New book: Individual Autonomy and Responsibility in Late Imperial China

Paolo Santangelo has published Individual Autonomy and Responsibility in Late Imperial China (Cambria, 2021). [Publisher’s website here]


One issue in the face of the revaluation of Confucianism in contemporary China concerns its effects on the democratization of modern society. The democratic evolution of Chinese society or its nationalistic or ethical-paternalistic involution is worrying owing to China’s growing global role. From a historical perspective, the multifaceted relationship between individual autonomy and Confucian doctrines can offer interesting insights not only for the concept of the individual, important in traditional China, albeit different from that of the West. The volume Individual Autonomy and Responsibility in Late Imperial China traces the evolution of thought in the late imperial period focusing on the constructions of an autonomous individual with moral responsibility through an interdisciplinary approach from art and literature, to philosophy and ethics of the self – seen in both its public and private dimensions. The study implies an intercultural investigation of individual and moral responsibility centred on two dilemmas: even if the essence of the self is a questionable issue, its construction is the basis of an open society with independent mature subjects; although the issue of free will is controversial, more open and tolerant cultures are based on cultivating a shared sense of personal responsibility.

The volume starts from two concrete cases of intolerance, the persecution of two intellectuals, one at the beginning and one at the end of the Ming dynasty, and then examines some concepts corresponding to those of individualism, dignity, autonomy, moral responsibility. Finally, it addresses some aspects of the social life of modern and contemporary China. The theme of Chinese “holistic individualism”, in addition to raising politically sensitive issues, calls into question the impression of a Chinese culture centred on harmony and conformism, opposed to an individualistic Europe based on the concept of personal human dignity and free will. In the writings of the late imperial period, a certain leeway can be seen that assures the individual a sort of independence from circumstances and authority control. The human being is an autonomous agent who belongs to a wider “reality”, and constantly oscillates between the quietness of spirit and ephemeral feelings; affective components, emotions and beliefs are seen as the main expression of an individual self. Self is therefore perceived not simply as the embodiment of everlasting or temporary values and beliefs but as a human endeavour toward self-assertion. Most of the volume deals with the tension toward personal autonomy and individual values, and the role of ethics in the process of self-construction. The sense of responsibility in Confucianism is identified with the “moral self”, and understood as a basic category of representation of one’s self and others. At the same time, notwithstanding the severity of official control, elements of pluralism and individual autonomy emerged in the intellectual debate, hence pushing toward the formulation of new approaches within and beyond orthodoxy.

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