Dewey and Confucianism
2017-11-01 publish
Dialogue is not conversational engagement, for the latter requires that the two parties talk to each other on equal basis and in same categories. The possibility for Dewey’s pragmatism to engage in a conversation with Confucianism lies in that it challenges dualism and transcendentalism of the mainstream ideological trends, and therefore that it provides an alternative way of life and possibility in terms of worldview, modality of thinking, and democracy of new meaning. These aspects of Dewey’s disagreement with the mainstream Western trends of thought have paved the way for its engagement in a conversation with Confucianism.


The introduction of Western thought into China kicked off a heavy attack on Confucianism in China, as a feudalist and backward culture in beginning of last century. The new knowledge the Chinese gained of the west was two simplistic symbolic concepts: democracy and science, that is, popularly Mr. De and Mr. Sai in the May Fourth Movement in 1919. However, at the time few people realized that the understanding of the West only in those two concepts was superficial and constituted an outrageous distortion and a real understanding of the two concepts required a discovery of an adequate understanding of the two concepts in western terms, rather than in their Chinese translation,minzhuandkexue. Indeed, the then understanding of Confucianism as backward and of feudalist nature was also because of the historical thought trend, which had imposed Western cultural structure on Chinese culture. The misunderstanding of both China and the West has mostly remained unchanged until today.


I would like to argue that if China and the West want to understand each other better and foster better relations for the future, this is time for both to rediscover the original philosophical meaning of Confucianism as well as to bring to light to the cultural structure of the tradition that developed the conception of democracy and science. However, only by means of comparative study in terms of their traditional cultural differences in worldview and modality of thinking can this rediscovery of each other be accomplished, and then either be brought to light to or possibly engage in conversation with the other on equal basis and in same categories. With this being considered, Dewey’s pragmatism may have a better chance to be able to engage itself in conversation with Confucianism since it constitutes a challenge for dualism and transcendentalism.


1. A challenge to dualism


In 1896, Dewey published his “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” inPsychological Review, in which he argues against the dualistic traditional stimulus-response conception of the reflex arc, preferring to a “circular” account. For him, what makes “stimulus” and what “response,” which is not a lineal causal enterprise, depend on how one thinks of the situation and the unitary nature of the sensory motor circuit. It is not that he denies the existence of stimulus, sensation, and response but disagrees that they were independent, separate, juxtaposed events as the causing and caused relationship like links in a chain. He suggests that undergoing a process of coordination, the stimulation is indeed, enriched by the results of previous experiences and that the response is modulated by sensorial experience.


The traditional stimulus-response understanding is dualistic with the assumption that there are two independent, separate, juxtaposed events, which form single-track causal relationship like cause-effect. This dualism has dominated and is still dominating modalities of Western thinking. Dualism is what Dewey is challenging. For him, stimulation, sensation, and response are not juxtaposed events, happening like links in a chain, but rather more complex, a circular story in which they are inseparable from each other, and indeed enriched and modulated by sensorial experience. Dewey’s challenge has made his idea more comparable with the traditional modality of correlative thinking in China. The world thought in terms of correlation and continuity is the striking style of Chinese thinking, which traditional schools of thought all share. For example, according to the traditional teachings of Chinese medicine, the doctor follows the methodology ofsi zhen, ("four exams") andba gang("eight key points") in order to distinguish diverse symptoms. He analyzes his patients' physical conditions and characteristics and their reactions to diseases investigating into diverse factors in terms of season, geography, and circumstances, as well as a study on particularity and generality of pathogenic possibilities and actual incidence of the disease, until accomplishes a precise diagnose in the process of seeking diverseness in continuity, andvice versa. Of a thinking habit as such, the Chinese rarely assume that there are separated, juxtaposed events with a lineal and one-way track relationship in between. We may trace the modality back to the classical literature theYijing, which provides a “circular” account enriched by the results of observation, contemplation, and comprehension, sensorial as well as rational experiences.


2. A challenge to Transcendentalism


Dewey did not identify himself as a pragmatist but instead referred to his philosophy as “instrumentalism.” As this known asgongju zhuyiin Chinese, the Chinese would for sure not consider Dewey’s ideas as of any relevance to Confucianism before we point out that it is this “instrumentalism” that has claimed an alternative of the dominant structure of the Western culture. In contrast with the mainstream Western culture, here the so-called “instrumentalism” of Dewey has stepped a large pace towards the side of Confucianism with its philosophical structure – an absence of transcendentalism. Like many in China today, Dewey honors the important function that religious institutions and practices play in human life but, in contrast, rejects belief in any static ideal, such as a theistic God.Dewey states, "It denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions."


In what sense do we refer Dewey as having changed the traditional Western philosophical structure? This is something that we must grasp if we want to make Western intellectual tradition understandable in China, which is the structure of transcendentalism; the idea that everything as human experience is non-essential, non-ontological with the One behind the many; everything is mere phenomenon that this One determines. Western intellectual tradition including philosophy and any academics developed is critically relevant to this One, an effort to answer “How this One did create or start this universe,” “what its grand plan was,” “what laws it imposed on this universe,” and “how history followed a lineal, one-way course until it comes to an end.” The Western intellectuals put forward questions, presuppose, reason, and make conclusions. Even Western arts and literature have been cultivated in the significance of this worldview of transcendentalism. If we gain an understanding of such a structure, it will lead us to a possible comprehension of all differences we observe between the Western and Chinese cultures. It would become clear to us that the reason for Dewey’s pragmatism to be able to engage in a conversation with Chinese intellectual tradition is his offer – an alternative to this structure, in which he rejects the transcendental Being, breaking off the structure and together with dualism that derives from it. Dewey has entered the realm of experience, which is more capable of communicating with the Chinese category without any form of transcendentalism.


3. A challenge to logic


Dewey observes paradox in contemporary logical theory. Proximate subject matter includes general agreement and advance, while the ultimate subject matter of logic produces constant disagreement. Dewey challenges logicians to respond to the question of truth of logical operators, who do not function merely as abstractions in the sense of pure mathematics, nor connect with their objects in some essential way so that they alter or bring them to light.Logical positivism figures in Dewey’s philosophy. He regards movement as that it eschews the use of “propositions” and “terms,” substituting “sentences” and “words.” Dewey greets the change of referents “in as far as it fixes attention upon the symbolic structure and content of propositions.” Nevertheless, he somehow complains against the use of “sentences” and “words” in that without careful interpretation the act or process of transposition “narrows unduly the scope of symbols and language, since it is not customary to treat gestures and diagrams (maps, blueprints, etc.) as words or sentences.”Alternatively, in other words, sentences and words, considered in isolation, do not disclose intent, which may be inferred or “adjudged only by means of context.”


Here Dewey lodges a challenge to the existence of logic as ontology. It is a subject matter of absolutism, which no one has found, but generates controversy. Is there any experiential logic, which is merely an abstraction? Where is an essential and dualistic cause-effect way that connects logic with objects? Movement does not need “propositions” and “terms,” and “sentences” and “words” cannot express movement fully. Referents may change so long as it maintains attention upon the symbolic structure and content of propositions, but the changing does not narrow the scope of symbols and language. Dewey apparently demonstrates that the problematic of ontological logic and dualistic modality in contemporary logical positivism. His position becomes rather clearer as he comments on traditional logic. Dewey states:


“Aristotelian logic, which still passes current nominally, is a logic based upon the idea that qualitative objects are existential in the fullest sense. To retain logical principles based on this conception along with the acceptance of theories of existence and knowledge based on an opposite conception is not, to say the least, conductive to clearness – a consideration that has a good deal to do with existing dualism between traditional and the newer relational logics.”


It is in such claims that Dewey shows that he has eschewed the structure of transcendentalism and dualism, which dominates Western culture, by rejecting the conception of the absolute One vs. the many, as well as the ontological logic, which connects objects in experience in some dualistic and causal manner. Indeed, Dewey has thus made an open space for a conversation with Confucianism and other schools of Chinese philosophy. Since Confucianism and the Chinese intellectual tradition in general developed with a structure absent of a transcendentalism of the One and the modality of dualistic thinking, and with a philosophizing of the order as particularity of time, site, situation, and correlativity and continuity of events, Confucianism would undoubtedly be more a target of affinity.

Roger T· Ames (Roger T.Ames)

Roger T. Ames was born in 1947 in Toronto, Canada. As a professor at the University of Hawaii, an advisor to Nishan Shengyuan Academy, Chairman of the World Association of Confucian Culture Studies and Vice Chairman of the International Confucian Association, he is an internationally famous expert in Sinology. He is a leading figure in Chinese & Western philosophy and is famous in China and abroad for his translation of books such as theAnalects of Confucius,Sun Tzu’s Art of War,Huainan Tzu andTao Te Ching He was the Chief Editor toPhilosophy of the Occident and Orientas well as theInternational Chinese Book Reviewand the author ofConfucian Philosophical Thinking,Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture,Anticipating China: Thinking Through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture,the Art of Rulership: A Study into Chinese Political ThoughtandDemocracy if the Dead: Dewey, Confucius and the Hope for Democracy in China. Roger T. Ames once received the guidance of Liu Dianjue and became proficient in classical Chinese, then to one of the most outstanding modern scholars of Classical Studies. In 2013, he was awarded the "Confucius Culture Award" by the 6th World Confucian Congress. Then he won the second "Huilin Prize Award" in 2016.…
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