Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Review of Taking Confucian Ethics Seriously at NDPR

My review of Kam-por Yu, Julia Tao, and Philip J. Ivanhoe (eds.), Taking Confucian Ethics Seriously: Contemporary Theories and Applications (SUNY Press, 2010) has recently been published at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

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February 16, 2011 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Reviews

16 Comments »

  1. Steve, thanks for this!!

    The review, or the book as described in the review, suggests the question: Which things in (or aspects of, or absences from) Confucian philosophy most make Confucian philosophy worth being taken seriously by current Western philosophy? It would be fascinating to hear what people think about that.

    I mean, not counting important ideas in Confucian philosophy that have long been prominent in Western thought too, such as the idea that “the final goal [of ren government] is ‘aiding the people to develop their moral character and to achieve their full humanity’ and, furthermore, that for this to happen (which includes the development of both familial and civic trust), rulers must ‘honor the political virtue of trust by instituting fair laws, clear rules, and the practice of [benevolent] government’” (from Steve’s discussion of Julia Tao), if that idea is articulated in Confucianism.

    Not that those don’t help show that Confucian philosophy is worth taking seriously.

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 17, 2011 | Reply

  2. I enjoyed the review, Steve. Makes me want to read the book.

    Somewhat off topic, but: was anyone not taking Confucian ethics seriously? Wait — let me answer that: I think it was primarily the Western sinologists in Asian Studies departments who looked askance at taking Confucian ethics seriously, either because it seemed too ahistorical as an approach — importing 2500 year old concerns into contemporary contexts and what not — or because it seemed too acultural — (purportedly) not taking cultural milieu differences seriously enough when cross-pollinating the discussion with Western ethical concerns. That Anglophonic philosophers would even flinch at such concerns is a kind of well-known joke. I wonder what might have given the sense that philosophers were not taking Confucian ethics seriously.

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 17, 2011 | Reply

    • We have had a string on this blog recently that seriously discusses some Anglophone philosophers’ arguments that Chinese philosophy is in some sense inaccessible to Western philosophers because of cultural differences, and another string seeking exceptions to a general presumption that Western philosophy journals do not welcome discussions involving Asian philosophy.

      Comment by Bill Haines | February 18, 2011 | Reply

    • Hey Bill. Yes, you’re right; and I was thinking along the lines of Alexus’s recent post that maybe the title of the book is a bit more defensive sounding than is warranted. Just as being “difficult” to understand is indexical (toggling between traditions), taking something seriously in this case is too. Studies of Confucian ethics are already taken, and undertaken, seriously. The only thing the book’s title signals to me is a desire to be taken seriously by those who don’t already, coupled with the promise that the volume contains studies that are somehow focused on delivering that outcome. But in the end, it is just another quality volume on Confucian ethics, isn’t it? Or is it extra serious in its endeavor to bring more into the fold?

      Comment by Manyul Im | February 18, 2011 | Reply

  3. I’d say that Western philosophers mainly don’t take Confucianism seriously (or unseriously): they ignore it, or just use it as easy material for intro-level courses. Western philosophers who publish on it take it seriously, but mostly ignore all but a couple of books. Western philosophers who think of it merely as an object of study would be thinking of it as something not to publish philosophy about, so their view wouldn’t show up in their publications.

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 17, 2011 | Reply

  4. I don’t know whether this volume does a better job than other volumes of demonstrating that Western philosophers have reason to take Confucianism seriously. But the volume and the review do seem to me to raise the question: which aspects of Confucianism most make it worth taking seriously? From the review I gather that the aspects put forth by the book are these:

    1. The Zhongyong proposes the valuable idea that the way to decide in light of multiple, diverse values is to strive for harmony and balance; and Confucian texts shed light on how to do so.

    2. Properly understood, Confucian political thought endorses respectful, not just benevolent, government; that is, it supports basic rights.

    3. Confucianism proposes that, or shows how, an environment of trust is necessary for the good life.

    4. Confucianism is a rich source of ideas in the field of virtue ethics.

    5. Dai Zhen offers a sophisticated and powerful conception of sympathetic understanding.

    6. From a range of early Confucian texts one can draw an interesting menu of types of spontaneity, with differing kinds of value.

    Manyul, that list suggests to me that you are right in thinking that the book’s title is misleading: that the book’s formative aim was not to show that Confucian philosophy is worth (Western philosophy’s) taking seriously, but was rather to offer a bunch of good papers on Confucianism.

    If my impression of the book (based on the review) is correct, I imagine a Western philosopher who’s game to be shown that Confucianism is worth taking seriously might read the book and then say, “Hm. Only about half the book seemed even to be trying to find in Confucianism something that is not already familiar in the West. I am now convinced that there are a few very interesting and valuable moments in the two millennia of Confucianism, such as with similar effort and ingenuity one can also find in, say, the average foot or two of pulp fiction. I haven’t been shown that there is enough to make it worth my while to slog through reams and reams of e.g. ‘A stitch in time saves nine’ and ‘King Ch’ang had nine pots of petunias, and yet Duke Chang went to the Jade Mountain, what ho!’ Further, if a team of the best experts get together to make a volume trying to show that Confucianism is worth my while, and this is what they offer, that would seem to close the question with a thud.”

    That might be what the book invites, perhaps, but that’s not me. I just wanted to use the occasion to start a more general conversation. I got into Chinese philosophy first because I like to be able to read funny squiggles, and then I liked Confucianism best. The things I find most philosophically distinctively interesting in Confucianism are:

    1. The genre of the pithy saying, as something for philosophers to take seriously.
    2. Ritual.
    3. The sheer fact that Confucianism is sophisticated secular moral thinking in a culture very different from what the West and I are used to.

    Regarding the relational view of the self, I don’t get it yet. But I find Steve’s point about the lack of any philosophical interest in prudence fascinating and promising.

    Regarding harmony without legal rights, my view is like Youzi’s view about harmony without ritual: You can’t “just do” harmony.

    Another candidate issue is style. I don’t have a view about that. (I grant in the abstract that it might be important and interesting, however much I may feel personally challenged by the very idea; and I like Amy Olberding’s work on it. But it seems to me Western scholarly attention to the matter originated in, and has got a fair amount of its fuel from, an indefensible reading of Analects 1.12.)

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 19, 2011 | Reply

    • OK, I’m provoked to respond. First, one aspect of “taking seriously” is taking seriously as philosophy, i.e., as making truth claims and as subject to critical evaluation; this is (partly) different from the project of trying to interpret the texts. This volume is certainly not the first to undertake such a task, but this meaning of “taking seriously” is still worth calling to our attention, because it helps to explain the goals of some of the papers (e.g., the degree to which Zhang and Huang are critical of central aspects of the Confucian tradition).

      Second, Bill, I don’t really see how you get from your list of topics in the volume (1-6), to [A] “it’s just a bunch of papers on Confucianism,” much less to [B] the extreme reaction of your hypothetical Western philosopher. Each of topics 1-6 offers a Confucian perspective ABOUT something of general relevance, and is offered as valuable not becuase it is Confucian, but because it is insightful, true, etc. So [A] is dubious. As for [B], I’m not saying that reading the volume will fundamentally change the way philosophy is conceived in the US. Not even pithy sayings or an emphasis on ritual will do that. But I do think that there is much more that a Western philosopher interested in any of topics 1-6 will gain from the volume than you imply here, and, furthermore, that philosophers not previously interested in topics 1-6 will gain some reasons for paying attention to them.

      Comment by Steve Angle | February 19, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Steve,

      I didn’t say “it’s just a bunch of papers on Confucianism,” a claim you attack because it suggests that the work isn’t insightful. Rather, I argued that “the book’s formative aim was … [simply] to offer a bunch of good papers on Confucianism.” That could indeed suggest “on Confucianism merely as an object of interpretation,” which I didn’t mean, though it appears that at least one of the papers is like that; rather I meant to be echoing and conceding Manyul’s statement that the book seems to be “just another quality volume on Confucian ethics.” Neither of us is criticizing the quality of the papers or of the ideas in them. The book sounds excellent in its genre, and I suppose we both like the genre.

      Maybe the mistake Manyul rightly attacked was just my mistake after all: the mistake of thinking that the title “Taking Confucianism Seriously” promises a book whose project is, at least in large part, trying to display that Confucianism is worthy of extended respectful attention by Western philosophers. There are two reasons to think the title means that. One is that the title claims an analogy with Dworkin’s book. The other is that while the choice between reading Confucianism with philosophical respect and ignoring it in favor of other things on one’s humongous to-read list is a real live issue, the choice between reading Confucianism with philosophical respect and reading it with disrespectful objectification is, as Manyul points out, not really a live issue. Still, maybe the title only means that Confucianism is taken seriously in the book; or maybe it only means to promise to show that that as between respect and disrespectful objectification, we should prefer the former. And then the title would indeed not be claiming a difference between this and any other quality volume on Confucian ethics.

      Anyway we’re accustomed to titles making false promises. It’s a necessary evil forced on us by editors and publishers. I had hoped to use the title to start a conversation, alas.

      Bill, I don’t really see how you get from your list of topics … to [B] the extreme reaction of your hypothetical Western philosopher.

      Me neither. I disagree with my hypothetical Westerner’s conclusion about Confucianism, though I think it’s mainstream rather than extreme. And I didn’t go from the list to her reaction. Her reaction was based on the premise, which I was arguing against, that the project of the book actually is to show Western philosophers that Confucianism is worth their serious while; and her reaction was not to the list but to the book as I imagine it, taking into account doubts and details mentioned in the review but not in my list.

      Maybe I am outside the mainstream in my high opinion of what can be found in the average foot or two of pulp fiction, a topic I discuss in #8 here:
      https://warpweftandway.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/big-moment-ethics-and-philosophy/
      ; though I can’t expect anybody to remember that. But the point is that there’s fairly interesting stuff everywhere; and I get the impression that a significant chunk of what’s most philosophically rewarding in the volume comes from the contributors, and is no particular reflection on Confucianism – except indirectly, in showing that smart people like Confucianism.

      I’m not saying that reading the volume will fundamentally change the way philosophy is conceived in the US. Not even pithy sayings or an emphasis on ritual will do that. But I do think that there is much more that a Western philosopher interested in any of topics 1-6 will gain from the volume than you imply here, and, furthermore, that philosophers not previously interested in topics 1-6 will gain some reasons for paying attention to them.

      I apologize if I seemed to imply any of the things you’re disagreeing with here. I didn’t mean to.

      Comment by Bill Haines | February 19, 2011 | Reply

      • Hi Bill–I seem to have pretty badly misunderstood what you were getting at; sorry about that!

        As for the “just a bunch of papers on Confucianism” bit, my point wasn’t to impute to you the idea that the papers weren’t good, but rather to quibble with the preposition “on.” I’d rather say that they are Confucian perspectives “on” a variety of topics in ethics and political philosophy–broadly understood (i.e., “spontaneity” might not have been on many Western philosophers’ lists of topics in ethics and political philosophy, but one of the points of the book is that it should be). I think that this is in the vicinity of what you are saying when you write, “I get the impression that a significant chunk of what’s most philosophically rewarding in the volume comes from the contributors, and is no particular reflection on Confucianism,” right?

        And I certainly agree that the volume is not unique in taking this approach; in fact, it is somewhat similar to Shun and Wong, eds., Confucian Ethics: A Comparative Study of Self, Autonomy, and Community (Cambridge, 2004), which, oddly enough, I also reviewed for NDPR.

        Comment by Steve Angle | February 20, 2011 | Reply

        • Hi Steve, and thanks as always for your generosity. I surely invited any misunderstanding, partly by recently mercilessly attacking some defenders of Confucianism or Chinese philosophy.

          Comment by Bill Haines | February 20, 2011 | Reply

  5. was anyone not taking Confucian ethics seriously? Wait — let me answer that: I think it was primarily the Western sinologists in Asian Studies departments who looked askance at taking Confucian ethics seriously, either because it seemed too ahistorical as an approach — importing 2500 year old concerns into contemporary contexts and what not — or because it seemed too acultural — (purportedly) not taking cultural milieu differences seriously enough when cross-pollinating the discussion with Western ethical concerns.

    Manyul, who do you have in mind here? Has this been only in conversation, or have those in Asian Studies departments committed to this position in writing?

    Comment by Agui | February 20, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Agui; I get this impression from conversations I’ve had: one with Peter Bol comes to mind, over a conference dinner; also a few — very heated, philosophically — with some buddhologists like Bob Sharf while we were both at Michigan. I got the sense from them that theirs was a widespread view among sinologist historians and that philosophers were the exception. I’m sure there are exceptions (on both sides).

      Comment by Manyul Im | February 20, 2011 | Reply

      • What a coincidence. I just started through Bol’s _Neo-Confucianism in History_, which includes the following in its concluding paragraph: “When I first began to learn about China’s history, “Confucianism” was taught as a purely historical subject, a part of a past that had been cast aside, despite the efforts of some twentieth-century thinkers to establish it as a part of a Chinese tradition of philosophy. Although the twentieth century saw the greatest degree of state intervention in all aspects of life since the New Policies [of Wang Anshi], I am convinced that Confucianism is much more than a historical subject; it remains a resource for thinking about the present” (278).

        Comment by Agui | February 21, 2011 | Reply

      • As it turns out, I also wrote a review of Bol’s Neo-Confucianism in History a couple of years ago, and this issue was one of the things I noted. Here’s from the last paragraph of the review:

        The present review focuses on aspects of Bol’s arguments that are most salient to a philosopher, and I would like to end with a few thoughts prompted by Bol’s orientation toward the Neo-Confucians as philosophers. He writes: “Rather than investigate the substance of the Neo-Confucians’ political proposals, I ask how they saw their relationship to political power and the state system. Philosophical thought was central to Neo-Confucianism, and I take their philosophy seriously” (p. 111). What this means, I think, is that rather than see Neo- Confucian ideas as simply a “black box” that serves particular (ideological) functions, Bol wants to understand the ideas and see how these particular ideas, and the Neo-Confucians’ belief in them, had the particular historical consequences they did. I find this approach to be extremely commendable: it expresses a respect for these individuals’ agency that is missing when one treats them in merely functionalist terms. This is not to deny the power of analyses that focus more on “cultural capital” than on the meaning of the ideas; these perspectives, too, can be enlightening. But an approach like Bol’s has an important place at the table. In fact, it is possible to go even further. Rather than just take the philosophy seriously, as Bol has done, one can take Neo-Confucianism serious as philosophy, which means to treat it as a live philosophical tradition: full of insight, vulnerable to critique, with room yet to grow. When I said that Neo-Confucians should not have been friendly to an idea of unquestioning certainty, that was a tentative effort to speak from within such an open, contemporary Confucianism.

        Comment by Steve Angle | February 21, 2011 | Reply

      • That’s really interesting, both of you. Maybe Bol’s beef in our dinner conversation was only with taking the pre-Qin thinkers seriously — or, if memory serves, mostly with Mencius.

        Comment by Manyul Im | February 21, 2011 | Reply

        • Pure speculation, but maybe his objection back then was to the Chinese-today-can-only-think-things-that-Mencius-thought idea that one sees implicit in some philosophical writing?

          Comment by Steve Angle | February 21, 2011 | Reply


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