Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Kant and Regional Differences of Interpretation

I think it might be worthwhile for us to reflect a bit on some of the regional differences in interpretation of the Chinese philosophers we all study. I was struck by two aspects of this recently. First, in the Conference and Book Symposium announcement that Kai Marchal wrote (though I posted it for him), Kai says: “Traditionally, Chinese scholars have argued that Neo-Confucian teachings are best understood within a Kantian deontological framework.” This interpretive trend is in part a result of Mou Zongsan’s influence, but some evidence that it is more complicated than that comes in two essays in the new anthology, Taking Confucian Ethics Seriously, edited by Kam-por Yu, Julia Tao, and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Two essays in this volume, by Qianfan Zhang and by Julia Tao, draw strong links between the idea of ren in early Confucianism and Kantian notions of the equal humanity or human dignity of all (among other things). At the very least, neither of these essays shows any direct evidence of the influence of Mou, and they can serve to suggest that the influence of the Kantian framework among Chinese scholars is widespread, indeed.

It seems to me, therefore, that Kai’s observation is correct, although “traditionally” might suggest more of a lengthy history of Kantian-influenced interpretations than is in fact the case (I suspect this is an artifact of the 20th century and no earlier, but would be interested in contrary evidence). There are at least two other interpretive groups: a second group, mostly made up of scholars in the U.S. writing in English, sees Confucianism as encompassing one or more forms of virtue ethics. A third group, comprising both Chinese and Western scholars and much less unified than either of the other two groups, tends to see Confucian ethics as sui generis and fitting poorly into any existing Western classifications.

All this leads me to two questions: (1) If this quick analysis is correct, then what really explains the appeal and persistence of a Kantian reading of Confucianism in Sinophone circles? I suppose one answer might be that it is a plausible interpretation of the material….

(2) What other regional differences might we observe? “Regional” might not in fact be the most perspicuous word, since it may be that the difference map onto languages (Sinophone, Anglophone, etc.) more exactly than they do onto geographical regions.


January 29, 2011 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Modern Chinese Philosophy, Mou Zongsan, Philosophy in China


  1. If I were a Chinese scholar, knew a great deal about Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism, but not so much about Western philosophy, and I were asked whether C-ism and NC-ism are closer to Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, or none of the above, I might pick Kant because:

    a) Kant associates virtue with a more or less metaphysical inner universal virtue (that we are rational beings).

    b) At least to superficial inspection, Kant’s moral philosophy seems vastly more intellectual than Aristotle’s, and hence is presumably more intellectually respectable.

    c) The distinction between rule-ethics and virtue-ethics might not be salient for me, and anyway Kant does talk plenty about virtue.

    d) Bentham looks like Mozi.

    e) Philosophy faculty under the PRC have long had more reason to read German than to read Greek.

    f) When Confucius comes closest to waxing theoretical, he highlights a rule that sounds similar to Kant’s most salient formulation of the categorical imperative.

    Western-trained scholars are not as likely to be moved by most of these reasons, I think.

    Regarding (a): This feature of Kant and of the Neo-Confucians is likely to seem uninteresting to Western moral philosophers, and Westerners are less likely to read it back into pre-Qin Confucianism.

    Regarding (b): Western readers are more likely to be charitable toward Aristotle, and to be annoyed by Kant.

    Regarding (c): The distinction is salient in the West.

    Regarding (d): Westerners do not have a habit of thinking of Confucianism as being famously hostile to utilitarian views.

    Regarding (e): Both Kant and Aristotle have been translated quite well into the native language of anglophone scholars.

    Regarding (f): Maybe this reason applies as strongly on both sides of the water.

    … just guessing …

    Comment by Bill Haines | January 29, 2011 | Reply

  2. I’m inclined to emphasize Bill’s (d) — “Bentham looks like Mozi.” If the modern philosophical rubric is that you’re either a consequentialist or a deontologist, then you might be interested in how Kantian the Confucians are, given that they seem at least (though I have other opinions on this) to be hostile to Mozi’s consequentialism. This way of seeing things is probably influenced, at least in the 20th century, by the configuring of Chinese philosophy to fit into “familiar,” modern Western categories by Hu Shih and Wing-tsit Chan.

    (I want to say that the Categories were translated into Chinese before long any of Aristotle’s ethical works were, but I’m not sure what I’m remembering this from. That might provide some explanation, if it were true, of the lack of the virtue ethics reading of Confucianism among Chinese scholars.)

    Perversely, from my own point of view, Kantian ethics seems almost obviously hostile to at least early Confucianism because of early Confucianism’s rejection of Mohist universalism and also because of early Confucianism’s embrace of moral sentiment.

    Comment by Manyul Im | January 31, 2011 | Reply

  3. I wonder whether in China Western virtue ethics has the reputation of being obsolete (as one might take Aristotle and Thomas as the paradigms of what has rightly been superseded) and/or unintellectual (as one might color Midwest Studies Vol. XIII pink)?

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 1, 2011 | Reply

  4. Manyul, are you suggesting that Mou Zongsan (for example) was being influenced on this by Hu or Chan? That would surprise me, though it’s not something I really know about.

    I’m not sure it would surprise me if one important factor were the Mencius’s rather striking opening passage. Though that wouldn’t explain regional variation.

    Steve’s question made we wonder about a slightly different issue, whether there are important regional or linguistic variations in the sorts of objections people have to Confucians? E.g., who makes fun of their hat obsession, who argues they end up complicit with nasty governments, who worries about nepotism and corruption, and so on.

    Comment by Dan Robins | February 1, 2011 | Reply

    • No, not suggesting that. Mou’s interest in Kant was primary. I do know that when I’m myself in the throes of reading Kant, I tend to apply Kantian analysis unwittingly to the whole manifold of philosophical problems …well, you get the point. I was just suggesting possible influences other than Mou’s.

      Mencius’s opening passage is indeed striking in being against explicit consideration of benefit. But again, how can anyone ignore the important role of heteronomous sentiment in Mencius’s discussions?

      Comment by Manyul Im | February 1, 2011 | Reply

  5. While I have not read the essays in question, my experience leads me to believe that it would be difficult for anyone who studied philosophy in Taiwan or Hong Kong not to be influenced by Mou to some extent. In mainland China, I’m not so sure, but I suspect that most scholars who are sympathetic to Confucianism post-date the initial project on New Confucianism directed by Fang Keli, and probably were familiar with that kind of interpretation. There are certainly a lot of people doing work on Mou now.

    The language issue, at least before PRC-ROC, is probably not that salient. I don’t believe Mou read German at all; I know he did his translations of Kant from the English versions. I presume neither Xu Fuguan nor Tang Junyi read German either. Xu refers to Aristotle on at least a couple of occasions, and they certainly could have read him in English if they wanted.

    The political dimension is very important, in my opinion. Mou and Xu in particular were interested in finding a justification for democracy and a level of individual freedom in Confucian terms. Looking for antecedents for Western democracy would lead to Enlightenment thinkers more than Aristotle. Locke is pretty obviously hard to square with Confucianism, and their hostility to utilitarianism leaves Kant as the main remaining option.

    As to why Western scholars are less interested in this kind of interpretation, I’m not sure. I suppose someone who’s sympathetic to a Kantian kind of view could just be a Kantian; no reason to be drawn to Chinese philosophy specifically.

    Comment by David Elstein | February 6, 2011 | Reply

  6. Hi Steve,

    I have been abroad for a couple of days (actually in Oman, not in Egypt), so I am a little late to join this discussion. But I believe the question you are asking is, in many aspects, a crucial one for our understanding of Chinese philosophy.

    Admittedly, for many years, I have been quite sceptial of Mou Zongsan’s approach, being broadly sympathetic to a Virtue-Ethicist approach (somehow looking for a way of restoring the ethical vision of the Ancients). So, Mou Zongsan’s approach seemed quite far-fetched to me.

    However, after having read his major works more carefully recently, I have come to think that Mou Zongsan’s reception of Kant is hardly sufficiently explained by external motives (like the wish to rearticulate Confucianism in modern terms or to appear “modern”). There is much more at stake. Sebastien Billioud in his new book (to come out this year at Brill) elucidates many major concerns in Mou’s thought, I think. Also, I have found Zheng Jiadong’s book on Mou Zongsan very clear (“Mou Zongsan”, Taibei, Xuesheng shuju, 2000).

    In particular, I think of Mou’s attempt to identify the notions of “heart-mind” (xin 心) and “nature” (xing 性) with Kant’s free will. This rings somehow true, but on closer inspection is quite unconvincing. There are many more unsolved questions here, and Mou often writes like a Chinese Hegelian or crypto-Zizek, delving in hundreds of nebuluous neologisms (Zheng Jiadong points out that Mou sounds like a someone throwing mists before your eyes 故弄玄虛, ibid, p. 143). But his insistency on Neo-Confucian inwardness sounds very true and the Kantian notion of morality certainly applies to Neo-Confucian thought in general.

    I am still very sympathetic to Aristotle, but where do we find any example of a clearly goal-oriented action in Zhu Xi or Wang Yangming? They do not seem to presuppose a goal or end or good (“agathon”) in their analysis of moral action, do not refer to happiness either, and although there is some very broad idea of human flourishing (the other translation of the Aristotelian eudaimonia) implied in their notion of “nature”, I do not see how we can avoid Mou’s use of Kantian morality: any empirical motive lessens our moral worth, and the highest motive is to do our duty, not from ulterior motives, but just because it’s the right thing to do. I am still thinking about your idea of the missing prudence/morality distinction in Neo-Confucianism; but I have to admit that I think it will be difficult to argue against Mou… And what exactly do you mean by “everything matters”? Is there not a very strong dualistic tendency in Zhu Xi, going against desires and self-interest? and what about the distinction between empirical and noumenal (essential for Mou)?

    On the other hand, Aristotle and Kant themselves are very difficult thinkers who allow many different interpretations. Think f.ex. Christine Korsgaard’s attempt at integrating some Aristotelian elements in her Kantianism. Neo-Confucianism does not fit easily into any Western category (which may explain the regional differences you mention). The problem of moral feelings (important to Mou) is certainly difficult to accept for Kantians and seems to undermine our Western notion of autonomy (as rational mastery). And what about the absence of procedural features in Chinese thought? Does it make sense at all to speak of a free will in Neo-Confucians texts if we lack in pre-modern Chinese texts the formal structure of the categorical imperative? A lot of difficult stuff…

    David is right to point out Mou’s overwhelming influence in Taiwan and Hong Kong (and, more recently, in China). I often think, most of our contemporaries do not really understand Mou. Maybe he is the only giant of Chinese learning in the 20th century, but mostly misunderstood. I guess it is very easy to become a card-carrying Mou-ian, but far more difficult to think through the real issues he was working on. And yes, I agree with David, it is not easy do be a Kantian and still have a reason to be drawn to Chinese philosophy… I have often thought as soon as you identify Chinese philosophy with a Kantian position, Kantianism will overwhelm you… But, as Nietzsche would say, we should be glad to have some tough-minded, even stubbornly seductive philosophers out there!

    Comment by kaimarchal | February 14, 2011 | Reply

  7. Hi Kai, thanks for these remarks!! (Of course my list above was meant to address only the geographical, “statistical” question.)

    I have an ignorant question for you. You mention “the absence of procedural features in Chinese thought,” and since I don’t know what is in fact plausibly regarded as absent from Chinese thought after the Qin, I’m not sure what you mean, and I’m curious. Do you mean the broad absence of concern about rules for thinking, such as logic, scientific method, etc? Or do you mean only very specifically the absence of the view that making personal or societal decisions according to certain procedural rules counts as deciding correctly? (I don’t think that’s how Kant thought of his CI.) Or something else?

    I have this uninformed speculation to offer: If your point is that Chinese thought isn’t much concerned about procedures for making decisions, maybe the reason is not that Chinese thought is unconcerned with procedures, but that it doesn’t conceive practical thinking in terms of decisions, as Chris Fraser has proposed. (Or those points two general truths between which there is a deep connection?)

    Perhaps Chinese thought is distinguished by its emphasis on some kinds of procedure: study-method and ritual?

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 14, 2011 | Reply

  8. Thanks for your comments, Bill! Yes, when I wrote about the absence of procedural features in Chinese thought, I was specifically thinking of Kant’s idea of procedural reason, i.e. his distinction (in the Critique of Practical Reason) between the formal and material determination of the will (Willenbestimmung). Only formally determined (through categorical imperatives), the will is able to become universalized and thus to become fully autonomous.

    I have always thought that Mou nowhere really addresses the necessarily “formal” nature of Kantian ethics: in fact, I would claim, that the thick language of moral inwardness (i.e., I mean, Neo-Confucian moral psychology focused on the “heart-mind” and “nature”) can hardly be translated into a Kantian version of the decision-making process. And so I agree with you, Zhu Xi and others are not really concerned with correct decisions, but with the transformation of the moral subject long before any decision has been taken…

    Comment by kaimarchal | February 20, 2011 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s