This post proposes a book project, for anyone who wants it.
Two kinds of serious conversation
By “serious” conversations I mean conversations that work toward knowledge (at least for one party), or good decision (at least by one party), or designing something complex.
The serious conversations glimpsed in the Analects are mainly between a master and student. The Mencius is more concerned with how an adept should counsel a king. 1A7 looks like a handbook for that.
These two kinds of conversation get their shape and point from inequalities: unequal wisdom and unequal power. Between master and student, one side has the wisdom and the power. Between counselor and king, one side has the wisdom and the other has the power. The point of both conversations, as understood by all parties, is to transmit some wisdom from the wiser party to the other — within constraints imposed by the powerful party, such as limited time.
One could do a study of these two forms of conversation in Confucian literature: the varieties of each and the guidance on how to do them well. That’s not my main proposal here.
Is it fair to say that when early Confucianism thought about serious conversation, these two are the main kinds it thought about?
The Western tradition saliently values another kind of conversation, aiming more at discovering or creating than transmitting. Continue reading
Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell’s op-ed in the New York Times attracted a great deal of interest. Bell published another op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor a couple of days ago on the broader subject of meritocracy. This can illustrate how he differs from Jiang. I’m assuming he didn’t choose the headline (“What America’s flawed democracy could learn from China’s one-party rule”). The comments are also quite interesting.
Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell have written an Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times that may be of interest.
I’ve been giving some thought to this topic quite a bit, most recently spurred on by a response to an article by Daniel Bell that I’m writing for a Chinese journal. I won’t go into Bell’s argument in any detail, but I find significantly greater restrictions on speech accepted and even advocated by classical Ruists than in liberalism. On certain topics (criticizing the ruler/government) certain people (Ruists, or maybe the elite more generally) should speak out, though even here historically Ruists have generally accepted that they might be punished for doing so. On other topics, particularly those that might threaten social harmony and stability, they seem quite willing to ban certain kinds of expression. Continue reading
Picking up on something that Boram Lee very eloquently wrote in the Confucianism and Sexism string:
“… my impression is that at its heart Confucianism is neither autocratic nor authoritarian, as some modern Asian regimes like to claim.
It seems to me that one of the main defining features of Confucianism, at least on its political and economic dimensions, is its commitment to decentralization. Its ideal society is one consisting of small communities, each small community composed of persons governing themselves with ritual. The ideal government is not a centralized bureacracy, but self-government by each over themselves, where no coercion is involved, only voluntary control and participation in social activities, and leadership based on rational and emotional persuasion, not the use of laws and punishments. A centralized bureacracy following paternalistic policies towards uneducated peasants is only a second-best option.”
I think I understand most of the arguments for thinking of Confucianism as compatible with democratic ideals. They are some version of Boram’s point: the Confucian ideal of political community is of each person exercising moral self-scrutiny and self-cultivation; education of others and continuing self-education is an important ideal; persuasion and non-violent moral example are preferred to use of force and harsh legalism; hence, democracy is not far away as an ideal–what else would even seem appropriate for a community of junzi-like citizens but a democracy?
I think that would be great if it were true. And maybe there is some pragmatic value in making democracy seem continuous with a powerful self-conception (i.e. of being “Confucian” in some broad sense) that has traditionally been expressed only in non-democratic ways. But why does this kind of argument seem so strange to me? One thing that comes to mind very quickly is that it makes Confucianism’s ideals sound like those of Kant, or any of the other Enlightenment “autonomists.” The community of junzis sounds something like the “kingdom of ends,” a self-governing lot of moral agents who regard each other with respect for their personhoods.
Could I really complain about that? I’m not sure; but I feel like I should complain–Doesn’t it distort Confucianism? Isn’t it mistaken to think that the junzi ideal really lends itself to self-governance? What’s the connection exactly between self-cultivation and self-governance–doesn’t this rest on some conflation? And why has Confucianism only been used in the service of autocracy so far?
I’m not trying to make trouble here, just trying to scratch this itch.