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Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy (review)

Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy (review) Reviews 69 Frances Wood is head of the Chinese section in the British Library. Her most recent book (with Mark Barnard) is TheDiamondSutra:TheStoryoftheWorld'sEarliest PrintedBook (London: British Library, 2010). StephenC.Angle. Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of NeoConfucian Philosophy.Oxford:OxfordUniversityPress,2009.293pp. Hardcover$74.00,isbn978-0-19-538514-4. "WhathappensifwetotakeNeo-Confucianismanditsidealofsagehoodseriously ascontemporaryphilosophy?"ThisquestionmotivatesStephenAngle'smost recentworkincomparativephilosophy.Withanaccomplishedbackgroundin bothsinologyandAnglo-Americanphilosophy,Angleprovidesanadept treatmentofalargeswathofcontemporaryissuesinethicalandpolitical philosophy.Thisbookwillbeespeciallyrelevantforthoseworkingwithinor aroundthetraditionsofNeo-Confucianismandvirtueethics,butcouldproveto haveanevenwiderappeal. Theauthoradoptsacomparativemethodologyconsistingofwhathecalls "rootedglobalphilosophy"and"constructiveengagement."Rooted global philosophy"meanstoworkwithinaparticularlivephilosophicaltradition--thus itsrootedness--buttodosoinawaythatisopentostimulusandinsightsfrom otherphilosophicaltraditions--thusitsglobalnature"(p.6).Constructive engagement"emphasizesthatcontemporary,livephilosophicaltraditionscan challengeandyetlearnfromoneanother,"insuchawaythatrequiresthe characteristic"vulnerabilityandflexibilityoflivetraditions"(p.7).Byputtingthe traditionsofNeo-ConfucianandWesternvirtueethicsintoconstructivedialogue, ahermeneutichorizonopensupbywhichthefundamentalpresuppositionsof eachtraditionarecalledintoquestionwithoutlosingsightofitsuniqueintegrity. WhileworryingattimesabouttheextenttowhichanyformofConfucian philosophycanstillbealiveoption(especiallyforaWesternercommittedto liberaldemocraticvalues),theauthor,forthemostpart,assumesthathecan simultaneouslytakerootasaConfucianphilosopherandasanAmericanvirtue ethicist(8ff.).Onemightwishtotakeissuewiththisnotion,interrogatingthe feasibilityoffacilelyplacingNeo-Confucianphilosophy inintimateconversation withcontemporaryWesternethicaltheory.TheWayLearning(daoxue) movement,whichbegancircatheSongdynasty(960­1279c.e.)andwhich continuesintothepresent(atleastforthoseforwhomthismodeofConfucian © 2011 by University of Hawai`i Press 70 ChinaReviewInternational:Vol.17,No.1,2010 discourseoffersitselfupasalivetradition),1iscertainlynotjustaphilosophical theory.Ratheritisaholistictraditionincorporatingacomplexarrayofmeanings thatcanbeonlyartificiallyclassifiedasepistemological,ontological,ethical, political,orreligious,orbyanyothernon-nativeconceptualschema.Iwill have moretosayaboutthisbelowinthediscussionofvirtueasatranslationfor de .Sufficeittosaythattheauthoriscertainlyawareoftheuniqueness(or "rootedness")ofthephilosophicaltraditionsbetweenwhichhemoves.However, theimpressionisthat wecansometimesbrackettheparticulargenealogiesoftexts inbringingthem tobearontheelucidationand/orsolutionofabstract philosophicalproblems. Thebookisdividedintothreesections:"Keywords,""EthicsandPsychology," and"EducationandPolitics."Iwillfocusprimarilyonthefirstsection,which groundstheentirecomparativeproject.Whilesomeofmycommentshavecritical import,Idonotwishtoquestiontheimportanceofthetextasawhole.Itstandsas ahighlyprovocativeandcreativereadingofNeo-Confucianphilosophyinlightof recentdevelopmentsinWesternvirtueethics. Thefirstsectionisconcernedprimarilywithcontextualizingfourkeytermsof Neo-Confuciandiscourse,bothwithinthetraditionitselfandindialoguewith contemporaryethicalphilosophy.Carryingoutthistask,theauthorisablebothto familiarizethenonspecialistwiththebasicoutlinesoftheConfuciantraditionand alertreaderstothepossibilityoffruitfulinteractionswithparticularstrainsof Westernvirtueethics.Thefourkeytermsare"sage"(sheng ),"coherence"(li ), "virtue"(de ),and"harmony"(he). Whilethementionofsagesincontemporarycirclesmaycalltomindlong whitebeardsandmysticalmountaintopexperiences,theauthordoesagoodjobof showingthattheconceptfunctionsinConfucianismasapracticalidealofethical cultivationwithinthefamiliaraffairsofeverydayliving.Farfrombeinganotherworldlyorsuprahumangoal,theethicalidealofsagehood,forConfucians,is exemplifiedinthe"dispositions"(qixiang)ofactualhistoricalpersonages suchasConfuciushimself.BycomparingtheConfucianidealofsagehoodwith someWesternideals,theauthorisabletobringforththeuniquenessoftheterm. TheGreekdistinctionbetweenthesophos andphronimos (bothsometimes translatedas"sage")ishelpfulinremindingusthat,atleastintheNichomachean Ethics, Aristotlewasambivalentaboutwhatkindoflifewasrequiredinorderto achieveeudamonia. IntheEthics,onlytheloverofwisdom(sophia),andnotthe individualseekingtoembodypracticalwisdom(phronesis)--thatis,the philosopherwhohaspurgedhimselfofworldlyconcernstoengageintheactivity ofpurecontemplation(theoria)--canbesaidtorealizehistelos fully.Theauthor pointsoutthat"theNeo-Confucianpursuitofsagehooddoesnotinvolvethesame kindofrupturewitheverydaylife"(p.22).Similarly,wedonothavetofretover whetheraConfuciansagefallsundertherubricof"moralsaint"criticizedso forcefullybySusanWolfinherfamousessay.2Sagehoodisnotanidealsetupin Reviews 71 oppositiontoembodiedandassociatedhumanliving,butrathertheculmination ofhumanrolesandrelationships(renlunzhizhi).3 Theconceptofsageisusedthroughoutthebooktoaddressanumberof theoreticalissuesraisedintheliteratureofcontemporaryvirtueethics.While nowhereintheConfuciancorpusareweprovidedwiththenecessaryand sufficientconditionsforsupposingsomeoneasage,thisbookdoespresentuswith thehistoricalbackgroundoutofwhichthetermemergedanddeveloped.Italso offersareconstructionofwhatthetermcouldcontinuetomeaninaculturenot obviouslyConfucianinorientation. Theauthoradmitsthathischoiceof"coherence"totranslatethecentralterm ofliinNeo-Confuciandiscourseisboundtoraisesomecontroversy(p.31).The cruxofhisargumentisthatpreviouslyacceptedtranslationssuchas"law," "principle,"and"pattern"arealltooobjectiveinconnotationtocapturethesense ofli.FollowingBrookZiporyn'sworkonDaoistandBuddhistusesoflipriorto theNeo-Confucianappropriation,Anglechooses"coherence"tocapture"the valuable,intelligiblewaythatthingsfittogether"(p.32)."Principle"and"law" seemtocoexistbetterwithadeontologicalordivinecommandethics,andthe authorarguesthatNeo-Confucianethicsisbetterunderstoodasa"virtue-based ethics,ratherthanaprinciple-basedethics"(p.33).WhileIdonotnecessarilyhave anyproblemwith"coherence"asatermtotranslateli(especiallygiventheway thattheauthorstipulateswhatcoherencewillmeanforhispurposes),Idohave someworriesoverhisdiscussionofthe"subjectiveandobjective"dimensions supposedlyfoundwithinNeo-Confucianethicalexperience.Heclaimsthat"li's earliestusescombineobjectiveandsubjectivedimensions"(p.34)andthat"wecan saythatcoherenceisbothobjectiveandsubjective"(p.35).Thischapteropensup aninterestingthemethatpermeatestheentirebook.Iamreferringtothe differences(sometimessubtleandsometimesprofound)thatmarktherespective philosophiesofZhuXiandWangYangming,thetwogiantsofNeo-Confucian thought.Basically,theauthorthinksthatthedifferencebetweenthetwoismostly amatterofemphasis,notamatterofsomefundamentaldisparityinontologicalor epistemologicalcommitments.Accordingtotheauthor,Zhutendstohighlightthe objectiveaspectofli,employingtermssuchas"unchanging"(chang )4and "settledcoherence"(dingli ).Wangemphasizesthe"heart-mind"andthe "originalsubstance(benti)ofone'smind."However,theauthormakesitclear thatneitherZhunorWangfullyneglectseitherthesubjectiveorobjectiveaspects ofethicalactivity.Thus,whenWangYangmingclaims"thereisnomindindependentcoherence"and"therearenomind-independentthings,"to understandWangas"advocatingwhatWesternphilosopherswouldcallidealism wouldbeahugemistake.Instead,heisemphasizingthesubjectivedimensionof coherencewithoutabandoningitscriticalobjectiveside"(p.37). Althoughthediscussionofli ascoherenceishighlynuancedandcoversalot ofinterestingground(includingtheontologicalstatusoflianditsrelationtoqi, 72 ChinaReviewInternational:Vol.17,No.1,2010 "matter-energy"),Ithinkthatthelanguageofsubjectivityandobjectivityfalls shortofdoingfulljusticetotheNeo-Confuciandiscourse.Insteadofclaimingthat asagelyperceptionoftianli,"universalcoherence,"isbothsubjectiveandobjective, woulditnotbebettertoclaimthatsuchmoralperceptionisbeyondthesubjective/objectivedichotomyaltogether?Especiallygiventheauthor'sforayintothe TiantaiandHuayanBuddhistrootsoftheNeo-Confucianfocusonli,itdoesn't seemlikemuchofaninterpretivestretchtointerpretwhatisgoingoninboth Zhu'sandWang'sphenomenologicaldescriptionsoftheenlightenedprocessof "investigatingthings"(gewu)asatranscendenceofmundanebifurcated consciousness.Thesubjective/objectiveconceptualframeworkthencouldbe jettisonedinfavorofaSagely"perceptionoftheinterdependentoriginationand transformationoftheten-thousandthings"(yutiandi wanwu wei yiti ).Whatthesethinkerswerestrivingforseemstobeapervasiveand maximallysensitivespontaneousperceptionofafittingresponseinaparticular situation.Thus,wemightdobettertoeschewsubjectiveandobjectivelanguage altogetherinarticulatinghowNeo-Confucianscouldderivean"ought" (suodangran zhi ze)froman"is"(suoyiran http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png China Review International University of Hawai'I Press

Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy (review)

China Review International , Volume 17 (1) – Mar 1, 2010

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Abstract

Reviews 69 Frances Wood is head of the Chinese section in the British Library. Her most recent book (with Mark Barnard) is TheDiamondSutra:TheStoryoftheWorld'sEarliest PrintedBook (London: British Library, 2010). StephenC.Angle. Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of NeoConfucian Philosophy.Oxford:OxfordUniversityPress,2009.293pp. Hardcover$74.00,isbn978-0-19-538514-4. "WhathappensifwetotakeNeo-Confucianismanditsidealofsagehoodseriously ascontemporaryphilosophy?"ThisquestionmotivatesStephenAngle'smost recentworkincomparativephilosophy.Withanaccomplishedbackgroundin bothsinologyandAnglo-Americanphilosophy,Angleprovidesanadept treatmentofalargeswathofcontemporaryissuesinethicalandpolitical philosophy.Thisbookwillbeespeciallyrelevantforthoseworkingwithinor aroundthetraditionsofNeo-Confucianismandvirtueethics,butcouldproveto haveanevenwiderappeal. Theauthoradoptsacomparativemethodologyconsistingofwhathecalls "rootedglobalphilosophy"and"constructiveengagement."Rooted global philosophy"meanstoworkwithinaparticularlivephilosophicaltradition--thus itsrootedness--buttodosoinawaythatisopentostimulusandinsightsfrom otherphilosophicaltraditions--thusitsglobalnature"(p.6).Constructive engagement"emphasizesthatcontemporary,livephilosophicaltraditionscan challengeandyetlearnfromoneanother,"insuchawaythatrequiresthe characteristic"vulnerabilityandflexibilityoflivetraditions"(p.7).Byputtingthe traditionsofNeo-ConfucianandWesternvirtueethicsintoconstructivedialogue, ahermeneutichorizonopensupbywhichthefundamentalpresuppositionsof eachtraditionarecalledintoquestionwithoutlosingsightofitsuniqueintegrity. WhileworryingattimesabouttheextenttowhichanyformofConfucian philosophycanstillbealiveoption(especiallyforaWesternercommittedto liberaldemocraticvalues),theauthor,forthemostpart,assumesthathecan simultaneouslytakerootasaConfucianphilosopherandasanAmericanvirtue ethicist(8ff.).Onemightwishtotakeissuewiththisnotion,interrogatingthe feasibilityoffacilelyplacingNeo-Confucianphilosophy inintimateconversation withcontemporaryWesternethicaltheory.TheWayLearning(daoxue) movement,whichbegancircatheSongdynasty(960­1279c.e.)andwhich continuesintothepresent(atleastforthoseforwhomthismodeofConfucian © 2011 by University of Hawai`i Press 70 ChinaReviewInternational:Vol.17,No.1,2010 discourseoffersitselfupasalivetradition),1iscertainlynotjustaphilosophical theory.Ratheritisaholistictraditionincorporatingacomplexarrayofmeanings thatcanbeonlyartificiallyclassifiedasepistemological,ontological,ethical, political,orreligious,orbyanyothernon-nativeconceptualschema.Iwill have moretosayaboutthisbelowinthediscussionofvirtueasatranslationfor de .Sufficeittosaythattheauthoriscertainlyawareoftheuniqueness(or "rootedness")ofthephilosophicaltraditionsbetweenwhichhemoves.However, theimpressionisthat wecansometimesbrackettheparticulargenealogiesoftexts inbringingthem tobearontheelucidationand/orsolutionofabstract philosophicalproblems. Thebookisdividedintothreesections:"Keywords,""EthicsandPsychology," and"EducationandPolitics."Iwillfocusprimarilyonthefirstsection,which groundstheentirecomparativeproject.Whilesomeofmycommentshavecritical import,Idonotwishtoquestiontheimportanceofthetextasawhole.Itstandsas ahighlyprovocativeandcreativereadingofNeo-Confucianphilosophyinlightof recentdevelopmentsinWesternvirtueethics. Thefirstsectionisconcernedprimarilywithcontextualizingfourkeytermsof Neo-Confuciandiscourse,bothwithinthetraditionitselfandindialoguewith contemporaryethicalphilosophy.Carryingoutthistask,theauthorisablebothto familiarizethenonspecialistwiththebasicoutlinesoftheConfuciantraditionand alertreaderstothepossibilityoffruitfulinteractionswithparticularstrainsof Westernvirtueethics.Thefourkeytermsare"sage"(sheng ),"coherence"(li ), "virtue"(de ),and"harmony"(he). Whilethementionofsagesincontemporarycirclesmaycalltomindlong whitebeardsandmysticalmountaintopexperiences,theauthordoesagoodjobof showingthattheconceptfunctionsinConfucianismasapracticalidealofethical cultivationwithinthefamiliaraffairsofeverydayliving.Farfrombeinganotherworldlyorsuprahumangoal,theethicalidealofsagehood,forConfucians,is exemplifiedinthe"dispositions"(qixiang)ofactualhistoricalpersonages suchasConfuciushimself.BycomparingtheConfucianidealofsagehoodwith someWesternideals,theauthorisabletobringforththeuniquenessoftheterm. TheGreekdistinctionbetweenthesophos andphronimos (bothsometimes translatedas"sage")ishelpfulinremindingusthat,atleastintheNichomachean Ethics, Aristotlewasambivalentaboutwhatkindoflifewasrequiredinorderto achieveeudamonia. IntheEthics,onlytheloverofwisdom(sophia),andnotthe individualseekingtoembodypracticalwisdom(phronesis)--thatis,the philosopherwhohaspurgedhimselfofworldlyconcernstoengageintheactivity ofpurecontemplation(theoria)--canbesaidtorealizehistelos fully.Theauthor pointsoutthat"theNeo-Confucianpursuitofsagehooddoesnotinvolvethesame kindofrupturewitheverydaylife"(p.22).Similarly,wedonothavetofretover whetheraConfuciansagefallsundertherubricof"moralsaint"criticizedso forcefullybySusanWolfinherfamousessay.2Sagehoodisnotanidealsetupin Reviews 71 oppositiontoembodiedandassociatedhumanliving,butrathertheculmination ofhumanrolesandrelationships(renlunzhizhi).3 Theconceptofsageisusedthroughoutthebooktoaddressanumberof theoreticalissuesraisedintheliteratureofcontemporaryvirtueethics.While nowhereintheConfuciancorpusareweprovidedwiththenecessaryand sufficientconditionsforsupposingsomeoneasage,thisbookdoespresentuswith thehistoricalbackgroundoutofwhichthetermemergedanddeveloped.Italso offersareconstructionofwhatthetermcouldcontinuetomeaninaculturenot obviouslyConfucianinorientation. Theauthoradmitsthathischoiceof"coherence"totranslatethecentralterm ofliinNeo-Confuciandiscourseisboundtoraisesomecontroversy(p.31).The cruxofhisargumentisthatpreviouslyacceptedtranslationssuchas"law," "principle,"and"pattern"arealltooobjectiveinconnotationtocapturethesense ofli.FollowingBrookZiporyn'sworkonDaoistandBuddhistusesoflipriorto theNeo-Confucianappropriation,Anglechooses"coherence"tocapture"the valuable,intelligiblewaythatthingsfittogether"(p.32)."Principle"and"law" seemtocoexistbetterwithadeontologicalordivinecommandethics,andthe authorarguesthatNeo-Confucianethicsisbetterunderstoodasa"virtue-based ethics,ratherthanaprinciple-basedethics"(p.33).WhileIdonotnecessarilyhave anyproblemwith"coherence"asatermtotranslateli(especiallygiventheway thattheauthorstipulateswhatcoherencewillmeanforhispurposes),Idohave someworriesoverhisdiscussionofthe"subjectiveandobjective"dimensions supposedlyfoundwithinNeo-Confucianethicalexperience.Heclaimsthat"li's earliestusescombineobjectiveandsubjectivedimensions"(p.34)andthat"wecan saythatcoherenceisbothobjectiveandsubjective"(p.35).Thischapteropensup aninterestingthemethatpermeatestheentirebook.Iamreferringtothe differences(sometimessubtleandsometimesprofound)thatmarktherespective philosophiesofZhuXiandWangYangming,thetwogiantsofNeo-Confucian thought.Basically,theauthorthinksthatthedifferencebetweenthetwoismostly amatterofemphasis,notamatterofsomefundamentaldisparityinontologicalor epistemologicalcommitments.Accordingtotheauthor,Zhutendstohighlightthe objectiveaspectofli,employingtermssuchas"unchanging"(chang )4and "settledcoherence"(dingli ).Wangemphasizesthe"heart-mind"andthe "originalsubstance(benti)ofone'smind."However,theauthormakesitclear thatneitherZhunorWangfullyneglectseitherthesubjectiveorobjectiveaspects ofethicalactivity.Thus,whenWangYangmingclaims"thereisnomindindependentcoherence"and"therearenomind-independentthings,"to understandWangas"advocatingwhatWesternphilosopherswouldcallidealism wouldbeahugemistake.Instead,heisemphasizingthesubjectivedimensionof coherencewithoutabandoningitscriticalobjectiveside"(p.37). Althoughthediscussionofli ascoherenceishighlynuancedandcoversalot ofinterestingground(includingtheontologicalstatusoflianditsrelationtoqi, 72 ChinaReviewInternational:Vol.17,No.1,2010 "matter-energy"),Ithinkthatthelanguageofsubjectivityandobjectivityfalls shortofdoingfulljusticetotheNeo-Confuciandiscourse.Insteadofclaimingthat asagelyperceptionoftianli,"universalcoherence,"isbothsubjectiveandobjective, woulditnotbebettertoclaimthatsuchmoralperceptionisbeyondthesubjective/objectivedichotomyaltogether?Especiallygiventheauthor'sforayintothe TiantaiandHuayanBuddhistrootsoftheNeo-Confucianfocusonli,itdoesn't seemlikemuchofaninterpretivestretchtointerpretwhatisgoingoninboth Zhu'sandWang'sphenomenologicaldescriptionsoftheenlightenedprocessof "investigatingthings"(gewu)asatranscendenceofmundanebifurcated consciousness.Thesubjective/objectiveconceptualframeworkthencouldbe jettisonedinfavorofaSagely"perceptionoftheinterdependentoriginationand transformationoftheten-thousandthings"(yutiandi wanwu wei yiti ).Whatthesethinkerswerestrivingforseemstobeapervasiveand maximallysensitivespontaneousperceptionofafittingresponseinaparticular situation.Thus,wemightdobettertoeschewsubjectiveandobjectivelanguage altogetherinarticulatinghowNeo-Confucianscouldderivean"ought" (suodangran zhi ze)froman"is"(suoyiran

Journal

China Review InternationalUniversity of Hawai'I Press

Published: Mar 1, 2010

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