Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Review Article on Several Books on Confucius

A recent article in T’oung Pao 97 (pp. 160-201) might be of interest to many readers of the blog. In “Recent Monographs on Confucius and Early Confucianism,” Oliver Weingarten of SOAS considers the following books:

  • Il confucianesimo: i fondamenti e i testi. By Maurizio Scarpari. Turin: Einaudi, 2010. vi + 300 pp.
  • Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics. By Annping Chin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. xiv + 268 pp.
  • Confucius. By Rémi Mathieu. Sagesses éternelles. Paris: Entrelacs, 2006. 271 pp.
  • Lives of Confucius. By Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson. New York: Doubleday, 2010. 304 pp.
  • Sang jia gou: wo du Lunyu. By Li Ling. Revised edition. Two volumes. Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin chubanshe, 2007. 2 + 11 + 390 + 120 pp.
  • Qu sheng nai de zhen Kongzi: Lunyu zongheng du. By Li Ling. Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2008. 13 + 7 + 302 pp.
  • Confucius. Spiritualités vivantes, vol. 198. By Jean Levi. Paris: Albin Michel, 2003. 322 pp.

The essay begins:

In recent years, Confucian teachings have been regaining ground in Mainland China both as the subject of academic discourse and as an expression of Chinese cultural identity. At the same time, manuscript finds have brought to light hitherto unknown source materials pertinent to the study of early Confucianism.  These archaeological discoveries have also stimulated methodological reflections on the nature, composition, and transmission of ancient texts more generally.  This in itself would provide sufficient reason to revisit the extant texts of early Confucianism with a view of approaching them from new perspectives. Additionally, about a decade ago E. Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks published a controversial monograph that offered a new historical and philological analysis of the Lunyu and proposed a rearrangement of the text according to a novel chronological stratification established by the authors. Several scholars have voiced scepticism about the Brookses’ claims. However, regardless of whether or not one agrees with their conclusions, their indefatigable insistence on close philological scrutiny has done students of the Lunyu an enormous service, and they have raised the stakes in the field. Whoever writes about the Lunyu or the historical Confucius (trad. 551-479 BCE) will be measured, if not against the results of their work, then at least against their critical spirit and insistence on methodological rigor.

Several recent publications on Confucius, the Lunyu, and early Confucianism now offer a welcome occasion to probe into the state of the field, contemplate its methodologies, and investigate whether the philological challenge laid down by the Brookses has been taken up. The issues discussed and illustrated by the publications under review also provide a useful basis for reflection on possible directions for future research. The focus of this review will mainly be on questions of textual interpretation, methodology, and the critical evaluation of sources rather than on philosophical matters….

About two-thirds of the essay consists in balanced assessments of each of the books—which range across an impressive spectrum—and then the final third suggests “fruitful areas for future research,” drawing both on issues raised in some of the books, and on “certain problems that have so far failed to attract attention” (p. 191). In keeping with his methodological, textualist emphasis, Weingarten discusses opportunities that may come from more thorough investigation of the intertextuality among Lunyu and other texts, more attention to issues of dating and their possible consequences, increased attention to commentarial traditions (and their implicit effect on contemporary interpreters), and so on. One of his conclusions concerns the comparative lack of “critical scholarship”:

One can only speculate why critical scholarship that calls fundamental assumptions into question remains scarce. The reluctance to engage in philological iconoclasm may well be due to cultural factors, institutional constraints, and academic fashions that fail to encourage the pursuit of detailed textual analysis to an exacting standard as a worthwhile intellectual endeavor. One may also wonder whether Confucius’s role as a uniquely insightful philosopher, or even a “sage,” stands in the way of more critical approaches. In this respect, Li Ling’s irreverent interventions could have a liberating effect on Mainland Chinese discourse, although it remains significant that he too engages in a quest to recover Confucius’s “true image” (zhenxiang). His portrayal may differ from the ones favored by his opponents in academia and the media, but like these he presents himself as a champion of the true Confucius and adversary of all those who peddle “fake” images of the Master. (pp. 199-200)

In addition, Weingarten reflects on the implications for philosophy of a Confucius subject to plualist, critical, “deflationist” scholarship:

A fundamental issue seldom raised in Confucius studies is why its object deserves the attention of intellectual historians and philosophers other than because of the historical influence of the Confucius figure. His significance as a thinker is often accepted as a given and rarely justified in explicit terms, but on reflection it appears far from evident. One may find inspiration for philosophical speculation in the Lunyu, though hardly any clear philosophical arguments based on a discernible system of thought. But if one cannot with any confidence attribute a specific corpus of ideas to Confucius, who is likely to forever remain an elusive figure, then why would he be considered significant at all except as an historically influential cultural symbol? This deflationist view of the historical Confucius need not undermine the meaningfulness of the Lunyu as a source of intellectual or spiritual inspiration. It may still serve as such, but it would then rather be for the intrinsic interest of its ideas and not because its contents are associated with one particular individual, or cultural icon.

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December 19, 2011 - Posted by | Confucianism, Confucius

26 Comments »

  1. “But if one cannot with any confidence attribute a specific corpus of ideas to Confucius, who is likely to forever remain an elusive figure, then why would he be considered significant at all except as an historically influential cultural symbol? ”

    Seems that same thing can be said of Socrates… not sure who (I or Weingarten) is more prejudiced…

    Comment by Huaiyu Wang | December 19, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Huaiyu,

      This is a great question. I think the main Socrates who has attracted the attention of philosophers and historians of philosophy has been the Socrates of Plato’s early dialogues, whether or not he matches the real Socrates. (The character in the early dialogues seems to be the Socrates that Yu Jiyuan was discussing recently here.) The Socrates that Xenophon presents is also philosophically interesting, and differently so, but he’s been overshadowed.

      I guess we have better evidence about the biography, ideas, daily life, personal associates, political and intellectual environment, and work product of the actual Socrates than of the actual Confucius. Among the reasons to be curious about the real Socrates is the impressiveness of the people who knew and admired him. He seems to have been regarded as a very great thinker and teacher by one of the world’s best and most innovative philosophers, and also to have been regarded as a founder and leading inspiration by several quite disparate schools of philosophy at that time and place. It is interesting to try to work out what ideas and practices can explain those phenomena as well as the hostile reactions of others such as Aristophanes and the jury.

      Whatever he may have thought, it seems to me that the man Socrates was influential not mainly as a later symbol, but rather by the impact of his own intellectual activity. He seems to have more or less invented some important kinds of intellectual activity. The same things may have been true of Confucius, but I suppose we just don’t know.

      Comment by Bill Haines | December 21, 2011 | Reply

      • Many thanks for the insightful inputs, Bill:

        “I guess we have better evidence about the biography, ideas, daily life, personal associates, political and intellectual environment, and work product of the actual Socrates than of the actual Confucius…”

        I am not quite sure about this though. I know there are a lot of sources in Greek literature on Socrates – despite the
        controversies on how reliable such diverse sources can serve as evidence for Socrates’ life and thoughts. On the other hand, we may well find in early Chinese literature many sources and accounts on Confucius’s words and deeds in addition to Analects – it is a real shame that these sources have been consistently neglected in the current studies on Confucius, which tends to take Analects as its main/only reliable source of information. (e.g. COnfucius’s words and deeds as recorded in such authentic classics in the Liji, Zhouyi, Chunqiu, etc, not to mention many accounts in other literature that may well be reliable as well)

        It may be more accurate to say that modern scholarship (esp. Western scholarship) is more ready/able to construct a consistent and comprehensive image of Socrates than it is willing for the interpretation of Confucius…

        Comment by Huaiyu Wang | December 21, 2011 | Reply

      • Hi Huaiyu,

        Thank you. Your two cents are always valuable!

        I completely agree with you that scholarship is a long way from having done its best to investigate Confucius, and that it’s reasonable to hope that looking beyond the Lunyu will support a significantly revised and more coherent view of Confucius’ thought. (That’s what my own little effort in this area, which I shall never tire of mentioning, seems to me to do.) Similarly, I think philosophical scholarship about Socrates’ views has not yet paid adequate attention to materials beyond Plato. (I also think we might learn something pretty important about Socrates from looking at the way Plato’s Protagoras references Aristophanes’ Clouds!)

        Offhand it seems to me that there are some important objective differences between the materials available for scholarly work on the two people (though of course archeology could change that). As so often I’m speaking in ignorance here, so I hope you or someone else will correct my mistakes:

        Regarding Socrates, we’re fortunate to have much more evidence about his time and place, including dozens and dozens of works each of which has these 6 known features that are very helpful to scholarship: it survives largely intact, it is a unified whole text, it is the work of a single author rather than an agglomeration, either it is a very long work (Thucydides) or we have other works from that author that tell us a a great deal about the specific qualities of the author’s mind, in each case the author’s mind was plainly of exceptionally high quality, and the author was a contemporary of Socrates. We know his times; we know his cultural language. Further, over a dozen of those works have the 2 additional features that they are overtly about Socrates and that they were written by people who personally knew him well. Also, and extremely helpfully, these latter works were not all written by the same person. Furthermore, two of these works by his close associates are recountings (albeit differing) of a detailed public account of his intellectual and political life and thought that Socrates gave at the end of that life, under oath, to an audience of many hundreds of his fellow Athenians, including most of his friends and associates. I gather that our materials about Confucius and his times are not remotely comparable.

        The achievement of scholarship has been in dealing with the fact that most of the works in which Socrates figures are in some sense fictional. Scholarship has to a large degree managed to sort these into a few kinds: those in which Socrates is mainly just a literary device (some dialogues of Plato and Xenophon), one that presents an absurd comedic caricature (albeit for an audience of Socrates’ neighbors during his lifetime), those (maybe a dozen?) that can fairly be taken as testimony about the main lines of his life and thought, and intermediate texts in which his thought is changed to some unknown degree. I gather that even these intermediate texts are thought to be unreliable mainly as regards his philosophical theories, not as regards other points about his life: main events, customary activities, etc.

        Comment by Bill Haines | December 22, 2011 | Reply

        • Thanks, Bill for the elaborate explication and insights on this issue.

          I am not sure where your source of information on Socrates is – I am no expert on Greek History and my knowledge on Greek is no much more than the alphabet – so I have to resort to some common authorities for info. Here is what I get from the Standford Encyclopedia:

          …All our information about him [Scorates] is second-hand and most of it vigorously disputed,..

          http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates/#2.2

          I happen to have seen quite a few early sources on Confucius in Chinese and it would be interesting to know what you have counted as the reliable sources on Confucius to make your point on the lack of comparison between S & C…

          Comment by Huaiyu Wang | December 22, 2011 | Reply

        • Hi – maybe that’s the correction I was asking for!

          I think it’s more likely than not that the SEP author meant “legitimately vigorously disputed,” although other things in her opening make me uncertain about that. I also think that when she says that most of our information about him is vigorously disputed, her quantitative judgment may reflect that she’s thinking mainly about his philosophical views, especially his summative “isms” if any, secondarily about his mode of conversation, and not much about the other things about him. I suspect that when she calls his trial and death a “myth” she doesn’t mean to suggest he wasn’t tried and executed, or even that a triangulation of Plato and Xenophon on the trial would be significantly off-target. It seems to me that conflicting testimony about the man’s summative isms tends to support the view that he didn’t have any, or that he changed his mind.

          It’s true that much (or most) about his intellectual work is vigorously disputed, and I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. I was talking about the general quality of the materials that scholarship has on hand to work with, and not just about his intellectual work but also about his life and his times. (It’s one thing to say, as I did, that certain works can fairly be taken as testimony about the main lines of his life and thought; it’s another thing to say that the witnesses agree or the testimony is correct.)

          it would be interesting to know what you have counted as the reliable sources on Confucius to make your point on the lack of comparison between S & C

          Well, that point of mine does not suggest that there are any reliable sources on Confucius. Anyway I’m no expert on the relative reliability of different sources. It’s been years since I’ve given any thought to the matter, and mostly my judgments are just gut reactions. What would be interesting to hear is your judgments about sources!

          Anyway I’ll tell you the impressions I have acquired at random. If I had an extra 50 years to work on ancient Chinese thought I might spend them on the Liji, partly because some of the stuff in there looks very interesting no matter whose ideas they are. But I find the Zhongyong and Daxue pretty hard to take seriously. My brief encounters with the Kongzi Jiayu left me with the impression that roughly the first half is imaginative fiction, and the second half looks more reliable. I simply have no opinion about Mengzi’s reports of Confucius. Zhuangzi’s stories look to me made up.

          When I did my little research project I relied on the approximate accuracy of the Liji’s report (in Tan Gong) of a conversation (not involving Confucius) that looked authentic to me, though I had the excuse that the passage is a favorite piece of evidence cited by my opponents. I relied on the fact that several texts later than Youzi seemed to contain altered versions of 1.12, not attributed to him, as evidence about what he originally meant at 1.12. I argued that the Xiaojing gave some appearance of having undergone a particular kind of philosophical alteration. I relied on some features of a conversation between Youzi and Confucius in the Kongzi Jiayu to conclude that the report was not reliable. I accepted the Mengzi’s report of a speech by Youzi, partly on internal grounds; and I accepted the area of agreement between the Mengzi’s and the Shiji’s reports of Youzi’s involvement with Confucius’ students in the early years after Confucius’ death. I recounted a story about Youzi from Xunzi and argued that it fit my view …

          I argued that if we remove from the Lunyu Youzi’s contributions and the contributions on similar topics that could well have reflected his influence after Confucius died, the resulting Lunyu is more coherent in a basic way and presumably more reflective of Confucius’ own views. I proposed a new reason on the side of trusting the Lunyu’s reports of what Confucius himself said: that despite the dominance of the ideas in 1.2 starting shortly after Confucius’ death, the Lunyu (unlike other sources) does not report Confucius putting forth any such view. And I gave a big pile of tricky reasons for thinking that the first-compiled book was Book 1, not Book 4.

          Comment by Bill Haines | December 22, 2011 | Reply

        • When I was listing 8 features-helpful-to-scholarship of the dozen or so best books of testimony we have about Socrates (and the 6 features of many more books displaying/discussing the events and culture of the time and specific place where he lived his life), my thought was that we don’t have sources like that about Confucius (or any of the times&places where he might have spent a few years of his life). (Some reasons why the background is important are that Confucius made many of his points by talking about specific people, and that many of his key remarks are brief and depend heavily for their meaning on a character or two that he does not claim to be giving a new meaning, and about whose general usage at the time we have very little other evidence.) I’m wondering what are the sources about Confucius (or his environment or interlocutors) that have the most of those 8 features, or what alternate features make up for lacking some or all of the 8.

          Comment by Bill Haines | December 23, 2011 | Reply

  2. Here’s the DOI for those following along at home: http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156853211X592552

    Comment by Carl | December 20, 2011 | Reply

  3. Good point Huaiyu! Also, I take it that part of the aim of the interpretive project in general is to provide an overarching argument that Confucius was a philosophically interesting thinker. The evidence is in the coherence of the interpretation. We’re not going to be able, due to the nature of the text, argue that *such and such passages* show that Confucius had a conception of x, y, or z. Rather, we have to begin with the attempt to give a plausible interpretation of the text, and if successful this will help show there is something philosophically interesting going on in texts such as Lunyu. *Provisional* acceptance of the view that Confucius was to some degree systematic and theoretical is necessary, of course, in order to construct interpretations in the first place, but the conclusion that he was philosophically interesting isn’t based on this provisional acceptance. Weingarten seems to assume that any argument for Confucius’ philosophical relevance has to precede interpretation, and misses the point that the interpretation IS the argument.

    Comment by Alexus McLeod | December 20, 2011 | Reply

    • Where in the article do you see Weingarten making that assumption, Alexus? His argument for the conclusions that seem to especially bother you places most of its weight on philological issues, which you don’t mention. What can be the basis of the view that Confucius was a great philosopher when even fairly modest claims about what he said and did rest on such flimsy evidence? Without answers to questions of that sort, how is the aim of making Confucius out to be philosophically interesting even relevant to Analects interpretation?

      Comment by Dan Robins | December 20, 2011 | Reply

      • I take it that the last paragraph Steve posts here from the article assumes something close to what I said above. Weingarten says the issue of whether Confucius deserves philosophical attention is “seldom raised”–but I take it that many (certainly myself) take themselves to be raising that question (and attempting to answer it in the affirmative) through offering interpretations of his thought.
        That aside, Weingarten’s question can’t be merely one about whether “Confucius the man”, as distinct from “whoever created the system (if there is one) represented in Lunyu” is philosophically interesting, because he seems to assume that Confucius did say things “inspiring to philosophical reflection”, and takes Lunyu as an accurate source for this (in the final paragraph in Steve’s original post). And I suppose one way to respond to the claim about evidence concerning Confucius is that whether “Confucius of tradition” or “Confucius the actual man” was a great philosopher is unimportant for most of our purposes at least. If there’s a coherent system in the Analects (for example) and IT deserves philosophical attention, I conclude “Confucius” deserves philosophical attention, insofar as this refers to whoever created the system in question. We do just assume this was also “Confucius the man”, but Weingarten (as I mentioned above) seems to assume just the same about his inspirational thoughts represented by Lunyu.

        Comment by Alexus McLeod | December 20, 2011 | Reply

        • Well, Steve is quoting the second-last paragraph of a 40-page article—by that point surely Weingarten’s allowed to take some things for granted. His view is pretty clearly that a lot of work takes the philosophical significance of Confucius the man as given, and that we shouldn’t do this. I take it you agree with that? He’s also concluding that given the current state of our knowledge about the Analects, we’re in no position to make that sort of judgment about Confucius the man, whether before or after interpretation. (I don’t know why you take his statements about the Analects to imply claims about the Confucius the man, that’s certainly not his intent.)

          I’ll try to get back with some less ad hominem thoughts, but right now I have filial duties to attend to. 🙂

          Comment by Dan Robins | December 21, 2011 | Reply

          • Fair enough-I do agree that we shouldn’t take the philosophical significance of Confucius the man as given. But if this is all that’s being said, maybe I just don’t see what the problem is. I’m not sure why the Lunyu couldn’t be seen as philosophically interesting rather than just a source of “inspiration” as this seems to suggest or why the figure of Confucius (mythical, real, whatever) couldn’t be relevant to this. I’ll take a closer look at the paper and get back to you.

            Comment by Alexus McLeod | December 21, 2011 | Reply

  4. Nicely said, Alexus. I agree that for such prominent thinkers as Confucius and Socrates, our strategy of interpretation has to be more sophisticated as we have to put our own prejudices or presuppositions into question as we enter the interplay of interpretation and argumentation…

    Comment by Huaiyu Wang | December 20, 2011 | Reply

  5. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Steve.

    Comment by Agui | December 20, 2011 | Reply

  6. Weingarten writes, “Whoever writes about the Lunyu or the historical Confucius … will be measured, if not against the results of [the Brooks’s] work, then at least against their critical spirit and insistence on methodological rigor.”

    I have a shadow of a worry about insistence on methodological rigor. I think that when our main evidence about a mind is as sparse as the Lunyu, we have to rely on our feel for the man, rooted in our sense of – of all sorts of things. We have to rely on faculties that are often called “intuition,” and that are not well encapsulated in anything suggested at first by the phrase “methodological rigor.”

    Weingarten complains about reliance on one’s feel for the man, especially when he is discussing Annping Chin; but he doesn’t say he’s wholly against it in principle. So I’m not criticizing him here. Rather I’m wondering in an embarrassingly general way about how such things as one’s feel for the man can have a place in the best institutions and practices for collaborative inquiry over time. For example: you can present to others your intuitive conclusions, but how do you communicate to others your grounds for those conclusions? And how can one scholar’s “feel for the man” be legitimately authoritative for other scholars?

    Insofar as Confucian thought and social order are not so much about rules, perhaps Confucianism can offer methodological insights for academics on the development and use of intuition in collaborative inquiry? What would they be?

    Comment by Bill Haines | December 21, 2011 | Reply

    • I mean, the Brookses’ work.

      Comment by Bill Haines | December 21, 2011 | Reply

  7. This is a productive discussion on an important issue, so I’ll make a contribution hopefully seeding more comments to learn more. I do not have access to this valuable article and I wish I did so I write with some ignorance. Alexus is correct to suggest that whether Confucius of tradition or Confucius the human was great philosopher is immaterial “for most of our purposes”, purposes including understanding what is meant by certain passage in Lunyu. However the paucity of evidence about Confucius the human leads to interesting implications, including implications on methods. We cannot ask of a text, as most Chinese commentators seem to ask–or rather, we can but should not ask of a text–what Confucius means by it. The Brooks’ system has several problems but clearly it is the most complete and best justified dating system of the books: Confucius is properly regarded as *character*, not author. This fundamental fact seems overlooked or ignored, no?

    There is need of maintaining a cultlike figure, even if he is not leading a cult but a group of scholars through thousands of years of history and culture. So Alexus wrote: “I conclude “Confucius” deserves philosophical attention, insofar as this refers to whoever created the system in question.” Yes. But how do we give person who we know mainly by fictionalization philosophical attention? We need to develop new methods for this in history of philosophy, methods mostly missing so far. Here is new question: Why did creators of character of Confucius write that character the way they did? What did they stand to gain by this?

    Brooks Brooks write many intriguing things answering these questions for example they draw inference dating Book 1 at 294. They say ‘Dz-gau’–someone write new edition of their book for them with pinyin and with Chinese characters! Please?–came to rescue of Confucians with death of Dz-jing to redefine school with ‘postfeudal’ ‘citizen ethic’: virtue valuable even w/o public service (BB 145). Rationale concerns failure of Confucians at this time to gain status. (Bill, if you wrote review of Brooks Brooks please tell us because I need to learn more to evaluate Brooks Brooks critically and find mistakes. Slingerland review in PEW said Brooks Brooks flawed but best justified dating system we have. Correct, no?) Confucianism without Confucius aimed to use the fictional character of Lunyu to inspire, to find advantage, to gain better status, to be itself authoritative.

    Sinologists are good, yes. So are historical philosophers. But the concerns of both groups are narrow, do not explain why Confucius the character is so influential and important through history. We need more psychologists and sociologists and historians to help us, no?

    Comment by Vygeny Dochak | January 6, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi Vygeny,

      I haven’t written any review of the Brookses’ work on the Analects. I’m no expert on the dating question. My only published thoughts on the matter are in a section of my paper “The Purloined Philosopher” in PEW Oct. 2008.

      Perhaps someone who has been keeping up with the literature better than I have can tell us where to look now for the main arguments about dating.

      I haven’t worked through the Brookses’ book to try to follow their entire argument. I think that would be a huge project. The argument seems not be presented in a linear way, or (if I recall correctly) in such a way that one can usually easily locate their reasons for conclusions they report. Also I had the impression that their large argument is composed of long chains of small arguments, and many of the small arguments I looked at seemed to me to carry little weight. Yet I found their book a very rich source of facts and ideas.

      I gather that the idea that books 4 and 5 are pretty much the earliest, and the last few books are the latest, antedates the Brookses’ work.

      Comment by Bill Haines | January 7, 2012 | Reply

  8. This is indeed an interesting discussion, to which I would like to add two brief remarks: First, historically speaking, European philosophy is indeed characterized by a deep nostalgy for Socrates. But not for his “teachings”. If there is any positive Socratic contribution to the history of Philosophy, than this should be (if the Platonic story is true) the “invention” of the definition. But obviously he is important for the cultivation of a certain attitude (doubting and asking profound questions demanding serious answers). In other words, for many generations of thinkers Socrates represented the spirit of “negativity” (Hegel). This is not the case with Confucius. – Second, I do not really understand why, as Alexus McLeod writes, “the aim of the interpretative project in general is to provide an overarching argument that Confucius was a philosophically interesting thinker”. This sounds very unconvincing to me. We could write tons of books about anyone and anything with this aim in mind. Why choose HIM? And if it isn’t self-evident that he, in fact, was philosophically interesting, why should we do this interpretative work for him?

    Comment by Kai Marchal | January 7, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi Kai-
      I take it that what is obvious is that Confucius (as much as with Socrates at least) said interesting and inspirational things as well as had enormous influence, and this is what gives us independent reasons to engage in these studies to show he was a philosophically interesting thinker. We’re not starting from a place of NO information about Confucius (so writing tons of books about him is not the same as writing them about just anyone). He said inspirational things that sound kind of philosophical, inspired and shaped much of the foundation of the ethical thought of an entire civilization (at least if we take the claims of those in the tradition seriously), so doesn’t this give us some initial reason to engage in the project of creating interpretations to offer arguments that he was in fact a *philosophically* interesting thinker? It seems much the same with Socrates or even Plato, actually. I take it it’s not *self-evident* that either is philosophically interesting, unless this means something like “accepted in the philosophical canon”, but we can’t require this as necessary for doing interpretive work, or we’ll be stuck concluding that those included in the western philosophical canon to this point are philosophically significant and no one else is or could ever be (because they’re not self-evidently so).

      Also, Confucius did represent, I think, just as Socrates represented the spirit of “negativity”, the spirit of “moral sageliness” for very many later Chinese thinkers. If anything, Confucius is probably more influential for what we call “philosophy” in the Chinese tradition than Socrates, as no one in, say, Medieval or Modern European philosophy would have argued that “Socrates held position x, so there must be something to position x.” It seems to me the issue here is the same as that encountered when we try to argue that Chinese philosophy is in fact philosophy.

      Comment by Alexus McLeod | January 7, 2012 | Reply

  9. Addition to my first point: of course, there is also the Socratic view about virtue as knowledge. But it may not have been as influential as his method of asking questions…

    Comment by Kai Marchal | January 7, 2012 | Reply

  10. Hi Alexus,
    thanks for your comments! Now I understand your position better. I totally agree that we should take contributions by non-Western thinkers like Confucius more seriously than earlier generations of scholars have done. But how exactly can they be taken seriously? I see your point that the long history of Confucianism (representing an entire civilization) may somehow be an argument for engaging Confucius – and I do this myself on this ground. But, in purely philosophical terms, as you certainly would agree, long traditions in itself are not an argument at all for the importance/truth of certain ideas. I’m still struggling myself to find a good answer to this question. But I am quite skeptical of the idea that we should presuppose the existence of a coherent AND philosophically important interpretation of the “Analects”, because it is exactly this hermeneutical stance that guided thinkers like Zhu Xi in their effors of constructing a unified and relatively monolithic version of Confucianism. But what exactly is philosophical in creating or even manipulating the sense of earlier texts? (what Zhu Xi did to a certain degree) Why not just say: this is the philosophically important idea, but it is valuable in itself and does not need to rely on the idea of a unified unified interpretation?! This is my concern.
    I still think that Socratic “negativity” is something different from the ideal of “moral sageliness”. And you are totally right, European philosophers did not argue that “Socrates held position x, so there must be something to position x”! But why didn’t they do this? Because this is an attempt to justify position x by refering to the personal authority of a particular human being, which is philosophically speaking quite a weak justification. In Ancient China, this kind of justifications used to be very common, but I don’t think this demonstrates the presence of critical thinking (“negativity”) in Ancient China. Just the opposite! In my understanding, Wang Chong tried to challenges this kind of argument, but he has never been influential in later Confucian circles (but you know more about him than me).
    In my understanding, Nietsche and Mill were two thinkers deeply influenced by Socrates, and, I would claim, they are very important for our present age (certainly more important than Confucius, no?). What do you think?

    Comment by Kai Marchal | January 8, 2012 | Reply

  11. Kai, it seems to me that long tradition has some presumptive philosophical authority, because to remain popular in a whole society for a long time, a set of ideas presumably has to past hard tests of thought and experience. But I agree with you that long tradition “in itself” is not authoritative, for tradition carries more authority insofar as (a) the society and culture in question permits dissent, (b) there are institutions (such as Western academia has) to reward disproof of received ideas, (c) there are multiple independent kinds and levels of organization (federalism, small city-states, democratic towns, free enterprises, voluntary associations, etc) to allow better ways to evolve; (d) the intellectuals don’t mainly aspire to work for or through state officials; (e) there is a conception of intellectual activity as collaborative rather than solitary, and (f) there are the requisite practices and genres for intellectual cooperation and debate, such as (at the most elementary level) an emphasis on clarity in definitions and arguments. Well, that’s a tendentious list. What else?

    Impressive individuals too, I think, have some authority on philosophical questions. I don’t agree that the whole reason European philosophers haven’t cited Socrates is that they’ve thought individuals don’t have authority. They’ve cited Aristotle plenty. Rather I think a main reason is that there isn’t a great deal to cite him for. As a “first teacher,” he was successful: that is, he introduced important methods, and his immediate students and their immediate students accomplished great things.

    Alexus, I think a relevant difference between “the spirit of moral sageliness” and “the spirit of negativity” might be that moral sageliness isn’t a spirit: it’s not an approach, a method, something people can directly adopt from the elder’s example, and apply in their work in whole or in part. Rather it’s an achievement, an outcome – yes? So that his sageliness is the kind of judgment you say we would come to as/at the end of interpretation, not a judgment that gives us reason for trying to interpret him. Or is that not what you meant by “sageliness”? Did you mean something we can identify in his approach to teaching or thinking?

    Comment by Bill Haines | January 8, 2012 | Reply

  12. Great, Bill, thanks for your comments. This “tendentious list”, do you want to say that all this is missing in pre-modern China? In a way, this is how it looks. But than, how to engage constructively with statements that have rarely ever been challenged in the past?
    And thanks for your point on Aristotle. You are of course right, he used to be quoted everywhere and at every moment in pre-modern philosophical texts. But Aristotle also represented a set of arguments, a coherent theoretical explanation of the natural world, ethics and politics. So there is still a difference with Confucius who represents – what exactly? – a spiritual attitude, a life-style, a highly personalized claim to moral perfection?!

    Comment by Kai Marchal | January 10, 2012 | Reply

  13. Hi Kai. Thanks all around!

    Tendentiousness: yes, features of old China; but something more specific too. I have the sense that some people in Zhongnanhai and academia think that Confucianism offers good grounds for today opposing liberalism (protected individual freedoms, rule of law, democratic government, gender equality …). The items on the list are items I suspect the “Confucians” in that debate may tend to oppose. So the point that these are the things that make tradition authoritative is a dig, and a challenge.

    Another item I should have added to the list of things that give a tradition authority is that the tradition doesn’t systematically disarticulate some significant group of people (impede their comparing, expressing, and discussing their experience and its lessons to each other and to/with the main discussion that leads the society).

    You ask, “But then, how to engage constructively with statements that have rarely ever been challenged in the past?”

    What’s the obstacle?
    (When I offered my list I meant to be respecting your distinction between the idea that long traditions as such give us reason to attend to their ideas and try charitably to understand them, and the idea that long traditions as such give us substantial reason to think their ideas are true; I was addressing only the latter – is that relevant to your question here?)

    I’m not sure it’s arguments that Aristotle represents exactly. Might it be good judgment? In his biological works he mainly reports the observations of his research team. In his more philosophical works he commonly starts with the opinions of the many and the wise (tradition and impressive individuals, if you like), working them over to resolve real and apparent contradictions. Often I think he just presents views, as when he’s listing categories or reporting the meanings of terms. And as he often drew attention to unresolved problems about his own views, I wonder whether his offering a coherent overall explanation is quite the attraction. Well, maybe it is. Of course, what he actually did is not directly relevant to what the people who relied on his authority thought to underlie that authority.

    I’m not sure what Confucius represents to Confucians or should represent to us. For one thing, there are radically differing views about the facts of his life and about what texts fairly represent him. I have heard some of the traditional ideas – that he started a “school” that under him had 3000 students, that he wrote this and that classic – presented simply as facts to a large class of undergraduates by a famous tenured professor specializing in Confucianism at a large American university.

    But it seems to me fair to say that Confucius was someone who thought hard about general practical moral questions at least for life in or aspiring to public service, sincerely tried to live by his views, impressed those around him as succeeding, and tried to articulate his views in practical ways that others could use, and succeeded in articulating them in ways that readers are still likely to find impressive and enlightening. That amounts to prima facie success in forming a coherent understanding of a main slice of life, yes? And it seems to me that the modern analog of what I mean here by public service is pretty broad.

    Comment by Bill Haines | January 10, 2012 | Reply


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