Roger T. Ames' Speech at the 2020 International Confucian Studies Summer Institute Closing Ceremony
2020-09-17 publish

If we can no longer ignore China and its Confucian perspective, what in concrete terms does the Confucian tradition have to offer a changing world cultural order? As a living cultural tradition, the continuities between contemporary China and its earliest cultural roots are much more evident than that the more tenuous links between ancient Greece and the modern nation state of Greece, or between ancient Rome and what is now modern Italy, or between ancient Egypt and its contemporary presence.

China provides a hybridic and inclusive model of cultural change wherein the heat of contest over the centuries has fired the furnace of amalgamation and fusion. This is a tradition in which the tides of Western learning, Buddhism first and then in its various waves from the Jesuits to Protestant educators to the influx of Marxism and down to phenomenology and pragmatism in our own times, have been ingested and internalized to become the evolving Confucian tradition itself.

And the enduring momentum of this Confucian tradition comes from the fact that it proceeds from a relatively straightforward account of the actual human experience. Confucianism, rather than relying upon metaphysical presuppositions or supernatural speculations, is a pragmatic naturalism in the sense that it focuses on the possibilities for enhancing personal worth available to us here and now, through enchanting the ordinary affairs of the day.

Confucianism as a culture is simply the attempt to inspire the most ordinary of things within the human experience to become the most extraordinary of things. In this process of the intergenerational transmission of a living civilization, the cultural genealogy is implicated in and dependent upon the productive cultivation of its participants. And by extension, the meaning of the entire cosmos is implicated in and dependent upon the productive cultivation of persons within their families and communities.

Personal worth is the source of human culture, and human culture in turn is the compounding resource that provides the context for each person’s cultivation. In terms of its religious sensibilities, Confucianism offers an alternative “family-centered” rather than “God-centered” religiousness that unlike the competing Abrahamic traditions, is not given to posturing as singular, exclusive, and absolute. Such a human religiousness has not, in the name of some ostensive One Truth, precipitated war and carnage among its adherents.

Confucianism is at once a-theistic, and profoundly religious. It does not appeal to an independent, retrospective, and substantive Divine Agency as the reality behind appearance and as the source of all cosmic significance. Indeed, it is a religious tradition without a God; a religious sensibility affirming a spirituality that emerges out of the inspired human experience itself. For Confucianism, the world is an autogenerative, “self-so-ing” process—ziran er ran 自然而然—that includes the energy of its ongoing transformation as residing within the continuing narrative itself. Its world is an inside without an outside.

And human feelings themselves are the motor of religious meaning, understood both retrospectively and prospectively as an unfolding and inclusive spirituality achieved within the qualitatively inspired activities of the family, the community, and the natural world. Human beings are both inspired by and contributors to the numinosity that elevates and refines the human experience within the world in which we live.

There is no church (except for the extended family), no altars (except perhaps for the dining room table), and no clergy (except for the exemplary models both past and present who are deferred to as the living center of the community). Confucianism celebrates the way in which the process of human growth and extension is shaped by, and contributes to, the meaning of the totality—a notion of creatio in situ that stands in stark contrast to the theology of the creatio ex nihilo traditions in which the creator Godhead is everything and His creatures are nothing.

Confucianism also has a contribution to make to our understanding of social order. Confucian community is grounded in the aspiration for an achieved propriety in human roles and relations (li 禮), a way of translating this key philosophical term that is a considered choice. On the formal side, li are those meaning-invested roles, relationships, and institutions that facilitate thick communication, and that promote the feelings of family and community.

All formal conduct constitutes one aspect of li—including table manners, patterns of greeting and leave-taking, graduations, weddings, funerals, gestures of deference, ancestral sacrifices, and so on. In this formal sense, the li constitute a social syntax that, in the semiotics of the human experience, provides each member with a defined place and status within the family, community, and polity.

But the li within this process cosmology are rhythm rather than form. The existential aspect of li makes them alive, always provisional, and emergent. The pattern of li can be fairly described in terms of a cultural hermeneutic as it is transmitted from generation to generation, serving a living civilization as repositories of meaning, and enabling persons to appropriate persisting values and to make them appropriate to their own, always novel situations. While we perform the li in the present, much of their efficacy stems from their being a link to the past and thereby, to the future as well.

In the discursive family and community, social order emerges out of the relational virtuosity made possible by effective communication, and li is nothing less than communal “language” in its broadest sense.

Certainly li is linguistic, but it is much more than just speaking to each other. It is also the language of body and gesture, of music and food, of protocols and ceremony, of institutions and their functions, of roles and relationships. For Confucius, the “human becoming” as a social achievement is an adaptive success made possible through the applications of the social intelligence perpetuated through li.

Society is not derivative of individual properties, nor is the individual the product of social forces. Associated living and the personal collaboration such individuality entails does not bring discrete people together in relationships, but rather makes increasingly productive what is already constitutively related. Confucianism provides a conception of family and community based on the pursuit of a sustained propriety within the roles and relations that bind them together.

As what is most fundamental and enduring, li nurtures the internal dynamic of social and political order, making the invocation and imposition of the rule of law, while unfortunately necessary at times, always second-best, and a clear admission of communal failure.

With respect to Confucianism’s contribution to human culture as a philosophy of education, we must begin by acknowledging that personal cultivation is certainly the root of Confucian philosophy, and again that such personal growth is itself the substance of education.

But we must also observe that any root that has not been properly set and that is lacking a fertile environment will soon wither and die. To continue this horticultural metaphor, Confucian education must be understood as a process that is “radically” embedded in and grows within the roles and relations that constitute us as persons in the fertile context of our families and communities.

The close link between education and Confucian morality lies in the fact that they are both grounded in a sustained growth in our roles and relations. Education so conceived is not instrumental as a means to some desired end, but is a process that is an end in itself. We pursue education and thus grow simply to live intelligent lives, and we become moral through this growth in our relations simply to behave as moral human beings.

With “family reverence” (xiao 孝) as the governing moral imperative of classical Confucianism, it is clear that any understanding of philosophy of education in this tradition must begin from the primacy of those vital roles and relations that constitute us as persons in family and community. That is, within this interpretive framework, associated, interpersonal living is taken to be an uncontested, empirical fact. Every person lives and every event takes place within a vital natural, social, and cultural context. Our lives are lived not beneath our skins, but in the world. And no one and no thing does anything by itself.

Association being a fact, our different roles lived within family and community are nothing more than the stipulation of specific modes of associated living: mothers and grandsons, teachers and students, and even second cousins and shopkeepers.

Many of these designated roles, far from being arbitrary and contingent, can be traced back into the mists of history and the emergence of human beings in their earliest forms as being basic to the human experience of family and community life. The role of mothers and communal elders are integral to the human genealogy.

But while we must acknowledge that associated living is a simple fact, the consummate conduct that comes to inspire virtuosity in the roles lived in family, community, and the cultural narrative broadly is normative. What we have come to call “Confucian role ethics” is no more than stipulated kinds of association that register the personal growth of each person in the roles that they live.

Confucian role ethics is what human beings, with effort and imagination, are able to make of the fact of association.

With Confucian role ethics as a vision of the moral life then, Confucianism offers a win-win or lose-lose alternative to the divisive and deflationary model of winners and losers characteristic of the ideology of liberal individualism.

Indeed, when we turn to Confucian role ethics, the specific guidelines offered for consummate conduct, rather than appealing to self-sufficient, abstract principles or values or virtues, look primarily to theorizing practice within the contours of our concrete and existentially more immediate, familial and social roles.

In contrast to abstract principles, there is a vital sense of propriety in our lived roles and relations that we can feel viscerally—a commitment to what it means to be this son to this mother. And on that basis, role ethics provides the kind of intuitive insight that would suggest to us, quite specifically, what we ought to do next.

Role ethics in offering insight into how to behave most productively in our relations, provides an explanation for proper conduct that does not obscure the inevitable complexity of human activities in service to a simple-minded sense of right and wrong. “Because he is my brother” is both a disarmingly simple and yet a profoundly complex justification for my conduct, and is persuasive in a way that other reasons are not.

The single most important common denominator within the various areas of the Confucian cultural sensorium rehearsed above, from education to ethics, is the relationally-constituted conception of persons. I have made the argument that perhaps the most important contribution Confucian philosophy has to offer our times is precisely its own elaborate, sophisticated, and ethically compelling conception of a relationally-constituted persons that can be drawn upon to critique and to challenge the entrenched ideology of foundational individualism.

In particular, at a critical time when we can fairly anticipate a quantum transformation in the changing world cultural order, it is this alternative conception of persons as human becomings that recommends most clearly to me that we would do well to give Confucianism its place at the table.

The argument is not that the Confucian values I am advocating can be mustered to solve all of the world’s problems. Nor has the argument been that the ineluctable forces of Westernization are pernicious and need to somehow be contained. Instead, my attempt to bring attention to the Confucian tradition has been that we do well to make room for all of the cultural resources available to us at a time when the most dramatic changes to the human condition in the history of our species are gathering on the horizon.

In many ways, the position advanced herein has been compensatory, trying to overcome the kind of ignorance that comes with the uncritical ignoring of an ancient tradition integral to the identity of a quarter of the world’s population. There is much to be valued in this Confucian cultural tradition as a source of enrichment for world culture, and as a substantial critique of our existing values, and we would all do well to know it better.

For those who do believe that Confucian philosophy has values and institutions that can be of significant benefit to a new world cultural order, important and critical questions need to be asked retrospectively about both the contributions and the failings of Confucianism as a pan-Asian phenomenon over its long history.

Prospectively too, we must ask if the globalization of Confucian values would make a felicitous difference in the contemporary global dynamic, and if so, how the prevailing and impoverishing equation between modernity and Westernization that erases Confucian culture altogether is to be challenged? And perhaps most importantly, how can a global Confucianism be retrofitted to constitute a critical, progressive, evolutionary, and emergent force that will make its own contribution to resolving the pressing issues of our times?

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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