Some Thoughts on the Difficulty of Being a Confucian Today

In memoriam Chen Cheng-po…

Yesterday we had a day off in Taiwan and I spent a rainy afternoon visiting the 2-28 Memorial Museum in downtown Taipei. I have been there before, but this time it was quite different, especially since I had the chance to look at some new documents. In particular the biography of one person was deeply moving: the Taiwanese painter Chen Cheng-po 陳澄波 (also known as Chin To-Ha). He was born in 1895 in Chia-Yi, studied arts in Tokyo and went on to become a famous painter in Taiwan and the broader Chinese-speaking world (especially oil paintings). After the liberation of Taiwan from the Japanese occupation, he got involved into politics and was elected into the local parliament at Chia-Yi. After the 2-28 Incident, he tried to negotiate between the Guomindang and the local population. However, he was executed without any particular reason in broad daylight on March 25th of 1947.

There are a couple of moving photos in the Memoral Museum: Chen Cheng-po sitting at his easel (here); Chen Cheng-po in Western clothes, brimming with pride (here); Chen Cheng-po’s dead body (his wild staring eyes). I found one picture especially meaningful that shows him, together with his wife and child, in front of the Confucius Temple in Tainan (see here).

For Chen was very enthusiastic about the restoration of Chinese rule over Taiwan, like so many other Taiwanese intellectuals (many of them practicing calligraphy or writing poems in Ancient Chinese). However, the Chinese reality was very different from what the painter had imagined in his cottage: China, that was the cruel rule of Chiang Kai-shek and his bands of soldiers and murderers. Random shootings. The silence of death. And the 2-28 incident was just the beginning of a long period of darkness…

After I had left the museum, I began wondering what to think about this horrible death of a very gifted Taiwanese painter in the 40s. And I began asking myself what to make of the horrible sufferings that Taiwanese and Chinese had to undergo under the dictatorships on both sides of the Taiwan strait (and, of course, are still undergoing in China). I thought of the enthusiasm of Taiwanese and Chinese intellectuals for a revival of Confucianism. Than a quote by Daniel A. Bell came to my mind:

“From a normative standpoint, perhaps the main reason for being optimistic about the spread of Confucianism is that it provides resources for thinking about contemporary problems that affect most parts of the globe, such as worries about the corrosive effects of liberal individualism on family life and the impact of globalization on the international order.” (Bell, Confucian Political Ethics, p. x-xi)

In recent years, a couple of Western scholars have demonstrated a similar optimism about the spread of Confucianism. But yesterday, having seen the documents about this tragic clash between a highly modernized Taiwanese society and a backward/corrupt Chinese military, I was asking myself whether this optimism is really justified and whether it isn’t just romanticism. How realistic is the hope for a renewed Confucianism if we look back at the concrete experiences made by the Chinese-speaking people during the very long 20th century? And although I do understand and cherish the hope Daniel is articulating in this short passage, I tend to think now that as long as the fundamental political problem of contemporary China (the one-party state) is unresolved, it is highly unrealistic to hope for any meaningful Confucian alternative to the West. What I want to say: the Taiwanese experience is not just a local one. It has a universal meaning insofar as how China relates to this particular Taiwanese experience (and the later democratization process) will decide which stance China will eventually take towards the world. And there is more than one reason to be cautious…

Now I can imagine that a lot of you will be dissatisfied with the lines above. Isn’t the Kuomindang rule over Taiwan just one historical fact among many others – how is this to tell us something about the Confucian tradition in general? But here comes my concern: Confucians have always been primarily concerned with practice (ethical, social and political), and thus we should pay attention to social and political practice in China (being influenced more or less directly by Confucian teachings). What I want to say is this: shouldn’t we (as Westerners/as people who do not live in China) be much more careful about what it means to be Confucian today?! In other words, shouldn’t be aware how difficult it is in the Chinese-speaking today to declare oneself a Confucian if one is willing to face the realities on the ground (plus 20th century history)?! Somehow I miss this awareness in Daniel’s very enthusiastic portrait of “China’s New Confucianism”. Or just think of the hidden violence and the many euphemisms for political violence in Confucianism (f.ex. qing 清: “to clean”; zheng  正: “to rectify”). How many Memoral Museums will there have to be in a pluralistic and truly open Chinese society in the very distant future?! And how much of the particularly experiences of 20th century China can Confucian teachings articulate or reflect?! (Here I am also thinking of the role somebody like Xu Zhiyuan 許知遠 is playing now, a public intellectual from Beijing who is concerned with Western liberalism, Andrei Sakharov, and the Arab Spring, not with Confucianism, and who is very honest about Chinese society in general…)

And this leads to my last point: I am more and more skeptical of those Western interprets that give us a closed and relatively unified account of a contemporary Confucian/Chinese position. In brief, I do not think that there is a Confucian philosophical position that can still be defended in the modern age. Hannah Arendt’s dictum about the end of Western philosophy after the Holocaust may have a point in Asia, too: how could it be possible to simply continue the Confucian tradition after the 20th century?! What is still possible, I guess, are open and relatively hybrid accounts of Confucian philosophy that try to integrate certain Confucian tenets into a broader theoretical framework inspired by contemporary thinkers in the West (maybe think of Martha Nussbaum’s attempt to combine the Aristotelian and the Kantian/Rawlsian account into a very powerful, contemporary position). What we should absolutely avoid (at least if we take our role as philosopher seriously), are those accounts postulating a general superiority of Confucian thought over (Western) modernity.

And that’s all what I have to say. What do you think? I am aware that my ideas are controversial, so I am eager to receive your comments…

16 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Difficulty of Being a Confucian Today

  1. Thanks for this moving post. I always tell my students that in examining the philosophy of Confucius, we have to distinguish it from the historical manifestations of Confucianism. Just like we must refrain from identifying Jesus’ ethical views with the horrible events in Christian history, like the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, we also must not critique Confucius’ ideas based on how others may have twisted them for political ends.

    That being said, I think that there are three basic stances that philosophers can take toward Confucianism as a philosophical ideology:
    1) Intellectual-historical. From this stance, a philosopher examines what the texts say and how they influence and draw from each other conceptually in the development of the intellectual tradition. This is the basic, academic, non-political, amoral stance. Goldin’s book on Confucianism would probably be a good example.
    2) Constructive. From this stance, a philosopher examines the Confucian tradition as a living philosophy that can contribute to current intellectual trends, making the best case for it, bringing as much coherence to it as possible. This is the stance that Hall, Ames, and Rosemont take and which is sometimes bewildering for those of the intellectual-historical stance who don’t immediately understand that it is constructive rather than merely intellectual-historical.
    3) Skeptical. From this stance, a philosopher notes the limitations of Confucianism as an ideology by analyzing conceptual and logical internal conflicts. This appears to be the stance that you are taking, Kai, although you seem to be looking at the basic practicality of the ideas rather than at internal conflicts, per se. I think it is a legitimate approach simply because any political/moral ideology presupposes that it can be effectively put into practice.

    I think that all of these stances are legitimate and that you can see all of them in the current literature on Confucianism. At the moment, the skeptical stance may be more rare, but we certainly need it with regard to all ideologies in order to prevent being steamrolled.

  2. Very nice posts – but besides mourning upon the death of gifted persons, it may be helpful to look into the modern history with some more incisive and critical perspectives: e.g.

    …Kuomindang rule over Taiwan just one historical fact among many others – how is this to tell us something about the Confucian tradition…

    I am really unsure why the Kuomindang rule could in any sense represent an instance of Confucian leadership – while there were more people in the Kuomindang who are more sympathetic with the Confucian tradition than those in the communist party, it seems that modern Chinese history shows both parties were founded precisely on the revolution against traditional Confucian order….(e.g. I don’t think one can find any maxim of justification for the execution of Chen in any Confucian texts or teachings..)

    If we view the history in this way, then it would be improper to attribute to the chaos and violence in modern China to the Confucian tradition – but precisely to the lack of Confucian Spirit of grace, gentleness, and openness. Thus, instead of blaming the Confucianism, one can also argue that Confucianism may be the only hope of a genuine sense of human dignity and integrity for both China and Taiwan today…

    My two cents…

  3. Kai, I have a lot of sympathy with much of what you say here. I agree that “those accounts postulating a general superiority of Confucian thought over (Western) modernity” are always much too quick and superficial to be convincing. You are right to be skeptical of those Western interpretations “that give us a closed and relatively unified account of a contemporary Confucian/Chinese position.” Furthermore, I agree that we should “be much more careful about what it means to be Confucian today. In other words, shouldn’t we be aware how difficult it is in the Chinese-speaking world today to declare oneself a Confucian if one is willing to face the realities on the ground?”

    You worry that taken together, these observations suggest that there is not “a Confucian philosophical position that can still be defended in the modern age.” Here you lose me. I agree, of course, that it is not “possible to SIMPLY CONTINUE the Confucian tradition after the 20th century” [my emphasis!]. No Confucianism today is a simple continuation of anything. Mou Zongsan’s Confucianism is acutely conscious of the horrible excesses of putative sage-rulers. Lin Anwu’s Confucianism is specifically critical of the continuing “enchantment” one finds in Mou’s vision. Jiang Qing’s Confucianism is (partly) read through the lens of monotheistic, faith-based religions. Whatever one thinks of these modern Confucianisms, they are anything but simple continuations.

    In a recent essay called “American Confucianism,” I try to argue that the “American-ness” of American Confucianism is less of a challenge than is its modernity, but that figuring out how to be a modern Chinese Confucianism is also a great challenge. In some ways, at least, I believe that being a modern American Confucian and being a modern Chinese Confucian are challenges of a similar order, even if the specific obstacles are somewhat different. Certainly a modern Chinese Confucian needs to find a way to speak truth to power, and to resist the very conflation of 20th-century dictators with Confucian sage-rulers that you seem tempted by in your post. It may well be that the relevance of Confucianism today will be in the piecemeal, pluralistic fashion about which you speculate at the end of your post. But you express a preference for overall Western frameworks that I think is misplaced. I suspect that some of the most creative and well-informed thinking about possibilities for cross-cultural philosophical construction comes precisely from Chinese (and also Japanese) thinkers ranging across the whole long 20th century (and back into the 19th).

  4. Steve, Brian and Huaiyu (if I may): thanks a lot for your detailed comments! My piece was thought to be quite an occasional comment, so I might not have articulated my position in every aspect.

    Concerning what Brian pointed out, I am very thankful that you, Brian, bring up this three-fold classification. And maybe it is true that I belong to the more skeptical approach. I cherish the intellectual-historical approach, but ultimately I do not see myself as a historian of ideas. Of course I am not anti-Confucian or anti-traditionalist (as it might appear). I am engaging Confucian texts on a philosophical level, but at the same time I am very much concerned about the social consequences of Confucian teachings. It is possible to do some kind of armchair-Confucianism (on a purely theoretical level), but I do not think that this is a very satisfying approach (and it certainly contradicts the self-understanding of the Confucian tradition). But than it makes a huge difference whether I do Confucian philosophy in a Western setting (embedded in a net of practices that have been shaped by a liberal, open society with a strong tradition of individualism) or whether I am Confucian in a non-scholary context in the Chinese-speaking world where the self-definition as Confucian very often implies a claim for cultural, social and political power/authority (in an environment lacking the open competition of ideas). Therefore my worries. In this sense, I cherish the realistic analysis of the Confucian approach to power by critical intellectuals like Hu Shi and Yu Yingshi.

    Thanks, Huaiyu, for your comment. Of course we won’t find a justification for Chen’s execution in Confucian texts. And you are right, we need “more incisive and critical perspectives” on modern history. But here I don’t think it is a coincidence that in the long history of China Confucian teachings have nearly always been used by powerful elites to justify their rule (think of Manchu China, think of Chiang Kai-shek’s “New Culture Movement”, think of certain voices in the KPCh today). Of course there have always been critical Confucians. And it might be a good thing to develop a critical Confucianism today (I am actually very sympathetic to this kind of approach). And yet, I see a huge gap between a democratic, pluralistic society and the Confucian tradition.

    I don’t understand at all why Confucianism “may be the only hope of a genuine sense of human dignity and integrity” for Taiwan today: liberal democracy in Taiwan has been quite successfull in establishing the values of human dignity and integrity in Taiwan, but very often by going AGAINST the Confucian tradition…

    Steve, thanks for your comment! Yes, I was aware that I would be seen as playing the advocatus diaboli when claiming that there is not “a Confucian philosophical position that can still be defended in the modern age.” Maybe I am close to Lao Siguang who, as you observe very cogently in a recent article, favors a “disseggregated” (dasan 打散) Confucianism, not the New Confucian model of developing (kaichu 開出) “an internal Confucian response to the challenge of modernity”. I appreciate Mou Zongsan, but I have certain doubts about the internality thesis in general: by claiming that certain Kantian concepts and ideas are internal to the “Four Books”, does Mou really succeed in making a philosophical argument?? Doesn’t Kant’s general position undermine and even delegitimize the Confucian tradition? And doesn’t Mou end up in creating a new and creative understanding of a particular tradition, that qua philosophical argument appears often highly incoherent (at least measured against the very high demands of the Kantian project of justification)?

    At this point, I must say, that Lao Siguang’s position appears more appealing to me (also because he is less optimistic about the possibility of “Confucian/moral knowledge”). I am not against philosophical positions inspired by Confucian ideas, only skeptical about final, puristic and self-sufficient positions.

  5. Many thanks for the nice and open-minded responses, Kai!

    …But here I don’t think it is a coincidence that in the long history of China Confucian teachings have nearly always been used by powerful elites to justify their rule…

    I see to an extent what you mean by that, but cannot be absolutely sure.

    1) Do you mean that the powerful elites tend to use Confucianism as a superficial cover without actually practicing it? – but does this charge already suppose Confucianism to be a noble ideal already? Then it is not Confucianism that is the problem, but those leaders who have not been able to sincerely adopt and implement it to the full?

    2) Also, even though the powerful elites are not sincere in their practice, it might still be a good thing that they actually adopted some elements of Confucianism for justification (that they were concerned about justification – so that it was not an shameless and tyrannical rule by power). I think it may be more appropriate to understand Confucianism as a way to gentle the rule of the powerful elites – even though such process of gentling and moral transformation takes time and may not be always effective. Thus, even for the Qing (Manchu) regime, which to my mind represent only a deformed and dogmatic implementation of Confucian teachings, one will have to acknowledge that its most laudable achievements owed precisely to the Confucian practices.

    I have to acknowledge I am not too optimistic about liberal democracy both in theory and practice (as it is in the West or in Taiwan). I am open to pluralistic society, but tend to think the ancient Chinese societies were actually more pluralistic than the uniform social and economical orders enforced by modern democracy and capitalism. It would of course be interesting to learn what Confucian teachings you think the modern liberals in Taiwan have to go against in order to promote human dignity and integrity…

  6. Thanks, Huaiyu, for your interesting comments! First, I agree with you that we need more critical perspectives against the “uniform social and economical orders enforced by modern democracy and capitalism”. However, I think we have to distinguish carefully between liberal democracy as a theory and the capitalist (more or less plutocratic) order in the US. So I still think that liberal democracy is a institutional reality and a value system that we absolutely should cherish. I am certainly aware of the complex and very contradictory nature of modern regimes (I think in particular of Adorno’s description of the “dialectic of Enlightenment”, resp. Arendt’s, MacIntyre’s and Leo Strauss’ critique – on this point I find Robert Pippin’s analysis highly elucidating). Yet we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater: I know scholars who would subscripe your point that “Chinese societies were actually more pluralistic than the uniform social and economical orders” today, but for me this looks like all too general, nostalgic and ultimately wrong statement. Chinese traditional societies were characterized by too many inequalities (between the sexes, between the different social strata), forms of violence and often hidden repression as that any modern person would accept to live under these conditions (think of Lu Xun’s criticism or the books of David Wang 王德威 on the violence described in Chinese literature of the late 19th and early 20th century). Of course a similar nostalgia for the (Greek, German) past can be found in many European philosophers of the 20th century – but I still it is unrealistic and ultimately wrong.

    Confucianism is a “noble ideal”, I agree, but this cannot be enough for today: we need more sophisticated theories about the clash/the coexistence between the Confucian tradition and modernity in a liberal democracy (as in Taiwan). We shouldn’t just believe in a “noble ideal”. What I find problematic in scholars like Mou Zongsan or maybe also Jiang Qing is that they never question the general superiority of the Confucian tradition.

    On your second point: I think this insight simpy cannot be enough for a truly Chinese modernity that has still some relation to the Confucian past. We should have a higher standard than just realpolitics.

    Concerning your Taiwan related question, three things come to my mind:

    (1) The equality between the sexes (a very important value in democracies) is still not realized entirely in Taiwan and this issue is obviously related to the very traditional family structures we can still observe in many strands of Taiwanese social reality. The superiority of the first-born sun/the father is still an accepted value in many religious rites, too. Criticism of this kind of practices is most commonly not justified by neo-traditional interpretations of Confucianism, but by reference to the liberal idea of the rule of law.

    (2) Which role Confucian texts should play in the curricula is a controversial issue quite now (a lot of people favor a more pluralistic curricila, including other schools of thought like Daoism and Legalism). To justify the Confucian curricula just by pointing to the existence of China and her long tradition (on the other side of the Taiwan strait) is highly problematic in a democracy. There should be a broader consensus in the population about this very important issue, but open/rational discussions on this issue are very difficult in Taiwan (due to the very existential and therefore highly politicized relationship between the Taiwanese democracy and the illiberal Chinese one-party state).

    (3) Think also of the very common, but often not very visible paternalism that influences politics. It too works against the full realization of the equality before the law (divorce law is another good example, but also the legal status of foreign immigrants). Of course I don’t blaim Confucius for this alone, but there certainly is a relationship between the Confucian state/Confucian values in history and contemporary Taiwanese reality. The general preference for social harmony also still seems to obstruct the quest for justice and reconciliation after the Kuomindang dictatorship.

    • I could only think to relate (2) to the efforts to teach “creation science” as an “alternative theory” to evolutionary biology in US classrooms.

      The issue here, however, is markedly different, because unlike the creationism/evolutionism case, which is mostly a conflict over the preservation of a Christian religious culture in light of the scientific discoveries which refute that culture’s claims, the Taiwanese curricular issue is mostly a conflict over the preservation of a Confucian quasi-religious culture in light of the modern cultures to which Confucianism is irrelevant or oppositional.

      From a pragmatic standpoint, I think that the implementation of a great mass of Confucian rituals, rites, and ethics will be unrealizable among a population that outsources a majority of its stewardship to government and private sectors. My observations here (in Taiwan) have led me to believe that children see their parents more and more as sources of funding and preservers of their standards of living, but not much else. This is a product of modernization, where children are out of their homes for most of the day, have semi-occasional encounters with their immediate family, and live in a sort of remote cohabitation, even when they continue to live in the home after they’ve graduated from university.

    • Thanks for your comment! Living in Taiwan myself I more or less agree with your “pragmatic standpoint”. I do not think that there is a simple solution to this kind of fundamental cultural changes, but I somehow tend to believe that only here in democratic Taiwan can we find an answer to the question whether Confucian values will still be inspirational for future generations…

  7. Thanks Kai! You opened up some very complex questions about our understanding of and attitude to modernity and tradition, and esp. Confucianism and liberal democracy. I won’t pretend to have any shrewd and straightforward answer to such intricate issues. My modest comments below are only attempts to suggest some possible alternative perspectives that might be useful for promoting dialogues.

    1) I agree perfectly that we should not “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” – I wonder however if this maxim is applicable for our attitude to Liberal democracy and Confucianism as well, including the traditional family and social structures that were often criticized as “oppressive.” I understand what you mean by “hidden” repression, but is not Confucian teaching of love and reciprocity precisely a way to gentle such tensions? On the other hand, I am not sure that an absolute enforcement of “equality” (a concept fraud with ambiguities and paradoxes in itself) has been or would ever be workable for human societies (just think e.g. the calamities of communist rules. In this context, I find Xunzi’s discussion on the kind of “supreme equality 至平” with proper social division interesting and useful – Chapter Rongru 榮辱)
    2) I regard it unfortunate that modern criticism of Confucian “violence” has been seldom based on evidence from empirical and scientific studies, but mostly on literary and fictional works such as Lu Xun’s. One cannot deny that Lu’s work present an incisive critique of some striking pathological symptoms of modern China. But the validity of such critique for Confucianism/ancient Chinese societies in general has often been either “taken for granted” or fanatically adorned /political enforced, instead of being subject to open and careful questioning and debate. We now know that Lu’s many claims about ancient Chinese history and culture (such as the allegedly derisory uses of technology/four inventions) were simply erroneous. He also famously manipulated/distorted the description of the death scene of his own father in order to land a key criticism of Confucianism. In short, let me say that the realities of ancient Chinese history and societies were complex and multi-dimensional so that one needs to be cautious in relying simply on such one-sided narratives by Lu Xun or other modern writers with fomented by antagonism and defeatism against the tradition, however insightful they can be.

    All in all, I am sympathetic with the main ideals (such as human rights/dignity, liberty, fairness/equality) promised by modern liberal democracy. But it seems that the meanings of these ideals are often too ambiguous and modern institutions have more and more regularly failed to live up to such promises. It is in this contexts that scholars like Denial Bell, De Bary, Rosemont, Ames and Mou (to name just a few) are proposing alternative approaches in classical Confucianism. For the many issues you raise in Taiwan, my shallow reading of history tends to suggest that the only effective way to introduce a beneficial foreign ideal is almost always to find resonance of such ideal in some dimensions of one’s own tradition and to initiative productive dialogues and collaboration between them…

    • Thanks a lot, Huaiyu! I didn’t have time to send you a repy immediately. I think you have a point when you make your observation on the “absolute enforcement” of equality in recent Chinese history. And that may be the deep tragedy of Chinese modernity: that the process of modernization has nearly always been triggered by the political center (especially the absolute power of the Communist party) and never from below, by the people. But obviously the situation is very different in Taiwan now where equality is not enforced, but slowly realized through democratic mechanisms… But I am not sure whether Xunzi can actually contribute much to the very process of democratic bargaining.
      I am very interested in your remark on Lu Xun. I don’t know whether his critique of the Chinese past was “simply erroneous” (I have to read more of his fascinating essays!), but whenever I read him he gives me the impression of absolute sincerity (somehow reminding me of Nietzsche’s supreme virtue of “Redlichkeit”). But this may merely be a stilistic device, I admit, a mask he is wearing in order to hide his own very vulnerable (and probably very traditional) soul… Where has Lu Xun written on the death of his father? I am very interested in this text.
      Finally, on your last point: yes, I agree in principle, there is a need for “alternative approaches”. As always, however, the devil is in the details.

  8. This is a fascinating topic and thank you, Kai and everyone, for the very interesting discussion.
    It does raise the question of to what extent any thinker or philosophical tradition bears responsibility for how its ideas are used or misused in history. Should Nietzsche be held responsible for the Nazi and fascist use of his ideas? Should the excesses of modern liberalism be laid at the feet of John Locke? If I can play devil’s advocate myself for a moment, Kai, it looks like you are willing to distinguish the historical reality of liberalism from the ideals of liberal theory, yet you hold Confucian theory to blame for the realities of Chinese history. Is there an inconsistency here?

    As you probably know, I share many of your concerns, both philosophical and how these ideas affect current politics. I completely agree that Taiwan’s current political structure has very little to do with Confucianism, but I’m not entirely convinced that is a good thing. Of course the concern with harmony can have its problems, but so can the ideal of individual freedom. I think the critics of Rawls who point out that political liberalism alone can’t sustain itself and presupposes some values that go beyond the political make a good case. It is a virtue that Confucians like Mou and Xu Fuguan at least confront this issue and talk about what values are necessary. I agree that this is a discussion that ideally would not be led by the government, but I don’t know that chances are good for a constructive debate in Taiwan or anywhere else.

    The role of Confucianism today is a big question, and it seems to me is a central issue now. The demise of institutional Confucianism has been noted by many and lamented by some, but I’m highly suspicious of attempts to reconstruct an institutional form for many of the reasons you mention. However, I think maybe you don’t give enough credit to other possibilities. Li Minghui, for example, and his view that modern Confucianism can function as a kind of social and political criticism, reflecting on the government while maintaining independence. This would be a way of contributing to political discussion within a democratic structure. I agree with some of your doubts about Mou Zongsan (in particular, I think intellectual intuition is probably a non-starter), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable aspects of Confucian philosophy that can be developed in other ways.

  9. Good to hear from you, David! Thanks for sharing some of your thoughts with me (us?!). I remember that we had similar discussions in the past. I see what you mean when you write that I “don’t give enough credit to other possibilities”; in fact, I am more or less willing to give much credit to the Confucian tradition in general, and I value Li Minghui’s contribution very highly. And I also agree with you that Neo-Confucianism can play a constructive role as “a kind of social and political criticism”. What I wanted to say is something else. Let me restate it like this:

    For most Neo-Confucianis I have read it is not enough to just play the social or political “dissident”: they want to articulate a genuine and coherent philosophical position.

    In other words, they think that their Neo-Confucian position has the same truth value as let’s say Utilitarian or Liberal theories.

    However, the position articulated in the texts representing the thought of Confucius and Mencius is quite different from Mill’s or Rawls’ positions (think of their way of justifying an argument, developing a coherent set of beliefs, describing the moral realities of modern societies, etc.). Also think of what Mill or Rawls were doing originally, namely reflecting in theoretical terms about certain realities in modern societies. In contrast, Confucius and Mencius just tried to articulate a certain moral vision. From the beginning, however, this vision was entangled with certain political and social realities (Mill wrote treatises and did not develop his understanding of liberal politics in letters to the Queen).

    Thus we might have difficulties to defend a Confucian account against Mills/Rawls on purely philosophical terms.

    Thus I am rather skeptical whether Confucius/Mencius and let’s say Mill or Rawls are actually operating on the same level. I admit that there might be the possibility that we today can articulate the original Confucian moral vision on a higher, more theoretical level (and I believe, Li Minghui would claim to have done this). But as soon as we begin reconstructing the Confucian tradition in a more philosophical language, we cannot justify the Confucian vision by just pointing to some non-theoretical, non-verbal “practice” (gongfu) anymore. For me, at least, this looks like a self-contradiction. But on the level of social reality in the Chinese-speaking world, many philosophers are committed to exactly this kind of approach.

    Maybe I am too harsh, too negative. But I am just trying to make my point clear. Of course I DO cherish the moral vision articulated by Confucius and Mencius. And Confucian values certainly are an important part of Chinese cultural identity (f.ex. in Taiwan). And we might think that there are good reasons to respect this. But, and now I come to your first point, Mill and Rawls were aware of political realities in a modern society in a way that Confucius and Mencius were of course not (because they’ve never experienced it). The question of historical responsibility is of course a complicate one. But you probably would admit that the theories of Mill and Rawls have never become the main content of the education system in the U.S. or Europe – thus, just to play the devil’s advocate one last time, there is a difference in degree… Or what do you think?

  10. Certainly Mill and Rawls have never been the main content of US or European education. I would make the case, though, that aspects of classical liberalism are part of US education or at least mine was. We had to study the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution among other aspects of the founding of the US, and so much of that was inspired by John Locke that even though I didn’t read Locke in high school I got a lot of those ideas without knowing exactly where they came from. Cost-benefit analysis is so common that the utilitarian way of thinking is not foreign even to people who’ve never studied Bentham or Mill. My experience is the basic presuppositions of liberalism are pretty well embedded in American culture, so that they’re largely shared by people who’ve never read the philosophies. Of course I’m not speaking about Rawls here, but Mill and Locke. I think it would actually be good to read them and reflect on these ideas more critically, if you could get high school students to read philosophy.

    I don’t think it’s up for debate that Mill and Rawls were doing is different from what Kongzi and Mengzi were doing. However, I think a lot of what modern Chinese philosophers are doing is trying to articulate and defend aspects of Ru thought in the idiom of contemporary philosophy. Certainly this is not what Confucianism has historically been about and you do get people like Lin Anwu and Zheng Jiadong who are concerned about the separation of theory and praxis. I’m not so sure it is a problem, and if one is in a philosophy department it’s inevitable that it’s going to be more about theory. Your point about gongfu is a good one. This is probably the aspect of contemporary Ruism that I have the most reservations about, because it seems to imply there are just different epistemic abilities that only some people have access to, and that’s a worrying claim to me for both philosophical and political reasons. At the same time, these ideas are not limited to Ruists. How does one know nirvana is attainable, other than accepting the authority of the Buddha who said he attained it? Can a blind person ever understand color? I’m concerned about such claims, but I wouldn’t call them beyond the bounds of philosophy because they might actually be true. However, I do think Ruists should try to find alternative ways of justification, and one of the things I’ve been giving a lot of thought to as I work on my book manuscript is whether and how a Ruist conception of human nature can be justified (since, as I mentioned, I don’t think intellectual intuition is going to cut it).

    I think it’s premature to draw conclusions about the philosophical possibilities of Ruism or any kind of Chinese thought, even assuming that the standards should be those of Western academic philosophy. That kind of work has been going on less than a hundred years, and Chinese philosophy with a good understanding of Western philosophy is much less than that; I find Li Minghui has a much better grasp of Western philosophy than Mou Zongsan did, for example. Whether one thinks using methods of Western philosophy for Chinese philosophy is a good thing or a bad thing, it’s only been done for 30-40 years. I wouldn’t expect all the problems to be solved in that amount of time. I like that you’re willing to hold Ruist philosophers feet to the fire and expect sound philosophical work from them. I agree we should do nothing less. But it’s early to give up, don’t you think?

  11. Hi David – I have been rude, I should have written my reply much earlier. But as you certainly know, sometimes other things come suddenly into one’s mind and for some reason I forgot your very interesting comment. I agree to much what you have written, in particular your last line: “it’s early to give up”, that is very true: we should indeed give Confucian philosophy more time. Also, I find your observation about the US education system very provocative and would certainly love to hear more on this issue from you (during my stay in Seattle, I just happened to come across Domenico Losurdo’s “Liberalism: A Counter-History”, a book that digs deeper into the darker side of American exceptionalism and the history of liberalism in general). Only, frankly speaking, I have strong reservations as far is the educational value of Confucianism is concerned: I don’t think that a course in the Confucian classics can replace a solid training in the humanistic Western canon in the U.S. or elsewhere. In Taiwan some scholars are actually trying to develop a broader educational canon than the traditional one centered on the Confucian classics (including Western classics like Shakespeare or Plato). But I actually do not know how you think on this issue… Finally you are certainly right, it is more and more difficult to get high school students to read philosophy at all…

    • I have a side-question, about Losurdo. I hadn’t heard of the book – I went to Amazon the other day to look for hints about its argument, and found a couple of long customer-reviews, from which I get the following impression: Losurdo argues that liberalism’s great historical proponents have in general thought of its egalitarianism and liberties as applyingonly to some elite – not to their women, their servants, brown foreigners, etc. Furthermore, this limitation has been essential to the arguments of liberalism: extension to wider groups has not been a natural inner development, a proper working-out of core ideas, but has rather been simply a change. But the customer reviews don’t really explain this last thought.

      I don’t know what the dead liberal philosophers have to say about why the excluded parties are excluded. One imagines various possibilities: the excluded are not ready yet, some people are naturally too dull for rights, high society depends on unleisured servants and producers. I’m wondering if anyone can tell me: does Lusordo have a more interesting idea about reasons for exclusion, reasons that are more intimately related to arguments for liberty and equality than these seem to be?

      Last night I was reading the Introduction in David Hackett Fischer’s Liberty and Freedom (a tall fat book with ceramic-coated pages; weighs a ton). He makes an interesting claim about the historical difference between the words ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’. ‘Liberty’, he says, is from Mediterranean languages, and the core image and idea was negative: having been released from some sort of bondage, which is a privilege that brings responsibilities. The image, being negative, depends on the idea of some kind of bondage, and thus sort of almost depends on the maintenance of some kind of bondage. ‘Free’, on the other hand, is from Germanic languages, from the same root as ‘friend’ and words that mean ‘dear’; it is about membership in communities or, as Fischer almost unhepfully says, in free communities. He seems to mean membership in non-monarchical independent communities. Where ‘liberty’ involves privileges, ‘freedom’ involves rights. Fischer sums up: “Liberty meant separation. Freedom implied connection” (5). He says also that a distinction between “liberty” and “freedom” was long maintained in English. I’ll be interested to see whether Fischer can put some persuasive meat on those bones.

  12. Pam Nogales and I, members of the Platypus Affiliated Society, recently interviewed the Italian Hegelian-Marxist philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo, author of Liberalism: A Counter-History (2006, translated 2011).  We talked about Marxism, the problematic legacy of liberalism, and the State.  You might be interested in checking out the edited transcript of our conversation, which was recently published in The Platypus Review.

    You can also find full video of the interview on our Vimeo page.

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