The current revival ofConfucian philosophyneeds to go beyond anachronisticdisputes and thelimitationsofold discourses, andavoid a rather simplistic re-assumption of its rigid ancient form.A modified system is needed for Confucianism to gaina post-modernist vision.A promising future for Confucianism in the postmodern era may well lie in revealing its profound philosophical and cultural significance in modern language, which lends it the capacity of responding to and explaining issues in the postmodern era. This provides people with alternative angles to understanding their way ahead in a new world.
As we are now living in a world with an unprecedented high frequency of contact between civilizations, it is pressing for each civilization, asSamuel P. Huntingtonstates, “to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which peoples in those civilizations see their interests.” Since today’s globalization means each culture and civilization around the world must learn more about and explore the possibility for peaceful co-existence with others, Confucianism needs to keep pace with the times, identifying elements of commonality between Chinese and other civilizations, and go global to exchange with them in a sense of full self-esteem and confidence.
This paper will address a number of general issues, such aswhatpostmodernismis, what thestatus ofConfucianism in the Postmodern Erais,whatcould be the elements ofcommonality that may makeConfucianismrelevant to postmodernism, and what the differences between Confucianism and Postmodernismare.We will argue: 1) the situation in whichcultural critics question,under the banner of “postmodernism,” the viability of the present forms of theinstitutions of capitalism, democracy, and technology. This seems to be an opportunity for Confucianism and postmodernism to have a critically relevant and timely engagement. 2) The fact that the thinking of the early philosophers of China does not involve the foundational hypotheses of substance, of truth, or of a transcendental origin might well correspond to the effort on the part of postmodernists “to continue to do philosophy, or something like it, after the failure of modernism, that failure being the collapse of belief in universal assertions of truth and meaning; postmodernists do not reject the ideas of truth and meaning, but understand them as plural and contingent and dynamic and for them the only kind of truth and meaning that might be accepted are those that are local, specific, and fragile.” And 3) structural differences do exist between Confucianism and postmodernism; however, postmodernism’s encountering Confucianism in the postmodern era may foster a truly enlightening conversation and a hope for better mutual understandings. To start our discussion, we would like first to do a brief review of the status of Confucianism in modern China.
1. Confucianism in the Modern Era
Many have either criticized in the extreme or summarily dismissed Confucianism, regarding it as an anachronistic feudal culture and the antithesis of the sensibilities of modernity and democracy. During the last century of the West’s encounters with China, Confucianism was not able to have a true conversation with the Western intellectual tradition for three major historical reasons. First, the anti-traditionalist campaigns, beginning with the May 4, 1919 “New Culture Movement” and thereafter continuing in various forms for several decades, relentlessly attacked Confucianism, claiming that it was responsible for the Qing Dynasty’s corruption and incompetence in holding the country together. Second, as Chenshan Tian argues in hisChinese Dialectics: from Yijing to Marxism, an engagement of Chinese intellectual tradition (including Confucianism) with Western Marxism occurred, particularly following the 1917 Russian Revolution; a Chinese version of Marxism developed and finally came to fruition in the thought of Mao Zedong, which is a rendered version that articulates a traditional philosophy in the language composed of the terminology of Western Marxisms, yet in Chinese translation.And third, since the 1980s China has encountered Western liberalism thanks to the government’s enterprise toward economic reform that appealed to the doctrines of neo-liberalism; intellectuals have gradually entered a discourse on China’s future, a modified interpretation of Marx-Leninism, and revived articulation of Confucianism in terms of liberalism.
Confucianism’s revival was a direct outcome of the entire repudiation of the ten-year Cultural Revolution (1966-76), led by Deng Xiaoping toward the end of the 1970s; Confucianist scholarship has since focused on critiques of Marxism and Mao’s thought, particularly attacking the theory of class struggle, and reassumed formerly outdated disputes between different schools of thought in Chinese tradition. Confucianism has gained new strength thanks to more and more official resort to traditional and ethical values as both ideological and political solutions to domestic problems, for instance such as the rampant corruption and demoralization prompted by privatization and other liberalistic economic policies, which have intrinsically impinged on social stability.
It suffices to say that Confucianism has not ever had an opportunity for a true conversation with the Western intellectual culture because it is often seen exclusively relevant to domestic issues and with interest only in disputes of old Confucian schools. In the meantime, Western ideas are arguably incapable of being adequately understood in the Chinese category, for certain cosmological assumptions led to structural differences between Western and Chinese intellectual traditions and languages. The understanding of Western ideas in China has been mainly through Chinese translation; and, for this reason, misinterpretations and misunderstandings are bound to occur. Philosophical discourses in China often pass by those in the West and have scarcely had a direct and real impact on issues under consideration in the West.
Nonetheless, Confucianism did assume a new façade in modern times, during a span of more than a hundred years starting with the downfall of the Qing Dynasty. It embraced the contributions by innumerable scholars such as Wei Yuan, Yan Fu, Gong Zizhen, Hong Rengan, Liang Qichao, Kang Youwei, Sun Yatsen, Zheng Guanying, and thereafter the contemporary Neo-Confucian philosophers. There is no question that a myriad of Chinese Marxist theoreticians such as Li Da, Qu Qiubai, Chen Weishi, Ai Siqi, and Mao Zedong also deserve credit for the creation of the new modern forms of Confucianism. As study shows, although the mainstream of Chinese philosophy has superficially been anti-traditional (anti-Confucianism), and thinkers of different schools have used sharply different discourses, they have articulated their views almost in the same modality; as Tian argues in hisChinese Dialectics, the Chinese understand Western thought from the perspectives of Chinese intellectual tradition; that is, a worldview of correlations and the modality of correlative thinking.
In general the Chinese have a two-way approach to Western thought: one explains Confucianism in Western terms; the other, the other way round. Both have indulged in an anti-traditionalist disposition. In this scenario, indeed, few perceive beyond the particular worldview, modality of thinking, and value systems that constitute the classical Confucian structure. Even for some of the contemporary Neo-Confucian thinkers – some of whom had even spent decades in the west and should have had a better chance to undertake a real conversation with the western intellectual culture – they still divulged their particular Chinese mindset in their usage of Western categories and conceptual schemes when attempting to dialogue between East and West or theorize a new, modern system of Confucian thought.
Yen Fu, who is well known first as a Chinese liberalist, poses a good example in this respect. Yen produced the first Chinese version of the evolutionary theory in 1898. However, while he was without question deeply impressed with Western liberalism, Yen rendered the original form of liberalism as one that was rather highlighted by the individual only as a means to the end of community; beyond this individual liberty found little room in his intellectual world. The reason is, as Benjamin Schwartz finds it plainly, “what has not come through in Yen Fu’s perception is precisely that which is often considered to be the ultimate spiritual core of liberalism – the concept of the worth of the person within society as an end in itself.”
In the popularly liberalistic discourses of the famous six-part TV documentaryThe Dirge of the Yellow Riverof the 1980s, and even of the general disciplines in humanities and social sciences at China’s universities in the present time, one has little difficulty in discerning the continuation of traditional Confucianist elements in the Chinese intellectuals’ comprehension of Western thoughts, as well as in their blaming that Chinese culture composes the antithesis of the Western assumption ofcapitalism, democracy, and technology.
The phenomena that read Western thought in Chinese terms are similar to, as Roger Ames argues it, the situation in which many Westerners understand Confucianism in Western terms; both sides have rendered by means of translation the other’s cultural traditions into categories that fit their own cultures, while hardly realizing that there is no exact equivalent in their own language for ideas of the other. A particular worldview is sedimented into the language of a culture and the systematic structure of its concepts, encouraging certain philosophical possibilities while discouraging others.Hence, our argument is that Western thought as understood in modern China is not exactly what it is understood to be in the West, but rather something that has been precluded of its deeper Western structure; this is a critical assertion and deserves an explanation as to why an in-depth and real understanding between cultures has not happened, and perhaps would not be happening between Confucianism and Western thought systems if their structural differences are not taken into account.
We hope this difficulty attending the modern era will draw adequate attention and achieve reconciliation in the postmodern era, with the historical conditions of a high frequency of contact between civilizations providing more opportunities for deepening mutual understanding. Postmodern sensibilities have significantly spread throughout China; and scholars from both China and the West have started getting together and talking about the importance of the structural differences of these two intellectual traditions. In this respect, a new pragmatism may help this difficult situation as it addresses the ostensible elements of commonality between the Confucian and postmodern sensibilities.
2. Postmodern Sensibilities
The relevance of Confucianism to postmodernism, or the possibility for an engagement of the two, arises with the cultural critiques’ questioning, under the banner of “postmodernism,”aboutthe viability of the present forms ofthevery institutions of capitalism, democracy, and technology.What is postmodernism?
InThe Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, David Harvey sees postmodernity arise from the transformation of a modern system of mass production with a relatively fixed system of capital accumulation.For Harvey, as a historical condition, postmodernity is not a fundamental break in Western culture but a shift in sensibility that can be explained by “historical materialist enquiry.”His economically grounded analysis of the sensibility of postmodernism runs as such:
The intensity of time-space compression in Western capitalism since the 1960s, with all of its congruent features of excessive ephemerality and fragmentation in the political and private as well as in the social realm, does seem to indicate an experiential context that makes the condition of postmodernity somewhat special.
Forhim,the most important cultural change,the transformation from modernity to postmodernity,was the change in the human experience of space and time. As heargues,the change in the sense of space and time carried over to the financial arena. With faster andmorefar-flung telecommunications, financial markets came to encompass the entire globe in very short time spans.In the mean time, production of real commodities ceased to be essential to the capitalist system. Through the space-time compression, the financial system came to be de-linked from active production of real commodities.In his terms of the postmodern reality, Harvey draws from Brian McHale the idea of multiple and simultaneous ontologies, or “a potential as well as an actual plurality of universes” at the heart of postmodernism.He suggests thatcreative expression of postmodern sensibilitybe"mimetic of something"–thesomething being fragmentation, ephemerality, and collage.
As Harvey continues,faced with fragmentation, ephemerality, and collage, people reach out for "personal or collective identity; and this strongly emphasizes the connection between place and social identityandintensifies fragmentation as people grasp for their particular place.In addition,this reaching out emphasizes "the aesthetics of space,"which goes against theuniversal functionalism in space sought by modernism.Therefore, for him, this is an era that hasturnedtoaesthetics and away from scientific and moral reasoning undertheconditions of confusion and uncertaintyin the 1960s. Since1973,
The experience of time and space has changed, the confidence in the association between scientific and moral judgments has collapsed, aesthetics has triumphed over ethics as a prime focus of social and intellectual concern, images dominate narratives, ephemerality and fragmentation take precedence over eternal truths and unified politics, and explanations have shifted from the realm of material and political-economic groundings towards a consideration of autonomous cultural and political practices.
Reasonably, it is with this kind of experience, as Crane states, what we mean by “postmodern” is the effort to continue to do philosophy.Postmodernists do not reject the ideas of truth and meaning, but understand them as plural and contingent and dynamic; and the only kinds of assertions of truth and meaning that could be accepted are those that are local and specific and fragile.
However, Harvey seems unwilling to accept“change and uncertainty”as a persistent given; rather, he acknowledges the cultural and psychological instabilities caused by these conditions.Hecriticizes the deconstructionists,linkingthemasa“shell-shocked, blasé, or exhausted silence,”“a submission to the overwhelming sense of how vast, intractable, and outside any individual or even collective control everything is.”For him, one of the responses to time-space compression is “an intermediate niche for political and intellectual life which spurns grand narrative but which does cultivate the possibility of limited action;” it leads to community and locality, but slides “into parochialism, myopia, and self-referentiality in the face of the universalizing force of capital circulation.”The postmodern is paradoxical; underway is a celebration of fragmentation, which is embraced as an important principle.The connection of the unifying of global financial systems with the transition in norms, habits, and political and cultural attitudes is well captured in the following passage:
...the more flexible motion of capital emphasizes the new, the fleeting, the ephemeral, the fugitive, and the contingent....rampant individualism fits into place as a necessary...condition....But...at...times of fragmentation and economic insecurity...the desire for stable values leads to a heightened emphasis upon the authority of basic institutions,”which we see in neo-conservatism.
If we suffice with Harvey’s description, then the question we are left with is: How can Confucianism, either in its ancient or any modern/new form, be relevant to the postmodern orientation?
3. The Opportunity for Confucianism to “go global”
As we reviewed in the first section of the paper,the status of Confucianism in the modern era has involved a complex of anti-traditionalism, Chinese Marxism, the domestic-oriented outlook, and Chinese liberalism. In the meantime, Confucianist scholarship has hardly had a chance for a true conversation with the Western intellectual tradition because the historical conditions simply did not exist and hence an adequate comprehension of the structural differences rendered by Western cosmological assumptions has been out of the question. It seems that there is now an opportunity for Confucianism to engage with Western thought because: 1) postmodernism poses a challenge to modernism; 2)cultural critics haveraised questions about thevery institutions of capitalism, democracy, and technology;3)sincethe mid-1980sexperts have raised the argument that all the early philosophers of China are postmodern figures;and 4) the Chinese and Western intellectuals have been approaching each other for possible conversation albeit their thought systems structurally differ from each other.
1) Postmodernists deny transcendental claim. For them, there are many different worldviews and concepts of reality, not only a sole “correct or true” one,and therefore,multiple and simultaneous ontologies.If Descartes is seen to have founded modernism, then postmodernism rejects major features of Cartesian (or allegedly Cartesian) modern thought. The postmodern umbrella entails all views that stress the priority of the social over the individual, disallow the universalizing tendencies of philosophy, prize irony over knowledge, and give the irrational equal footing with the rational in our decision-making procedures.As David Hall and Roger Ames argue,
The presumption of a single coherent world that might serve as ground and goal of descriptive or interpretive endeavors, or of an essentialized mind or ego that might ground the thoughts, decisions, and actions of agents, as well as the very idea of a stable agent that could serve as the author of ideas or the terminus of ascriptions of responsibility with respect to actions and decisions, are no longer presupposed by the above named movements.
They claim that Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida and the new pragmatism of Donald Davidson and Richard Rorty, all carry forward in a variety of ways the critique of the Enlightenment project started by Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century.InAnticipating China, the two authors assert that it is an ongoing process of assault upon the dominance of rational and causal thinking, which may be a stimulus to return to the analogical procedures of first problematic thought.As they state in another book,the new Romantic impulses of late modern societyhave broadly assailed theoretical absolutes, universal values, scientism, metanarratives and logocentrism – a host of totalizing discourses that are the avatars of Enlightenment rationality.Hall and Ames feel urged to look within the Western cultural stock for heretofore marginalized aspects of tradition, hoping to discover fresh elements with which to construct alternatives to the outmoded aspects of the cultural milieu.
2) Most cultural critics seem to have casually and unreflectively identified “modernity” with the institutions of liberal democracy, capitalist free enterprise, and the spread of rational technologies. They question the viability of the present forms of those very institutions of capitalism, democracy, and technology.As postmodernism asserts, grand utopias are impossible, reality fragmented, and personal identity an unstable quantity transmitted by a variety of cultural factors; it advocates an irreverent, playful treatment of one’s own identity, and liberal society.
Insettingup“Fordism” (and its inherent instabilities)to describe the modernist emphasis on standardization, mass productionandlabor stabilitywiththe transformation in the 1970s to“flexible accumulation”as a new way of operating capitalism and its financial markets,Harveytries toillustrate the opposed tendencies of“Fordist modernism”and“flexible postmodernism”asinterpenetratingcharacteristics of capitalist society as a whole.For him,this interpenetration“helps us dissolve the categories of both modernism and postmodernism into a complex of oppositions expressive of the cultural conditions of capitalism.”
Hall and Ames find the reevaluation and renewal of the tradition of American pragmatism quite challenging to the standard rationalist mythos of logos interpretation in cultural development. For Ames, John Dewey has some cosmological “idea” of democracy that may serve as a heuristic for uncovering a resonant cosmological “idea” of Confucianism; this may work as secure ground for anticipating a Chinese form of democracy, a form that offers contrast and critique for liberal democracy.
3)Since the mid-1980s Angus Graham and other experts have started arguing that all the early philosophers of China are postmodern figures, or at least candidates for postmodernists,because their thinking does not entail the foundational hypotheses of substance, of truth, or of a transcendental origin. Confucius, Zhuangzi, and a host of others are promoted to the status of being the contemporaries of Western intellectuals because these Chinese thinkers are concerned with the effective, the probable, and the consensual, and lack absolute reference points for morality or argument. In these accounts the present moment is attempted as a moment of coevalness of philosophical contemporaneity between Chinese thinking and Western thinking – as Haun Saussy claims, something that their authors regard only now as becoming imaginable.
Hall and Ames thrust themselves outward to determine whether marginalized elements of Western culture are elsewhere present in a more developed form in alternative cultural traditions. They turn to Asian cultures, and the Chinese, in particular, which have a sensibility embedded in distinctively uncommon assumptions entailing intuitions and beliefs little appreciated by the Enlightenment West. As they claim, “This sensibility is directly associated with the Confucian tradition.”
They argue that in the exercise of correlativity Chinese intellectual tradition provides a suggestive resource for the development of languages of “differences,” “otherness” and “plurality” currently sought by the postmodern critiques of “logocentrism” and “the language of presence” andby the movement of the new pragmatism toward a defense of philosophical and sociopolitical pluralism.For them, the three works of John Dewey, “Art as Experience,” “Individualism, Old and New,” and “The Public and Its Problems,” demonstrate strong commonalities with the Confucian tradition, and Dewey’s vision of a democratic society exhibits surprising affinities with the traditional Chinese understanding of social organizations.Ames even states that Confucianism can be the fertile ground out of which the incipient Confucian democracy will grow.
4) The opportunity for Confucianism to “go global” and converse with the new trends of Western thought emerges from mutual approaching scenarios. The very first step of engagement seems to have started at a relatively gullible level of intellectual culture; on the one hand, some “postmodernists” of the West celebrate Zhuangzi as the first true deconstructionist; on the other hand, some intellectuals of China argue for the relevance of Kant and Western modernism to the reconstruction of China – obviously, a modernizing China is engaging a postmodernizing West. However, in this scenario both sides have well passed by each other without a real ground for meeting;a large part of the West seems to be abandoning the modern world while China has been embracing it. As Hall and Ames contend, the Chinese need to discover the resources within their own culture which resonate with the Enlightenment rationalism defining modernity and must learn the language of the Western Enlightenment as well. However, in the postmodern sensibilities of main Anglo-European intellectuals are strong signs of a shift in intellectual dominance from the scientific to the literary model; and this leads Western thinkers into closer proximity to the nominalist and historicist sensibilities of classical Chinese thought.As the scenarios show, from both sides efforts have been encouraged for a mutual conversation.
Nevertheless, with the opportunity of engagement both sides are required to gain a closer understanding of the other, which may well be able to start with an investigation of the structural differences of the two intellectual traditions. In acknowledging the momentous differences, one may well come to realize what we could do is not so much to identify the elements of commonality but rather to foster open-minded attitudes toward each other; that is, one regarding the other as an alternative perspective to the concern of the postmodern era. The possibility that rises for enabling the two sides to do so occurs in large part because important interlocutors like Angus Graham, David Hall, and Roger Ames have since the 1980s fostered a viable exercise; that is, a party is able to gain a close understanding of the other’s tradition by means of not comprehending the other in it’sownterms, but rather one must learn how to “get the right picture” within theother’sown terms due to the very simple fact that there are structural differences. It is impossible for either party to be fully understandable to the other if not understood in its own terms.
If these interlocutors are correct, then how can we “get the right picture?” Are we overstating the case when we avow that postmodernism and Confucianism can identify with each other because postmodern sensibilities deny transcendental claim and Confucianism does not entail the foundational hypotheses of substance, of truth, or of a transcendental origin? Do they still differ from each other in terms of the structural divergences, as of the first problematic vs. second problematic, or the causal vs. the correlative thinking, or as we have generally considered them between Chinese thinking and Western thinking?
4. Postmodernism vs. Confucianism
One of the fundamental differences distinguishing postmodernism from modernism is the postmodern disclaimer of transcendental origin or principles. However, the difference is not necessarily as fundamental as the structural differences between the Western and Chinese intellectual traditions from a more broadened perspective. The postmodern sensibility finds itself the antithesis as well as a continuity of modernism; hence, the structural differences still remain between postmodernism and Confucianism. It would not be that simple a case, in which Confucianism congruently joins postmodernism, just because postmodernists have suggested truth as no longer viable. As we are to argue in this section, 1) postmodernism is rather an expression of cultural and psychological instability, which is incapable of being categorically comparable with Confucianism; 2) Confucianism is not a philosophy of immanence that contradicts modernism’s “transcendentalism” in the same sense as postmodernism’s dualistic and dichotomous “immanence” view does; 3) the essentialist ontologies of postmodernism are not something that one finds in Confucianism; and 4) the postmodern aesthetics would find no equivalent notion in Confucian tradition.
1) Psychological instability
The historical conditions that gave rise to postmodernism were an experiential context, as Harvey spells out, namely the intensity of time-space compression in Western capitalism since the 1960s and all of its concurrent features of excessive ephemerality and fragmentation in the political and private arenas as well as in the social realm.The context is overwhelmed by thesensethat everything isvast, intractable, and outside any individual or even collective control.As a result of psychological apprehension,people reach out for "personal or collective identity, the search for secure mirrorings in a shifting world."Consequently, the cultural transformation from modernity to post-modernity was primarily the change in the human experience of space and time. Nevertheless, post-modernity did not cause a fundamental break in Western culture; it is less a change in worldview, but more a shift in sensibility. Change and uncertainty at times of fragmentation and economic insecurity and desire for stable values have caused cultural and psychological instability and led to creative expression, “mimetic of something,” the something being fragmentation, ephemerality, and collage. In addition, the ironical situation is that the postmodern is not only an expression of psychological apprehension but also paradoxically a celebration of fragmentation, which has become a principle.
There was no such case in the tradition of Confucianism, however. What we have here are two entirely distinctive categories; the postmodern and Confucianism sensibilities developed independently. On the one hand, the Confucian tradition carried with it a distinctive modality of correlative thinking, which is absent of the presupposition of The One transcendental Being and hence absolutism, and insists a philosophizing of world order as of correlations, or continuity through change, which means change in light of continuity andvice versa –that change and continuity are the one and same process. This philosophized world asziran, or “self-soing,” precludes Western transcendentalism, ontology, essentialism, dualisms, and discrete individualism. On the other hand, as compared with Confucianism, postmodernism did not originate as much of a similar category corresponding to the ancient questioning of the origins of the universe, but rather as a dialectical responding to modernism, owing to anxiety about change and uncertainty that is both psychological and paradoxical. The fear of change, instability, and uncertainty, and therefore seeking certainty, may well be ascribed to the ongoing negative feeling of “chaos,” and the intension to prioritize permanence over change – a psychological concern that can be well traced far back to pre-modern times.
2) Postmodern immanence is not Confucian “immanence”
Confucianism seemsto resonate with, and perhapshas evenheightened, the immanence of postmodernity; but to put it more precisely, Confucianism is absent of both the transcendence of modernism and immanence of postmodernism. Even though Hall and Ames have summoned the notion of “radical immanence” of Confucianism in their comparative work, they do not overstate that it is the same immanence in the dualistic and dichotomous sense asvis-a-vistranscendence. Confucianism would reject dualism and dichotomy transcendence together with immanence. The notion of “radical immanence” only suggests that the Confucian world view does not appeal to any transcendental being or principles as does the Western cosmology, that there need not be the One behind the Many, and that any particular one be inseparably correlative and continuous with the many. Confucianism is an open, productive and reproductive system of thought that never had a modernist-like aspiration to extract or create something like “the eternal and the immutable” out of “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.”
Indeed, postmodern sensibilities are under the umbrella of a complex mixture of thoughts, which has not lost the transcendent narrative entirely; while it rejects one kind of transcendental principle, it carries forward others such as essentialism, ontology, dualisms, universalism, and individualism, which in fact are no less “transcendent.”
If we suppose that the subject matter of postmodernism and Confucianism is fundamentally about how to view the individual, then, while modernity claims that individuals are bound together by the state – the transcendental blessing – postmodernism asserts that individuals are not bound together by anything, not even by a religious god, and that they are entirely independent, autonomous, self-centered, loose and separated. This is the “immanence” that postmodernism is claiming.
However, this is not the same “immanence” seen in Confucianism, which rather views humans as correlatively interdependent; and individuals are never independent of each other and autonomous in the strictest sense of discreteness. Although they are not bound together by a transcendental force or natural law, they are inseparable in the sense of correlativity and continuity. In this respect, postmodernity has not only carried forward but pushed modernity’s view even farther, to the extent that individuals are in the strictest sense independent and autonomous.
3) Essentialist ontologies
With the repudiation of The One Ontology, modernism to postmodernism has made a transformation in cosmology; but this is not necessarily a true transformation, since human artificial performance, or all the conditions that have an effect on human sensibility in the postmodern era, are irrelevant concerning a change in Western cosmology. Postmodernism rejects The One Ontology and transcendent principles while celebratingthe idea of multiple and simultaneous onotologies (“a potential as well as an actual plurality of universes”)atitsheart.Quite plainly, what is significant in the eye of postmodernism is not “the One” but “the Many,” a total negation or substitution of one for the other; therefore, this is still a dialectic, an essentialism, and a dualism, still recognizable as the characteristics of the same intransigent thinking of the second problematic, and still construing transcendence and immanence in an irresolvable conflict, except that which is essential and transcendent now has “the Many” in place of “the One.” The dialectic and dualistic mode of thinking, in terms of negation or exclusion, has rendered an adequate reasoning for postmodernists to still do philosophy, seeking immanent truth or meaning in substitution of universal assertions of truth, or the truth in the immanent themselves rather than in the One transcendent being.
As a result, seeking truth, regardless whether in terms of immanence or transcendence, is still the traditional enterprise of ontological essentialism. Postmodernism’s deconstruction of transcendence does not necessarily turn into a recognition of, as what the Confucian views, the immanent correlativity and continuity; hence, it does not make much of a change in cosmology. One may get it right by saying that postmodernists continue to do philosophy after the failure in the collapse of belief in universal assertions of truth and meaning, which points to not rejecting the ideas of truth and meaning that are plural, contingent, local, specific and fragile;but one is definitely wrong to state that Confucianism presupposes the identical idea of the postmodern “immanence.”
It is true that in Confucianism meanings are multiple, but not as “truths” that are plural, contingent, local, specific, and fragile in the postmodern sensibility which indicates truths are simultaneous, independent, and discrete. This is because the concept of truth in postmodernism is, for Confucianism, rather a philosophized world order in terms of appropriateness or propriety of particular foci in their converging and diverging relationships. These relationships are always correlative and continuous in their contextualized fields. Confucian meanings, instead of “truths,” are always spoken of seeking situational correlations of a specific focus/field context in a specific time, which are dynamic processes of event. Therefore, these “truths” (if for any reason we use this word) in Confucianism have nothing to do with the notion of transcendence vs. immanence as regards cosmology and/or ontology. To state it simply, postmodernism and Confucianism look up to plainly different things: postmodernism is tenacious about immanent truths in place of transcendence, while neither transcendent nor immanent Truth is Confucianism’s concern except for continuity through/with change; that which is persistently a concern for Confucianism are correlations, the multiple-dimensional, multi-categorical, internal and external change (always as a manifestation of continuity), and always the sense of “becoming” in light of continuity andvice versa. An absence of any dualism or dichotomy of transcendence vs. immanence in the Confucian worldview makes none of the case of the postmodern prizing of multiple immanent ontologies, the plural, contingent, local, specific and fragile “truths” and meaning, which it finds strictly independent, autonomous, and discrete. A coherent explicationof the thinking of Confucian traditionprecludesa dualistic and dialectic dichotomyof any transcendent being or principlesversus the immanent truths and meanings. For Confucianism, there is neither a single-ordered universe nor a single transcendent and essential element; it is not the essentialist “truthfulness” but any particular element’s correlations that constitute necessary conditions for all else to be what they are – these constitute the Confucian concern.
In the reaction of thecritical, literary, and performance movementto modern art and literaturein thelatetwentiethcentury,postmodernistsstatethat truth is no longer verifiable, and that new art forms are best created by freely mixing previous styles and themes.Harveyconnects crises of overaccumulation with strongaesthetic movements, including theaestheticization of politics;with extreme compression of time-space, the 1960s witnessed a turningtoaesthetics and away from scientific and moral reasoning under conditions of confusion and uncertainty.As he suggests,since 1973,
the experience of time and space has changed, the confidence in the association between scientific and moral judgments has collapsed, aesthetics has triumphed over ethics as a prime focus of social and intellectual concern, images dominate narratives, ephemerality and fragmentation take precedence over eternal truths and unified politics, and explanations have shifted from the realm of material and political-economic groundings towards a consideration of autonomous cultural and political practices."
On the shoulders of fragmentation and ephemerality, aesthetics rose to negate ethics and science, which were now regarded as failures in determining truth and moral judgments; it constituted a corollary of the postmodern movement to defy transcendent being or principles. Because it is in terms of how something looks from the point of view of psychological and cultural sensibility (in perception as well as feelings), which may link to pure emotion and sensation as opposed to pure intellectuality, aesthetics concerns what is aesthetically valid at a given time and place. It renders theory or principles characterized by an appreciation of beauty or good taste, even though it is often manifested by outward appearances or style of behavior. Therefore, a paradox is quite obvious in that fragmentation and ephemerality are on the one hand the dispositions of worry, fear, and anxiety, while on the other hand,the celebration and/or securing mirroring of them -- personal and collective identity connecting the particular place that is regarded secure but aesthetical.
If aesthetics is spoken of as only to oppose or to be the dialectic negating of the universal functionalism sought by modernism, or as merely an attitude, as Harvey suggests, against scientific and moral reasoning under conditions of confusion and uncertainly, then this aesthetics would not find its counterpart in Confucianism. A negation of transcendent being or principles, or of universal assertions of truth, or of the universal functionalism sought by modernism, does not lead postmodern thinkers to any point of structural affinity withtraditional Chinesethinking. This is because, for postmodernism, art forms are best created without unverifiable transcendent truth or meanings while in Confucian sensibility, no art form can be achieved without taking into consideration appropriateness of correlations between styles and themes; here “freely-mixing” is not spoken of in terms of correlativity.
Very likely, aesthetics is not an adequate term to use in getting across the sense of order of Confucianism, which has no regard to how something looks as psychological and cultural concerns, in perception as well as feelings; nor is it a reference to pure emotion and sensation as opposed to pure intellectuality. The sense of Confucianism’s order does not suggest any concern of what is aesthetically valid, but entertains a focus and its appropriateness of correlations with other foci in the context or field at a given time and place. This entertainment renders impossibly any theory or principles characterized by an appreciation of beauty or good taste, because appropriateness in correlations with other foci is not something manifested plainly by outward appearances or style of behavior but rather requires sophistication of human intelligence. It is in the category of inner-relatedness of things and found in the process of constant change in light of continuity. Therefore, the sense of order in Confucianism seems mysterious, unfathomable, incomprehensible, often too intriguing and wonderful for words and explanation. Indeed, to say it is vague and aesthetic is only spoken of to those who may not fully comprehend the order as a dynamic process with regard to continuity through change at a specific time and place which defies resorting to language, in particular, language of presence.
Continuity is the subject-matter of how things inter-depend upon and hence are inseparable from each other, rather than their being in the state of a strict discrete sense. The experience of the extremely compressed time and space in the postmodern era, inwhich ephemerality and fragmentation take precedence over eternal truths and unified politics, is not something that can be identified with the absence of transcendent being and eternal truth in Confucian tradition; the Confucian category necessitates correlativity of things that are in an ongoing process of becoming each other. This sense of order has nothing in common with a negation of correlations, as the postmodern sensibility does, with its assertions of strict independence and autonomy of individual things as explanations for ephemerality and fragmentation.
Also for this reason, the dominance of images over narratives in the postmodern era could not be regarded as identifiable with the image-clusters applied in the Confucian philosophizing of world order either, even though the language of “aesthetic,” “indefinitely ‘vague’” and “image clusters,” allowing reflection into one another fits for the purpose of pragmatism to read theconceptsof Chinese correlative thinking.
In addition,lun-li, often a Chinese translation of ethics that as a western concept implicitly denotes universal principles, now manifestly alludes to appropriateness and propriety of particular correlations of something with anything else at a given time and place. It precludes the conception of universal principles together with the total negation of that conception, and hence that of the multiple pieces or multiple ontologies in the strictest sense of autonomy, independency, and discreteness. Although universal ethics have collapsed, the new dualism and dichotomy such as aesthetics vs. ethics, and one vs. the other, still remains without a consideration of correlativity.
As people reach out for “personal or collective identity,” the situation strongly underscores the connection between place and social identity, and as a result intensifies fragmentation. The highlighting of “the aesthetics of space” leads to the opposition of specific places to the universal functionalism in space sought by modernism. Here the postmodern sensibility is incongruent with Confucianism in the sense that what is between place and society is connection for postmodern sensibility but merely correlativity for Confucianism; the two are different because the former means separateness and independence of two beings, while the latter declares continuity or inseparability and interdependence of any two correlative events or processes. As a result of the view of place and collective identity as of independence and autonomy, and a particular place as de-linked from its context but intensified as to fragmentation, the postmodern sensibility shifted the direct focus of thought away from the universal functionalism in space sought by modernism, but it never lost the enduring dualism and essentialism, in which there is an insolvable conflict between the universally single-ordered and aesthetically multiple spaces. In this sense, Harvey challengingly relates the tendency to the dangers of a new totalitarianism arising from the aestheticization of space. He argues,
If aesthetic production has now been so thoroughly commodified and thereby commercially subsumed within a political economy of cultural production, how can we possibly stop that circle from closing onto a produced, and hence all too easily manipulated, aestheticization of a globablly mediatized politics?
It is indeed true, as Hall and Ames claim, that postmodern thoughts no longer presuppose a single coherent world that might serve as ground and goal of descriptive or interpretive endeavors, or of an essentialized mind or ego that might ground the thoughts, decisions, and actions of agents, and the very idea of a stable agent that could serve as the author of ideas or the terminus of ascriptions of responsibility with respect to actions and decision.There is no doubt that postmodern thoughts comprise a radical transformation in cosmology and seem to lean in the direction of Confucianism. However, this situation cannot be overstated; as our analysis articulates, with all the changes that have taken place, postmodern sensibilities still remain arguably distinguishable from that of Confucianism by a strikingly distinctive structure whose characteristics – dualism, essentialism, universalism, individualism, etc. – define the western cultural tradition.
5. Postmodern Dualism and Distortion of Confucianism
Postmodern thoughts comprise a significant change in western cosmology by abandoning transcendentalism, but they never lose the conceptual apparatus of dualism, essentialism, universalism, individualism, etc. We would like to call attention to the problematic that, just like the modernist, postmodern thinkers may well tend to misread and even distort the very nature of Confucianism by regarding “radical immanence,” a notion Hall and Ames have used in their exposition of Confucian thought to the western audience, as something identical to the dualistic-sensed “immanence” of the postmodern sensibility. If articulated in this sense, Confucian sensibilities would be misunderstood as to address in a dualistic sense a host of issues such as the transcendent vs. immanent, ontology vs. ontologies, the imagined community vs. the personal identity and localism, the nation vs. individuals, and the verifiable truth and ethics vs. aesthetics. Among all these, the nation vs. individuals is perhaps the most harsh distortion of Confucian thought.
In Sam Crane’s “the Impossibility of Confucian Nationalism,” Confucianism is understood to have the “concern for the cultivation and protection of close social network.” Crane then expanded this point in arguing that
there is a way in which Confucianism resists postmodernity; it has a modernist-like aspiration to extract or create something like “the eternal and the immutable” out of “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.”Yet the timeless Humanity (ren) for which it strives is not found in the transcendence of the nation; it is realized in the immanence of vital and immediate loving relationships.
In his adopting the notion “radical immanence,” which Hall and Ames have used in referring totheiruncommon assumptions underlying a coherent explication ofthe thinking of Confucius, Crane asserts thatethical behavior–and thus legitimate authority–is grounded in the daily cultivation of one’s closest loving relationships.” For him, “our primary obligationis to our immediate social network, often conceived of in terms of family”; “Dutiesto others are mediated by our continual responsibilityto family”;and “Obligations to those with whom we have regular social contact, our friends and neighbors, would then take precedence over more abstract commitments to the “imagined community” of the nation.” For Crane, “proper moral action moves, in a sense, from the inside out; it is immanent,” and Confucius is clear that the integrity of the family is ethically superior to the laws of the nation.
Without question, in Crane’s understanding Confucianism is immanent, exactly as is the postmodern sensibility, so that in its very nature Confucian thought poses an insolvable conflict with the nation-state; the Chinese authority is always the other party of a dual pair that Confucianism works against, as does postmodernism in the western scenario, in which the state is necessarily transcendent, an “imagined community” that demands nationalistic obligations and duties. That’s why Crane warns that the recent Confucian revival is working to serve transcendental-sensed national prominence. In the meantime, however, he seems pretty convinced that reviving Confucianism under conditions of globalized postmodernity is near impossible, because not only doespostmodern immanence undermine nationalist transcendence in general, but alsothe particular immanenceof Confucianism works against its being used as a font of fundamentalist or religious-like nationalist succor in the face of the ontological insecurities of postmodernity.
However, Crane may not have realized that, by claiming the “radical immanence” of Confucianism as necessarily dualistic to transcendence, and thus incurring the dichotomy of the nation vs. individuals, he is imposing western conceptual structures on and distorting the very nature of Confucian thought; he is claiming what Confucianist sensibilities do not have. We have argued in the previous section that Confucianism rejects as a whole the dualism of transcendence vs. immanence; it is neither of the two, simply because it is a completely alternative mode of thinking, which developed independently of Western tradition, and absent of dualism or all the like western intellectual apparatus. If the structural differences of the western intellectual culture are taken into account, then the dualistic view of the nation vs. individuals can be found profoundly embedded in the western cosmology and, as Hall and Ames call, the second problematic thinking, as regards to a peculiar conception of human nature, selfness and otherness; it may suffice to say,it is thispeculiar conceptionofthe individualistic “selfness”in the western thought that significantly altered the entire culture away from other cultures, particularlyfrom Confucian thought patterns.
There are two critical points as regards the peculiar conception of human nature, selfness, and otherness in the West. Firstly,there is a strong belief in God as a divine being, who created humans, and therefore humans owe their survival to God.Even though theEnlightenmentprojectshifted the direct focus of thought away from God to Reason and Science,the modernist traditionhas never lost the concept of Man being ruled by God– so as doespostmodern thoughts repudiate transcendent principles but has never lost this kind of conception of selfness.It is theinclusion of the existence of a divine beingthatchanges the possibility of advancement for the individual human being. On the other hand,for the Confucian sensibilitythere is no God;therefore each individual exists for himself as well as for his community(this is not the imagined community, though). As a result, a goodpersonbetters society(not limited toour immediate social network,though)and achieves a better state of being forhimself and the community(this is not merely “one’s closest loving relationships.”)Withthis logic, man has by himself an opportunityto decide if human“nature”is good or evil.
Secondly, in the west people are considered naturally evil; the idea can be traced back to the Christian concept of“originalsin,” originating inAdam and Eve’s fall from the Garden of Eden. This theory basically states that people are programmed to commit sin, to act wrongfully to their peers and society in their egoistic interest. In liberal thought, the initial state of human nature is vital because humanity cannot better itself or advance, at least on an individual level. However, the very sense of having a goal and the concept of self-improvement and development is a crucial aspect ofConfucianthought– whichboth modernism and postmodernismlack.This“born bad”assumption of human nature, which is sofundamentallydistinctive fromConfucianism, drastically changes the entire basis for the intellectual tradition.Along such a line of belief, the form of government holds the most important position in thought, which is chosen based uponthisassumption of human nature. Hence,theway of thinking that tends toholdmanassinful by nature is more easily linked with law, the liberalistic form of government, and the individual as the final end in itself,compared toChinese thought. Law and government are a means of restraining human nature and bringing peace to society. However, inConfucianism, government is an expression of the inherent goodness of human nature and just another way to better the whole. The ruler is a moral example for the common people, not someone who imposes order or makes laws restraining humanity.ManyChinese thinkers are strong proponents of democracyin this sense, presenting powerful ideas that people are crucial to any government and that rulers should be ruled by the people.
Therefore, rather than having a concern for the cultivation and protection of close social networks and a nature that poses an insolvable conflict with the nation-state, the concern or very nature of Confucianism always focuses on the cultivation of self, in order to make good people and good government. To achieve this, the individual gets to start with himself and his family. In other words, Confucianism holds a strong belief in the making of good people and good government. (Perhaps we may say this is “creation” of a sort, but done by the individual rather than a deity!) This belief explains why in history the Chinese intellectuals who were heavily influenced by Confucianism worked hard and even sacrificed their lives to make it the pattern of life for Eastern society. This was the reason forYen Fu who, while on the one hand was deeply impressed with Western liberalism was, on the other hand, still of the mind to highlight the individual only as a means to the end of community. This reasoning is also the explanation for the “Good Government” doctrine Hu Shi and Cai Yuanpei developed in the 1920s, which claims that “the outstanding people in society” were “good people”; if they came out to fight against evil forces and organize a “good government…it would be a good start for China’s political reform.”
Importantly, even in modern and contemporary times, as Hall and Ames observe,there is little evidence to suggest that China has abandoned any significant elements of its Confucian orthodoxy. The leadership of contemporary China maintains many of the same characteristics that have dominated Chinese government since the Han dynasty–namely, the nation understood as a family, the filial respect for the ruler as father, and the consequent sense of rule as a personal exercise.This is none of the case of the postmodern sensibility, which promotes that “immediate social network, often conceived of in terms of family…our friends and neighbors, would then take precedence over more abstract commitments to the‘imagined community’of the nation,” and that “the integrity of the family is ethically superior to the laws of the nation.” Crane problematizes the sensibilities of Confucianism by confusing them and that of postmodern thought, as well as China and the West, and by universalizing the dualistic principles of the nation-state vs. individuals. In doing so, he plainly disregards the fact that the state of affairs of China is incapable of being adequately understood but can only easily be distorted in peculiar western or postmodern conceptual terms.
In an ever-globalizingworld, it becomes more and more pressing for different cultures to do their best to learn and adapt to a more contextualized field of co-existence. This requires a growing sensibilityin Confucianism in the postmodern era that it should “go global” to truly engage in a conversation with post modern thoughts on the issue of modernity and the problems that are presently disturbing mankind.
Unlike what it has tried to do for the past century and more, Confucianism does not need to try fit itself into the Western intellectual structure and mindset; itspromising future in the postmodern era may well lie in exposing its profound philosophical and cultural significance in contemporary language, which then lends it the capacity of providing peoples with alternative angles in understanding their way ahead.
To foster the possibility of conversation between Confucianism and postmodernism, it is necessary for us to have a close understanding of a number of generally related issues, which are: Whatis postmodernism? What is the status of Confucianism in the Postmodern era? How couldConfucianismbe relevant to postmodernism? And how different is Confucianism from postmodernism?
Thecultural critics’questioning under the banner of “postmodernism”of the viability of the present forms of institutions of capitalism, democracy and technologymay kick off an opportunity for an engagement of Confucianism and postmodernism; this is because the thinking of the early philosophers of China, including of course, Confucian thinkers, does not entail the assumptions of absolute truth and transcendental principles; that seems to correspond well with the claim of “immanence” in postmodern sensibilities; and thus both appear to be the antithesis of the sensibilities of modernism, avowing a sort of pluralism – truth and meanings as contingent and dynamic as well as specific and local.
However, structural differences still remain between Confucianism and postmodernism, as between the two entirely different intellectual traditions and premises they were embedded in – this may still cause pitfalls and misunderstandings to abound, and even serious distortions of the sensibility of Confucianism. Awareness ought to be roused in the two parties of the conversation that either is potentially incapable of being fully understood by the other due to the structural differences of the philosophical apparatus such as dualism, ontology, essentialism, and universalism, which peculiarly developed in western tradition and have been carried forward by postmodernism. However, postmodernism’s encountering Confucianism in the postmodern era is initiating a true conversation, which never before was possible due to a lack of historical conditions – globalization and postmodernity now provide them. There is looming on the horizon a hope for better mutual understandings.
Cai Degui, Shandong University
Shandong, P. R. China
Chenshan Tian, Beijing Foreign Studies University
Beijing, P. R. China