Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Conscious and Unconscious Placing of Ritual (Li) and Humanity (Ren)

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Conscious and Unconscious Placing of Ritual (Li) and Humanity (Ren)

Article excerpt

This essay in contemporary cross-cultural Confucian philosophy raises a question unlikely to arise from either Chinese Confucianism or Western philosophy alone. The Confucian tradition from ancient times has said that both ritual (Li) and humanity (Ren) need to be learned and practiced so much that they become spontaneous responses. Western philosophers would rightly understand this as a kind of learning that requires conscious attention at first but that becomes habituated with practice, like learning to ride a bicycle or being kind to elderly strangers. In addition, however, Western culture understands unconscious behavior to have a structure of its own that sometimes is at odds with the structure of conscious life. Two principal lineages of the Western point about the unconscious have currency now. One is the Freudian, emphasizing unconscious psychological structures that cause us to do things other than what we consciously intend or think we are doing. The other is the Marxist, emphasizing real economic motivations based on social location and class structure that are often different from our conscious motivations structured by a self-serving ideology.

Both Western senses of the unconscious call for a Confucian rectification of names. With regard to the psychological sense of the unconscious, the Confucian project of embedding ritual and humanity in the deepest center of the person requires a transformation of unconscious structures. The techniques of ritual learning and becoming humane are Confucian contributions to psychodynamic procedures for transforming the unconscious, especially transforming it so that it does not mislead or betray important conscious intentions. With regard to the Marxist sociological sense of the unconscious, the Confucian project of education in ritual and humanity requires a transformation of our conscious structures and categories so that we admit honestly our true motivations stemming from social location and come to terms with them. The Confucian tradition also, of course, emphasizes the transformation of social structures and personal social location, although that is a different point from the one I am making here. The sagely project of becoming sincere (Cheng) requires a contemporary Confucian to think through the tasks of transforming the psychological unconscious, so as to be reconciled with conscious intentions, and transforming conscious beliefs about motives that are ideological in disguising real socially structured motivations.

A final preliminary word should be said about why the Confucian virtues of ritual propriety and humaneness are so important in the contemporary world. As in Confucius' time, our world is sorely lacking in rituals needed for diplomacy, for common courtesy among persons and nations of different religions, and for harmonizing societies whose citizens have genuinely different interests and social locations. Part of the contemporary Confucian agenda is the identification and criticism of the dysfunctional rituals that are in place and the areas where rituals are simply lacking. A related part of the agenda is to devise, institutionalize, and teach improved rituals that address the situation. The contemporary promotion of the Confucian virtue of humaneness is especially important now because Confucianism is one of the two influential traditions to emphasize human responsibility for social structures as well as personal action. The other tradition is Western Enlightenment thought that has become attached to the rationalism of the capitalist market economy, which is inhumane. Should capitalists seek to limit their rational profit-making in order to promote justice and humanity in some circumstance, they are ideologically self-deceived because the market is against them. The real market decisions are made by the millions of investors around the world, large and small, who move financial investments by way of the internet to the places that maximize profit. …

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