Confucianism as World Philosophy: A Response to Neville's Boston Confucianism from a Neo-Confucian Perspective

Article excerpt

Robert Neville published his book, Boston Confucianism, in 2000. (1) The first chapter is titled: "The Short Happy Life of Boston Confucianism," which is based on an article contributed for the 1994 Daedalus authors' conference for a special issue on China in Transformation. It appears that the life of Boston Confucianism has not been so short. The snowball has rolled bigger and bigger. When such a book is published, it needs to be taken seriously, and I would like to respond to him from a Neo-Confucian perspective. (2)

Neville pointed out that he owed the phrase "multiple religious identity" to his colleague John Berthrong, another important member of Boston Confucianism. (3) It is the outcome of a string of international Confucian-Christian conferences since 1988. (4) We all learned much from these conferences. What impresses me most is that the dialogues were conducted between scholars who saw Confucianism and Christianity as living traditions. New ideas and new territories were explored. I would like to continue these dialogues. There has been divergence as well as convergence. Interchange of ideas among us certainly helps to broaden our scope and lead to further integration of ideas. In this essay I want to discuss issues of methodology, metaphysics, and practical philosophy.

I. Methodological Issues

Since the second conference held at Berkeley in 1991, I have been convinced that an intrareligious approach is much more fruitful than an interreligious approach. While the latter often contrasts one's own tradition to other traditions, the former starts from one's own tradition and tries to appropriate insights or wisdom from other traditions. The main difference between the two approaches lies in that an interreligious approach tends to regard a tradition as more or less static with certain features that remain the same throughout the ages. When different features are found, they are either said to be exceptions, or they are hybrid products already mixed with ingredients taken from other traditions. Even limiting the observations to one period of time is not without its problems. For example, Roger Ames's and David Hall's view, which maintains that the Confucian tradition from Confucius to the Han lacks the dimension of "transcendence," seems to fall into that trap. (5) Both Neville and Berthrong rejected their view for good reasons. (6)

Ames and Hall started out with the good intention not to impose anything Western on Chinese thought, but in the end they did exactly what they tried to avoid. They imposed a dualism between Chinese and Western thought that was alien to the traditional Chinese way of thinking. Even they admitted that there is a dimension of transcendence in Sung-Ming Neo-Confucianism, but they insisted it was the result of foreign influence. Contemporary Neo-Confucian scholars, however, maintain that the Confucian tradition is not as conservative as the stereotyped view has made it out to be. Confucian thinkers since Confucius have always put emphasis on both preserving the old and opening up to the new; as "Confucius said, 'A man who reviews the old so as to find out the new is qualified to teach others.'" (7) In Chu Hsi's debate with Lu Hsiang-shan on T'ai-chi (the Great Ultimate), the former made it clear that he did not mind that some of the ideas and terms might have been borrowed from Taoism or Buddhism, the two traditions he rejected for philosophical reasons. But, the spirit certainly came from the Confucian tradition, and novel ideas and terms were continually added to the tradition, which has an open character. (8) From the sage-emperor Fu-Hsi to King Wen to Confucius, each made significant contributions to the system of the Book of Changes. There is no reason why later Confucian thinkers can not do the same as the sages, who set the examples for us to follow. This was how Chu Hsi established what he called Tao-tung (the orthodox tradition of the Way), which showed a dynamic understanding of the Way that has captured unity in diversity, or li-i-fen-shu (one principle, many manifestations), if his own terminology is preferred. …


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