Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

How Many Confucianisms?

Confucianisms seem to be proliferating. Most of us these days have heard of “(Contemporary) New Confucianism” (sometimes also rendered as “Contemporary Neo-Confucianism; in Chinese typically 当代新儒学). The ideas of Mou and Tang et al are also called “The Learning of the Heartmind and Nature (心性之学).” Jiang Qing and others have contrasted this inner, morality-focused Confucianism with their own preferred external, institution-focused variety that Jiang calls “Political Confucianism 政治儒学.” In English, Daniel Bell has sometimes spoken as a proponent of “Left Confucianism,” and in a new book, Fan Ruiping advocates what he calls “Reconstructionist Confucianism.” As I finish up a review of this latter book and settle in to write an essay on “contemporary Confucian conceptions of social justice,” I find myself wondering: how many Confucianisms are there, or should there be? As many Confucianisms as Confucian authors? Does some authority — perhaps community-based — get to decide? In my review of Professor Fan’s book, I prepare to launch into an engagement with Fan’s arguments with the following words:

The contemporary, globally informed philosophical development of Confucianism is still in its infancy. We need to encourage multiple voices and then to engage with them both charitably and critically: this is the best way to seek the Confucianism — or perhaps Confucianisms — that can contribute the most to our various communities around the globe.

You can see that I’m unsure of whether in the end, we should all agree on a single best or true version, or whether different communities — to say nothing of different times — might appropriately have different Confucianisms. What do you think?


May 28, 2010 - Posted by | Contemporary Confucianism


  1. (My grading for the semester is finished as of last night so its a special pleasure to sit down to Warp, Weft and Way to write a comment this morning. Yay!)

    I’d like to contribute to the identification of the approaches one can take to contemporary Confucianism’s malleability. In your comments Steve you appear to advocate a position about how to interpret and appraise positions that self-identify as ‘Confucian’ and you hint that the guiding goal ought to be identifying which forms of Confucianism can best benefit various communities around the globe.

    What I found interesting about this is your ‘meta-pragmatism’: you gesture at the advocacy of criteria used to appraise whether something is or isn’t a version of Confucianism that are centered on benefits to the community. If nothing else, this qualifies as an exceedingly Confucian way to evaluate pretenders to Confucianism: the authority for deciding is ‘community based’; that the community is composed of elites (shi), such as contributors to WWW; and whether or not someone says some doctrine XYZ (human rights, say) is Confucian even though XYZ is not represented in the Analects is not an obstacle to its actually being ‘Confucian’. Rather than state my worries about this project, let me make a comparative remark.

    Contrast ‘Cartesian’ and its use in the community of Early Modern scholars. I wonder whether the criteria employed by that community to govern uses of ‘Cartesian’ are significantly different. I tend to think that they are quite different, but whether I’m right is an empirical question. As ‘Confucian’ scholars defend ‘Confucian’ versions of human rights’, so a small group of ‘Cartesian’ scholars defend ‘Cartesian’ forms of materialism about the mind, for example. But no one I’m aware of in Early Modern would say that what qualifies as ‘Cartesian’ (or ‘Humean’ or ‘Kantian’) is what can contribute the most to our various communities around the globe. Not only, but Early Modern historians would find that rather absurd. This is certainly not to say that it is also absurd in the ‘Confucian’ tradition–indeed, my previous point was to say that such a metaphilosophy is, for better or worse, aptly Confucian. Perhaps you–or Professor Fan?–intend your reading of ‘Confucianism’ to be more informed by methods of social and political thought in which pragmatic emphasis on improving communities comes first, than by the narrower and less exciting methods of the history of philosophy. That might not be a bad thing.

    Comment by Ryan Nichols | May 29, 2010 | Reply

  2. Interesting question, Steve. I share something of Ryan’s curiosity about the meta-level description of your initial posing of options. It struck me first as a very agreeable approach, then later as committed to a kind of classical liberalist approach (which probably explains my first reaction to it) — in the limited sense that you advocate tolerance of differences and pluralism in the development of Confucian voices for the sake of the common good.

    Of course that might not be what any particular, more hegemonically inclined Confucian voice favors. What do we do with those voices? I suppose one answer to this is to engage them in the meta-argument about tolerance, the common good, etc. This isn’t merely hypothetical, either. Not to name names, but there are those who, because of “standard” Western philosophical training, respond to alternative interpretations of Confucianism with a nearly automatic, critical response. After all, that’s what many of us are trained to do — meet alternatives with criticism in the philosophically competitive “testing” of ideas. Maybe that’s not too bad, but it can transform very easily into attempts to canonize certain approaches and secondary literature examples of those approaches in order to exclude other approaches at a more socio-intellectual level. I am speaking more, perhaps, to Confucianisms as they arise among Western trained philosophers.

    I wonder if there is a way to reconcile such approaches with what you see as desirable for the growth of Confucianism(s).

    Comment by Manyul Im | May 30, 2010 | Reply

  3. Hi Ryan and Manyul,

    Thanks for your comments and questions. I didn’t mean to suggest anything quite as simple as this: Confucianism simply is whatever would contribute the most to a given community, regardless of its connection to the historical tradition. Let me reflect a bit on why I put emphasis on “various communities.” One reason is that it seems clear that as Confucianism is developed in the contemporary world, this development will take place as influenced by various values and experiences that members of a given community have — even though said values and experiences do not, in many cases, have much or anything to do with Confucianism. Here’s a bit from the concluding paragraph of my review of Fan’s book:

    It is tempting to see Fan as motivated in part by independent commitments to free-market capitalism, social conservatism, and religious theism, but then again, who among us approaches the Confucian tradition without a diverse intellectual and moral background? Who is devoid of experiences in a world very different from ancient China? None of us. I think this has two consequences. First, we should critically reflect on our own assumptions and starting points…. We scholars working to develop Confucian philosophy need to try our best to see that stimuli from contemporary experiences or ideas do not undermine the deep values and practical orientation of the Confucian tradition. We also must do our best to take one another’s arguments about the future possibilities and direction of Confucianism in their own terms, and not simply reject a proposal because of the background influences that may have helped to motivate it.

    Now this does not mean that I shy away from criticism of Fan’s arguments. I disagree with his claims that certain important values FOLLOW FROM a plausible interpretation of Confucianism. I am willing to grant that certain values might be CONSISTENT WITH a reasonable development of Confucianism. Other (new) values or institutions, though, might UNDERMINE what I take to be core commitments of Confucianism.

    This is all particularly important in light of the pluralistic environment in which Confucianism cannot help being developed today. There are no purely Confucian states or societies today, nor do I expect there will be. So a second reason why thinking about comunities is important is that the advocacy or development of Confucianism would do well, I think, to proceed with such diversity clearly in mind. I think this is rather easy to do, and the historical development of the tradition offers lots of good examples/models (as well as some not-so-good ones).

    I think all of this speaks at least indirectly to the points you both raised. Presumably the language and values of both Ryan’s early-modern “Cartesians” and Manyul’s contemporary “Western trained philosophers” are constrained in certain ways by what Mario Biagioli has called their “socio-professional indentities.” But since most of us participate in multiple, cross-cutting communities, I think we can get SOME critical purchase on these constraints. There’s no “view from nowhere,” but I think we can strive to improve on our current understandings of our values and concepts. That kind of improvement is what ought to lie behind the development of contemporary Confucianism, even if different communities are different enough that they don’t all end up converging on a single version of Confucianism.

    Comment by Steve Angle | May 30, 2010 | Reply

  4. Hi!

    “I find myself wondering: how many Confucianisms are there, or should there be? As many Confucianisms as Confucian authors? Does some authority — perhaps community-based — get to decide? … I’m unsure of whether in the end, we should all agree on a single best or true version, or whether different communities — to say nothing of different times — might appropriately have different Confucianisms.”

    Steve, what is most striking to me here is your thought that maybe indeed we ought to agree on just one “Confucianism,” or just one thing to be called “Confucianism.”

    I find myself wanting to divide your question, to understand it.

    (1a) You could be asking about labeling: how many different labels of the form ‘X Confucianism’ are worth acknowledging in our encyclopedias, textbooks, etc.? Or rather, not to beat about the bush, (1b) which views and disagreements are most worth taking seriously, on grounds either of prima facie merit or sheer popularity?

    I wish I had something to say in response to (1b). Among the questions I’ll distinguish, it’s the one I think is interesting. I think it’s largely prior to any effort to do more than apriorize about the other questions, as I’m going to do here.

    Regarding (1a): I don’t see room to allow that perhaps people will or should at some point agree on just one “Confucianism,” because (i) there are bound always to be legitimate disagreements worth marking, even if on ever finer points, so that even if tomorrow we agree on all the points at issue today, we’ll still want a vocabulary for our infinite disagreements; and (ii) in calling a view a form of “Confucianism” one may fairly mean either that it reflects Confucius’ views or that it reflects the views of some significant part of the tradition that honors him – and not only do Confucius and the tradition seem to differ, but the room for legitimate disagreement about Confucius’ own views is enduringly great (and thorough skepticism about him is an enduringly reasonable position), and the tradition is irrevocably diverse.

    Further, when you distinguish “morality focused” from “institution-focused” varieties of Confucianism, you remind us that doctrines (or programs) can differ from each other even if they are all true, so long as they are address different areas or topics.

    Further, I think there is a permanent difference between (a) the set of truths that are especially close to heart of the views of Confucius (or some branch of the tradition), and (b) the set of truths that are at any given time especially distinctive of Confucius (or some branch of the tradition) — even though some of these sets will presumably change over time.

    (2) Another reading or aspect of your question might be a reflection of the familiar general question about how moral or value language is to be understood. Are the sentences in the Confucianisms to be understood as truth-claims (so that there might be a presumption that ideally we would come to unanimity on any given sentence or at least agree in our skepticism about it) or as something else, such as imperatives, expressions of commitments, feelings, etc.? (This question is orthogonal to the question about coming to agree on which sentences to classify as within or without one or another kind of “Confucianism.”) The reason I find this question somewhat uninteresting here is simply that it’s so familiar as a general issue in metaethics.

    (3) Sentences aside, one might ask about Confucianism as a practice (ritual and otherwise), how much unity or similarity it should aim for around the globe, and I suppose one might express this question in the form, “How many Confucianisms should there be?” But of course one book of Confucian theory might defend great diversity of ritual practice.

    (4) Another question is whether those who are interested in one or another sort of so-called “Confucianism” ought to try to use the term ‘Confucianism’ as a ritual object, a flag to contest, to promote unity or at least harmony in discourse and practice; so that, as it were, the specific sentence “Confucianism: in the end there can be only one!” expresses a commitment rather than a truth-claim. “In the end there shall be only one—or two? three?” This reading of your question is suggested by your mention of authorities.

    My linguistic and historical claims in my discussion of (1a) would tend to argue that a program aiming at just one is unworkable or intellectually compromising, encouraging the sort of unseemly scramble that I’ve carped about in an earlier string (not unlike what Manyul worries about above). Would the program’s publicity defeat it? (Would this program tend to seem attractive in inverse proportion to one’s esteem for the intellectual quality of “Confucian” thought and scholarship on the mainland, or in general?) Programs aiming at definite numbers greater than one seem more unworkable, because of the relative arbitrariness of those numbers. As for indefinite numbers—one “Confucianism” per “community,” say—well, I lose track of what’s at issue. And the examples you mentioned at first didn’t seem to be that sort of “X Confucianism.”

    (5) All the considerations I raised in my discussion of (1) apply to ‘Christianity’ as well as to ‘Confucianism’. But there might nevertheless be such a thing as the one true or correct Christianity, if the Christian god existed and intended to get across some one definite and limited message. Might Confucianism have some analogous move? (Such as the idea that the real Confucianism is the whole of what is written in the book of nature, if this book was recited distinctively well, though perhaps only in local terms, by early Chinese ritual?) That’s the last interpretation or aspect of your question that I want to try to distinguish, but I am not sure how distinct it is.

    I wonder whether any of these is not at all what you had in mind!

    Comment by Bill Haines | June 4, 2010 | Reply

  5. Thanks, Bill. It is indeed something like your “(1b) which views and disagreements are most worth taking seriously, on grounds either of prima facie merit or sheer popularity” that I had in mind. What interests me here are the issues of WHO might be making these judgments, and ON WHAT BASIS (including, are the claims of worth responsible to the acceptance or judgments of some community or other).

    The particular cases that are most relevant right now, I think, are what might be called Left and Right Confucianisms, more or less as “left” and “right” are currently understood in the US. (This is to vastly over-simplify, of course. For example, Jiang Qing is much more sympathetic to socialism than is Fan Ruiping. Also, for current purposes I don’t mean by “Left Confucianism” specificially what Daniel has used that term to mean.) It’s striking that one kind of argument that the “Right Confucians” tend to make against the “Left Confucians” is that the “Left” have been so influenced by Western liberal democracy that they have simply surrendered and become (Western) liberals in everything but name. The “Right Confucians” say of themselves that they, in contrast, represent a kind of cultural continuity or purity, even if they try to qualify that claim in certain ways. In other words, they claim that “Left Confucianism” isn’t really Confucianism. It doesn’t merit the name. (That is different from saying that the tenets of so-called Left Confucianism are false, to be sure!)

    Although the claim that “X Confucians” have abandoned the core teachings of Confucianism in such a way as not to merit the name COULD be true, I think it is false as applied to “Left Confucians.” I further would argue that “Right Confucians” are equally shaped by their encounter with modernity (as I suggest above). In addition, I will want to argue that some “Right Confucian” claims should be rejected as not adequately in keeping with core commitments of / what is most valuable about the Confucian tradition. Here there may be room for disagreement about what the core commitments are, and/or what’s most vauable. But I hope this helps to spell out a bit more what’s motivating my line of questions.

    Comment by Steve Angle | June 5, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks Steve! That really clears up a lot for me.

      Comment by Bill Haines | June 5, 2010 | Reply

  6. A few quick comments:
    1) As I argued in a review article I wrote in Chinese, I think Jiang Qing, though critical of the New Confucians like Mou Zongsan, is in agreement with the latter on the necessity and essentialness of a Confucian moral metaphysics to Confucianism.

    2) On Steve’s distinction between “left” and “right” Confucianisms, I think this is a tricky issue. Left/Right about what? Pluralism (which Daniel and I accept, but Jiang Qing and many New Confucians implicitly reject)? Fiscal Conservatism (Fan Ruiping seems to clearly favor this)? Meritocracy (combined with some democratic elements) (Daniel, Jiang Qing, and I favor, and many New Confucians don’t)? Theism (Jiang Qing and maybe Fan Ruipin favor)? Burkean conservatism or revolutionary mentality (I (and maybe Daniel) are sympathetic with the former, and Jiang Qing seems to be in favor of the latter in a peculiar way)?

    Comment by Bai Tongdong | June 11, 2010 | Reply

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