Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Resuming Duties

I’m officially back in Fearless Leader mode. I’d like to thank Dan Robins very much for guest blogging. We’ll have Dan back in the future, I’m sure (not that he’s going away; I’m sure he’ll be very active in commenting). I’ll be starting some posts composed by my Phil. 245 (‘Confucianism’) students in the next few days. Meanwhile, I thought it would be fun to discuss “portable tradition,” a phrase Robert Neville uses to describe “Boston Confucianism.” The idea of Boston Confucianism was used initially tongue-in-cheek by Neville to refer to the New Confucian movement, in which he included Tu Wei-ming and himself, both of whom teach in Boston–one north of the Charles River (at Harvard) and one south (at BU).

The portability of Confucian tradition is based on the idea that there is nothing necessarily parochial, geographically speaking, about Confucianism–one need not be culturally Chinese or Sino-centered for the tradition to have some intellectual hold or appeal. You don’t have to be Greek, likewise, to be a Platonist. At this level of generality, it all sounds fine, if not innocuous. There is, however, the lingering question of portability not so much across geography (narrowly construed), but across time: is Confucianism portable into modernity and post-modernity?

At least one indirect criticism of portable Confucianism was provided by Bryan van Norden in his 2003 review (PEW 53:3) of Neville’s book, Boston Confucianism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000). I’m going to cut and paste (an image of) van Norden’s most critical comments, because I think he’s actually on to something, despite seeming only to be snarky (sorry about png quality–I’m too lazy to type all this out):

I have to admit, when I read *non-exegetical* pieces by Tu, there is something bland about his discussions–actually, they tend to strike me alternatively as bland or pragmatically undecipherable (What am I supposed to do with the fact of the dependency of human relations on larger patterns of connections to the cosmos as a whole? Study astronomy? Then what?) Is there something striking or captivating about what either Neville or Tu promote in their versions of Confucianism? Admittedly, I haven’t read enough of their works to be an expert; so let me know.

(Did I mention I was fearless?)


March 17, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Religion


  1. Well, at least you find his exigetical pieces non-bland.

    I’m thinking that studying astronomy would push me more in the direction of Kierkegaard than Confucianism. But not really either; maybe Camus.

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 17, 2008 | Reply

  2. Wait; that doesn’t follow; I just haven’t read any of his exegetical pieces!

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 17, 2008 | Reply

  3. Oops. Did I deny the antecedent?

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 18, 2008 | Reply

  4. It’s true that Tu isn’t an exegete (for what it’s worth I don’t think he considers himself one either). The closest thing he has to an “exegetical” piece is his centrality and commonality, which even he up front admits is an “appreciation” rather than an “interpretation” (I believe that’s the language he uses in the intro, although I don’t have the text in front of me).

    On the other hand, Neville, who is a theologian certainly considers Tu along those lines, and the International Association for the History of Religions has had him keynote, so I think the “those who are” that Van Norden refers to is not necessarily representative of those fields.

    Tu doesn’t do what Van Norden does, and whether Tu is a “philosopher” proper seems to be the real issue he should be (and is?) raising (Tu is after all “Professor of Chinese History, Philosophy , and of Confucian Studies”). In other words, if one is looking to Tu for comparative insight (between Kierkegaard and Confucianism, for instance), or a close reading of the Analects, disappointment will most likely be the result.

    I think the book (Boston Confucianism) makes the claim that Confucianism is portable through more than geography (after all, it is subtitled “Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World”). Whether it substantiates this claim is of course another question.

    Speaking of Neville, I think he offers a very persuasive reading of the tradition. Not persuasive in the sense that his arguments are contextualized within debates that others such as Van Norden see themselves involved in (perhaps there’s little originality there), but persuasive in the sense that he is someone that knows absolutely no Chinese (I don’t think most Chinese scholars–at least abroad–have bought the idea that Confucianism is not geographically/culturally limited), self identifies as a “Confucian”, attempts to articulate the viability of Confucianism in (post)Modernity (I think he gets into some of his theory of li in the book), and is able defend his position on multiple grounds (when speaking with philosophers that work in Chinese material, Christian theologians, etc.). This is post is already getting long… so I’ll stop here.

    Comment by Agui | March 18, 2008 | Reply

  5. Personally, I don’t think it is too hard to trace Tu’s philosophy to Xiong Shili and the Existentialists. Personally, I really like his approach and find it very refreshing. It does add a lot, so much so that one could argue that it has alienated itself from Confucianism proper, but I’m unconvinced especially since what constitutes “Confucianism proper” in a post-May 4th world is up for debate. That is the whole point of New/Boston Confucianism: how do deal with Confucian philosophy in a post-Confucian world. If that question isn’t addressed, aren’t we all just studying for an examination we’ll never be able to take?

    I also think that Van Norden is generalizing Tu’s philosophy to a point where, I agree, it can be said to be meaningless, but given the importance of a variety of Confucian concepts (especially Ming learning) to his philosophy and how he applied those issues to Existentialism, Tu clearly separates himself from the mish-mash presented here.

    Comment by Justsomeguy | March 18, 2008 | Reply

  6. Agui and Justsomeguy,

    Thanks for the input. I do think there are more exegetically oriented pieces–mostly on neo-Confucians. I don’t have my books with me (I’m on the road; blogging from Pasadena at the APA meetings); when I get back, I’ll fill in the references. My recollection–I haven’t looked at those pieces in a few years–is that they are exegetical for the purpose of transporting some of the core ideas into the modern world.

    I agree with both of you that the important part of the “portability” of Boston Confucianism can’t just be geographic, but has to be about explicating a viable version of Confucianism *for* modern sensibilities. I think there are two formidable obstacles to this, a sort of Scylla and Charybdis pair, and it would be interesting to hear from those who know their views better than I, how Neville and/or Tu specifically either address or steer between them.

    Too much portability: On the one hand lies the obstacle that is the tendency to “play too much” to modern sensibilities so that the resulting view is not very different in substance from some version of modern humanism or more specific types of ethical theory that may be derived quite independently of Confucian sources–from reasons or reasoning that anyone living in Boston, say, could engage in now, without specific reference to Confucian teachings.

    Not enough portability: On the other hand lies the obstacle that is the tendency to tie the view down to principles or modes of thinking that require thinking and believing like a 13th to 15th century neo-Confucian, or like a 4th century BCE ritualist.

    Or maybe someone thinks one or neither of these obstacles is really something to worry about.

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 19, 2008 | Reply

  7. I suppose it is all about one’s goal with respect to studying Confucianism and philosophy in general. Being a professional, you probably view the situation differently than I do, but as an individual I study philosophy so I can live better. The modern condition is necessarily wrapped up in that, so I tend to veer away from thinkers that treat Zhu Xi, Yangming, let alone Confucius and Mencius as exclusive products contained within their time because, errr, I’m not living in pre-modern, let alone ancient China!

    But that doesn’t mean that these philosophers living in an alien world from mine don’t have anything of value to say (d’uh, otherwise I wouldn’t have wasted so much time reading them). In fact, due to our shared humanity there is a great deal of inspiration that can be found in them and they offer a different way of looking at things. But the same can be said of pretty much any philosopher, right? So I haven’t established anything.

    But what this alternate view can accomplish is to correct. Living in the West, the history of Western philosophy does affect my daily life and the assumptions of myself and those around me. Some of these assumptions aren’t shared by the Confucian scholars, while others shared but understood in a different light. So applying Confucian paradigms to western philosophy allows one to root out historical baggage that may-or-may-not be a good thing and correct faults that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. By applying Confucianism as a corrective, as sort of fusion/bastard-child philosophy develops organically over time.

    This could certainly be done with other philosophies, but personally I find a richness to Confucian philosophy that I’ve rarely found elsewhere (probably because it suits my personality) so I think it is specially suited for the task. Especially since so much of the modern condition deals with living as a social creature. People could arrive at these conclusions from a variety of paths, sure. Think about when Qinshun talked about the gates of the Capital and how you can get inside using any of them (I’ll try to find the quote later). But some of those gates are easier to pass through than others. The whole point here isn’t to operate from first-philosophy, but rather to take advantage of what others already know and use it.

    There are better exegetes out there than Tu, sure. But in terms of creating a Confucianism for the modern time, I think he is pretty solid. Look at the history of Confucianism. By the very nature of the examination system, we’ve got more commentary on the Confucian classics than we know what to do with, much of it is no doubt solid exegesis. There are plenty of outstanding Jinshi. But we tend to remember people who were a little wacky. Far from just transmitting, people like Zhu Xi and Yangming went out of their way to create something new from the old. I think Tu is engaged in something similar (though make no mistake, I don’t mean to liken him to Zhu Xi and Yangming in terms of greatness, merely in terms of process).

    Comment by Justsomeguy | March 19, 2008 | Reply

  8. I do think there are more exegetically oriented pieces–mostly on neo-Confucians.

    Some of his earlier work (late 60s-early 70s) may have been somewhat exegetical (he has a few pieces on Wang Yangming for instance–and his dissertation of course, but I don’t think we’d include it as ‘exegetical’; closer to intellectual history maybe), but even in those pieces he creates a rather different relationship with the material. It’s not exegetical in the strict sense of providing a thick description of possible interpretations of the text; instead he works with the material as a starting point for thinking on the topic (perhaps this is more problematic then he assumes?). IMO it’s something like thinking with the material versus thinking about the material. A good example of this in his early work is “The Creative Tension Between Jen and Li” (PEW 1968).

    As far as the portability issue is concerned, it seems what Tu has in mind is a “flourishing” of Confucianism (his term), in the sense that it becomes one of the common resources people draw upon when thinking about certain issues–ethics, ecology, spirituality, etc. I’m not so sure Tu’s value, however, is in engaging the specifics of any one of these discourses (although his pieces on “Beyond the Enlightenment Mentality” and “Multiple Modernities” are interesting). Rather he is responsible for bringing Confucianism into many of those respective discourses. I think he’s more “big picture” than “details”, and in that sense may be responsible for neglecting the relationship between the two.

    Personally I find his work valuable for articulating Confucianism in a different kind of “living” sense. It seems that the questions he pursues are questions such as “How would a Confucian respond to issues of globalization or religious pluralism, etc.?”; whereas others with a more “detailed” approach (exegetical? philosophically trained?) are concern with questions such as “How would Xunzi respond to our ecological situation, etc.?” Whether Tu’s playing it fast and loose by doing the former rather than the latter may be a valid question. And how much room there is and should be in the academy for the former instead of the later may also be pertinent.

    Comment by Agui | March 19, 2008 | Reply

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