Review of Angle, Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy

NDRP has published a review by BAI Tongdong of Fudan University of my recent book, Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy: Towards Progressive Confucianism (Polity, 2012). Many thanks to Tongdong for this generous review!

I’d like to take this opportunity to respond very briefly to a couple of the things that Tongdong says in his review. He feels that both Mou Zongsan and I, in our related but separate ways, have left largely unaddressed the question: “can Confucianism make any constructive and systematic contributions to fundamental issues in political philosophy other than being only a “cheerleader” (a sincere one, as Angle tries to show) of liberal democracy?” This is related to some of the other critical remarks he raises late in the review, including the suggestion that in my chapter on human rights, I rest content with the current “responsibility to protect” doctrine, and also Tongdong’s questions about how “Confucian” Progressive Confucianism is.

As I think Tongdong would agree, one of the contributions the book tries to make to political philosophy is its explanation of the meaning of “self-restriction (ziwo kanxian)” and an argument concerning the importance of this concept. In a new essay (forthcoming in a book that Brian Bruya is editing), I expand on this theme by arguing that both Aristotelian and Humean theories of the relations between ethical and political value themselves need to be supplemented by something very like “self-restriction.” I am glad that Tongdong says that my effort to make the idea of self-restriction clear has been at least somewhat successful.

What he really has in mind with his “cheerleader” comment, though, is the degree to which I argue that once we have reconstructed Confucian notions of political authority, rule of law, and so on — reconstructions that are motivated from the “inside,” that is by theoretical concerns internal to Confucian theory — we end up with a participatory, constitutional polity that in several respects bears a strong resemblance to (some forms of) liberal democracy. There are, to be sure, some real differences in form, but the key differences lie within, in the justification of politics and of political structures. Is this a bad, un-Confucian result? I feel that such a conclusion begs the question. We all agree that Confucian political philosophy today is not going to deliver the same answers as it did in the past, even as we all agree that there must be considerable continuity with the tradition, its key insights, and its core values. There’s obviously a lot more to say here, including questions about how much continuity Neo-Classical approaches like Tongdong’s, or Institutional approaches like Jiang Qing’s, themselves actually have. But I’ll put that off for another moment.

One final comment, prompted by Tongdong’s remark about human rights and the responsibility to protect. I did not mean to suggest that with the responsibility to protect doctrine, discussions over human rights have somehow come to an end. Rather, (1) I think it suggests that things are moving in the direction of a more genuinely global (i.e., tianxia-based) institution rather than a solely nation-based one, as Zhao Tingyang advocates and Confucians (I argue) should hope; and (2) the nature of global human rights should be such that while Confucians are a voice in the conversation, global norms emerge from a broad, actual process of dialogue and debate: so a “Confucian” view on human rights, as I try to show, will end up endorsing a set of rights that is not solely “Confucian” in content.

Enough for now! In closing, let me once again express my sincere thanks to Tongdong for reading the book so carefully, describing its contents so clearly, and expressing his continued disagreements with his typical verve. I look forward to continued conversation.

8 replies on “Review of Angle, Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy”

  1. Looking forward to reading your book! By the way, this is the first I’ve heard of addressing the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in a Confucian context. Are there any other discussions of this you are drawing on in the book? Do either Tongdong or Daniel Bell discuss this?

  2. Hi Steve,

    This all sounds fascinating! I’m sorely tempted, and I admire your project.


    Bai says,
    What makes Angle’s project Confucian, in his view, is his reliance, throughout this book, on what he considers the core of Confucianism: “the ideal of all individuals developing their capacities for virtue — ultimately aiming at sagehood — through their relationships with one another and with their environment” (2).

    I’m wondering whether you really mean aiming at sagehood, or just aiming toward sagehood. In the former case my concern would be to maximize the chance of my eventually being a sage. In the latter case my concern would be different, because I’d also have a separate concern with the difference between nonsage states I might have, and this latter concern might sometimes or often trump the former.

    For example – let’s pretend that it is impossible to become a sage without a fair amount of secure leisure. Now, I might be in a situation such that my only chance of achieving secure leisure, hence my only chance of becoming a sage, depends on my winning the lottery. But if I buy lottery tickets and don’t win, I’ll be a little less sagelike. In this predicament, if my fundamental aim is to become a sage, I should buy the tickets; but if my fundamental aim is to become more sagelike, probably I should not buy them.

    Of course “becoming more sagelike” needs clarification. On one reading it could mean preferring (A) a life of always becoming more sagelike (though very slowly and slightly) over (B) a life of often becoming more sagelike (way more than in life (A)) and often backsliding some. Etc.

    The matter is complicated by this point I find in the review: “One cannot become a sage alone, and the endless process of becoming a sage is only achieved if everyone in the world becomes a sage.” I’m not sure how to understand that. The phrase “the endless process of becoming a sage” seems to show that ‘becoming’ here is just an abbreviation for ‘becoming more like’ (though one wonders how any endless process could be “achieved”). But the claim “One cannot become a sage alone” suggests that ‘becoming’ here does not mean ‘becoming more like’. For (I guess) there are different degrees of being unlike a sage that one could achieve by oneself?

    Perhaps the answer is just this: that the Confucian ideal is that everyone be morally splendid, but that’s just an ideal, and the relation between ideals and practical decision is of course fraught. In that case the idea seems to me pretty empty.


    Bai says, and I can’t tell whether he’s attributing the view to you,
    a lack of connection [between morality and politics] … seems to be the dominant view of contemporary liberalism.

    Granted, contemporary liberalism tends to insist quite strongly on the point that morality and politics are not the same thing. But the idea that morality and politics – moral and political norms – are not connected, not closely connected, seems to me radically alien to the views of most contemporary liberals. Do you agree?


    Steve, Bai says you think the value of “self-restriction” is an addition to Confucianism, not significantly present in early texts. In Bai’s paraphrase, “self-restriction” means refraining (at least to some extent) from imposing one’s moral views on others. Is this idea not salient in, say, the Analects?

    Since Bai suggests that “self-restriction” is a very difficult concept, I think we are to understand that he does not mean us to take his paraphrase as an adequate one. I wonder if you could say briefly what in the idea is not common in early texts.

  3. Hi Tim and Bill–Thanks for these comments! I am afraid I’m not going to be able to respond right away; I am out if town with no computer, and some serious skiing to attend to! I will catch up as soon as I can.

  4. First, a common trick in debating is to distort the other party’s words, and Steve, I am sorry to say, does exactly this. I mean, “Tongdong says that my effort to make the idea of self-restriction clear has been at least somewhat successful” is a shamefully misleading claim. The words I was using is not “somewhat”, but “one of the most intelligible” and “great success”. Oh the Confucian hypocrisy aka modesty!
    OK, on a less serious note, being a warmonger, I guess my main reservation is that Steve doesn’t pick fights with the dominant political framework. I still think that there are fundamental and substantial differences between the Confucian ideal regim and the liberal democratic one. Domestically, it is the hybrid regime (comibining demcoratic with meritocratic elements) vs. the more purely “democratic” regime. Internationally, I’ve recently written two articles, in Chinese though, on the Confucian idea of “national” identity, international relations, and just war.

  5. Here are the titles and the abstracts (one of them only has a Chinese version) of the articles I mentioned:
    National Identity of Modern States and Modern International Relations
    A Confucian Theory and Its Superiority to the Nation-State and Liberal Models

    Humanity (Ren) Overrides Sovereignty—On Mencius’s View of a Just War
    The starting point of Mencius’s theory of a just war is humanity (ren, also translated as benevolence). According to it, whether a defensive or an aggressive war is just depends upon the principle that “humanity overrides sovereignty.” Mencius specifies detailed conditions and signs for a war to be considered just, and he explains his understanding of the relations between humane governance and the strength of a state. These ideas demonstrate the realistic side of Mencius, a Confucian who is commonly considered (overly?) idealistic. There are similarities and, more importantly, differences between Mencius’s theory of a just war and the Western main stream theory that advocates “human rights override sovereignty.” It will be shown that Mencius’s idea of “humanity overrides sovereignty” offers a new and better alternative to mainstream Western theories of a just war and international relations.

  6. Hi Tongdong and Steve:

    this is a fascinating debate that deserves, to wit, to be lead in a town hall, not in the darker space of the internet! I sincerely hope more readers of our blog could participate, as I think that we can directly see the workings of the famous “cultural difference” (remember Thomas Metzger’s argument about the huge “gap” between Western and Chinese discourses).
    I am too busy to write a long statement; however, I have one urgent question for Tongdong, a question I have been struggling with for a long time. Tongdong writes: “I guess my main reservation is that Steve doesn’t pick fights with the dominant political framework.” Tongdong then goes on to challenge the “dominant political framework” with the help of Confucian/Mencian arguments. However, here is my question: for the most of the 20th century, China was in the grips of Marxism, its self-understanding was entirely anti-traditional. How, then, is it, philosophically or theoretically or let’s even say ideologically speaking, convincing to reach back now, after this fundamental break, to two thinkers who lived more than 2000 years ago?! In other words, how is it possible to challenge the existing political order that is obviously the result of long political struggles and represents the political experience of many countries and cultures (not merely of the US), with the help of just one ancient Chinese thinker (Mencius), who has never made the experience of living in a modern society? I’m not so convinced of this line of argument. Yes, I admit there is a need to re-think China’s place in the world and the existing framework is certainly not perfect. But don’t we need a much broader framework that is not based in just one culture (the Confucian one which, of course, is not identical with the broader Chinese culture)!?

  7. I (butting in again) think:

    Finding an idea in “Confucianism” has rhetorical power in China independently of the familiarity of the idea in recent China: because Confucianism is recognized as Chinese, and that is very important to many people. The Chinese tradition also features Daoism and Buddhism, but not so much in the area of government. In the area of government there is Legalism and Mohism; but Mohism made only a brief appearance in the tradition, and isn’t very Chinese-looking after all.

    On the one hand, “Confucianism” is not the name of a view or set of views. It is a contested logo pointing to an ill-defined cluster of texts over several millennia, texts that resist interpretation and that disagree with each other and often with themselves. The term is powerful insofar as people think it is the name of a view or set of views. On the other hand, one of the ideas most strongly associated with “Confucianism” and these texts is the idea that the main and proper guarantor of adequate government is the character of the rulers, not any sort of institutional checks. That idea is as good a candidate as any for being the core idea of Confucianism. That idea is also a core pillar, and perhaps with the fading away of Marxism the core pillar, of the current political system – the “dominant political framework.”


    Among the many kinds of thing we might call “east-west philosophical dialogue,”

    One is argument about what “Confucianism” implies, with Westerners trying to make arguments for the Confucianness of things they think China ought to think. On the one hand, such a project has its attractions for me. Many core ideas in the earliest Confucian texts pretty obviously support Western liberal democracy over the alternatives; making such arguments seems easy, and potentially useful. But I am a bit repelled by the idea of relying on the (false) premise that “Confucianism” is the name of a set of views, and by the idea of relying on anyone’s (morally and intellectually regrettable) nationalistic commitment to whatever I can tease out of some old text. The project

    Another focuses involves sustained back-and-forth between living Chinese and Western thinkers, on topics rather than texts, in which a Westerner might open with an argument of the form, “At least at first glance, you seem to think X. I think you ought to think Y instead; here’s why” – and have a long exchange about it. And vice versa. Westerners might engage in this sort of dialogue without any particular background in, or concern about, early Chinese thought; and yet it seems to me a more genuine sort of east-west dialogue. The hard part is to find or create fora in which there can be sustained back-and-forth.

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