Sources of the Philosophy of Confucius

When you teach the philosophy of Confucius, surely you use the Analects as a source–probably your main source, maybe your only source.  What (if anything) else do you use as a primary source for the philosophy of Confucius (not of Confucianism), and why?

Two points of reference: 1) Mark Csikszentmihalyi’s entry on Confucius in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  With reference to the work of Zhu Weizheng and Michael Hunter, he says, “An attack on the authoritativeness of the Analects… broadens and diversifies the sources that may be used to reconstruct… the corpus of Confucius quotations and dialogues beyond the Analects.”  Which sources? Specifically mentioned are the following:

  • Records of Ritual, the Elder Dai’s Records of Ritual (DaDai Liji 大戴禮記)
  • Family Discussions of Confucius (Kongzi jiayu 孔子家語)
  • Zuo Commentary to the Spring and Autumn Annals
  • Han’s Intertextual Commentary on the Odes (Han Shi waizhuan 韓詩外傳)
  • Recently archaeologically recovered texts from the Han period and before

2) Michael Ing, in the Vulnerability of Integrity, adduces passages from the Kongzi jiayu and the Han shi waizhuan in claims about Confucius’ philosophical positions.

I’m sure there are other points of reference, but these should suffice to jump start a conversation.

Why do I ask?  In the past, I have used only the Analects and haven’t felt any reason to reach beyond it.  But Hunter’s work has made me re-think that, and like Csikszentmihalyi, I think that rather than foreclosing the Analects as a source of Confucius’ philosophy, Hunter’s work opens us to more possibilities. Plus, I find some of the sources above interesting and compelling.

Clarifications about this post:
A) Not interested here in how you expand on Confucius’ ideas via other texts, such as Mencius, Zhong yong, etc.  Might be a good topic for another thread.
B) Not interested here in whether we can reconstruct a coherent philosophy of Confucius.  This particular topic is only for those who teach the philosophy of Confucius and, at least provisionally, presuppose that we can discuss his philosophy in a coherent way.  Perspectives on “whether” are a good topic for a different thread.

18 replies on “Sources of the Philosophy of Confucius”

  1. This is a really interesting topic, Brian. There’s a question that jumps out at me about what motivates a project to delineate the philosophy “of Confucius” with the many authorship questions that modern scholars have raised. When scholars have tried to establish an orthodoxy or canon, there were probably other motives than the one I think you have when you build a college course around the delineation. So, I guess I want to ask from a friendly place what your course goals are for teaching it this way?

    • I think you hit the nail on the head, Manyul. I’m not interested (in this thread) about technical issues surrounding an orthodoxy or canon. I’m more interested in the practical side of attributing ideas to the figure of Confucius. We say in our classrooms, for example, “Confucius believed…” or “Confucius thought…” or “Confucius said…” or “According to Confucius….” And presumably we don’t do so without some textual basis. It’s a simple question, really: other than the Analects, what textual basis (if any) do you use?

      I’m guessing that the answer for most of us is: none. But I’m interested to know if there are a minority out there (like Michael and Mark) who do use other texts and, if so, which. Then I might ask for a brief follow-up justification, but, again, I’m not that interested at the moment in an in-depth discussion about how to build a canon. It really is more of a practical, pedagogical question.

      As for my own goals, they are also uncomplicated: conveying the ideas of the figure of Confucius to students in a philosophy course–at any level. That allows us to compare the ideas of Confucius, with, say, Mencius, Plato, or the Buddha.

      But maybe you are all more sophisticated than me. Maybe you don’t refer to Confucius at all. Maybe you refer only to what individual texts say and refrain from mentioning a specific figure associated without those beliefs. I have to confess that I don’t do that for Confucius. Up to now, I have used “the Analects” and “Confucius” interchangeably (notwithstanding the few cases where the authoritative voice in the Analects in not that of Confucius). I like the convenience of attributing ideas to persons rather than texts because 1) texts come from somewhere, 2) trying to delineate sections of texts with distinct authorial identities is pedagogically cumbersome in a philosophy course (which is what I teach) , and 3) it allows for convenient comparisons. In the end, the ideas (and the degree of their coherence, or systematic association–how me make sense of them in relation to each other) are more important than the associated personages, but the personages are, in a sense, an expedient delivery device. Maybe a crude analogy would be that ideas are to a personage as a liquid is to a syringe. It’s cumbersome to transmit the former without the the use of the other.

      Also, I’m not suggesting that anyone who attributes ideas to the figure of Confucius does so naively or without providing appropriate hermeneutic caveats. Maybe you spend a significant amount of time discussing possible sources and historical minutiae surrounding various texts. Still, with that behind you, when you go forward in the class and say something like, “According to Confucius” (if you do), which text(s) form the basis of such claims?

      One last thing, before I get jumped on for being a simpleton. I do insist that when students write about the ideas from class, they attribute them in a way that is as hermeneutically sophisticated as possible (according to their level). Still, I do allow, even in graduate papers, that what Confucius is said to have said in the Analects is accurate enough for attribution to the figure of Confucius, and I don’t encourage them to go beyond the Analects for ideas attributable to Confucius. At least, I haven’t so far. Should I? Do you?

    • Thanks for that, Brian! My experience has been that a little bit of hand-waving at the authorship issues helps the students, even at the introductory level. It helps me as well since sharp students will find tensions or incoherences just within the Analects itself. Some of those are fruitful for hermeneutic springboarding into side discussions; some are ones where I want to bring up the authorship hand-waving again. I find it difficult to “keep a straight face” as it were, when I talk about what Confucius said or thought. Though it can be frustrating for some students, from a pedagogical point of view, I think it helps them to rethink authorship across their education experiences — “what Jesus said” or “what Socrates thought,” that sort of thing. But to each instructor, his or her own.

      To speak to your original question, I rarely do more than the Analects for representing how Confucius is thought traditionally to have presented his ideas. My students have enough of a time building a useful image of the historical figure, working through that. Again, great teaching question, Brian!

  2. According to the received tradition after Han Dynasty, all five classics were either compiled or influenced by Confucius. For instance, there were so many Confucius sayings in the Ten commentaries of the Classic of Change. The traditional category of 經學 (the learning of classics), different from 子學 (the learning of masters), speaks to the fact that the coherent view of a singular philosopher’s thinking is much less important, particularly in the period of the formation of Ru canon, than the continuing commentarial lineage of Ru thought starting from the formation of Five Classics (and other canonized system of Ru Classics). I do not quite get the reason why 韓式外傳 and 孔子家語, as listed, were more authentic to represent Confucius’s thought than the commentarial lineage of Ru thought.

    • Excellent point, Bin.

      I can’t speak for others, but I can say that the reason 韓詩外傳 and 孔子家語 are candidates for inclusion as sources of the philosophy of Confucius is that they purport to contain the words of Confucius. A complete justification for why one would want to include them (if one did want to do that; and not include other sources that also purport to contain the words of Confucius) would be much more involved. And it wouldn’t necessarily rule out 經學. I don’t think the two are necessarily at odds.

      Your point is important, though. Indeed, many Chinese scholars have included the Five Classics as sources for getting at the authentic ideas of Confucius, and instead of focusing on the personage of Confucius, their focus might be on orthodox (vs heterodox) Ruism. That method is distinct from the person-focused method that I am talking about here (though, again, not necessarily at odds). It would be worth discussing more (in another thread), for it has issues of its own that are worth exploring.

      What about you? How do you do it in your classroom? Do you discuss the ideas of Confucius specifically, and if so, which source(s) form(s) the basis for your claims? Do you use language, such as, “Confucius believed…,” “Confucius thought…,” “According to Confucius…,” etc.?

  3. Dear Brian,
    Thanks for the response! I mostly follow traditional views (particularly the Neo-Confucian, Daoxue view, which I think hasn’t been disproved much after the wave of excavated texts) regarding authorship. Analects will be primarily Confucius’s saying. Anything other than that, I will tell students the origin of each addressed texts, the received view of authorship in the Ru tradition, the evolving significance of each text. “Confucius says,” philologically, is like “Jesus says” in texts of early Christianity, which is quite pervasive in early Ru classics as well. And hence, to discern their philosophical core in varying lineages of thought is more available than empirically checking their authorship.

  4. I want to put in a word for the pedagogical importance of the distinction between (2) what is said (or thought) by “the Confucius of the Analects” and (2) what is said (or thought) by the Analects.

    (1) The Confucius of the Analects is at least a character in the Analects, one who says things. We commonly attribute statements, views, and actions to fictional characters without misunderstanding. Linus Van Pelt believes in the Great Pumpkin.

    (2) A book can say things. A novel or a diary does not say whatever its characters say; neither does the Analects. The Analects presents different characters with some strikingly different views.

    In my view, scholarship and pedagogy on Confucius, on the Analects, and on the Confucius of the Analects have fallen into grave errors about the broad strokes of the thing by neglecting this distinction.

    • Could you supply specific examples of “grave errors” resulting from scholars overlooking the basic distinction between what a work as a whole conveys and what a specific character (however significant or otherwise to the work as a whole) conveys? Particularly in the context of the Analect. I am particularly interested in the gravity of the errors you have identified but have not yet presented.

      It is interesting that you have found that the general drift of the Analects diverges so much from the general drift of Confucius in the Analects that grave errors result from speaking as though they converge.

    • Thank you for the question, J. Williams!

      Not “conveys” but “says”; and not “the book as a whole” so much as particular passages. I don’t think “the general drift of the Analects diverges [greatly] from the general drift of Confucius in the Analects.”

      And I was talking only about scholarship on the Analects, not charging scholars in other areas with similar lapses.

      Take for example Brian above: “Up to now, I have used “the Analects” and “Confucius” interchangeably (notwithstanding the few cases where the authoritative voice in the Analects in not that of Confucius).”

      Thus when the Analects says in one place that Youzi said X, scholars (even in peer-reviewed publications) often say simply “the Analects says X,” and take that as the equivalent of “The Confucius of the Analects says X.” Or they just say “Confucius said X.” These elisions, I think, have allowed or caused many scholars (for a long time most scholars) to see, as CORE views of the Confucius of the Analects, several views that are radically out of harmony with the aggregate of statements the Analects attributes to Confucius.

      I give lots of specific examples and citations here:

      And if you follow the “here” and “there” links at the beginning of that post, you get accounts of some of the specific grave errors that I think have resulted.

      Those posts are part of a larger series I put up a few years ago. After I posted them I worked on improved versions for a while, and though those are largely done they’re not quite done, and I’m not so interested anymore. But I’m prepared to defend or expand on (or retract) any points that are challenged.

      The general thought is that scholars have mistakenly let Youzi’s statement at 1.2 seed their whole vision of Confucius, taking him to take family as the source and model of individual excellence (and political forms).

      That view of the importance of family is pervasive and prominent in the broad sweep of Western moral and political philosophy, but it’s radically out of harmony with the views of the Confucius of the Analects.

    • In the bit I quoted from him above, Brian’s phrase “the authoritative voice” makes an important argument against my line of thought. The argument is that since the Analects quotes Youzi at 1.2 and elsewhere in the same sort of way that it usually quotes Confucius, the text as a whole arguably endorses the statement. And Confucius is the hero of the text. Therefore the text suggests that we should attribute the idea to its character Confucius.

      One might make the same sort of argument about the statements of Zengzi in Book 8. (And the collegial criticisms in Book 19?)

      That argument suggests that it may be valuable to distinguish various concepts of “the Confucius of the Analects.” One is Confucius as represented by the aggregate of statements attributed to him there. Or to put it another way – Confucius on the hypothesis that the vast majority of attributions of statements to him in the Analects are accurate. This “Confucius of the Analects” would not be affected by any other voices that “the Analects” appears to take as authoritative.

      This “Confucius of the Analects” is worth attending to for purposes of scholarship and pedagogy, because – and here I am interrupted for a while by urgent tasks of my day job and another project. I’ll be back.

  5. Honestly, I don’t think there are many sources that REALLY tell us much about Confucius. There are sources that PURPORT to do so, but they’re all from substantially later than Confucius’s lifetime–even the excavated texts that Brian mentions (and which Scott Cook has discussed in his chapter in the Concise Companion to Confucius).
    I don’t think this means you can’t use the Analects. I use the Analects. But it means that if we’re being careful, we have to remember that we’re talking about “Confucius as he is presented in the Analects” (or whichever source we’re using), not “Confucius.” If Confucius had wanted us to read his book, he would have written a book. He didn’t.

  6. Thanks for the reply! Your remark is now much clearer to me. As a specific claim it seems much more plausible than when stated generally, though naturally less radical. Scholars are perhaps speaking fast and loose, but that is presumably because they assume that a moral vision is being conveyed by the various (authoritative) characters in the work. Is it this assumption you are bringing into question? Or are you merely concerned with which character gets credit for making a specific point?

  7. Thank you!

    I suppose we agree that the matter of credit is of no intrinsic interest. Here are some of the other things I think are at stake, much of it relevant in the underclassroom, where the teaching of the Analects is a fine and perhaps necessary occasion to teach good and responsible practices of active interpretation applicable elsewhere.

    I think the Confucius material and the Youzi material in the Analects present starkly different visions of moral psychology and society. For example, Youzi discusses cardinal virtues as growing from analogous but much narrower face-to-face virtues; and Confucius seems not to have thought of that idea. Confucius thinks rather of our gradually absorbing patterns from outside ourselves (or our being absorbed into an outside social pattern). I think both visions are very interesting. But here’s what happens when one builds one’s vision of Confucius’ vision (and thus of the Analects as a whole) around 1.2:


    One misses Confucius’ vision. For example, (a) one attributes to him mainly the more or less coherent family-as-root vision one sees in 1.2 and then tries to see in 1.6 and 2.21. Or else (b) one attributes to him a mishmash—and may be tempted to defend him and the reading in part by defending mishmash as such.


    One misses the fact that the remarks attributed to Confucius in the Analects express a vision that (a) hangs together and (b) is different from the visions of Ru after him, the most likely sources of inauthentic sayings in the Analects. These two points weigh in favor of authenticity. So one misses significant considerations in favor of authenticity.


    Because one builds one’s reading of the Confucius material around an unapt core, one’s reading is incompatible with the text as it stands. Deeply and pervasively so, I think. Either one corrects one’s foundational error or one becomes committed to bad readings, and thus to the intellectual vices that can accept them. I think this happens a lot.


    Because one’s vision of Confucius is so dissonant with the Confucius material, one’s reading depends very narrowly and heavily on reading 1.2 into Confucius. One is often in a position to notice how weak one’s interpretive expositions sound unless one suppresses Youzi’s name. The very idea of Youzi as a thinker is a threat to one’s general view of “Confucius,” which may be important to one’s professional identity. The very idea of Youzi becomes an irritant to be suppressed. And thus one makes no attempt to interpret Youzi as a thinker, to find his vision, which is interesting, valuable, and influential. Two illustrations:

    Of Youzi’s three statements in An.1, (A) two are widely agreed to be very important in the tradition. They feature prominently in the literature on Confucianism. (B) There are deep and longstanding disagreements about how to interpret each of the three statements. Points (A) and (B) together strongly suggest that there must be some published thoughtful interpretive discussion of these passages. To interpret a hard and important passage, obviously one of the mandatory steps is to have a look at other material attributed to the same author (especially passages from the same tiny text). But among Analects scholars, Youzi does not register as an entity. I have found no interpretive discussion of any Youzi passage that makes even the slightest reference to any other Youzi passage (other than discussions by me and by a retired Taiwanese businessman). But the harmonies among the various Youzi statements are profound and prima facie revealing. By not trying to interpret the personage, scholars have missed important things about important passages.

    Aside from my own work, in the Anglophone literature the best overview – the only overview – of Youzi’s thought or viewpoint as such is by a (or the) leading Analects scholar, with a reputation for deep knowledge and moralizing about methodological responsibility, in a leading reference work. Demonstrably, while writing the account the scholar was unaware that Youzi is named at 1.2. Demonstrably, the research for the account was limited to a translated comic book, including especially a page paraphrasing a well-known Analects statement that the comic book page rightly attributed to Ziyou 子游 rather than (as the scholar thought) Youzi. A later edition of the translated comic book follows the scholar and accordingly changes its translation of 子游 from “Ziyou” to “You Ruo” on that page and throughout. Such is the awareness of You Ruo among the scholars responsible for him.


    In my opinion, one of the important things people miss by dogged inattention to Youzi is his meaning at 1.2. In my opinion he rather pointedly does not assert the primacy of family. On the contrary, his proposed root is meant to be seen as evenly balanced between a kind of family relating (filial piety 孝) and a kind of non-family relating (elder-respect 弟). Elder-respect is not even about relationships; a prominent illustrative example of elder-respect in the early literature is about what happens between any two people passing on the road.

    A respectable minority of respectable scholars reads “ti” at 1.2 as elder-respect. (Almost everybody reads it that way when Confucius pairs it with “xiao” at 1.6 and 13.20.) If we accept the very popular Elision Premise that one should read the Analects as though Confucius and Youzi were sort of the same person, then in deciding how to read “ti” at 1.2, we should notice that the elder-respect reading does away with major dissonances between 1.2 and the Confucius material in the Analects. The elder-respect reading gives us a vastly more coherent fake philosopher. So on the Elision Premise, the “respect for older brother” reading of “ti” at 1.2 is an obvious non-starter. Or rather, not obvious, but only because one hardly ever tries to look at the Confucius material except through the lens of 1.2 on the brother reading.

    I think the Confucius material in the Analects has some weight toward interpreting the Youzi material, especially as regards linguistic usage; but the Elision Premise is problematic. In a long essay I may post this year, I make three other arguments for the elder-respect reading at 1.2, and I think together they’re pretty much dispositive.


    Thus in my view the idea of the primacy of family is entirely absent from the Analects. Nobody mentions such primacy. Nobody ever uses any family metaphor for the ruler/people relation or the ruler/minister relation (though occasionally a scholar will tell you that such metaphor “pervades” the book). Arguably nobody even mentions family: the kind of community we associate with that word in default of qualifiers or special cues. And, again, the root-branch vision of moral progress that the family-first vision relies on is quite absent from the Confucius material. But it’s not just that such things are absent from the text. The Confucius of the Analects has definite views about relations among close kin, and definite views about overall social order, that are disanalogous in regard to (a) the moral significance of impartiality, (b) the proper conditions of service, (c) the grounds of position, (d) the grounds and quality of relationships, and (e) the social psychology of the group and the consequent main locus of moral responsibility within the group.



  8. A little more on how broad or narrow the issue may be:

    My impression is that the interest in attributing ideas or statements to the “Analects” in print is usually motivated, not by concerns about authenticity, but rather by an interest in suppressing the mention of Youzi, mainly in connection with 1.2 (sometimes 1.12), in order to read that statement into the Confucius material in the Analects, which one can then sometimes call “Confucius.” The motivation is that narrow.

    For example, the essay “Family Reverence (孝) in the Analects : Confucian Role Ethics and the Dynamics of Intergenerational Transmission” (in Olberding ed. Dao Companion to the Analects: 2013) discusses relevant remarks by Confucius, Zengzi, and Youzi (the latter on pp. 125ff and 134), comments at length on the root metaphor, and attributes the remarks of the three Masters consistently to Confucius, Zengzi, and the Analects.

    Similarly Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary (2011) quotes Youzi’s words on pages 88f., 176 (1.2), 170 (1.12), and 205 (1.13), and discusses them elsewhere, but it never mentions Youzi’s name (though it attributes Zengzi’s statements consistently to Zengzi).

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