What is Confucianism?

This is a more difficult issue than one might think. It could actually be wrong-headed to try to identify Confucianism in any definitive essentialist way. Why? Because the tendency, as with any “-ism” would probably be to try to nail down a certain number of doctrines or ideals that should be considered orthodox. That might be a legitimate way to identify some “-isms” or “-ities” (as in “Christianity”), but it should be regarded as a particular approach among others. So, let me suggest that trying to answer the related question: “Who is a Confucian?” is more fruitful. There are a few ways to go about doing this that differ in emphasis, though they might not produce mutually exclusive identifications:

  1. Allegiance to Confucius – One way to identify Confucians is to see who glorifies, canonizes, or categorically defends and promotes teachings attributable to the historical figure known as “Master Kong” (孔子, Kongzi; 551 to 479 BCE). Here, the emphasis is on the unique identity of some historical person to whom “Confucius” refers. This approach should mostly end up including the ritual and spiritual devotees of Confucius–people who in various ways practice the devotional worship and study of Confucius (which still flourish in S. Korea and Taiwan). But it should also include anyone else, including traditional commentators and contemporary scholars, who is invested heavily both in the truth of and authenticity of certain teachings regarded as having issued from Confucius’s own mouth. Here, it actually matters that–or whether–Confucius was a sage, someone who not only taught things but embodied and exemplified something uniquely admirable. By the same reasoning, it matters whether the teachings traditionally attributed to Confucius are really his and not merely some good ideas that anyone could have come up with.
  2. Advocating a Set of Uniquely Specifiable Ideals – This way of identifying Confucians focuses on espousers of the doctrines or concepts that can be specified as belonging to the unique set of views that arise from the moral, political, and (roughly) spiritual tradition that claims Confucius as an early founder. Here, the emphasis is on the strength and viability of a certain set of ideas, regardless of how historically accurate it is to attribute them to Confucius or any other particular individual in the tradition. A Confucian in this sense believes in the non-parochial defensibility of the value of a certain type of society based on the model of family affection and duties, certain types of bearing and decorum in public and private life based on self-reflection, and inculcation of certain feelings and traits through education. It is important to emphasize that a Confucian in this sense regards a core of such ideas as defensible, adaptable, and worth philosophical attention from reasonable points of view that are not already committed to the Confucian tradition.
  3. Rearing in a Particular Type of Society – This way of identifying Confucians emphasizes participation, either witting or unwitting, in a type of society regarded as culturally bound in some non-trivial way to mores and institutions from a Confucian past. “The Confucian past” may be identified as the historical eras in which scholars and ministers with certain sorts of Confucian textual allegiances (see 1 above) influenced policies, laws, and ideologies that played a large role in shaping cultural attitudes. So, someone reared within a very traditionally Chinese or Korean subculture may carry such attitudes with them, whether they realize it or not–having a strong tendency to be scandalized by perceived indecorous behavior or appearance, for example.

Okay, let me leave it there for the time being. I’m sure there’s plenty more I would need to say to clarify things. Feel free to comment or question, name names, point fingers, etc.

3 thoughts on “What is Confucianism?

  1. I’m sceptical whether the shift from ‘Confucianism’ to ‘Confucian’ will help you with the problem of essentialism — though from your subsequent post I can think of plenty of reasons why we might find it more interesting to talk about the former.

    As it is, you give a conjunct definition of ‘Confucian.’ Why couldn’t you take a similar approach to the ‘-ism,’ exactly parallel to the former? The answer, of course, is that you could. So I can think of at least two other reasons for adopting the strategy that you do follow.

    One is the worry that words with -isms induce a sense of essentialism in many people, regardless of explicit caveats that you might give.

    The other is a metaphysical worry. Talk about Confucianism presumes that there is something that gets that name attributed to it, whereas we might wish to argue that there is actually nothing there. Whereas we know (Cartesian worries aside) that there are people, so the use of ‘Confucian’ is clearly just serving to attribute a property (at least one from a list, according to your definition) to an object we already have a metaphysical theory for.

    I’ll point out that people sometimes pluralize Hinduism and Judaism as a means of avoiding unintended metaphysical presumptions, while still allowing for conjunct definitions of -isms, so that’s another option that’s open to you.

  2. First, thanks for a thoughtful introduction to fundamental questions, most of which I’ve attempted to deal with for many years (going back to when I was a teaching assistant for Herbert Fingarette’s introductory course on Asian philosophies; my understanding of Confucius owes much to Fingarette’s seminal book).

    When I introduce “the” Confucian worldview to my students, I tell them it will be rather abstract and idealized, a rational re-construction that relies on the principle of charity and accords to “Confucius” a presumptive benefit of the doubt on hermeneutic questions, meaning coherence is a basic interpretative virtue. Our introduction is best identified therefore with 2 above. I explain that it may be possible that some of the ideas and practices attributed to Confucius may not be his (at worst, the ‘manufacturing’ of Confucianism a la Lionel Jensen), but, as with Daoism, this will not preclude us from identifying a cluster of concepts *and* forms of praxis that appear to have a structural integrity to them. I distinguish this worldview from neo-Confucianism 1 (e.g., Mencius, Xunzi, Boston Confucianism, etc.), and Confucianism as an ideology, 3 (e.g., the selective use of Confucian ideas to legitmate political power or what Maoism understood as exemplifying everything ‘backwards’ about Chinese society), using 2 on occasion to compare and assess nos. 1 and 3. On occasion we have recourse to ideas from outside the Confucian worldview proper to better understand what “Confucius” was up to, although not so as to say his thought was “identical” or “just like” these ideas, but in order to examine provocative familial resemblances worthy of exploration. Hence we discuss virtue ethics, pedagogical philosophies with a central place accorded the arts (as in classical Greek thought), work on character (from philosophy and psychology), ritual, social norms, conventions, and so forth. The term “worldview” is used so as to largely elide the distinction between religion and philosophy, although we do discuss what, from the outside looking in, appear to be conspicuously religious aspects of this worldview. Keep in mind this is an introductory course that must introduce six (!) other worldviews in one semester, so there’s only so much one can do. In short, I use 2 to in some respects to paint a normative picture so as to get a better grip on both 1 and 3.

  3. Pingback: Who is a Confucian? « RGS Philosophy

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