively marginalize the innovative, dynamic quality of recent and current philosophical views whose proponents regard themselves as shapers of the tradition – perhaps as even being at the core of Confucianism as a living tradition. Locating that core in the ancient world gives too swift an impression of recent and contemporary Confucians as mere commentators, or creators of the proverbial footnotes to the ancients. Likewise, the emphasis on core ideas may suggest too quickly that Confucianism, as a philosophy, is largely doctrinally centered when in fact ideas and teachings tend to be on a par with certain kinds of practices, institutions, and rituals that arguably are equally well qualified as “Confucian.”
Goldin negotiates this terrain pragmatically, in his Introduction. Offering an “exacting yet workable definition of Confucianism” Goldin states:
I shall use the term “Confucianism” to refer to the philosophy of Confucius (551-479 BCE), his disciples, and the numerous later thinkers who regarded themselves as followers of his tradition. This definition is … flexible enough to admit the literally hundreds of philosophers who considered themselves as his latter-day disciples. Like any vibrant and long-lived tradition, Confucianism was never a monolith. …But competing Confucians rarely doubted each other’s sincerity or commitment to applying the Master’s teachings to the exigencies of their day. (pp. 1-2)
What supports the claim of workability for Goldin’s definition is that it allows inclusion of teachings that are canonically controversial for a long historical stretch – those of Xunzi – as well as those that have been accepted as falling well within any of the bounds of orthodoxy suggested from time to time. Xunzi, I imagine, is the rare case alluded to by Goldin where sincerity and commitment to Confucius’s teachings were often doubted, to say the least.
On the other, exclusionary end Goldin’s definition aims to prevent the “tendency to associate everything Chinese with Confucianism” (p. 4). Perhaps because the definition is tacitly tied to actual, recorded teachings of professed followers of Confucius, Goldin believes it is possible to leave out of the bounds of Confucianism a variety of cultural aspects from the history of China that are often called “Confucian” but are not explicitly discoverable in text. In particular, feminist criticisms of Confucianism for promoting objectionable sexist features of Chinese society – patriarchal structure in general or foot-binding specifically – are singled out for dismissal based partially on lack of text-based principled Confucian support for them. Goldin argues, in part:
Confucianism sanctions actions and habits if and only if they are conducive to the cultivation of morality; making oneself more attractive for the marriage market [which was the original purpose of footbinding] would never have qualified as a sufficient concern. (p. 2-3)
There is a quick response to this argument and even if it only furthers the conversation rather than settling anything, it would seem important for Goldin to address. Highly influential on Confucian thinking about society is Mencius’s assertion that not producing posterity is the greatest failure of filial duty (Mencius 4A26). For a woman in Ming dynasty China and to a lesser degree in the Qing – the periods in which footbinding is most widely practiced, attractiveness for marriage is not a mere vanity or economic necessity, as it may be in other places or times. Though it may come apart from cultivation of morality, a woman’s becoming a wife and bearing children is essential for satisfying the Confucian moral standard of filial piety, a standard that is relatively silent in most respects about women’s specific piety. So there is a short, clear argument from Confucian moral principle – “Confucian” in Goldin’s own sense – in conjunction with contingencies of social mores surrounding marriageability, to the promotion of footbinding in those particular periods of Chinese history. That holds whether or not, as Goldin offers, “some of the most prominent devotees of footbinding were men who praised it for erotic, not moralistic, reasons” (p. 3). Erotic origin and men’s fetishizing are beside the point, morally speaking, for the girls and women who mutilated themselves with excruciatingly painful and physically injurious discipline. They did so dutifully for the sake of marriageability and its ultimate Confucian point of providing heirs for the continuance of pious moral devotion to ancestry.
In addition to the Introduction’s defense of Confucianism in this regard, there is a prominent follow-up in the Appendix, “Manhood in the Analects” (pp. 115-20), in which Goldin goes further to problematize charges that Confucianism is sexist, by invoking Chenyang Li’s recent feminist-ethics rendering of Confucian masculinity and its virtues. There is also an interesting discussion of the problems that infect the late 19th to early 20th century Weberian indictment of Confucianism as an impediment to the development of capitalism in China (pp. 105-7). By contrast, however, Goldin is far less critical of the more recent views in which, contra Weber, Confucianism is attributed a positive role in promoting the success of capitalism in Asia (p. 107). That positive role for Confucianism in the success of the “dragons” of economic growth in the latter half of 20th century Asia is based on problematic causal hypotheses between Confucianism and national economies, similar to those Goldin criticizes between Confucianism and patriarchy. Goldin’s choices in these regards give the impression of his exposition as being framed within an apologia for Confucianism as much as in an introduction to it. That impression does not necessarily damn the work, of course, if the voices critical of Confucianism have a tendency to obscure its understanding. However, Goldin’s Introduction and Appendix, which bookend and frame his expository discussion, could be more even handed about the viability of criticism leveled against Confucianism.
We should distinguish apologetics from the valuable practice of trying to present a set of philosophical teachings in their best light so that it is understandable why their proponents find them reasonable and attractive. Goldin provides plenty of this in his substantive discussions of the figures and texts that are presented as the Confucian core. The lead chapter on Confucius provides an example. Goldin ties together in a programmatic way, four connected concepts in the Analects: zhong 忠, shu 恕, ren 仁, and li 禮. Part of the trickiness in presenting these concepts at the introductory level is that providing an immediate translation into English tends to begin the lesson off badly. Goldin does a measured job of introducing them first in conceptual discussion and then providing either the standard translation or discussion of various translation possibilities thereafter. For example shu, rendered simply as reciprocity, lends itself to misdiagnosis. It is easy to jump all too quickly from the Analects teaching about shu in 15.23, “What you yourself do not desire, do not do to others,” to the belief that it “would require fathers to treat their sons in the same manner that sons treat them – a practice that no Confucian has ever considered appropriate” (p. 16). It is worth noting that the 15.23 quip seems quite minimal from a moral point of view – it is a dictum against treating people in certain ways, not a directive for treating them well. Moreover, the standard seems in one way very self-centered: the standard for treatment of others is dictated by one’s own desires, not by empathetic concern for the desires of others.
To fill out the concept of shu in a way that is interesting and appealing, Goldin interprets it as applying not to relationships between individuals, but between roles: “Shu is a relation not between two individuated people, but between two social roles. How does one treat one’s father? In the same way that one would want to be treated by one’s son if one were a father oneself” (ibid.). As Goldin notes, nothing in the Analects indicates this reading to be accurate, but he cites Zhongyong 13 here as support. As Goldin translates:
Zhong and shu are not far from the Way. What you would not suffer others to do to you, do not do to them. There are four things in the Way of the Noble Man, none of which I have been able to do. I have not been able to serve my father as I demand of my son. I have not been able to serve my lord as I demand of my servant. I have not been able to serve my elder brother as I demand of my younger brother. I have not been able to do unto my friends as I demand of them. (ibid.)
Drawing on his recently published research, Goldin then explicates zhong’s importance within this framing of reciprocity as sensitive to social roles. Zhong, he argues, is about “being honest with oneself in dealing with others” (p. 17) rather than the generic sense of loyalty or the Neo-Confucian understanding of “making the most of oneself” (ibid). For, as Goldin points out, reciprocity “is instantly perverted if it is applied dishonestly, but self-deception is not always easy to discover and root out if one does not vigilantly review one’s own actions” (p. 17). Along similar lines, Goldin argues that ren and li, usually glossed as humaneness or benevolence and ritual or rites respectively, cannot be understood correctly without being connected to the goal of role-sensitive reciprocity. In such ways, Goldin’s discussion about the teachings attributed to Confucius in the Analects constructs systematicity in material that is difficult to systematize – and in a very plausible direction.
 See for example, Jun Sang-In (1999) “No (logical) place for Asian values in East Asia’s Economic Development” Development and Society 28:2, 194-204;