Chinese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 23, 2021, from

4. Confucius and Confucianism

While there may be some truth to the claim that in the West, every person is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian, it is A.N. Whitehead’s apothegm, ‘All of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato’, that, mutatis mutandis, resonates best with the Chinese context. For indeed, all of Chinese thinking is a series of commentaries on Confucius. In fact, the importance of Confucius in China may be said to outshine that of Plato in the Western tradition on at least two grounds. First, there is effectively no sort of pre-Confucian philosophic tradition to match that of the Presocratics. Confucius is not a synthesizer of past thinkers, but an interpreter and transmitter of past institutions, namely, the idealized Zhou rituals and customs which Confucius thought to be the key to social stability. Second, Confucius’ thinking came to ground the tradition of Chinese culture for practically its entire intellectual tradition, from the early phases of the Han dynasty in the second century bc to at least the beginnings of the Republican period in the early twentieth century, and arguably down to the present day in a decidedly Chinese form of Marxism (see Marxism, Chinese).

The philosophy of Confucius begins from some basic assumptions, several of which can be derived from the following passage from the Analects:

The Master said: ‘Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, will order themselves harmoniously.’

(Analects 2/3)

First, Confucius believed in the radical malleability of the nascent human being through education and cultivation (see Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy). Humanity for Confucius is not defined by anything ‘given’; there is no essential human nature. Becoming human is a cultural achievement. Second, the formal instrument for pursuing personal refinement and self-articulation is li, often translated as ritual practice or propriety (see Law and ritual in Chinese philosophy). Propriety, which includes everything from etiquette to social roles and institutions to the rites of life and death, is the underlying syntax of community. These formal structures reside in the conduct of those members of the community who serve as models of propriety.

The ultimate value of human experience lies in ‘becoming a quality person’ (ren), where the character which represents this accomplishment is constituted by ‘person’ and the numeral, ‘two’, suggesting its fundamentally social nature. It is because a person is shaped and articulated as a specific complex of roles and relationships that the Confucian person is irreducibly social. This social definition of person makes the promise of communal approbation an important encouragement for proper conduct, and the threat of shame an equally effective deterrent against undesirable conduct. Further, communal living becomes increasingly meaningful through the deepening quality of those particular relationships which constitute it: this person’s son, that person’s husband, this person’s neighbour.

The goal of overcoming selfishness, fundamental in classical Confucianism, is not designed to be altruistic. The premise here is that selfishness is the greatest obstacle to the realization of one’s social self. Since personal, familial, communal, political and even cosmic order are all coterminous and mutually entailing, commitment to community, far from being self-abnegating, is the road to personal fulfillment.

Excellence or virtue (de) achieved by members of the community empowers them as likely models of propriety for succeeding generations. Because the authority of community so constructed is internal to it, the community is self-regulating, dependent for its effectiveness upon authoritative leaders rather than the application of some external apparatus such as law and punishment. It is well worth noting that the importance of exemplary models of propriety in a Confucian society contrasts readily with the stress upon the resort to ethical principles so typical of rationalized societies. In the West, exemplary persons – Socrates or St Francis – are not typically thought to be ends in themselves; their lives point beyond to transcendent realities which ground their virtues. In Confucian societies, however, the sage Kings Yao and Shun, the Duke of Zhou – and Confucius himself – are self-realized individuals who serve as distinctly immanent and historical individuals whose lives constitute models for emulation.

The distinction between a society of principles and a society shaped by models of propriety helps us to understand the distinctly ‘aesthetic’ quality of Confucian morality. Propriety leads to ‘proper’ conduct in one’s relationships by at once reinforcing traditionally appropriate norms while at the same time insisting that they be internalized and ‘made one’s own’ (yi). The notion of propriety or ‘rightness’ (yi) in a Confucian society, since it applies always within a social context, must involve notions of ‘harmony’. Proper actions are ‘fitting’ in the sense that they fit and harmonize with other such actions. The notion of the ‘right’ action, therefore, has much in common with the artist’s choice of the ‘right’ brush or the ‘right’ colour in the execution of a painting.

The failure to understand the aesthetic character of Confucian ethics has reinforced the tendency for Western philosophers to understand Confucian ritualization (li) as the imposition of external guides to conduct, mere forms imposed upon one from outside. Hegel’s depiction of China as a culture without Geist in his Philosophy of History is representative of interpretations by the best minds of Europe and America. This truncated reading has in turn perpetuated the stereotypical opinion of Confucius as a purveyor of trite moral truisms, rather than as a founder of a social order which, by its dependence upon the sort of balanced complexity associated with aesthetic creations, has lasted longer than any other on the face of the planet.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Confucius and Confucianism. Chinese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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